The following is a transcript of Episode 137 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and I’m recording this introduction on Friday, April 28th, 2023.
So this past week we celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, 75 years of Israeli independence. The way my Zionism works is that for 364 days of the year, or 353 on the Jewish calendar, depends how you count, I spend most of my time thinking about and wrestling with Israel’s complexities and challenges and trying to work towards its betterment. But for that one day a year, on Yom Haatzmaut, I like to just pause in awe and to celebrate the miracle of this period in Jewish history in which we get to be alive.
I tried to do that this year too, even with all that’s swirling in and around Israel right now. So on Tuesday evening, as Yom Haatzmaut began, I attended extraordinary synagogue services in New Rochelle and sang along to the festive Halel prayers. On late afternoon on Wednesday, I went to my kid’s school for falafel and cupcakes and some Israeli dance.
As the sun began to set, I guess I went back to work. I headed across the Upper West Side to the Meyerson JCC in Manhattan to sit down with Merav Michaeli, the head of Israel’s Labor Party, to talk about politics and optimism and about the impossible work of trying to bridge the gap between what Israel sought to be and where it is today.
To run the Labor Party in Israel is to be the heir of the jewel left behind by some of Zionism and early Israel’s most audacious dreamers. Folks who envisioned a politics that would truly renovate the Jewish spirit and the Jewish condition, for whom social democracy and economic thinking would be essential to what the Jewish state should be, and maybe even a model for the rest of the world.
It’s no doubt that that jewel seems tarnished today. But I really loved my conversation with Mayrav, both the pragmatic elements and the moments of challenge and hoping and dreaming. And I hope you enjoy it too. And a belated Chag Sameach.
Yehuda: Thank you, Joanna, for the introduction. And thank you all for being here tonight. I could say on behalf of the Hartman Institute that the JCC here in Manhattan has been one of our favorite and enduring partners in our work at the Hartman Institute going back for decades. So it’s exciting to be here with you tonight.
It’s exciting to be here on Yom Haatzmaut. We’ll talk about this a little bit later, but it does feel that the ground is shifting, not only in Israel, a complicated moment that we’re in, but also shifting around the nature of what it means for American Jews to be talking about Israel and with one another about Israel, very noticeably. This past week, there was the first speaker at one of the protests in Israel who’s invited to speak in English from the American Jewish community, and I can’t imagine that being something that Israelis would have wanted to hear some time ago. So I think something is changing. And it means that our perspective on Yom Ha’atzmaut, about what’s taking place in Israel, is significant, and I hope we can engage in it.
I just want to offer one other piece of opening. There was a lovely essay today on the times of Israel by Ron Hassner, who’s a professor of Israel studies at UC Berkeley, reflecting on America at 75. You know, what lessons might Israel have at 75 from America at 75? And of course, America was a divided country at its 75th anniversary, on the precipice of tremendous conflict, he analogized that in about 1850, America had been dealing with almost exclusively external threats, had fought five or six wars, had refused to or not taken seriously all of the major tensions. ideological class race that were on the verge of pulling the country apart.
He wrote that by 1850, only 12 of the 25 constitutional amendments had been written, and that suggests that it’s not surprising that countries, even at their 75th anniversary, sometimes have not fully foregrounded the main questions that divide them and leave those open. And the real question it requires us to address is what might we learn from those types of precedents to help Israel think about what it might be like in the future to be on the verge of celebrating its 250th birthday as opposed to its 75th.
I’m thrilled and I’m honored to be in conversation tonight with Merav Michaeli. Merav has been a Knesset member since 2012, a head of the Labor Party since 2021, a politician, a journalist, an activist, a former minister, a person with enormously provocative ideas, for a politician. I watched today, Merav’s TED Talk, which I recommend watching, called Cancel Marriage, and it’s an incredible thing, truly, to be so gifted as a politician that you can give that kind of speech in Israel, of all places, and still be leading a major party.
Merav: Well, that was before I was a politician.
Yehuda: Nevertheless, and I’m grateful here that you’re here on this chag, and I should also say, mazal tov on the arrival of your second child a few weeks ago, and we’re thrilled that you’re here. I want to start by jumping into politics, and part of the reason I wanted to jump into politics is you’re a politician, but also I kind of want to talk about other things in some ways, bigger issues about the future of Israel, so, but I feel like I have to get some of the politics out of the way.
There are two big questions that a lot of folks watching Israeli politics are worried about or concerned about or upset about, and they revolve around two decisions that you made as the head of the Labor party. The first was a decision in the last round of elections, the last of the last five elections in which you decided to separate the Labor Party from Meretz in terms of running in the election, didn’t run together in the election, you can correct the facts in a second, which according to some pollsters meant that that resulted in Meretz not crossing the threshold and giving space for the right wing government.
And the second decision more recently was to exit the judicial reform. negotiations, leaving only the center and center right parties to be negotiating with the government. I would love for you to just talk about those decisions and then we can reflect a little bit about what they reflect about your theory of politics and of governance.
Merav: Okay, so good evening. Hi. So I just want to acknowledge, you know, like our presence at the JCC, which I’ve been to so many times in the past in so many wonderful events. And I think this is a place that brings together so many kinds of people and gives so much room for thought and for culture and for all kinds of Judaisms and Israelisms, if you like, and them together. And just to acknowledge both, Joanna and to wish her luck and joy that I think is here for like 25 years of service here and to say thank you for hosting us tonight. So that’s fun.
And it’s a little bit weird for me. I think there were very few Yomei Haatzmaut in which I wasn’t in Israel. I never go to Har Herzl, but I always watch it at home. It’s like, even though it became really hard to watch in recent years under the last Netanyahu government, still I kind of have to see it. And then I go up to the, just a rooftop, a sort of neglected rooftop to watch the fireworks. Which I think they didn’t have this year. So, but it’s a good opportunity to really reflect, davka because I’m out of the country.
So to start from your two questions, but let’s start from the president’s residence, the negotiation that’s taking place there. So I thought there should not be a negotiation. What the government brought was so illegitimate that all of the economists in Israel, even the most right wing ones, were against it. The agencies abroad, leaders around the world, all of the security former heads, all of the people that Netanyahu has nominated over the years, really, doctors, social workers, everyone, like from each and every sphere of Israeli society, there’s a complete negation of this coup that the government brought.
So that the opposition, from all of this, the opposition would be the one to legitimate it by negotiating on it, to me, is a horrible mistake. And I thought that I said that, and I led this sort of hard line, if you will, okay? But still, once, unfortunately, my colleagues in the opposition agreed to go to negotiate at my friend Bougie’s president residence, I said, okay, my colleagues and I, we discussed it, my other members of Knesset who are like really the best ones in the Knesset and the biggest fighters on the constitutional law committee, against it. We decided that, you know, as long as it’s happening, let’s go and really serve as the sort of the threshold keepers, if not in the Knesset, then there.
And it’s an important point to say is that legislation should be discussed publicly. And one of the basics of the Knesset, in our basic law of the Knesset, says that it should be, every legislation, should be dealt publicly, where anyone and everyone can be informed of what’s happening and can come and contribute to it. Knesset is open to anyone.
What’s happening now is that it is behind closed doors. So at least, let’s say, I mean, it’s, to me, again, it’s not legit to discuss such profound, major issues of the character of the state of Israel behind closed doors, but at least let’s go be the threshold keepers there. But then our team, which consisted of Gilad, member of Knesset, Gilad Kariv, and member of Knesset, Efrat Rayten, and former Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, and an expert on constitutional law, and they were not invited to the talks, which were held only among Likud and Gantz and Lapid.
And really, Efrat really did her best to, you know, get a room at the table. And when we saw that this is going on once and again, we cannot be in a place where we have zero effect, but may find ourselves in a position where we are part of something that we completely are against. And our leaving those negotiations in this situation was in order to signal publicly that there is a problem here, that even we cannot know what is being discussed. That is, I think, very dangerous.
And that is why we left these negotiations, which as I am, I admit it from the beginning, I, I wasn’t there happily, but to go to where you probably want to go. And that is, I, my guess would be, how do I see compromise in politics? Then yes, we did go there, but once we really had no room to do anything about it, it wasn’t, we are not like insulted or anything. It’s not anything of the sort. It’s A, not being part of something that we think is dangerous and B, signaling to Israeli public that this is being, again, kept in a very, very close circle, which we don’t even know exactly who’s on it and what’s discussed there.
Now the second thing about Meretz, so yes, of course we ran separately, we are separate parties, we’ve always been separate. The one time both parties almost ceased to exist is in round three of these five elections in which the leaders of both parties did not stand the pressure that was put on them then and ran together, which brought to Labor coming down from six mandates to three, Meretz coming down from five to three, and practically disappearing. Afterwards Labor was, then they got into the Netanyahu government despite the promises not to and it was finished, and only my insistence which seemed at the time completely crazy and everyone said it’s completely dead and gone and lost and there’s no way to revive it, we were able to bring it back to seven mandates, and Meretz got six in the fourth round, in which we managed to build the Change coalition.
And had we ran together this time, we would have been erased together. And this time, completely. There was no going back from there. Now, I was elected. Listen, I was not the prime minister. I was not leading the bloc. I was elected to be chair of Labor twice, and with one commitment, and that is to rebuild Labor. Because of one reason.
Listen, first of all, personally, it’s really a very small treat to be the chair of Labor, as you know, over the years. I, too, could go and, you know, set up my own like Lapid, Gantz, Giedon Sa’ar, Lieberman, whatever. It became such a thing in Israel. Everybody starts their own party. I could have had a party in which I could have, you know, gone for like girl power big time.
But I insisted on a democratic party that has the roots of Zionism in the best possible way. And I truly believe sometimes, you know, there are symbolic things that are very, very tangible. And if Labor were to be erased, the ability to take Israel back to the Zionist vision will narrow dramatically. I can’t have that happening. I cannot have Labor not live up to its historic role. It needs to get up back on its feet and to fulfill its calling, which is to go back to being the governing party of social democracy, of peace, of security that consists of human rights and equality. That’s what it needs to do. God knows there’s no one else on the political map that says that.
Meretz, when you asked Meretz about Zionism, it was so so. Some of them yes, some of them no. Labor is a Zionist, and I’m saying this very proudly because I think that Zionism as an idea, as a theory, and the Declaration of Independence, which is the formative document of Labor, is a perfect text. There’s only the implementation part, that, you know, our work is cut out for us, but it’s a responsibility that we, we should take on ourselves.
So that’s what I did. Now, there was no prospect of ours. winning these elections because Bennett was not running. So this part was missing anyways. Everybody knew that. So now the question is, what’s next? That’s the most important thing. What happened in these elections, to some extent, we should think what happened, because everything that’s happening in Israel now did not fall out of the blue, like from nowhere. It’s been building up for at least 30 years, some would argue more, and it’s been sort of like sewage, you know, underground.
It’s not that we did not see the erosion of Israeli democracy, but it was easy to look away and to go for the startup nation or for all the rights that the gay community has, thanks to the Supreme Court in Israel, et cetera, et cetera. Now there’s no way to not see where we are. What is at stake and what is the choice that Israel has to make on its 75th birthday? Does it go on to being a religious, totalitarian, to some extent, country, or does it go back to the Zionist vision, rebuilding its democracy in a much more resilient way, making a separation between state and religion, figuring out a solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and fixing its social economic policies in a way that shrinks the inequality in Israel?
This is basically what’s, what’s on the line. And now you can’t run away from it. I mean, there is a scenario in which we will run away from it again, I hope it doesn’t happen, that Netanyahu somehow manages to pass only like some small part of what he wants to, and then take Ben Gvir out and bring someone else from the opposition in and going back to what we did in 2009, 2013, 2015, 2020. Hopefully, this doesn’t happen again, because it will prolong the cooking of the frog. But at the end of the day, the frog will be cooked and not for eating.
Yehuda: Yeah. By the way, you know, they ran that experiment. It’s not true. Frogs do actually jump out of boiling water, but it’s still an effective metaphor.
I wanna, I do want to go a little bit back in a moment. We’re going to look forward and a little bit on the future of liberal Zionism as you’re talking about it. And, and I know that you’re actually a little bit optimistic, which I’m, I think will be great, especially for an American Jewish audience.
Merav: I’m not a little bit optimistic. I’m very optimistic.
Yehuda: Great. Well, we’ll get to that.
Merav: How else could I keep this horrible job?
Yehuda: Yeah. Well, I mean, it pays well, I’m sure.
Merav: Oh, amazing.
Yehuda: I do want to talk a little bit more about compromise and coalitions. The nature of politics in Israel is, because it’s not a two party system, the whole thing is predicated on coalitions. We haven’t seen a party win a majority of the seats in the Knesset. But as far as I know, for 50 some odd years. So it seems majority.
Merav: Rabin? Uh, kind of?
Yehuda: No, he had a coalition.
Merav: One party? Golda, whom I have on my phone as the cover, had 56 mandates, which is the largest number a party ever got.
Yehuda: So, by definition, the system requires coalition thinking and I guess there’s two ways of thinking about politics, especially when you’re a party like Labor, which once was at 56 and has steadily shrunk over this time. And one is to imagine that politics is a contest and that the way in which we’re supposed to engage with competing ideas is to take our most principled positions into the public square and force an electorate to debate those questions and then take sides. There’s a very different way of thinking about politics, which is to say that all of us should be fundamentally oriented towards the majority position, which is going to be a compromise.
So I’m just curious, like beyond these particular cases, it’s clear that you are taking principled stance of, I don’t think that this is the right way for these reform, I don’t think the negotiations are legitimate, and therefore I’m going to withstand that of it. I’m going to articulate the position of the Labor party because it needs to be there.
It needs to be clear. It needs to be understood even if it suffers politically for it.
I guess I’m curious where you see the work of a politician and a party to be thinking towards compromise. And where are the places where it actually jeopardizes the ideological conviction that you’re going for when you start with compromise as opposed to starting with principles?
Merav: Well, first of all, you know, I was part of forming the so-called Change coalition and government. It’s a huge compromise. I mean, this was a government headed by Naftali Bennett, an extreme right wing politician, with like very right wing members of the coalition and the government, at least half of it, if not more. So, and it was clear to me, I, it’s not like I was, you know, living. some illusion that this was going to be a real change.
Yehuda: So what was, what was different that motivated you?
Merav: It always, like, the word change is like, you know, I never know how, President Obama got elected with a slogan of change. I mean, people are so afraid of change. You know, it’s like the joke about the rabbis, how many rabbis do they take to change a light bulb? Change, mah pitom change?
So it wasn’t, I knew it was going to be a very right wing government, but then again, the opportunity of replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, taking him out of the prime minister’s office was more important than, yes, I did it with a lot of stomach aches. I did not, you know, run happily towards the sunset. So it was a major compromise. Not only that, it was like, on a weekly basis because we had to vote on things that, as a member of the opposition, for the most part, not always, also in the opposition you have to sometimes, I had to vote on things that I didn’t want to, but less so.
But this time, like, you know, things that I could, as a member of opposition, either vote against or just not come to the vote, I had to vote for, some very, very difficult stuff. But again, there was something more important than that. And Labor was the most stable and most disciplined faction as far as votes go. We didn’t have any rebels. We didn’t have any, we did not boycott the assembly as others did on other things. And it was very, very difficult, but it was, at the same time, very clear what needed to be done.
So it all depends on the balance, what’s the gain. It’s not only what is it that you give up. It’s true, you’re, you’re right. You said to me that I’m a radical and it’s true. Some of my ideas are very radical. I think of them not as radical because, you know, I think equality, it’s not, I mean, shouldn’t be a radical concept by now. It’s only the thing that, you know, people can agree on the principle of equality, but then when you come to actually take steps that will generate it, then it becomes radical. Okay.
But listen, I’ve, you said so, I’ve been an activist many, many, many years. Okay. And in Israel, I have had really the privilege of being like almost the prophet of feminism in the public sphere. That was the, like 25 years ago or even more, but in today at my very old age, I am very tired of being right about things and to say things in order for people to agree with me or to say, wow, this is boring. I want to be able to change reality.
So of course I’m willing to cooperate and compromise, but the question is compromise on what? Compromise on the way to progress to where you think the country and us should go? Or compromise like the center left in Israel has been compromising ever since the Rabin assassination, and that is going more and more towards the right in ruining Israel and its prospects. So there, I am against this kind of compromise. This is a destructive compromise rather than a constructive one. So to conclude, I am for constructive compromise.
Yehuda: So I am I was living in Israel when I was 18, when Rabin was assassinated. I was living in Israel for a two year period of time. I spoke about it here once at the JCC when we did an event around commemorating the Rabin assassination.
And we all have myths that are baked into our consciousness because of the stories that we live with, the time that we live in in history. The myth that’s kind of baked into my consciousness was that had it not been for the Rabin assassination, right, we would have seen a totally different course of history that it was a kind of in some ways in a deliberate accident of history that took us out of the story.
But if that myth was true, which I don’t totally believe that it is, if that myth was true, it would be hard to explain why successively in the many, many years since the assassination, there’s never been the capacity of the Labor Party to rebuild itself. And I wonder if you could tell a little bit of that story, of not how it shrunk from a party that was dominant to a party that is as small as it is now, but what has been the larger sea change around Israeli society that has left the Labor Party in this position?
And I guess if you want to lift us up and say, why might it be possible for the Labor Party and for the left more generally in a country that seems to be shifting right, where and how it might be possible to rebuild that credibility to sit at the center of Israeli society.
Merav: So first of all, I think it’s your right to begin with the Rabin assassination. And I have to say that personally, some part of me has never really completely accepted it. I think there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t have this, that I say to myself, how come he really did get assassinated? It’s like, it’s really horrible and you were there and you know the depth of the trauma, and really it is impossible to exaggerate in the extent of the blow to Israeli society and to the center left, the peace camp, call it whatever you want to call it. All those people who Rabin was their leader, but maybe we could have sort of like gotten up from and rehabilitate from the assassination if things went differently afterwards.
So, okay, so then there was Peres and then Bibi won, but then Bibi lost. And Barak was supposed to be the person who sort of picks up on where Rabin was assassinated. But Barak couldn’t hold office for, it was like a little over a year. And worse than all, he went to Camp David and came back saying there’s no partner. So he would say, he said, there’s no partner at this time, but it’s not what Israelis heard. It doesn’t matter. There’s no partner period.
Now that really, sort of took the ground beneath everyone’s feet because you took from people, the hope you took what they were fighting for, what Rabin was assassinated for, you took their narrative, you took their identity, you took the reason why, you kind of justified the right, because Arafat is the same Arafat, so if there’s no partner, then were they were actually right in what they were saying about Arafat when it was Rabin.
And it really kind of broke the backbone of the party and the rest of the camp. And we were left to this day, actually, without a narrative and without the self identity and self confidence. And given that the incitement and the violence that came from the right, led by Netanyahu and his people and the people he cultivated and the people giving the money that’s just getting bigger and bigger by the day since then to this day, building this monster industry of consciousness, which, you know, a little bit from Donald Trump and co, telling Israelis that the right is good for the Jews and the left is good for the Arabs and they’re coming to get you, and saying this in so many ways, like every, you know, every term there’s the mythological sentence, be it, the leftist have forgotten what it means to be Jewish, or the Arabs are coming in droves to bring down the right wing government, the leftists are bringing them in buses, or be it whatever it is, like you are sour, you are a lot of coins, great copywriting for Netanyahu or his own whatever.
So what happened to our side of the political map is that we were tagged as left. It’s like a weapon. Right is good, left is bad. Okay. When I grew up in a country that did not have these words at all, you had Labor and Likud, or Ma’arakh and Likud, whatever. But for the most part, you didn’t know what people were voting at all. And you certainly were not defined by that.
And now it’s like one of the major things that people define themselves by, because they want to make sure that they don’t belong to this illness, this infection that’s called left. So people will tell me, and that is why I’m optimistic and that I will, because people will tell me from my first day in politics, I agree with you on everything, but I am not left. And it’s true. They do agree with me on everything. They agree with me on state and religion and equality. And of course, social economic issues and even on peace. But they’re not left.
So he invented this thing. It’s like David Bitan, one of the members of Knesset from Likud once said about all the generals that leave the army and say that we need to reach an agreement with the Palestinians or whatever. And he said, what’s happening to them in these roles that they become all leftists? And it’s like, yeah, they meet reality. Yeah. Hi. But it’s like now, of course, Naftali Bennett is left, of course, you know, anyone who’s against Netanyahu is left. It’s like a light sword. You touch someone with this word and you just take them out of the game. That’s the amazing thing. You delegitimize and you make them unreliable. People can love you. and agree with you and admire you, but they will not dream of voting for you because you’re left.
So this is a dynamic that brought us to behave like a victim of violence. There’s a lot of violence going on. People took in the narrative of the oppressor, constantly trying to show that it’s not true what they’re saying about us. Bougie once was caught saying, why do we always have to look like we love the Arabs so much? It was caught on a microphone. And it’s like the frustration of like constantly being portrayed as if you’re for the Arabs rather than for yourself or your people, constantly trying to show that it’s not true. Doing this through, of course, reinforcing the narrative of the oppressor, constantly losing more and more and more and constantly feeling like this shrinking minority that has zero control over what’s happening.
Leftists in Israel will constantly ask, “mah yihiyeh,” what’s going to happen? As if they have nothing to do in the matter. As if it’s like, I always, I always tell people it’s not maktub, you know. It’s not given. It’s up to us. It’s up to what we do. But people are so beaten up that the best case scenario they can imagine is like trying to stop the worst case scenario. Settle for the less worst scenario. People don’t even think about like going up to attack in a good way, in a constructive way. People can’t imagine winning. This is what happened.
Now, everyone thought that if only they come up with a new organization that shows that it’s not left, it’s center, then everything will be okay. Not realizing that it’s not really about that. And it’s only about whether you’re with Bibi or against Bibi. So after Barak, Labor went into too many right wing governments as a servant of the right wing. And then Shimon Peres broke part of the party and went with Sharon. And then Barak gave our mandates to Netanyahu in 2009. And then Lapid and Livni and Amir Peres gave our mandates to Netanyahu in 2013.
By the way, after the 2011 huge, beautiful protest that was very inspiring, just as much as this one is, and nothing happened. And then in 2015 was Kahlon and the negotiation, the failed negotiation with Bougie. And then in 2020 it’s Gantz. So it’s, we are not even able to do the first requirement. It’s not enough, but it’s like you can’t do without just standing in your place, playing your own role as the alternative. You cannot be an alternative if you constantly give your energy and your votes to the other side.
And that is why I’m against the negotiation, because this is what we’ve been doing, giving into them constantly. And this is not about power or this is about, we know that the settlements are devastating for the state of Israel. We know that the Nation-Sttate law was unbearable, unacceptable. We fought it, but, so it’s, it’s not like we agree to what they’re doing, but they make us say things such as, yes, of course we need a reform in the judicial system.
We don’t need a reform, first of all. But if you want to fix the judicial system, let’s start by adding like hundreds and hundreds of judges to the system because you’ve been starving the system forever. And then you can complain about it. Let’s start from legislating rights, human rights. Let’s start from legislating equality, which we still do not have in our basic laws. And we still have, don’t have equality for women in the basic laws, not only for Arabs and other non-Jews or whatever.
So you get the other side to, again, internalize your narrative and say, yes, of course, of course, we need an override clause, only not in 61, in 70. No, you can’t have an override clause when you don’t have any checks and balances. So why am I optimistic? Because the majority of Israelis agree with me, so all I have to do is build the infrastructure that the right has in order to explain to them that left is good, actually, and that what they want is left.
Yehuda: Great. So I will say personally and institutionally, I’m very sympathetic to the idea that ideas matter, that ideologies matter. And that there’s a long game about how you change and elevate societies, how you actually foreground for people, affirmative commitments as opposed to negative commitments. I agree with you.
So there’s no version of “rak lo Bibi,” just not Bibi, that will enable you to not, maybe you win an election once out of five times, but you don’t actually motivate people to say, this is what I stand for. I’m just making a kind of a negative argument. So I wonder about the protests. You alluded to the 2011 exhibition.
Merav: No, but I’m for creating a positive narrative.
Yehuda: I know, I know. So there has to be a positive narrative.
Merav: Of course. And there’s so much positive to work for.
Yehuda: Hasn’t worked yet. The protests are such an interesting story because. I also wonder, is this going to be the later version of the cottage cheese protests, which didn’t last as long as these seem to be lasting. They didn’t have the percentage of the population participate in the protests.
Merav: It was bigger. It was much bigger. A million people took to the streets.
Yehuda: Okay. So that’s bad news.
Merav: It was huge, huge, huge, huge, huge.
Yehuda: One of the things, however, that does seem to be working is around the iconography of flags and slogans and Hatikvah. Watching, I saw this on Twitter, watching parents of fallen soldiers drown out a minister, while speaking at a memorial service on Yom HaZikaron by singing Hatikvah, so it’s a kind of claiming of the national iconography of the country in the service of a dissident position, which puts the government, weirdly, on the defensive against the flag and the anthem. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Merav: This is the best thing that is happening from this protest. The best, best, best thing.
Yehuda: So is it sustainable? Is there something here that actually becomes the anchor or the foundation of a larger ideological claim that might, in the short term, not be entirely the province of the Labor Party, because you have people out in the street from left through center right.
But is there the kernel of something here that will reflect a kind of reclaiming of a Zionist, let’s call it, forget about liberal Zionists, just a Zionist sanity? for the time being? Is there a foundation for something like that that’s being built?
Merav: First of all, Zionism, that’s exactly the point. Zionism is liberal. The reason why we need to say liberal Zionism is because non-liberals have called themselves Zionists, even though what they’re doing is completely anti Zionist. The question is, can we, this time, not repeat the mistakes of the past and build political power with content, okay, with the Zionist content that will channel this energy from the protest and leverage it to genuine political acts.
If the answer is yes, then the answer to your question is yes. If the answer will be either joining this government instead of Ben Gvir or creating some kind of, I don’t know, false unity government with the ultra Orthodox, giving into them on this and that and that and that, and it will fade out just as much as the cottage cheese protest faded out.
By the way, in numbers, the cottage cheese was bigger, but in essence, this is a stronger protest, in that you are very, very right, of course. Somehow, I think people realize that their way of life profoundly is threatened and said, you know, like, that’s it, no more. And moreover, in the first two or three protests, people came out, it was also raining, it was like, and they came out sad. They came out, they did come out to protest, but they were like completely discouraged and despaired. Whereas now it’s full of energy and it’s full of, well, maybe hope is too big a word, but like some constructive energy. So, and that is an amazing thing that has happened.
So that’s where I go back to telling you and my fellow American Jews and others who care about democracy, not only in Israel, but because if democracy in Israel falls, that’s bad news for many other places. This is the time to take on this task. You know, the populist and the right wing, the far right, every bad force in Israel, majority of it is financed by private American money, be Jewish or Evangelical.
It’s time that democratic and liberal resources help build the democratic liberal camp in Israel so we can fight back, because right now, only one side shows up to the game. So that’s why they’re winning. Because they’re violent and because they show up to the game. Why don’t we start showing up? You never know. We may win.
Yehuda: So what do you actually want from American Jews? Because if it’s true, by the way that as you described, you know, you internalize what people say about you and for decades Israelis have said to liberal American Jews, we kind of do want your money, but only in certain contexts. And in other contexts, we’re going to characterize that funding, if it relates to things that are political, as illegitimate, right? It’s foreign influence. There’s even efforts to delegitimize a whole bunch of philanthropy from America and from Europe as being foreign influence.
And American Jews, on the liberal side, internalize that. On the more politically conservative side, never paid attention to it. American Jews have been told by Israelis for decades, you can have an opinion on this, but you can’t have an opinion on that. You can have an opinion, kind of, about the Kotel because we Israelis by and large don’t care about it that much.
Merav: Not that it helped.
Yehuda: But when it comes to, but when it comes to issues of settlements, occupation, anything involving the military. You need to be a citizen and stakeholder here in order to have an opinion to get listened to. So we too are a little bit of a kind of abuse victim in this story. So when you say, it’s time for American Jews to seriously get involved with this, what does it mean? And where is the pathway for that to actually happen for American Jews that won’t get us passionate about this project, but ultimately shut out at the door?
Merav: Shut out by whom? By the right. But why would you accept that? Why would anyone, I mean, seriously, why would, and I’m telling this to Israelis is exactly the same as I’m telling it to you. We were told, yes, we were told, by the right, but why would you accept what you’re being told? I mean, seriously, I don’t get that.
It’s like, I think Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, once told me that you only get insulted if it’s beneficial for you. Never get insulted if it doesn’t serve you for a purpose. So it’s like, what’s this position? They don’t want me. Do what you want, what you believe in. Seriously. And it’s like, at least half, after 30 years of brainwash, at least half of the population does not vote for Netanyahu and co.
This is incredible. This goes to show you how much room for optimism there is. And still, I see my American friends either walking away from Israel because they’re angry at it that it does things that they disagree with, or because it’s too complicated, or because it’s, oh, well, you know, the right are so strong or telling us not to or whatever. It’s, I don’t get it. You can alter the reality in Israel. You can be the side that decides what is acceptable and what is not. How come you just don’t act on it? How come you don’t take the opportunity that just lies there? The potential is so big. It’s huge. It’s just waiting for people who are willing to step in and to be counted and to take things into their hands and design the reality rather than, you know, accept the reality that others designed for you.
Yehuda: One of the places where there really is daylight between liberal and left-leaning American Jews and our liberal left colleagues in Israel. And by the way, one of the ways that this manifests is that the left represents a smaller percentage of Jewish Israelis than the left represents of Jewish Americans. So the numbers are off. The American Jews, especially younger demographic, lean farther to the left, and younger Israelis lean farther to the right. So there are demographic differences between our populations.
But one of the places where that’s most visible is that, as we were talking about earlier, questions of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, questions of occupation loom very, very large for the American Jewish community, because we see them as the essential arena of all of the questions of liberalism for Israeli society. And they are increasingly invisible, even among the Israeli left. They are politically poisonous for the Israeli left.
And one of the places that’s been most manifest is that it’s been a whole question around the protests. How much can the protests talk about when they stop talking about traditional reform and they start talking about Palestinians, you’re going to lose some segment of the population. So how do you, if you, especially if you want to keep liberal American Jews in the conversation, how do we, A, bridge the gap between that conversation around Palestinians and about human rights, but more importantly, how do you move Israeli society around a question of Palestinians and human rights and resolution to the conflict, which seems to have basically written off the possibility of really making change?
Merav: So first of all, I will say it very, very bluntly. Everything that’s happening now has to do with the conflict. Everything with the conflict, it starts from the conflict. The Supreme Court has been under attack for decades from the settlers because it was the only barrier that stopped them from doing everything they wanted to do in the West Bank and they wanted out of the way.
Even the, I think it’s like during the end of the 2015 term, I think, or, well, anyway, one of the last Netanyahu governments that they passed the Chok Haasdarah, I don’t know how to translate it. Would you know? It’s, anyways, even the attorney general of the time, Mandelblit, said he would not defend it in the Supreme Court, because this is a law to steal private lands from Palestinians. And of course it was disqualified in the Supreme Court, one of the few laws that were disqualified along 75 years.
So it has everything to do with the conflict, which really is the thing that enables this use of Judaism as a tool in politics, that the tool that enables using the Arabs as such a threat constantly. It’s like rubbing every problem in Israeli society constantly because of the conflict.
Now, let’s keep in mind that that goes, by the way, back to what you said about American Jews are being told. Settlers and all ultra Orthodox in Israel have far more political power than they’re part of the population, like crazy gap political powerm because of Netanyahu, because this is his engine. He thrives on getting things to extreme situations, creating constant danger, constant drama, constant craziness. He cultivated all the Ben Gvirs of the right, Smotrich, all of them. They’re all his sons, okay, whom he has been really bringing up from being someone who stole the sign from Rabin’s car to being a minister of national security, crazily enough.
So it’s all about the conflict and even regardless of the fact that we have been warning those who believe in a solution and political solution to the Israel Palestinian conflict, we were always saying if we do not find a solution to this conflict, Israel will not be democratic and will not be Jewish. So it is here now. It is no longer going to be. It is here. It is the proof that you cannot maintain a thriving democracy without a border after which you have no democracy.
Having said that, in order to convey that to Israeli public, you need to have the microphones to do that because right now all of our media is either, I mean, either belongs to the right, or completely gave in to them, because of the violence that’s been inflicted on them just as much with the last 30 years. So you have no platforms in which you can build and shape a narrative that will be digestible to Israelis and start talking about that. But there’s a way, I mean, there, you don’t go immediately to the other end. And amazingly, as you didn’t even say it all the way, I will, amazingly, the most important subject to Israeli society and to the state of Israel, which is the conflict, is almost absent from the public sphere in Israel. Okay.
Israelis by large in the last 30 years, by the way, so many Israelis were born after 93, okay. Or after 95. They don’t see Palestinians on television unless they bomb someone or stab someone or run over someone. So all they know is like terrorists. They never see any other kind of Palestinians. You won’t believe me, but believe me, the majority of Israelis do not know that there is such a thing as the Green Line. Likely a majority does not understand and realizes that the West Bank is not legally ours because they constantly hear it’s ours, it’s ours, it’s ours. And they have no way because they didn’t learn about this at school and the media doesn’t speak about this. So they have no way of knowing that it’s not legally ours. So for them, it’s like, why is everyone complaining all the time? I mean, it’s ours. What’s the problem?
So they don’t have the picture of reality at all. It’s like they’re seeing something so twisted and way, way off that in order to start conveying to them what the reality is, you need a big move that’s strategized well, for which you need the resources to do. Okay. So that’s what you do. But at the same time, you realize that in order to get to actually do something about the conflict, you need to build political power until we have in the prime minister’s chair in Israel, the political will to do something towards resolving the conflict, nothing can happen.
And it’s more important to build this political power and at the same time figure out how we shall convey this to the Israeli public. Because once you have a prime minister that’s elected and he comes and says, or she comes and says, one needs to keep this option in mind, I have an amazing, amazing, good thing for you, which will make it safer, which will make it lucrative, which will make it la la la, whatever, whatever, you’re already in a different position.
But right now, okay, so I can convince the Israeli, first of all, I can’t, because I’m like a tree falling in the wood. And as I said to you, there are some words, generally speaking, by the way, we are living not only in the Netanyahu era, but in a Netanyahu universe. It’s like Israel has become a Netanyahu Disney World. Not everybody’s enjoying the ride so much, but even the language is abducted. It’s like, you don’t have words anymore. It’s all markers. You said democracy, you say left. You say Jerusalem, you say right. You say periphery, you said right. And we have to build a new vocabulary that doesn’t give in to this. And you can’t do this with people who don’t believe in the alternative. And you can’t do this alone.
Yehuda: One of the words, one of those markers, that you referred to earlier, which I’m excited about, is the terminology of Zionism. Zionism itself. We use the term liberal Zionist very freely. I have folks on my team who say, well, maybe we shouldn’t use Zionism anymore because it’s been lost, because it’s been taken. And it’s really important to us to make that case. What’s tricky in Israel, and I’m sure is the case for you, is that there’s useful political code in trying to hold on to Zionism. It grants a certain legitimacy.
But not only is it oftentimes used as a marker of the right, if you do the math, I think Rivlin said this in his tribe speech in 2015, probably around half of Israeli first graders are not Zionists, between ultra Orthodox Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
So I guess I want to hear about the strategy of Zionism, but I also want to hear about you and why this language of Zionism is so essential to who you are as a thinker as a writer as an activist as a politician.
Merav: Wow. Okay. I don’t know, I need to think about it. But, so, let’s start for the first part because I want to thank you so much for bringing up the Rivlin’s speech. President Rivlin is my friend and I love him and I think he was super courageous and inspiring as a president. But I think this text of his is problematic.
Okay. The reason why we have the so-called four tribes, which I don’t believe that we do, is that we have four systems of education. That’s what happened. This is one of the big mistakes that were done in early Israel. Of course, it’s, it looked differently then, and the meaning was, I mean, it had the best intentions, but it’s a huge mistake because there is no joint ethos, and there is no one story that everybody studies.
And so, of course, you will get different societies when you, raise children with different stories. Now, having said that, we have one tribe, which is the ultra Orthodox, is completely like the children, the education system is completely, how does a democratic state allow a community to deprive its children from education, basic education for the modern world?
It’s crazy when you think about it, giving into the rabbis and the ultra Orthodox politicians to deny children from education. In other parts of the country, you go to jail for that. This has to stop. It must be stopped. It cannot continue.
And the same goes for the draft to the army. Not that I’m saying that everyone must go to the, to the army, but the exclusion of, like, a whole part of society just denying young men from the opportunity to choose what they want to do in life and burying them in yeshivas and marrying them at the age of 19 and having children at 20 and then, you know, with no alternative in life, is not an option anymore. It cannot continue to be an option.
So the Arabs cannot and shouldn’t be Zionists, but the ultra Orthodox, come on, it’s high time that we reshuffle this thing. What do you mean you’re not Zionists? What exactly is it that you’re doing in the state of Israel? Seriously, I mean, there’s Neturei Karta, okay. But the rest of them, wanting to go to speak at the Memorial Day in the military cemeteries, and you’re not Zionist? Who are you kidding? Enough with that. It’s time to change the discourse with them.
But it’s about everything. It’s about time to stop giving in to them. And so called accepting the differences. You know, as a Democrat, I never think that, you know, I can say, okay, men cannot oppress women in the secular society, but they can oppress them in a conservative religious society, no matter if it’s Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever. No. So, this is certainly not something that’s determinist. It’s completely, and it’s, and the possibility of changing that is, I cannot describe to you how much, how ripe it is. Okay?
Now, Arabs should, are not supposed to be Zionists, they’re not Jews, but they’re Israelis. The majority of the Arab society in Israel is first and foremost Israeli. They are blending in, they are becoming more and more modern, educated, secular, middle class, free trade, you know, they are part of us and they should be let in more and more. It’s both, amazingly, both the Arab society and the ultra Orthodox society are part of Israel’s biggest potential, not only economically speaking, which is like goes without saying, but also socially speaking, because once we open those gates and we let everyone in, it’s like really, the sky’s the limit in a most beautiful way, and it’s waiting to happen. And this is part of why we need to invest in letting it happen so much.
Yehuda: There’s a story about the famous Haredi, ultra Orthodox, anti Zionist rabbi, going back to the fifties, who is standing on the street and hears one of his fellow Haredim, ultra Orthodox Jews, cursing the government out loud. And he says to his friend, that man is a Zionist. Person says, what do you mean? How do you know that man is a Zionist? It says, the Jew who feels comfortable shouting in the street against the government has internalized a sense of security in their own land that can only be captured as Zionism.
But maybe what you’re talking about is a shift from the focus on Zionism to a focus on Israel enos. Is there room for a shifting of the conversation that what we really need is not a language among Israelis who Arabs, Haredim, won’t, won’t use that terminology, but who can’t deny that they are part of an Israeliness, that that’s part of their identity, and maybe the ideological work that we haven’t fully done is to stop talking about pre-state categories or semi state institutions and just talk about Israeliness as the dominant adjective that should characterize what it means to be an Israeli today.
Merav: You know, legend has it that Arthur Finkelstein’s advice to Bibi, which caused the whole riot is good for the Jews and left is good for the Arabs, is this to make a wedge between Jewish and Israeli. So, and yes, in this contest, Israeli has lost to Jewish. And when you say that youngsters in Israel are more tending to the right, it’s, again, they describe themselves as right wing, but they are like pro rights and pro pluralism and pro equality completely. It’s just that they know that, you know, the right, it’s, young people, I don’t know how it is here, but in Israel, they really know very little. And most of what they know is from TikTok. So it’s like, if you put on TikTok enough stuff that tells them otherwise, you have them.
It’s a good idea to think about how we develop the concept of Israeliness. And again, it needs reclaiming because it was trashed. It’s not even like demonized as left is, but it’s just not much. I think I went back to Zionism, first of all, because of the reclaiming. Again, and it’s same as the flag and the anthem. By the way, my problem with the anthem is exactly that. It’s like our yearning to be a free people in our country. Hello. Hi, we’ve been here for a while. This is my biggest problem with the anthem that it’s still is anticipating something and not realizing it’s. So, yes, so there’s a lot of rethinking to do. And yes, let’s do it by all means. So is Hartman offering something?
Yehuda: Oh, yeah, this is what we do. This is what we do.
Merav: Specifically? Yeah, okay.
Yehuda: Let me ask you the last question. This has been a heavy conversation because it’s a heavy moment politically, in Israel. And at the same time, we’re roughly of the same generation and neither of our grandparents, mine here, and yours who were important Zionist leaders, would have anticipated that Israel would be celebrating 75 in a relative state of safety and security. You always have to say it’s relative. And even with the conflicts and the internal divisions. So, what are you celebrating this year at Israel at 75, as an Israeli, as an Israeli leader, where is the moment of pause for you to say, this is what I’m celebrating this year in Yom Ha’atzmaut?
Merav: You mean the two of my grandparents wouldn’t believe that it would be a relatively safe country>
Yehuda: I t would imagine that they would not have. You think they were, they were sure that this was going to work?
Merav: No, first of all, my Michaeli grandfather, who died in 2015, he only passed at the age of 95. And unfortunately he already knew that it’s, you know, and he already saw the horrible things there. He was so devastated by what he saw happening and he lost hope as to where the country’s going and I was the one, you know,
Yehuda: You were trying to keep him in the game.
Merav: Yes, to be optimistic about. And my other grandfather who was assassinated in 57, again, I think, I think the reason why he was, well, he was assassinated by right-wing messianists of the time, crazy right-wingers. But I think he felt safe in Israel because when he was, when he had to stand up to Eichmann, he was wearing his armor, you know, when he was dealing with his Nazi officers and saving Jews in Hungary and wherever, then he was putting on this crazy armor suit, and when he came to Israel, he felt among his own, and he wasn’t defending himself.
So I don’t know what he thought about where the country’s going, but I know that he personally felt safe, and that was exploited, unfortunately, so.
Yehuda: So what are you celebrating this year at Israel at 75?
Merav: So what am I celebrating? Hebrew, which is my favorite language. Listen, one of the reasons why I’m fighting so hard for the state of Israel is that really it is a wonderful place. You all know that. There’s something so unique about Israel. The sort of familiarity that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. This kind of warmness, this kind of familyhood, and the land itself, even though God knows those who speak so highly of the land are the ones that ruined it the most, speaking of landscape. But still, there’s beauty there.
And as I said to you, I am so optimistic about what it can still become and the good that it can bring, not only to its citizens and to its brothers and sisters abroad, but also to the region. And the region really can use some good. And if we are to be or lagoyim, then this is the way in which we should be or lagoyim. We should start working on peace, not at home. This is not how, not to fall again into the inner peace, no. I mean, yes, convince, bring people onto your side, not fight against, but stand against evil always, not compromise with it. But yes, reach out to our neighbors. And from there, expand the prospect of peace. It’s possible.
Yehuda: You know, in the first published version of The Jewish State by Herzl, he concludes the last line of his essay by saying, “We will live as free men and die in our homes.” And that’s it. It’s like the only promise is that promise. And I don’t know whether it didn’t feel right enough for him, or maybe it felt too small. In the second version that came out a year later of the Jewish state. He adds the sentence, something to the effect of, “And what we achieve here will redound with goodness for all of humankind.”
And it feels to me like that’s always the gap, the Zionism of, am I just happy with what I have, whether it’s land or language? Or the need, as you said yourself, to say, it’s not enough for me just to have what I need, and it’s not enough what we have. I need to be able to speak about the larger vision of what we’re trying to achieve for the world.
Please join me in thanking Merav Michaeli.
Merav: Thank you so much, Yehuda. And thank you.
Yehuda: Thanks so much for listening to our show. And special thanks to a member of Knesset, Merav Michaeli. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman, with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz. Special thanks this week to Ethan Linden, Nina Kretzmer Seed, and Tammy Brass, for all of their work on the live event, as well as to Rabbi Joanna Samuels of the Meyerson JCC and her whole team. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound, NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield is our executive vice president, and our music is provided by Socalled.
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