Join our email list

No. 77: Jewish Ethics in a Time of Power

The following is a transcript of Episode 77 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer president of the Shalom Hartman Institute North America. And we’re recording today on Thursday, November 11th, 202. Veterans’ Days. A momentous holiday in America and something that’s actually connected to the topic of today.

When I was growing up and identifying as a religious Zionist  – and you have to understand, I was kind of a poster child for religious Zionism in America. I think that I believed in Zionism as a natural, organic continuation of Jewish history. This was certainly the case, theologically. Religious Zionists tend to believe that the last a hundred years have seen a divine reawakening, a kind of return to history by the Jewish people.

After a couple of thousand years of divine slumber. The classic phrase is the “beginning of the flowering of our redemption.” When you believe that the future is supposed to look like a version of the past, you try to understand the present as a continuation of the past, rather than as a radical rupture from it.

I think that then I understood Zionism as almost the natural course of things prompted and accelerated of course, by historical circumstances, but totally coherent and continuous in light of our theological and political history. Over time, and since then, I’ve come to understand the story a little differently, or at least to understand the other possible narrative of Jewish history.

Namely, that Zionism was actually a kind of a revolution in Jewish theological and political history rather than its natural continuation. Actually, one of the most important thinkers for me in wrestling with this kind of reading of history was David Hartman who called Zionism quote, “a transformation of Jewish self-understanding.”

For Hartman, as well as others, religious and secular thinkers alike, the real challenge was trying to build a bridge between all the Judaism that proceeded Zionism and the secular political revolution that Zionism entailed precisely because it wasn’t self-evident that a belief and an attachment to the former would lead someone to believe and attach themselves to the latter.

Zionism as continuity or Zionism as rupture: that I think is one of the major ideological fault lines of our time. And connected to that fault line is the Jewish question of how normal we Jews are supposed to be or allowed to be. It’s kind of a weird and maybe offensive question, but it’s a big Zionist one after years of diaspora and the chance to have our own state and our own politics.

Normalcy is overrated and underrated all at the same time. Because when you talk about the desire to be normal, it sits uncomfortably with the question that Jews have asked about ourselves for a long time, which is, what does it mean to be morally exceptional? I personally think about the nexus of these questions as they relate to Judaism and Israel all the time: between continuity and rupture; between normalcy and exceptionalism.

And now into this intersection comes a newer voice, I think for many American Jews with a provocative new book.

Mikhael Manekin’s our guest today. He’s the Director of the Alliance Fellowship Program and Network of Arab and Jewish Progressive Leaders in Israel. Before running the Alliance, Mikhael was the director of Molad: a nonpartisan progressive think tank in Jerusalem focused on democratic change in Israel.

And even before that Mikhail was the executive director of Breaking the Silence an Israeli military veterans group that educates the public as to the consequences of Israeli military control over the West Bank and Gaza. Mikhael is also an old friend. We knew each other in those early religious Zionist days, in our childhood, and the book is called Atkhalta (אתחלתא). The book right now only is out in Hebrew.

Hopefully, it will be out in English, sometime soon, speedily in our days to use messianic language. Atkhalta is an Aramaic word that references the beginning or the dawn. And it’s usually wedded to the word that comes next. DeGeula (דגאולה). It’s the beginning of the flowering of redemption or the beginning of redemption.

And the book is not just a critique of religion as connected to Zionism, but I want to say kinds of reads more ambitiously like an attempt to be its own beginning of an ideological system of thinking about Judaism in the Zionist era.

Mikhael, thanks for being available to do this late at night in Israel.

Mikhael Manekin: Thank you so much for having me.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Let me start with I think one of the punchline questions that you and I have been talking about for a few years. This is a really, really Jewish book. It’s a really Jewish book. It’s a virtue ethics for Judaism living in a time of power. I read this and I was like, this is the conversation partner for those of us as Jews who live at this intersection between Judaism and politics.

And I guess my first question is who are you talking to with this book? I know you call yourself a Zionist freely and comfortably, but who are your real conversation partners? Real people and imagined people in trying to put out a book of Jewish thought like this that’s so deeply about power and politics.

Mikhael Manekin: That’s a good question. I think it’s changed since I put out the book. When I imagined the audience while I was writing, I was primarily writing for as a representative of a small community to my community, which is a community of people who are traditional, egalitarian, religiously inclined, God-fearing, and struggle with these issues.

And it was my attempt to sort of deepen the conversation, which I felt was happening on a superficial level. But it was to a small group of people. As the book came out in Hebrew, coming more to a realization that there are a lot of people in Israel who don’t necessarily identify as Orthodox or even religious but do have some sort of traditional element of their identity, of their political identity, and are sort of caught between the understanding that on one hand their families or their communities or their grandparents are people who they very much identify with ethically, and those were traditional people, but when they close their eyes today and imagine what a religious person is, they view somebody who’s very far away from them. So there’s a gap between somebody’s own family understanding of what a Jew means or what a good Jew means and how they identify the representative of political Jewry in Israel be it religious or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

So in that sense, it’s an attempt to try to reconcile people’s ethics or their sense of what it means to be a good person or a good Jew with what’s happening today. That’s still relatively vague to answer your question. But, in that sense, it’s a very frum answer. I think a very religious one. I want people to identify with or even like their tradition.

And it’s an attempt to allow them to do that in a language which I feel comfortable with Jewishly.

Yehuda Kurtzer: And, ostensibly, it’s also a lever for change in Israel, in Israeli society, where Judaism has a kind of currency and authenticity even for people who would describe themselves as secular in a way that sometimes democratic values alone don’t. There’s been studies around this, indexes where even people who don’t identify as particularly religious if they feel that Jewish values and democratic values are in tension with each other, they have a certain type of sympathy or preference for those things that are called Jewish values.

So it sounds like you’re in conversation with that as a social phenomenon of Israel, to help people see democratic values as endemic to their Judaism, as opposed to a challenge to them.

Mikhael Manekin: Well, yes and no. Because I’m not trying to create a version of a Jewish state which I feel more comfortable with or a version of Zionism with which I feel more comfortable. That’s actually a question that, maybe, I’m least interested in. I think the question that interests me more is how does a Jew behave within the state of Israel and less what the Jewish state is?

Because I don’t think I have anything particularly interesting to add on the question of, “What does it mean to be a Jewish state?” I’m not really sure what that means at this point. And I think that conversation for me sort of leads to a dead end because the minute you ask sort of the Jewish state question, meaning what are the Jewish values that can fit into the state of Israel or the state of the Jewish people?

You’re very much minimizing the texts you can work with because you’ve already decided the political construct in which you’re operating in and you’ve already decided who you’re interested in affecting.

And I think most of Jewish text obviously was written before that political construct. So we’re not able to engage in that and you’re right. And to say that I operate within the tradition of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics are mostly interested, I think, in the individual and the community.

And I think that’s where the texts which were more interesting for me, ethically and politically, were relevant. Texts like Sefer Hasidim and Tomer Devorah,  texts in the middle ages, which I think have really interesting thoughts on power, but they’re not asking the question of the power of government.

They’re asking the question of the power of individuals within a certain political context.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Great. So if the imagined significant other, or basically for lack of a better word Jews, right? It’s not just Jews, but Jews who really want to think with this tradition that we’ve inherited. And one of the things that you’re adamant about in this book is that like good Jewish virtue ethics should not be consigned to diasporism.

Kindness and a vision of loving-kindness as an organizing principle, what it means to be a Jew when that gets consigned to diaspora and Judaism becomes a kind of chauvinistic discourse within Israel of power, you’ve basically abandoned all the good stuff and lost this opportunity to kind of renovate a Judaism that could actually work within the context of power.

Mikhael Manekin: Yeah.

And I think that goes both ways because I think both secular Zionism and religious Zionism and because I operate within a religious Zionist community, so there’s a lot on religious Zionism, but there’s also obviously a lot of critique on so-called secular Zionism, which operates in the same way, both religious, Zionism and secular Zionism, I think on a whole today are anti-diasporous in the way that they view tradition. Regarding that rupture that you spoke about, I think even more so than when we were growing up, but I also don’t want to romanticize that sort of diaspora, first of all, because it’s not relevant to my life.

I live in a time of power. I would argue that’s probably true also for American Jews and in a different way. But also because this is about creating a living tradition and diaspora for me is much more viewed on a spiritual context of a question of this world and the next world and less of one political context and another political context.

So if you can’t work within tradition, we’re in a problem with religious individuals altogether.

Yehuda Kurtzer: So this is reminiscent a little bit – I don’t think you would agree with the full totality of this claim – but it’s reminiscent a little bit of a conversation I had with Donniel Hartman about a month ago here on the podcast of his differentiation between what are you able to do to fix the political status quo versus what is your responsibility to address a moral status quo?

And you’re going one step further, I think, which is, and we’ll talk about the political status quo. Right? I think that’s a big part of what you work on. You’re going one step further. And it’s not just the moral status quo of a society, but it’s really a question of who does a Jew want to be living within the context of a society?

And how does that person want to behave?

Mikhael Manekin: For sure. And again, I think I’m trying to do something which I realize is hyper-problematic, which is to separate at least, or to realize that the state and the individual are not the same when we regard Judaism. So obviously we use a lot of the same terminology and its part of the problem and it’s not something which I think I can reconcile, but the fact that I can’t reconcile between those two doesn’t mean that I need to abandon my thinking about the ethics of individual and only focus on the state.

[Yehuda Kurtzer: Great. So if that is the primary interlocutor, Jewish Israelis who are reckoning with their heritage. You have another identity, which is essential to the work that you do, which is you actually work in the realm of politics. And in political change you are proudly on the left in Israeli society and the primary population of American Jews who I imagine you’re in conversation with usually, are those who are on the American Jewish left politically.

And here’s the rub. These are totally incoherent discourses for one another. When we were corresponding months ago during the war, I said, I oftentimes can’t recognize the language that the Jewish left uses in America about Israel.

It very superficially sends to be about Jewish values, but oftentimes uses a lot of academic discourse on apartheid and settler colonialism, et cetera, et cetera. And I kind of have this feeling of like, I don’t know that that population would, even though they would identify with your politics, they would probably be really uncomfortable with the fact that you referred to yourself as  Zionist and that deep down you’re this well of investigation of Jewish theology and Jewish practice.

I’d love to get your perspective on that, on what feels to me like a pretty significant chasm between having American Jewish left that is thinking about occupation and these questions and how you as a player in the Israeli context are talking about this huge gap in the discourse.

Mikhael Manekin: So there’s a lot to unpack here of what you just asked. So I’ll try to make sense for me of sort of various directions of what you asked. So first, just to qualify myself in this conversation, first and foremost I’m not an academic and I don’t see myself as a Jewish thinker.

I’m first and foremost, a political activist. And the book is written from that perspective. And it’s focused on practicalities and not just on theory. I’m interested in the language that I use to talk about the occupation or subjugation of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, be they the West Bank or Gaza.

And I’m interested also in the questions of ethnic inequality and national inequality within Israel, meaning superiority or the superiority that Jews have over Arabs within Israel. It’s interesting for me in the book context, but it’s pretty much to what I’ve devoted very happily my adult life. And I’m trying to give a religious language to try to explain how I come to those things.

So that’s where I’m coming from. I think to the Zionist question as well, oftentimes the conversation about Zionism means so many things. I would say, even for the sense of this conversation, Zionism is a language of my community. And one of the ways that my community defines itself, my community in Israel.

And as I’m interested in being a member of that community and having a conversation with that community, it’s important for me to identify in the language of that community. And I think that’s something which going into that conversation is very important because I recognize that other communities find that completely foreign and that has to do something with the disconnect between us.

But I think what I just said about Zionism also has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a traditional Jew and I think that’s how traditional Jews and traditional people in general work. They look for the language of the community and use that language to engage. And then think about how to redefine the nuts and bolts of the ideology to fit with what they think.

So that’s regarding point one. But regarding the growing differences between the American Jewish left or parts of the American Jewish left and parts of the Israeli Jewish left, there they’re all sorts of subgroups, I think it has to do with a lot of things.

I mean, on the religious language, which you asked about, I imagine just like a lot of the Israeli left doesn’t come from a traditional Orthodox background.

So to that’s the case for the American Jewish left. I find it easier obviously to talk with people whose texts are similar to my texts. So when I speak with somebody coming from a reform community or somebody coming from other communities which have traditions that are different than mine, obviously there’s a disconnect.

But that’s obviously not the disconnect you are referring to. The disconnect you were referring to, I think is an alienation of, maybe not an alienation, or of a frustration of the American Jewish left or parts of the American Jewish left with any ability to reform Israel from within even radically, which obviously puts people like me at odds with that conversation. Because that’s what we’re trying to do. Meaning ultimately, political actors within Israel are trying to radically reform Israeli politics in Israeli policy. And within the American left, I think there is a depression or frustration or an understanding that Israel is irreformable. And I think that’s sort of the point where now there is a disconnect in the conversation, or even a misunderstanding and perhaps maybe a shared frustration that has been exasperated over the last year.

And I’m trying to look at it critically. But also, I think seriously, you hear a lot of voices within Israel who see this what could be called a radicalization of the American Jewish left and sort of brush it off and say, “oh, you know, these people, they don’t understand anything.” This woke American generation, it’s not serious, or it’s not intellectually rigorous and all of that.

And I want to challenge myself to look at things in a serious way. I mean, first of all, a lot of these people are friends and political allies and we work together. So, I’m trying to understand our disconnect and how we’re reacting to realities differently. And I’d like to attempt to explain that.

And then I’d like to hear your thoughts on that as well.

Yehuda Kurtzer: I’ll put it in starker terms. With the exception of a handful of people who you and I know, the rank and file American Jewish left that probably shares your view of what has to change around Israel’s political reality and vis-a-vis the occupation has more discursively in common with Palestinian Americans than it does with the way in which you’re talking about Zionism and Jewish text.

And that I feel is that’s what I’m trying to listen for and notice for because you’re standing in a real breach, Mikhael. And this is why I like talking to you. We can speak the same language, but we’re really in a breach. And it reminds me a little bit of David Weiss Halivni the Talmud scholar and rabbi was famous for saying as a prominent academic of Talmud as well as an Orthodox rabbi and was famous for saying the people I can daven with I can’t talk to and the people I can talk to, meaning about ideas, I can’t daven with.

And it sounds to me a little bit like is the people I can organize with I can’t talk Jewish with. And the people I talk Jewish with I can’t organize too politically. And I’m not where you are politically. We’re not going to share this exact same politics, but I do feel a sense of also being a little bit in that.

Mikhael Manekin: I very much identify, but I want to say for me that breach, it’s happening on both sides. Meaning, I feel that breach with the harder left and I feel that breach with the center as well. So it’s not that I find solace or comfort in any side. I think that’s actually something that probably the American Jewish left could identify with within their own American context, even though it sounds foreign to them in the Israeli context.

That actually could be the beginning of a conversation. I don’t think the main challenge now between our partnership in communities is one that has only sort of a disconnect of understanding what ethnic nationalism is versus liberal nationalism. That’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s the central theme.

I think the central theme is deep hopelessness about the ability to be a moral Jew within Israel, of deeply committed American Jewish leftist. So there is a hopelessness and that despair is so deep that any hopefulness is looked at as perhaps a cop-out. Meaning if you’re hopeful, you’re not ideologically coherent because if you’re ideologically coherent, you must be hopeless. And that’s something which I can actually understand rationally. But it’s obviously impossible for me to live in because it abdicates my responsibility. While I’m deeply frustrated at that hopelessness. And I’m even more frustrated at the fact that that hopelessness leads to skepticism of any sort of optimism as being incoherent, I think I do understand where it comes from. Because that I do think exists in Israel as well.

Like that hopelessness of a positive, moral future is something which I think is we’re seeing not only in the American Jewish left, but we’re seeing that in a lot of different political communities.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Great. So I want to come back to hopelessness and hope and the question of political levers, but in proximity to this conversation we’ve been having so far, I want to talk about a different emotion besides hope and hopelessness, which is about shame and pride. You open your book with a story of an experience of shame, right?

As an Israeli soldier and relieving yourself outside of the home of a Palestinian and them seeing you and this sense that you describe of profound shame at the role that you’re playing. This is a repeated and pretty common trope. In fact, in my colleague Shaul Magid’s review of your book, which is out this week on 972, he starts with his own anecdote of shame serving in the Israeli military.

He’s a veteran of the IDF. Obviously, a big piece of Breaking the Silence is stories of shame and the reverse, right? Which in some ways is the target of your book: disproportionate pride, the way in which pride is not supposed to be a Jewish value.

We are explicitly rebuked in the Bible for believing that it is through your strength, your own strength, and the power of your own hand that you’ve achieved anything in particular. There’s going to be a state, an IDF. There is going to be indefinitely an IDF.

There is some amount of the national resurgence of the story of the Jewish people, which is going to be a story that amounts to a measure of Jewish pride. That is inevitable and it might actually be healthy.

It might actually be a morally dispositionally valuable tool that the Jewish people actually should have at our disposal. Certainly, the notion that we’re supposed to see ourselves as constantly downtrodden, that’s not going to play either. So what’s the healthy version of a balance between shame and pride, because I don’t think you want to turn shame, therefore, into a badge of honor.

Mikhael Manekin: I don’t want to turn shame as a badge of honor, just like I don’t want to turn wrestling with my idea identity into a badge of honor. These are all mechanisms. And I think this is what virtue ethics is about in general. These are all mechanisms that are geared towards action. So the issue isn’t my particular feeling of guilt.

If you stay at the point of guilt and if it continues being about you and your feelings, be there be they pride or shame, that’s not what I’m getting at. These are all precursors to action. This is all about how you use your understanding of your behavior or your feeling toward acting properly or acting Jewishly if you will.

It’s not about temperament. I’m a happy person. I enjoy being an activist, I don’t feel I’m frustrated. I’m actually very thankful that I have the opportunity to make a living doing what I’m doing. It’s not about that, but it’s about recognizing these, feelings as something which are relevant to action. And yes, there is a pridefulness and a sense of self-satisfaction among let’s call it Israeli moderates and definitely among the Israeli right which drives me crazy because it’s they’re happy with their own comfort, but a lot of them are unwilling to understand that their comfort at this point is coming at the perpetual expense of others.

I’m not asking them to be uncomfortable. I’m asking them to recognize their discomfort in order to act. If the story of shame in the Breaking the Silence context would end in this “woe is me attitude” then I would argue that that’s highly problematic morally. But for me, this is about fighting ethnic superiority in this case and having shame in order to better myself and better myself as an individual, as an activist.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Don’t you think it has the inevitable consequence of being something of a one-way street or an off-ramp? I mean, unchecked ethnic pride, we can agree is an off-ramp to immorality. You’re willing to do whatever you want to do. You’re really excited. You’re very proud. Militarism, nationalism, toxic brew. Got it.

I kind of sense that unfettered shame is also right now serving as a huge off-ramp for many Jews connected to the project, the state of Israel, maybe less so for Israelis, especially those who can make a living as activists around this.

But certainly, for me, Jews around the world for whom the hopelessness, which is wedded to shame, makes people default to one of two positions. Either, I need to check out of this project. People don’t stay connected to things that they feel ashamed about, or to turn against it, to really move towards a place of, “I’m not actually working to fix this. I’m working now to dismantle it.”

It’s almost an inevitable consequence.

Mikhael Manekin: I would even say there are two issues that I wrestled with in the book. Definitely the disengagement. The disengagement can be done also as an Israeli. There are many Israelis who are decent individuals who disengage with questions of their power. Just like there are many Americans who are disengaged with questions of their power and their privileges.

And they do that because they’re decent people who don’t want to deal with that. And the question of responsibility is obviously an answer to that. The questioning of turning things against, maybe? Obviously, I’m not there.

I think that’s where politics actually play a very important role because this is a question of politics and the question of power. This isn’t a theoretical debate. The thing which I think is very Orthodox Jewish of me is that it always boils down to what do you do?

The theory is always right before the question.  And that makes it easier for me to have a conversation. Ultimately, we are occupying Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. What does that mean? What do we do with that? How do we engage with that? Where Palestinians in Israel are second-class citizens.

How do we deal with that? How do we engage with that? If somebody says the only way to engage with those two things is to completely dismantle the state here. I would argue that that’s very unpragmatic. I would argue first and foremost on the pragmatic level, which is also a moral argument, which seems to me as a very sound way of perpetuating the suffering of those who are suffering now because we’re not going in that direction.

So I know the answer here, for me, is much more practical than theoretical, but I think these two issues are very interrelated with each other. And again, there is a theme in Jewish virtue ethics of shame.

There’s a theme, definitely in the books that inspire me. I’m thinking of the Pietist books of like the 12th century, there’s a theme there of shame and it makes you feel uncomfortable to read it because it doesn’t give you a way out. Perhaps it’s an interesting anecdote or good antidote or good for where we are now as a people.

I don’t view shame as a threat right now. Maybe in a different time, it would be, but it doesn’t strike me as the threat around the corner which can destroy our people. The threat around the corner which is destroying our people is either complacency or pride and those need to be reconciled with. I’m not ideological about it.

I understand how shame can be problematic as well, but it doesn’t strike me as the problem of our people nowadays, as an Israeli

Yehuda Kurtzer: I hear it. There is a morality of power and self-preservation including the fundamental legitimacy of the state and the right of the state to defend its citizens against threats, which is not merely a pragmatic argument against dismantling the state of Israel. It’s also a moral argument on its own terms.

And that’s my frustration with parts of the American Jewish left is because they’re so tied into this conversation about shame and complacency, et cetera, the way you framed it, they are unwilling or incapable of articulating some measure of Jewish self-defense. The right to self-preservation as itself, a moral argument.

Now I understand where self-preservation can turn really quickly into an ideology. And I don’t just mean in the trivial sense of like one of the things that bugs me the most are IDF apparel worn by Jews at summer camps. Well, now it’s a color war team, right? I’m not interested in that. But I know how it can become dangerous. But doesn’t it have to play, in some degree, as part of the Zionist revolution, the willingness of Jews to actually be comfortable with the tools of power that are at our disposal in order to create some measure of self-preservation? And to acknowledge Mikhael that occupation notwithstanding, which I know is a terrible phrase. There is a lot of self-preservation that still underlies why Israel does what it does.

Mikhael Manekin: You’re speaking with a captain in the reserves. I obviously understand that. But I do want to maybe just add another element to this conversation, which is that it’s not for me only the question of society. It’s the question of my placement within it.

And I recognize that I belong to a community, a religious community, which can’t only ask themselves the set of questions, which you asked, but on top of that, or besides that ask themselves other questions, which sometimes get contradictory answers. When the military goes out to an assignment, the military asks what’s, what’s the best thing from my perspective.

And what I’m suggesting is that the soldier on top of that needs to ask another series of questions, which is, do I want to partake in this assignment that the military sanctioned as a proper assignment. And the soldier can have different answers if he’s a pacifist and the soldier can have different answers if he’s a humanist and the soldier can have different answers if she’s a religious Jew.

I think there’s also a question here within the Israeli context, which is generational. I’m born into a country. I’m 42. So I’m the first generation born into Israel, which throughout my whole life, there was no sense of threat. Objectively there’s no real threat. We are a military superpower in the middle east.

I know my parents lived in a time where there was a real existential question. And I don’t feel that whatsoever. I don’t think many Israelis do. But that also allows us, I think, to ask questions, which are not only about the morality of the project but rather of moralities within it.

[00:37:53] Meaning, I don’t want to constantly be tied into the question of what is a proper Zionism? What is an improper Zionism? Okay. Dynamism won. There’s a state. There’s a country. Now I want to behave morally within it. The question about whether this project should exist or shouldn’t exist seems to me to be a question which we’ve already passed a bunch of decades ago and we need to be answering different questions.

Yehuda Kurtzer: So I want to just get this clear you as a captain in the reserves when you’re responsible for a bunch of soldiers under your supervision, you want individual soldiers to be asking themselves questions of how they show up in every individual moment, in every encounter as their responsibility as a soldier. Isn’t that kind of a nightmare from the standpoint of a chain of command.

It’s a critical question Mikhael because not making this about the state and by making it about the individual – I just don’t know how that lives within the context of how militaries are constructed.

Mikhael Manekin: Yeah, this is the truest answer for me even if I don’t know how it’ll fly. I think that’s what Hashem wants from me. Meaning I know that answer, but I’ll argue even more than that. I think one of the reasons organizations like Breaking the Silence are considered much more radical in the Israeli context than organizations of let’s say people who refuse.

There are refuser organizations. Breaking the Silence is not one that calls for refusal. Breaking the Silence was always considered much more radical than refusal organization which was odd because you would expect the organization that completely disconnect itself from society to be considered much more radical. But it isn’t.

And I think the reason is that that constant place on the sidelines of saying, I am here, but I’m here on my terms. And in the book, I bring the Hafetz Hayyim who wrote a book for soldiers in the late 19th century, who says the Jewish soldiers, he doesn’t say this about an Israeli army, he says it about the Tsar’s army, but he says the Jewish soldier has two gardens. He has the garden which he tends to in the army and he has a garden at home. And he has to constantly remember, which is the most important garden. Does this make better soldiers or worse soldiers? I don’t know.

Probably it makes less obedient soldiers, but I think it makes overall for better living of human beings. And I’ll say about myself. There was a time when I served in the territories. And there was a time when I told my commanders that I’m not doing it anymore. And in my case, that meant being moved to a place where which doesn’t do that.

And if I was called up for an assignment to a war that I didn’t agree with I think it’s my moral responsibility to say no.

Yehuda Kurtzer: But wait, I’m going to interrupt you and say maybe if the whole thing is about individual virtue ethics, then you’re responsible to say, yes, I’m going to serve in the territories because  I will conduct myself in a way that I know I can do. In other words, you’re basically saying, “I want the state to change its policies, but I also want individuals to act a certain way. And until and unless the state changes its policies, maybe it’s precisely you who should serve in the territories.

Mikhael Manekin: I think that’s a very surprising answer for you, but I think that’s a very valid personal moral argument, which I would totally accept if somebody says. Meaning. I know people who say, I feel that I can affect the situation better by changing on the ground. I know my own history.

And I know there were years when I said that to myself and there was a certain point where I realized that I have a more negative effect serving in the territories than a positive effect. And that demanded of me to not do it anymore. But that doesn’t mean I made necessarily the right choice.

I think it was the right choice, but I can understand an Israeli who say, I mean, I’d argue with them, but I can understand an Israeli, who would say if there’s a checkpoint, then I’d rather it be me. I don’t agree, but I understand that as a moral argument. But I would expect that soldier to do a lot of other things as well.

I would demand very high activism to sort of deal with that as well. Again, this is all about action, but this is a conversation that I feel much more comfortable in the sort of the nitty-gritty than should the state of Israel be destroyed? Is Zionism just?

I don’t know what to do with that. I think it’s much more about constantly forcing yourself to make the right moral call and constantly engaging with reality to do that well.

Yehuda Kurtzer: So there’s a different critique of Breaking the Silence that I want to get to, which I think is important in the context of the power and self-preservation piece. And it goes to the question of what does it mean for the Jewish people to engage in authentic, serious moral criticism? Not just as a luxury activity. That’s the critique of yorim u’bochim. They continue shooting, but they’re crying about it. You don’t want that. You actually want to use moral criticism as a means of shaping and refining public policy. Right? What does it mean to engage in that, but to do so in public where many of the people who are listening in to that conversation may or may not be friends with the Jewish people. So the strongest critique of Breaking the Silence was of course, as you know, you’re going to hate this question and hate talking about it. Why is Breaking the Silence going into places in Europe?

Why is it doing this conversation in public with European non-Jews? It’s one thing to talk in Israel where are you using the experience and testimonials of soldiers to refine the moral discourse. But what happens when you’re doing it out loud in places like France with rampant Antisemitism in England that has a growing Antisemitism connected to anti-Zionism.

So it starts to look as though the trafficking in internal moral criticism is actually part and parcel of making the Jewish people vulnerable. So how do you – and Mikhael, that has that critique has always made sense to me. And it’s bugged the hell out of me.

Mikhael Manekin: Even though it’s weird to have that conversation and that critique being said to you in English because then the question is where does community start and where do communities stop and who defines that the community is about Jews and not Israelis.

Why is it justified to have American Jews being part of this conversation and not only Israeli Jews and so on? But to the more serious point, if Breaking the Silence was only about moral contemplation and internal contemplation, then I would understand the critique better.

First of all disclaimer, I have no problem with Breaking the Silence speaking abroad, but I haven’t been in the organization in 12 years. I’m just throwing that out there as I’m speaking as both a veteran of the military and also a veteran of Breaking the Silence.

Regarding the issue of speaking abroad that this is political action. It’s not about moral contemplation. And it’s about using moral contemplation as political action. And if one decides, in the case of Breaking the Silence, that this is a political action, which is beneficial to the struggle against military occupation, then they’re morally obliged to do so.

This isn’t about, and I think this fits in very well to the theme of what I’ve been trying to get at in this whole conversation, that the contemplation is only relevant as the first step of political action. And if one realized that contemplation, can be effective as political action abroad, then that is important.

Especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not an internal Israeli conflict. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an international conflict between two nations happening beyond the borders of Israel (the recognized borders of Israel). So in that sense, I’ll say on a pragmatic level, and I think this is the strongest argument against even this, I’ve yet to find somebody who became more a hater of Israel or Jews because he met moral individuals who spoke out against the occupation. Meaning if anything, what organizations such as Breaking the Silence do.

And it’s not only Breaking the Sound, I think it’s to create a plurality of ethical voices coming from the country, which can also broaden the political imagination of hopefulness and reform. Because the minute the only voice coming out – the only voice coming out of Israel is this monolithic voice of pushing for a continuation of the occupation. I think that does much more harm than having voices of dissent from that.

So I think that plurality is important. Again, this isn’t an argument that I would’ve thought of deeply when I was in the organization, but I’ve met many more people personally who said, Breaking the Silence was able to create a connection for me with a Jewry or with an Israel which I thought I was lost than people who said, I heard Breaking the Silence and now I want nothing to do with all things Israel and Israelis.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Right. I’m parsing the difference and this is why I really think you’re wrong, but it’s okay. We can talk to each other. I really think you’re probably right with respect to a lot of Jews who are like, great. I have peers.

I think where you’re wrong and where I think Breaking the Silence is wrong is that it has given cover to people who have Antisemitic views about the Jewish people and the state of Israel to be able to say my views are corroborated by the existence of some Jews who share this essential critique.

And I think that is most flourishing in the parts of Europe where this has had an influence. And I think that’s where you’re playing with fire and where precisely because what you’re saying is I’m doing a moral investigation in order to lead to political action, you’re actually inviting an equally vociferous political response that doesn’t have to wrestle with the moral contemplation that that was supposed to be the catalyst.

Mikhael Manekin: I hear that and I definitely hear the playing with fire, But I want to remind and I know you agree with me on this, it’s not like there isn’t fire happening now. We are living in a situation sadly of and I’m not taking out Palestinian agency here, but we’re living in a situation of illegitimate use of force and violence and the situation is messy already now.

It’s not that the conversation about it is turning it into messy. And it becomes very, very tricky and difficult. And here I don’t have a good answer for you, but it is worth saying that it becomes very tricky and difficult to ask the question of how do you end illegitimate force when all types of force be them violent or not violent against that illegitimate force are considered problematic.

So here, I think it’s a challenge for every individual, myself included, which is what tools do we have at our disposal, which can do more good than harm. And I think the point you made is very strong and I don’t want to discount it, God forbid, because I think Antisemitism is a real thing both in the US and Europe coming from all different areas. I don’t like when people say Antisemitism on the right or on the left.  I just like when the people say that’s bad on its own.

That being said, I must be very careful and also recognize that there is a tremendous unseen amount of violence, from an Israeli perspective, and unseen but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that the actual manifestation of military occupation in the territories isn’t itself violent.

So to not use a type of force against that is impossible. How does one do that? I’ve been trying for the last couple of decades and I haven’t been successful yet. So maybe I’m not the right person to ask. But I think trying is important.

[Yehuda Kurtzer: One of the things that I’ve heard you complain about in the past, you’ve written about, it is that there’s oftentimes a misunderstanding between performance and actual politics and that a lot of criticism of Israel manifests in performance that doesn’t actually do politics. And by the way, it’s true on, on the quote-unquote support for conventional Israel.

A lot of this is talking about something without actually engaging politically and in Eitan Hirsch’s book, Politics is for Power, he was on our show. He literally wrote the book on this: the difference between political hobbyism and real political action. So, what does that look like to you?

And in particular, what are the levers that you think are, and should be available to those who want to make a change, whether it’s in Israeli society, whether it’s outside of Israeli society. And are there certain levers that you don’t believe in or think are off-limits in terms of political change?

Mikhael Manekin: Right. Well, first of all, I definitely lean towards the action side and not to the performance side, but to an extent, obviously, performance in symbolism has its place in power politics as well, because it’s about stories and narratives and so on. But yes, ultimately for me, maybe not in spite of everything that we’ve discussed up until now, it’s all about the question of trying to effectively engage with political power and recognizing that political power is necessary for changing things.

On a practical level on the ground, perhaps it’s worth mentioning that when we hear and when we see these terrible images coming out south Hebron Hills in the last couple of weeks, they are created not only on symbolic levels in the sense that there are activists on the ground who are putting out video cameras.

I’m giving this as an example. And making sure that that lovers of Israel and haters of Israel around the world are getting these videos, but this is also an actual battle for territory happening on the ground between Jews and Arabs. I’m saying that somebody who’s interested in having the occupation ended within on the green line, the battle for Palestinian kilometers, which are controlled by Palestinians now is happening in areas like south Hebron Hills.

And that’s done on a grassroots level by political activists. I also very much believe in the engagement of parliament. And I think this is the disconnect with the American Jewish left and also with some of my friends on the Israeli left.

And that’s fine. And I understand how you can think how everybody is a sellout. In some cases, if you’re sitting on the sideline, people are always sellouts. But progressives a lot of them, most of them, thankfully, in the fight between Biden and Trump decided that even though Biden was a centrist preferred Biden over Trump.

So too, I think that in the Israeli context, we need to understand that somebody who’s to the left of the right on occupation is better, even if he’s not left enough. And ultimately this is about engaging with what you have and strengthening what that is and understanding that the occupation will end and it will be easier to end it if there are pro-peace forces in positions of power.

And we need to do our best to educate and strengthen those forces, even if we understand that they are not exactly who we are. And that means for me being active in political parties. It means organizing. It means for me thinking about electorial politics in a serious way.

And I think that’s an important challenge to American progressives as well to understand that ultimately this is a political problem and it will change with more political power. And for me, that means engaging with political systems. And for the whole conversation, we’ve talked about the problems of engaging with politics, but I still think there’s no other way to affect change in a significant way.

Yehuda Kurtzer: I really appreciate that Mikhael. And I know that you wouldn’t do any of this work if you didn’t think that it was actually possible to reach a better outcome tomorrow than there is today. T the better way to think about messianism. Not the radical transformation of the known world, but the belief that tomorrow can be better today.

And it actually relies a good measure on reasonable wise and moral people getting up and trying to bridge that gap.

Mikhael Manekin: Yeah. Maybe I’ll end with this. I was thinking a lot about this.  Today, by chance, there’s this Mishnah, which I really like, which is that there are three things which are found by accident: something that is love, an akrav (a scorpion), and the Messiah.  Those three things are found by accident.

And I was thinking about how, from an activist perspective, you don’t get stung by a scorpion by accident or find something by accident. You’re basically always preparing realities to ensure that there is a chance in the dialogue with reality, that things get better. And I think that’s true to messianism as well.

And to bring this full circle on the issue of religious Zionism. We’re not having a monologue with God telling them this is the beginning of redemption. We’re having a dialogue and we’re trying to do our best so that he will respond to us in kind. And if he doesn’t, that’s also up to him.

I think being active in politics is basically part of that dialogue, but it’s realizing that that’s only part of it. We might fail and we might succeed, but there’s no ability to do things otherwise.

Yehuda Kurtzer: Well, thank you so much for listening to our show this week, and special thanks to my guests and my friend Mikhael Manekin. The title of his book is the Dawn of Redemption: Ethics and Tradition in a Time of Power. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and Louis Gordon and edited by Pat Burke at Silver Sound NYC with assistance from Miri Miller and especially this week Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online

We’d love to know what you think about the show you can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find it. And you can always write to us at [email protected] We love hearing from you. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.




More on
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics