The following is a transcript of Episode 72 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Donniel: Hi, my name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Major support for For Heaven’s Sake comes from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. Our theme for today is ironically, 75 years, the blessings of the judicial reform, and no, my friends. You didn’t misunderstand. Just wait. Wait till the end, I think it’s called like on these YouTube videos.
Wait to see it at the end. In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior Research Fellow here at the Institute in Jerusalem and myself discuss the current issue central to Israel in the Jewish world, and then Elana Stein Hain, head of the Beir Midrash of Shalom Hartman Institute North America and senior fellow, explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue.
Last week Elana wasn’t feeling well, this week her technology is not feeling well. But I mostly, and Yossi, we just feel bad cause it’s not the same, Elana, our partner is missing.
A 75-year anniversary doesn’t come along every year. Actually, when I was writing this, I thought that sentence was very profound.
Yossi: You’re on a roll, Donniel. Keep going.
Donniel: I’m on a roll. It’s such a good line. I have to say it again. A 75-year anniversary doesn’t come along every year. It’s a special moment and milestone that we should all celebrate.
Yet a large segment of Israeli society approached this anniversary with a sense of anxiety. Is the Israel that we know and love about to be changed forever? Can we sustain the decency that has made us so proud of Israel, its democracy, its value?
But Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, requires of us a certain letting go, letting go of angst, letting go of part of our everyday discourse. You know, I love what our friend and colleague, Tal Becker, I think it was a few years ago, he said to me, you know, Donniel, I have a right one day a year to stop looking at the problems and simply celebrate the joy of Israel’s existence. And since he said that it’s had an unbelievable impact on me, it’s also freed me to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut.
It’s like, of course you’re self-evident and, and we know, we’ve spoken about it the day before is Yom Hazikaron, where we mourn Israel’s dead and my family’s dead. And, but, yes, we as a people, we’re allowed. And I would say we’re not only allowed, we’re even commanded a day, and Tal says, that’s all I’m asking for. And when he said it was very, very important to me personally.
And that’s gonna be the spirit of our podcast, this episode. In thinking about then, what we should be celebrating this year, I’d like to avoid the obvious elements of Israel’s story that we’re justifiably proud of. You know, we can make a list all the things that appear in various institutional biennials, and I’m sure the GA will speak about it and they’re right, all the technology and the immigration. It’s true. No matter what’s going on, the cup truly is half full and it pays to remember that. It does pay to remember that.
But I don’t wanna talk about part of the cup that’s half full. I wanna find and see, Yossi, if we could find a blessing, a silver lining, precisely in the difficulty that we’re engaged with right now. 2023, right now, in the real raw reality of what we’re experiencing, what are the hidden blessings that this crisis has created? What should we, all of us, especially, or including those of us protesting on the streets, what should we be celebrating?
So that’s the spirit of this one and my friends around the world, please join us, because as I said so profoundly, 75-year anniversaries don’t come along every year.
So Yossi, you start, start us off. Dig deep into your soul. And I know very often it’s been a dark time for you. I think darker than for me. But we’re not gonna talk about the dark time and we’re not gonna talk about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the government. Give us your blessing, Yossi. What’s the blessing and silver lining that you see?
Yossi: So where I’m at emotionally is that I can do about half a day of Yom Haatzmaut, but I will try.
Donniel: Oh, Yossi, Yossi.
Yossi: But I will try, I will, I will try to rise half to the occasion, Donniel.
Donniel: OKay, I’ll, I’ll, take that, and you know, the other half you’ll do on another on someone else’s podcast, not on yours.
Yossi: So here’s the thing. When you look at these last months, there are two related points that I find extraordinary. The first is that Israel has an unbelievably vibrant citizenry. Each of us feels personally responsible for the fate of Israel. And we act as if we alone are carrying that burden.
If you look at the intensity of the debate on both sides and here I’m really for a moment, I’m suspending, just for a moment, suspending my partisanship here and and looking with neutral awe or at the capacity of Israelis, from whatever perspective, to defend their country. That same passion and commitment with which Israelis go to war to defend against an external enemy, we are applying to our internal debate.
Of course, that’s part of the problem because we’re applying exactly that same mindset, but what the result are people who would do anything to protect their idea of Israel.
And the second related point, and here, now, I am going to switch back to being a partisan, is what an extraordinary moment it’s been to see hundreds of thousands of Israelis coming out week after week to defend Israeli democracy.
And in this sense, I think that we really are an example to the world. Other countries in recent years and decades have lost their democracy and after initial protests by part of their citizenry, it evaporated. That’s impossible here, even if we temporarily lose whatever setbacks there might be for the democracy movement, we’re not going anywhere. The demonstrations are not going to stop. And that unbelievable commitment that you see week after week. So that’s, that’s what I’m celebrating. That’s part of it.
Donniel: So first of all, I also wanna do, offer two blessings. One blessing is having is forcing you to have to say your blessings, because we’ve been speaking together for months now, months. And so first of all that’s like a dayenu.
And I do very much appreciate what you said. Now, it’s interesting. Israelis are used to fighting for security issues. They’ve even sometimes fought for economic parody and economic injustice. They have never fought for democracy, human rights, equality.
So the shift that you’re mentioning, it’s a new reality. And again, without being too partisan, I think it might point to an interesting reason why more people are showing up against the reform and the demonstrations. Because it’s not clear what the people who are for the reform, some of them, you know, some intellectuals have, you know, we need to have a better Supreme Court, the Supreme Court’s you know reasonableness clause is a dictatorship, we have two str, like the average person on the street, they’re ready to fight for the future of Israel, but they don’t see the reform as the future of Israel.
They might see the reform as a way of defeating an enemy such as the Supreme Court. So it might also point to a reason for the disparity in the public debate, but the innovation now is the shift of the energy from an energy looking at the survival of Israel on a physical sense to the survival of Israel as a democratic country.
So that shift, that was embedded in what you’re saying, and this doesn’t count as my point, that’s just my commentary on.
Yossi: Donniel, that’s cheating, that’s cheating.
Donniel: But, I’m the moderator, okay, I’m, okay, you know what, I’ll count it as a point. I’ll let you, how do you feel about that, Yossi.
I’ll do it this way. Yossi, I really want to hear, you know, what you have to say. What do you have to say about what I had to say?
Yossi: Well it so happens I have a related point which is only a sub-point, it’s not a second part.
Donniel: Good, okay, so wait, cause then I’ll go. So, please, Yossi, otherwise we’re gonna everybody nervous. Yes, please, Yos, come on in.
Yossi: Yeah. What you’re seeing happening on the streets is that the center, the vast amorphous center, is coalescing ideologically/ It’s shifting from a mood to an ideology. And the ideology on the streets today is we are defending a liberal vision of Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state.
And as you say we have to define, and we have to define not only what we mean by a democratic state, which is what we’re doing. We’re making it very clear these last months, exactly what we mean by a democratic state.
And the next move, because I think this is, might be the next arena of conflict with the government, is defining what we mean by a Jewish state. Whether it’s the law of return or what is the extent of religious interference in the state. Is it the state of the Jewish people or the state of Orthodox Judaism? This is the next area and these are arguments that we’ve been waiting a long time to coalesce.
And so I see that as a hard blessing but nevertheless essential for Israel’s future.
Donniel: Right. We’re gonna stay with the blessings, and I think you’re right that what this is doing is it’s unleashing a discussion that wasn’t present before. And that would be the next blessing. And I think there is a unbelievable blessing in the judicial reform. Not of the judicial reform itself, which it challenges, but
Yossi: Which isn’t a reform, at all, but a revolution. But we’re gonna leave that alone. We’re gonna leave that alone.
Donniel: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you so much. And now I’m gonna give instructions that this should be deleted. Not, you know, never delete anything that Yossi said, even though it was unnecessary.
This judicial thing, the way it was handled, is a gift that doesn’t stop giving. Because the reality is, anybody who is moderately intelligent already knows, cause we’ve all now become masters, one of us knows that it is perfectly legitimate to put forth a position which asks for some area of judicial reform. That, you know, we’re Jews. There’s no such thing, Torah needs to be re, everything could be reformed. Everything needs to be challenged. Everything could be done a little better. That’s fine.
But the package created an awakening in Israeli society that, I want to tell you, my friends, Israel today, on Israel’s 75th birthday, I am more excited about Israeli society than I have been for decades. For decades. If this judicial reform wasn’t handled the way it was handled, we would now be having death by a thousand cuts. In the coalition agreements, there are literally tens and tens of legislations about to be put forth, legislations, statements, policies, which would have altered as we know it.
It would’ve really represented what the electorate who voted for a true right right, you know, what do they call in Israel, yamin maleh maleh, full full right, they have a judicial agenda. And in normal times, that would’ve met with passivity. You know, the old thing, okay, you came after liberal Jews, you’re not coming after me. You came after women, you’re not coming after me. You came after Arabs, you’re not coming after me. And then when you come after me, there was nobody here.
But Israel was literally creeping in that direction. Netanyahu himself has for so much of his life, and the party stood for protected, basic, basic rights and judicial, like, they were on the right side, on so many issues. Whether you agree on certain others, it just doesn’t matter. But there was an insidious process that it was like a cancer, I feel, growing slowly and slowly and it was there and we weren’t even looking at it.
You know, Ben Gvir becoming legitimized. It wasn’t just Netanyahu who did it. There are voters who came out. Even, in many ways, the rejection of Bennett, there were things, there was a language, there was a discourse, a mutual vilification. It was like we were moving so far away from Israel of values, a tribal debate, that was just there was no room, there was no oxygen. Thank god, a judicial reform, which was mishandled, and all of Israel wakes up. All of Israel wakes up. Our democracy is alive.
Every issue that’s being put forth now, every one is being discussed by Israelis in the street. Issues that would’ve, you know, even this little silly chametz law, you know, it was like, talk about the stupidest law ever legislated in the history of the state of Israel. Like, you know, this’ll be in the top 10. It’s like, it’s like, I don’t know, you ever, the movie Dumb and Dumber, I think the movie was called. What movie about these two people who competed on being dumber.
You know what this law is, the chametz Pesach law? It’s a law that if a head of a hospital wants to, he can prohibit people from bringing chametz. It’s not even requiring. So, that our country even has to deal with this stupid issue, so if you’re sitting next to somebody in your hospital room, and they’re eating a sandwich, that chas v’chalila, you should see it, like, that onslaught, even that, Israelis are saying, what’s going on here?
So the reality right now, Yossi, I wanna tell you, I feel blessed. I feel blessed and excited about Israel’s future. Excited about it. I know that the coalition itself doesn’t want it anymore. They don’t even want it. They’re looking for a compromise more than the protestors are looking. We know we’ve awoken. I’m turning now, at Israel’s 75th year, with a lot of excitement to see how we marshal this awakening, to be a force for profound good for Israel’s future.
Was that too much for you, Yossi?
Yossi: Well, it wasn’t too much until the very last comment. I don’t, I don’t believe that this government is looking for compromise. I think they’re buying time.
Donniel: Okay, so, don’t, can we leave that alone, please, not today.
Yossi: But Donniel, here’s the thing. Here’s the thing. I’m really with you on the other point you’re making. And I would even take that farther and say it isn’t just over the judicial plan that the country has awakened. It isn’t only over the dozens of hidden laws. And you’re right, it would’ve slipped through under the radar. It’s dealing with long-festering laws systemic problems.
For example, the ultra-Orthodox state within a state. That’s now front and center of the liberal agenda. Settler violence, you know, and we’ve talked about this, Donniel, before. You know, for for years, and really most Israelis kind of shrugged and said, yeah, well it’s a fringe.
We can’t say that anymore, when this government has brought the leaders of the fringe settlement wing into the heart of power. They’re not a fringe anymore. And so these issues which were were deferred, you know, it was just much more comfortable to pretend that the country wasn’t being eroded from within, in different directions. We can’t pretend anymore. And so that also is part of the blessing of this time.
Donniel: Listen, I know it’s painful. But you know I know this in my life, and I know you know this in yours. When do we grow? It never, unfortunately, this the human condition. You never grow easily. It’s always with pain. It’s never done in moderation. You have to make a mistake to be able to learn. You have to suffer in order to make, unfortunately, it’s with pain that we grow as human beings. Too much success, it breeds mediocrity.
And so our country, and we know that, how many people are are ugh, you know, oying and veying. But it’s a necessary part, just like Yom Kippur War was a necessary part. There are moments where you have to come close to an abyss to actually ask yourself these deep, profound questions.
And I think we’re at that moment and I have profound, profound sense of excitement. You know, also, for so much of my career, I’ve had to work against political forces. Because when we wanted to speak about values and democracy and human rights and equality and pluralism, the political forces were aligned against us. And even after this election, I began to speak about how, what does victory look like? There were 40% on our side, how do we convert 10%? Like, oh and that was considered to be, no, where are you gonna get the 10% from?
Right now, 20%, this is the coalition you were speaking about, 20% of people on the political right have said, my right wing ideology still believes in the liberal Jewish democracy. So now instead of having to convert people, I now as an educator have to ask, how do I sustain people who’ve already moved.
You know, it’s interesting, I think Bennett, I very deep, strong, affinity tp Bennet. Not that I agree with all of his politics, but I love politicians who see something and grow and readjust in light of reality. Like someone changes your mind. Like when people say, Donniel, you changed your mind, I say thank you.
When I saw that growth and he had a vision where, really? What’s more important for me right now, another settlement? So I have a great affinity, but in many ways, the tragedy of Bennett, the first, is that it was too early. Now, now I think there is gonna be, you know, the people who will vote. You know, I might still vote for Lapid, or Gantz, but there is a whole segment of right-wing Israelis who are gonna look a liberal, Jewish, responsible voice, who wants to live and create something new.
And right now, they’re there. Our job now, you know, this is the next thing I’m celebrating. Instead of having to fight against the political trends, now, the political trends have preceded me, and we, as educators and writers, have to make sure that we don’t revert back.
Yossi: You know, what we’ve forgotten in the last months is that this current iteration of the Likud is an anomaly. Because the Likud, traditionally, is a liberal nationalist party. Now to American sensibilities, that may sound like a contradiction. But think of Menachem Begin, or even Yitzhak Shamir, even Netanyahu in his earlier phase, they were all passionate defenders of the independence of the court.
So many Likud voters are saying, wait a minute, we didn’t pay attention to what this version of Netanyahu has done in the last few years to the Likud. He’s emptied out the liberal component of the Likud’s commitment and only left nationalism and substituted liberalism for populism.
And so there’s the beginnings of a revolt among Likud voters. And that’s what we’re seeing in the polls. Yes.
Donniel: So Yossi, these are, these are, this is, there’s something beautiful going on right now.
Yossi: There is.
Donniel: Something beautiful, now, so that in light of this spirit, in the spirit of Yom Haatzmaut, in the spirit of celebration, in the spirit of looking at part of the cup that’s half full, Yossi, what blessing could you offer, what word of comfort, word of friendship, would you offer to the people on the other side of the line, politically, that you find yourself right now?
Yossi: What I would say to those of you who are part of that category, is that for me, personally, one of the most painful aspects of these last months has been the growing alienation between us. And I’ve never experienced this before. I’ve always been able to hear you. I’ve always been able, whoever the you is, in this case, you are the right, but I’ve been on the right in the past, speaking to the left.
And today I’m struggling to understand your commitments, how you see this, and one of the, we’re talking about blessings now, but really, one of the curses of this last month has been the inability, the loss of our capacity for empathy. And so in this spirit, I want to renew my own commitment to empathy. And I want to hear you. I want to hear what it is about the Supreme Court that you have found so intolerable. I want to hear why you have felt over the years that your Israel is being taken from you, in the way that so many of us, people in my camp, feel today.
This is a syndrome that goes back and forth in Israeli society. One part of the country feels deeply alienated, feels threatened in the most fundamental way. You’re destroying my ability to feel connected to the national ethos. And then that same emotion shifts to the other camp, back and forth. So we share that emotion.
The problem is we blame each other for it. We’re threatening each other’s Israel. So how do we stop threatening each other’s Israel? By listening to each other. And I really think that if we function on that level, and that means bypassing the leaders who I find intolerable and whom I frankly, I don’t trust. But I want to trust you. And I understand you are voting for the leaders that I that I feel are destroying my country.
And that’s a problem. That’s an ongoing problem between us, because the dynamic also happens in reverse. That’s how you felt during the Bennett Lapid Monsour Abbas era. And so, how do we take that shared experience, of mutual alienation, of mutual fear, and turn that into a basis for renewing our capacity?
Donniel: Beautiful, Yossi. I’d like to, in that spirit, also offer some blessings and some words. The first is I wanna say thank you. The reality is that I never thought about the role of Israel’s judiciary. I never thought about it. I was very happy with where it. And I’ve learned, I don’t like the reform, but I’ve learned that there is what to talk about. You know, Yossi, so often we wanna be tolerant or pluralists and listen, but that means we also have to be open to learning.
And the reality is is that not every single thing, we’ve come to a moment in Israeli society where it’s not what you say, it’s who said it. So the first thing I wanna say is that I’ve reached moments during this year where, because I am forcing myself to do so, but the reality is come to hear and to learn and to listen to arguments that weren’t on the table beforehand. And I wanna thank you for it.
I also have to make sure that I am as plural, pluralism doesn’t mean accepting every idea, but pluralism assumes that there are more truths beyond just your own. And that’s what For Heaven’s Sake is about. That we could argue. And it’s not just like between me, you, and Elana. We could really argue.
And so one, I think there’s moments where Israeli society, with all of its alienation, and I think. by the way, the same thing on the other side, who have come back and said, you know, I learned this was wrong. This was wrong. And so the first, I wanna say thank you. For challenging and for teaching and for broadening a conversation in Israel.
The second thing I wanna say is very much in the spirit of what you said, Yossi. I know that there is so much value and so much love for Israel, in so many different sectors of Israeli political life. You know, the cup is still half empty, and there are people who I believe are profoundly dangerous. But my blessing to the people in the parties, or who find themselves in positions that are different than my own, is that you represent the best of you, not the worst of you. And I want to tell you that as an Israeli, I see you. I wanna see the best of you. I wanna see it. I think our society is now open to hearing the best of each other.
And I wish that for you. And then you don’t have to be a caricature of yourself, just like I don’t have to be a caricature. You don’t have to represent the worst of yourself, just like I don’t have to represent the worst. But we can. And so this Yom Haatzmaut, I want to reach out and say, let’s, enough. Enough. Let’s represent the best of us because we have a phenomenal country to build, to protect, to improve, and to grow.
Last words, Yossi?
Yossi: It was beautiful, Donniel, and my blessing would say, look, I don’t know whether we really have that capacity, right now, to see the best in each other, but my blessing is that we should develop that ability or relearn the ability, that I think is really innate in the Israeli experience.
Donniel: Right. And just one last, I wanna remind our audience of what the purpose of a holiday in the Jewish tradition is. A holiday in the Jewish tradition is not about just commemorating something or focusing on something for that particular day. It’s meant to change your consciousness throughout the year.
Yom Kippur is not about repentance one day a year, atonement one day a year. It’s a mindset. So let’s take this shefa, this abundance, that we’re allowing ourselves to feel at this moment, and let’s remember it. As Tal said, it doesn’t only have to be one day a year.
For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman, with support from Michal Taylor. It was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager was M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our Vice President of Communication and Creative, and our music was provided by Socalled.
Major funding for For Heaven’s Sake is provided by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation of Los Angeles because of our shared commitment to strengthen the connection of the Jews in North America and Israel.
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, visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes, tell more people, discover the show.
You can also write to us [email protected]. Subscribe to our show everywhere else podcasts are available. See you and look forward to being with you again in two weeks. Thank you for listening.
And Yossi, its a pleasure to be with you. And chag sameach.
Yossi: Really a pleasure to be with you and chag sameach to you and to everyone.
Donniel: Thank you, and thank you for everything, for all that you teach me and all the parts in me that you help discover. Just being with you is an honor. Thank you.
Yossi: Very mutual, Donniel. Thank you.