The following is a transcript of Episode 144 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Justin: Hello and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. My name is Justin Pines, and I serve as the director of lay leadership at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m speaking to you from Jerusalem, where we are currently hosting our Community Leadership Program. This summer, 175 lay leaders, college students, and philanthropic professionals from around the world have gathered to explore the core commitments of modern Judaism and Zionism, and to reflect on Jewish meaning, belonging, and obligation with fresh eyes.
What you are about to hear is the Edward Bronfman Memorial Lecture, a conversation between Yehuda Kurtzer, host of the Identity Crisis podcast, and Yossi Klein Halevi, co-host of the For Heaven’s Sake podcast, from the first evening of this summer’s program, recorded in front of a live audience in our campus courtyard, under the stars.
Yehuda explored the fascinating role that creed plays in Yossi’s life and how it has evolved over time. Together, Yossi and Yehuda model the ways in which we can have strongly held beliefs, while also being in open conversation with those with whom we might disagree. Take a listen.
Yehuda: I have a whole introduction here and I will get to it in a second but I just want to first, there’s no easy way to do this, so I’ll just start. Can we wish a big mazal tov to Yossi becoming a grandfather please?
Yossi: Thank you. Thank you very much. And we will be screening clips. And can we wish a big mazal tov to Yehuda for becoming co-president of the Hartman Institute. And I have to tell you, Yehuda, as thrilled as I am for you I’m more thrilled for us.
Yehuda: Thank you. Okay. So let’s get into some serious business. Earlier on, this evening, introducing the program for the summer, I started introducing with the language of liberalism, on liberal Judaism, on liberal Zionism, as the core issues that we’re going to be talking about this week. Liberalism, when we use that phrase, sometimes connotes a team within a team sport, liberals against their political opponents, whether it’s conservatives on one end, sometimes it’s progressives on the other end, that’s sometimes where that terminology of liberalism lives.
In our program this week, we’re using the term liberalism to connote a set of commitments and values, equality, democracy, those types of big issues, and we’re struggling in the classroom with a whole bunch of other ideas from the Jewish tradition that sometimes sit uncomfortably in relationship with those kind of liberal values.
The topic that Yossi and I wanted to talk about tonight is something a little different which is the habits, the behaviors, or the practices that come with a commitment to liberalism. And the biggest of all, and the one we wanted to talk about, it’s not going to be just talking about talking, but a big part of what a commitment to a liberal ethos about is actually a commitment to talking in a certain way, engaging with the other in a certain way, a term that I think has should have more currency in our current culture than it does, which is persuasion. What happens when I know that you and I disagree on something and I decide to not kill you and I also decide to not ignore you?
Sometimes it’s okay, for reasons of self-protection, maybe we’ll talk about this a little bit, sometimes it’s legitimate for reasons of self-protection that I might say I don’t want to be in community with you, I don’t want to be in political community with you, it’s easier and more comfortable to be separate. We’ll operate in different worlds. Something about liberalism conveys a commitment to building societies where people don’t have to agree with each other but they commit to certain behaviors and practices of how we disagree with one another. Persuasion is increasingly a lost art. There’s a whole bunch of reasons connected to political polarization that we actually live in different camps from each other. There’s really interesting data in America that people who vote differently are moving geographically. They don’t want to live in the same zip codes together with people who vote differently than them. Maybe we’ll talk a little bit about this, it’s really hard to do that in this country.
Yossi: Very hard.
Yehuda: I think it’s like, there’s one ZIP code, right. So it’s very hard to do that.
Yossi: You can move to Ramallah.
Yehuda: I’m not even gonna respond to that.
We are behaving in ways that are resisting the culture of persuasion, belonging more into environments of homogeneity and losing a little bit of the skill, the art, and maybe even the moral commitment that says there’s something deep and valuable about being willing to encounter others, not so that we can be persuaded by them, nobody wants that, but so that we can engage in the activity of trying to persuade them.
Now, this habit of persuasion, which lives within a larger kind of liberal commitment, which we at the Institute care a lot, about which is the commitment to pluralism, it doesn’t mean we’re not passionate about our commitments. The critics of pluralism always say, well, you’re basically a relativist, right. You accept that you don’t really care about stuff that much, that’s why it’s easy to be pluralistic. And it’s true, it’s really easy to be pluralistic about stuff you don’t care that much about, right?
But that’s not what pluralism and persuasion really invite us to consider. They invite in us, we want in our societies, passionate participation. We want opinionated people, strong-willed people. This goes back to Rousseau. We want societies full of citizens who rush to the assemblies. We want vigorous public debate.
We know where the obvious line is that we’re supposed to stop at, which is political violence, I can’t persuade you, I have to do something violent to you. And then there’s a big gray area right between simple persuasion between friends and the stuff that becomes hotter and hotter. And I would say there’s also larger spiritual goals that come with built-in pluralistic societies, and I know we’re going to engage in this a little bit later Yossi, right, whether there’s a spiritual dimension of being willing to engage across difference because it enables you to see a human being who differs from you, or maybe because it creates constraints on your own willingness to say that your truth is an absolute truth. There’s something much bigger and more noble than just trying to win an election. There’s trying to build societies that are rooted in a kind of humility.
So Yossi and I wanted to talk about this, about this as a feature of the societies that we’re living in and a problem. It’s a problem here in Israel where there is passionate debate and protest and sometimes it crosses lines. It’s pretty clear that that’s happening on both sides of the political aisle. No doubt in America and in the American Jewish Community we are struggling at the intersection between persuasion and something else entirely. And Yossi, I really wanted to be in conversation with you because you’ve lived a life in dialogue.
Yossi: Sounds like a eulogy.
Yehuda: But I said I’m talking to you and not about you.
You’ve lived a life in dialogue, Yossi. A life of dialogue with people of other faiths, which I know was a major part of your life professionally and personally, with fellow Jews, you speak to Jews all the time, professionally and for a living, and you do so with your readers. And I think a lot of people feel, and I felt this always about your books, I always felt that you were kind of talking to me. You’re helping me think about something. It made me easy for me to argue with your books, you didn’t know that that was happening. I was like, no, Yossi, that’s wrong!
Tell me a little bit about what that experience has been like and what the journey for you has been about the simultaneous push, as a writer, as a thinker, as a persuader, to try to get people to think the way that you think, and at the same time, what you feel you’ve learned and traveled through once you’ve actually entered into dialogue with others.
Yossi: So I think that the prerequisite for entering into a deep dialogue is to bring who you are fully into it. And that means standing in your place, in your story, and owning your story. I see that as as a prerequisite for being curious about the other. Now of course, it can also work in the opposite way. You can stand so strongly in your own story that you’re, all you are is self-referential.
But you know, I’ve had a few, I’d say inspirations in my life. One is looking at how looking at all of the different stages that I’ve gone through in my life, the transformations, political, religious, I started out on the right and then I went to the far right, when I was a teenager, and eventually I moved into the center. And I’ve had similar spiritual transformations over the years. I have left Orthodoxy and returned to Orthodoxy so many times that I really feel there should be a special category for, I’m a multiple chozer b’teshuvah, and I’m going through a new phase now, which we can talk about or not.
Yehuda: You’re like a person who goes into a revolving door but never exits on the other end.
Yossi: And the amazing thing is that as I’m going through the revolving door I’m seeing things that I didn’t see before. It’s that same that same view but looking at new dimensions.
And so that’s the first thing, Yehuda, you know, is looking at my own life as something that’s evolving and trying to relate to people as souls that are evolving. And we were talking about creed for me, my structure of approaching this question is the belief that we are souls, we are principally souls and that each of us is is in a state of becoming. And we’re not static. And whether you believe, as I do, in multiple incarnations which is a Jewish creed, by the way, it is not only a Hindu creed. Or if you simply look at one’s own life and see that as as an unfolding story.
Either way, for me, the essence of life is evolution. I mean, what did Bob Dylan say? He not busy being born, is busy dying, which I think is best line. And for me that really sums up my own creed. And so to relate to people as static, okay, this is who you are, this is what you believe now, this is what you’re guilty of, or what you represent, is to freeze the frame and to deny the capacity of a human being to grow and it’s to deny my own story. So I try to relate to people through the prism of my own personal experience
Yehuda: There’s something I’m trying to square, which is one of the differences between you and me, and I want to unpack this together, is you are a person of creed. You actually also, maybe a little bit more than me, believe in truth, you really believe in truth, and therefore I think that people you like to be in dialogue with are people who are also people of creed, and also people of truth. And I come at it a little different. I’m much more skeptical about creed, it’s like a nice way to say it. I’m really skeptical about truth. And therefore I’m much more interested in being in conversation with people who have that malleability and flexibility. I guess what’s confusing,
Yossi: But it is, you are looking to learn from other people. Not only to convince but to absorb.
Yehuda: Yeah, I guess I just get a little bit scared by truth claims. You know Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes about, Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman have different approaches to pluralism. David Hartman’s pluralism was much more strategic. His approach was, how, if I don’t talk to everybody how am I going to convince them that they’re wrong? So it’s a kind of openness to, you have to leave open that door, because you might be able to convince people that they’re wrong.
For Yitz Greenberg it was a very different theological claim. Yitz says, after the Holocaust there’s no such thing as a truth claim. There can no be no such thing as a 100 truth claim, because Nazism and fascism are connected to absolute truth claims. And what we have to do, there’s no, he says quoting Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, he says, after the Holocaust, there’s no truth as whole as a broken truth. We have to be the people who resist absolute truth claims and leave open the possibility that we’re wrong.
What is it that, for you, that’s attractive, about engaging more with people who really make serious faith claims on themselves that are different than yours, as opposed to those who are, who introduce that door of, you open that door, of kind of, epistemological doubt.
Yossi: You know, just listening to now, Yehuda, it occurs to me that there is a fundamental tension in the Jewish character. And that is on the one hand, we are the great naysayers. We’re the skeptics, the iconoclasts, which is of course the identity that modern liberal Jews have adopted. I don’t, in that sense, I don’t consider myself a modern liberal Jew. The other part of this tension is that we are a people imprinted with revelation. We were formed as a people in an act of revelation. And yes, I’ll hold my hand up and say I do believe that Sinai happened.
And so this tension between the the imprint of revelation on the one hand, and the torturous, historical experience on the other, which has created a skeptical Jewish personality, I think really defines the two camps today in Jewish life. There’s the camp of revelation of truth and there’s the cap of the skeptics. I prefer to live in that place where I’m in dialogue with both of these camps. And that means that I understand and, to some extent, share the brokenness. I come from a survivor family and that was imprinted in me, and and my father who was an Orthodox Jew, by coercion, my mother made that a precondition for their marriage, and made, and my father made clear to me that he does not believe this and he’s doing it really out of love. Not love of the tradition, love for my mother, which is, that’s very sweet, and,
Yehuda: Whatever works.
Yossi: Whatever works. And so I, you know, when I think about the Shoah, which, for me, is the formative experience, I knew Jews of faith whose faith was paradoxically reinforced by the Shoah, survivors, and I knew survivors whose faith was shattered.
And I stand before both of them, both of those models, and say “Elu v’elu.” They’re both the words of the living God. And so in my own personal journey, I have come to embrace the existence of a creator, while I don’t necessarily agree with all the fine print in our tradition, I believe in the general story, and live, not just, I don’t need to suspend my disbelief, I actually, I own that story, in the way that I think it was intended, it asked to be owned.
So I’m attracted to people who who are committed to their to their way of life and yet have curiosity about the other. And I think, for me, the key word is curiosity. It’s a very subversive concept because the moment you have curiosity, the moment you ask yourself the question, what is that other person believe, how could that be? David Hartman, let’s use David as as a frame, how could that person be so wrong? And I think that David had a very deep sense of curiosity, he wasn’t only trying to convince the other person that they were wrong, and so you know, I worked for many years as a journalist. And the key to a journalistic personality is curiosity. If you don’t have curiosity, you can’t be a journalist. You have to really be interested in people to write about them. And I’ve always found myself gravitating to people who have strongly held convictions. And yet, at the same time are open.
I would define you in that way as well. Your convictions may be more more flexible than mine, but I think that you are a person of very deep convictions and interested in people who disagree with you.
Yehuda: So, as we’ve done some Interfaith work together over the years, principally through the Muslim leadership initiative, but also through the Christian leadership initiative here at Hartman, one of the differences between you and I in those encounters was you prayed with the Muslims. I’m not outing you, you’ve, you wrote a book about it.
Yossi: I did, I did.
Yehuda: You wrote a book about it.
Yossi: Yeah, but nobody’s read it so well.
Yehuda: Anyway that’s the summary.
And I wouldn’t. And the interesting thing is, you are much more of a believer, and that somehow enabled you to to feel as though praying together with someone who constructs their universe of faith differently than yours, actually, you can. I actually want to understand that, because, for me, I’ve come to understand myself basically as a Kaplanian Jew, right, where my attachment is much more to Jewish peoplehood in which the religion of Jewish life is the way that our Jewish people does religion, and therefore it’s like weird for me to imagine being in relation, being in prayer relationship with someone of another religion. I can be in political relationship with someone of another faith, we can talk about where we differ. We can argue. But I can’t pray together with people who come out of a different world.
What is that, what is that about? And it’s particularly confusing because you’re also a particularist in a lot of ways, Yossi. So what does particularism mean in terms of the line of what I can’t do with people of other faiths and convictions, and why do you feel the ability to cross that boundary when it comes to prayer?
Yossi: I live as a Jew committed to protecting the Jewish people, committed to defending the Jewish story which I think is, in our generation has become urgent, because the Jewish story is under assault. I live in a deep faith relationship with the Jewish story. I believe that the Jewish story contains a living encounter with God. For me that is the animating core of the Jewish story. But at the same time, my monotheistic faith is, I look at monotheism, not so much as a creed but as a precise definition of reality, that monotheism speaks of oneness. And for me, that’s not just a belief, it is a description of who we are and what the world is.
And you know, there’s something that you once said to one of the MLI groups, which is looking, and it’s it’s a beautiful image, looking at the Torah, the structure of the Torah, as an hourglass. You remember that? And that, it begins with a wide end, it begins with God creating humanity, and so it begins with a universal vision. Then the story narrows to become the story of a people, and then at the end of the Tanakh, it widens again to convey the vision of the universal vision of the prophets.
And so if you think of that movement as an hourglass, I think of my life in that way, and I don’t see a contradiction. One of the problems that we’re facing as a people is that we’re tearing ourselves apart over the particular and universal commitments, instead of seeing this as an organic movement. And so when I say that that monotheism is not so much a creed, but a lived experience, I feel that that’s the message of the Torah. And it’s telling us, yes, we live in a fragmented world, we live in a world of, a kind of illusory world, where each of us imagines ourselves to be separated personalities. And then that extends to nations and religions, that’s the world we live in and I accept that. Those are the terms of this world. But I don’t believe that those are ultimately the terms of reality.
And the terms of reality, for me, are the wider parts of the the hourglass. And when I pray with Muslims or meditate with in Christian monastic communities, there I’m a little more careful about the language. Nevertheless, that, for me, is an affirmation of where we’re trying to go to. I suppose that that there are some inconsistencies here but I don’t worry about consistencies, and I’m not really looking to to live a life that makes rational sense all the time. The world is too interesting, it’s too dynamic, and we’re always responding to change, and if I have any creed, it’s from Rav Kook.
Rav Kook was once asked, the first Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel, I think the 20th century’s great Jewish mystic, he was once asked to define his theology in one line, and he said, “Everything is rising.” And that for me is an extraordinary way of looking at reality, everything is evolving, everything is growing. Tthat means nothing is static and who you are today is not who who you’re going to be, and that, we know that that’s true, even physically, we know that our bodies, we have the illusion of solidity but that’s not really what’s happening in our bodies, they’re constantly changing. And so I, yes, I plead guilty to inconsistencies, but I couldn’t imagine living any other way.
Yehuda: The metaphor of rising is particularly powerful because, you know, one of the sites, whether in reality, or at least in the public imagination, of some of the most combative public discourse around politics is the American college campus. And what’s paradoxical about that is that the college experience takes place within a profound developmental moment. That’s where the notion of “everything is rising” is perhaps most on display. That is like a moment of the forming and forging of identity and it’s imagined in the public square as a place of profound combat, the total inability of these voices to interact with one another.
I guess I want to put, I want to put a problem to you a little bit. Because I’m very committed, on the Identity Crisis podcast a few weeks ago, on the CUNY law story, I argued that the Jewish Community has invented this notion, or some parts of the Jewish community, that what we really need to do is invest in young people to be campus warriors for Israel. There’s like a lot of money that’s been thrown on that to do exactly what you said, to respond to the assault on the Jewish story when it takes place in anti-israel activities.
I find this phrase astonishing, mostly because American Jews don’t go to campus to become warriors. They go to campus to become students. But also it implies that there’s something static. A commitment to Israel that is intuitive and known, and that we, what we want our young people to do, in a period of developmental change, is to become warriors on a battlefield. And I argued instead, actually, what would it look like if we really invested in helping our young people become campus peacemakers for Israel. It would require a malleability and a flexibility in relationship with including intrinsically pro-Palestinian students on campus, in order to prevent what we currently have, which is effectively a proxy war on of Israel-Palestine that’s taking place seven to ten thousand miles away, by people who are simply identified with teams, right, ut somehow incapable of bridging that difference.
Now, I want to push you on this, Yossi, because the place where you have been, in my experience talking to you, most inflexible, is exactly on this.
Yossi: I feel my back stiffening
Yehuda: I know, I could see it.
So, it’s okay to say we’re inconsistent. We’re all inconsistent. But let’s work that through. There’s, somethings gotta give, right. Because the insistence for American Jews, that the way in which we are going to build relationships with people of other faiths and ethnicities, and the insistence that the way that we should grow up within the context of an America that makes it possible for us to have relationships or a cross difference, still demands of us to be like, rigid and inflexible when it comes to our attachments to Zionism in Israel, that feels like a terrible setup. It feels like it misses who American Jews are. It feels it misses that developmental story of rising, that you just talked about. And it feels like a weird, carved-out exception to who we’re trying to be as human beings. I feel consistent on this, but what’s, talk about, maybe talk about the stiffening.
Yossi: Yeah, let me talk about the the inconsistencies that I’m juggling here. My starting point is agreement with you about what universities should be and that’s what it was for me. The time I spent in journalism school was the most, the beginning of my encountering the world, and I grew up in Borough Park, for those of you who may have heard of it, it isn’t the most expansive place, unless you’re looking at the differences between the Hasidic sects and the Misnagdim, then there is, there is diversity, there’s a lot of pluralism in Borough Park. But it’s a very constrained form of pluralism.
And university for me was exactly that. It was the excitement of encountering, encountering the world. Is today’s campus that? Is it that for for Jewish students? I’m sure many campuses still are, but I’ve been on campuses where, what I hear from the Jewish students, is that they feel they’re in a battleground, they feel under siege. And I think those students need to be given conceptual tools. They need to be given language.
I don’t believe that the answer is talking points. There I would agree with you. There needs to be a much more nuanced language that we give to our young people. They need to be able to speak honestly about where Israel has failed, where Israel is failing, and they need, at the same time, to be able to defend, without squeamishness, the power of the Jewish story. The power of the 20th century Jewish story. Because that’s what’s under assault now. The foundational story of modern Jewish identity and the legitimacy of our return home. This is the story that’s under assault. And I’m not comfortable, on the one hand, with the warrior approach, but I’m also not comfortable with only relying on the peacemaking approach. I think we need to start speaking two languages on Israel and to teach our kids to speak two languages.
The first language is unequivocal pride in our story and defending our story against those who would criminalize the Jewish state. And at the same time, being able to honestly examine ourselves and to do it publicly, which is difficult. I think it’s less difficult in the last six months. This government really gives us no choice but to engage in public soul searching. I think that our credibility as a people depends on our ability to learn to speak these two languages simultaneously. So that’s my struggle.
And I don’t know how to balance these two. And I think it depends on on the circumstance. But I do know that we do our kids a disservice if we only give them one language or the other.
Yehuda: Yeah, I really struggle with that, Yossi, and I don’t, I really don’t, I think I have a different approach. And you know, there’s college students here in our program this summer, and I haven’t met them yet, but I will, and I hope all of you will here as well. They are not participants to receive a story, much as none of the participants here are here to receive a story.
I find it, educationally, such a, it’s a big obstacle, when we think, here’s what I really think and here’s the story I want to give over to somebody else. I think part of the reason we gravitate towards that around Israel is actually because we’re, we have our own ambivalence,s and we’re scared to talk about them in public, when paradoxically, actually, maybe it’s that very ambivalence, that very complexity of our own views, which would be the most powerful thing that could be inherited down the generations. Maybe that’s actually a route towards something much deeper than this curated model of, internally and maybe even publicly I can talk about complexity, but I have to hand over a story to someone else.
Part of me just feels, as an educator, as a person who believes in persuasion, the minute you’ve started to package something for someone else to have, that you’re not sure you totally believe in, and that you think might work, you’re not in education anymore and you’re not in persuasion and you’re going to see the seams of what it is that you’re packaging and handing over.
And I don’t know, maybe what you’re, because, maybe, Yossi, you feel it’s too risky, that to really confront how complicated the state of Israel is for the Jewish people, how complicated occupation is for for many of us, who are deep and profound Zionists, to really confront that, we have this fear, as you always do when you’re encountering the other, that they’re going to persuade you of something, and you’ll wind up being wrong, that you’ll lose the argument. But if you, if you have those ambivalences and those anxieties and you try to paper them over, and instead do something where you’re transmitting a different story to somebody else, I just don’t see a way that works.
Yossi: I think that for me, there are some principles that are non-negotiable in our story and everything else is up for grabs. What’s non-negotiable is the justice and legitimacy of our return home. And the book that I wrote, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, the second edition has an extensive epilogue of respondents, Palestinian respondents, and someone, I just, I was on a Zoom yesterday, and someone asked me, how did you choose which letters to put in the in the epilogue? Because there were many, many, hundreds of letters that I received, and I realized, as I was trying to respond, that actually, I did have a criterium. And that was, the letters of the Palestinian respondents all accepted the premise that this is a tragic conflict between two indigenous peoples, and then from that shared premise, we can argue about everything. And the Palestinian respondents challenged me on almost every aspect of the narrative that I presented and I felt that was legitimate and necessary, but that if we can’t have a shared consensus, minimally, that we are two peoples that are stuck with each other in this land, and we both belong here, and that’s the starting point for a solution, then I don’t have a conversation with you.
That’s, so that’s one piece of it, is that, what is the the foundational story. And I agree with you that it needs to be as minimal as possible, because if we start making the non-negotiable, foundational story, if we start building it too high, then we’re really smothering the next generation. But I do think we have a responsibility to convey some basic principles. And so that’s one response.
The other response would be a little more ambiguous and that would be as a writer to an educator. And I’m at Hartman, so I have to own the identity of educator as well, but,
Yossi: My principal identity, how I spend most of my time is in a room writing. And a writer is engaged in storytelling. And if you try to tell a story in too dogmatic a way, it’s not going to work. But if you try to tell a story in a totally laissez-faire way, it’s also not going to work. And the way that I’ve tried to navigate it, when I think of the the different book projects that I’ve done, is to present complexity, conflict, present different voices, but within some kind of a basic unified framework.
For example the Palestinian letters debate. We’re having a disputation in this book. But there is some shared foundation. And I’d say, the deeper shared foundation is that the Palestinians who are writing to me love their story and I love my story. And maybe it’s about love, maybe that’s really what we’re trying to teach as educators or as a writer. I think that that’s, for me, it’s not about a a definitive worldview, it’s about loving your story.
Yehuda: I think I can probably live with that on one condition, which is that there’s this thing that appears sometimes in Jewish education in North America, which tells people, yes, you can do complexity around Israel, but you first have to do love of Israel, as though there’s some like baseline thing you have to establish before you introduce complexity, which I don’t think exists in the context of any other subject or human relationship. Actually, love and complexity are interwoven with one another. Complex relationships actually are best and most complicated relationships in life, sometimes, become more loving, right. So it can’t, as long as it’s not, I, let me solve for this and then get to that because there’s an enormous amount of evidence, especially around Israel, that when people try to do that, then it comes across as, I’m lying to you for now, and then I’ll tell you the truth later. And then that’s, again, not real communication.
Sivan Zakai, who’s a professor of Israel, studies, has written a beautiful book on this, about how young people in Jewish families and Jewish communities know Israel to be much more complicated than they are told, at a much earlier age than we think. Because, you know, they hear what their parents talk about. They read over their parent’s shoulder on Twitter. They absorb stuff, they know the difference between when they’re being talked to about something that is a deep commitment versus something that’s being handed over as though it’s a creed, a canonical truth, when their parents may not have creedal commitments on anything else.
So if we can break that binary a little bit and figure out a way to speak a language of complexity around Israel that is rooted in lovingness, then maybe we can get a little bit further on this.
Yossi: Yeah, it’s interesting Yehuda, you know, love can’t be mandated. The only example that I can think of where love is actually commanded,
Yossi: Is the Shma. You know, love God, and I don’t know how that works.
Yehuda: We have love the stranger, we also have love the stranger.
Yossi: Right. True. True. So I think that given the complexity of the reality today, I don’t think love for Israel can be commanded. But it can certainly be modeled. And love for Israel, as love for any part of our identity and tradition, is something that is is conveyed, first of all, by example. And that is really the, to my mind, the beginning of education.
Yehuda: Yeah. You alluded to before and I want to go back to now, that something changed because of this government over the past six months, in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. In fact, you participated in helping make that shift, with the essay you wrote early on, it must have been in February, together with Matti Friedman and Danny Gordis, inviting, asking American Jews to get more involved, more political, raise their voices differently than before.
And not, I don’t want to go too deeply into the political issues for tonight. There may be other contexts for that. But I want to, I want to hear some of your thinking about that shift. Because you have been on the forefront, for a long time, at actually holding a line for American Jews about what to criticize and what not to criticize, how to criticize and how not to criticize. It was very jarring for some people who had heard you hold that line for a long time to see you come out and say, we want American Jews to weigh in very differently than ever before. And actually the critics came both from the right, who were like, oh no, now Yossi’s saying this too, and they also came from the left who said, where have you been for the last 40 years? You told me I couldn’t have an opinion on this then, and now you’re telling me, so maybe, walk us through a little bit some of that shift, because it’s kind of, for me it was exciting, given the topic of what we’re talking about tonight, I’m changing. Something is forcing me to change.
I get very excited when people change their opinions in public. It so rarely happens when someone says I’ve moved. I actually had a professor in graduate school, it was kind of a tragic story, who had written an academic article about a particular topic, and then 10 years later said, I was wrong. I misread the texts, I was wrong, and kind of issued a retraction. And it had huge damage on her academic career. The act of saying that you’re wrong is more dangerous to your credibility than being wrong. So there are greater incentives in our society to double down on your convictions, even if you think they’re wrong, and go to town on them, right, than it is to say, something changed for me. So maybe talk a little bit about that.
Yossi: So let me make it clear that I was not wrong then, and I’m not wrong now.
Yehuda: You were not wrong, yeah. No, what I’m really saying, Yossi, is I know you were wrong then. Welcome.
Yossi: So the line that I have insisted on holding and still insist on holding in internal Jewish conversation on Israel is on anti-Zionism. For me, just about everything is permitted. Even the kind of criticism that I bristle over and that is criticism from diaspora Jews of Israel during war. And I experienced that personally when my son was at war, in one of the Gaza mini-wars and parts of the American Jewish community were condemning Israel. And that was, that for me was unbearable. But if I have to be true to the principles that we’ve worked out here at the Institute, American Jews not only have the right to criticize, but the responsibility. If you feel impelled, if you feel that Israel is wrong, you have the responsibility to criticize, even during war, and it’s unbearable for me to say that, but that’s the truth.
And Yehuda, you and I have sat together here, for the last 15 years, in our iEngage seminar, and you’ve had a very strong effect on me in helping me understand the changes in the American Jewish community. I have not been an American Jew for 40 years. I go back on on brief forays, but I don’t really know the community anymore. And you’ve helped me understand the ways in which the relationship between Israel and American Jewry needs to reflect those changes.
So I would say that, the changes in my thinking has been gradual. And it’s really been, in large part, through our conversations. And so that’s one piece of it. On anti-Zionism, I remain unyielding. I experience Jewish anti-Zionism the way the Jewish community experienced Jews for Jesus a generation ago. For me, that is our generation’s great heresy. And I can’t yield on that. But where I soften at the edges, and again, this is something that you and I have been in conversation over, is the realization that something is happening with Jewish anti-Zionists in this generation that can’t quite be compared to other forms of Jewish betrayal in the past.
And that’s why when, for example, Nathan Sharansky wrote an article called The Un-Jews, comparing Jewish anti-Zionists to Jews in the Middle Ages who converted to Christianity and then presided over the burning of the Talmud. Acts of of real betrayal. I think that the difference today is that many of our Jewish anti-Zionists proudly identify as Jews. They’re not repudiating their Jewish identity. In fact, they’re saying to people like me, you’re the one who’s portraying Judaism. And I have to reckon with that.
And so when I say I’ve softened the edges, my judgment of the damage that Jewish anti-Zionism does to us as a people is unequivocal. My judgment of individual Jewish anti-Zionists is less harsh. And in a way, if the occupation is a sin, I believe it’s a sin that we have no choice but to continue, because I, as you know, over the years, you’ve heard me say this many times, I don’t believe that we have a credible partner for peace on the Palestinian side, nevertheless the fact that we are not moving the trajectory toward an eventual two-state solution, but we’re moving in the opposite direction, that to me is a sin.
And so if the occupation is a sin, Jewish anti-Zionism is the punishment. We’re living in a very complicated reality, that on the one hand, I believe, requires clear red lines, communal guidelines, but on the other hand, requires of us a certain amount of understanding.
And the model for me is the the wicked child of the Seder. The paradox of the wicked child is that even as we are told to to repudiate this child, the child remains at the table. And that’s, I think, that’s the paradox of Jewish anti-Zionists today. They are identifying as Jews. They’re saying, we’re part of the Jewish people. And one of the most moving and disturbing encounters that I had was I was lecturing on a campus a few years ago, and someone comes up to me and says, I made Aliyah. I lived on a kibbutz for five years. I really tried. And I’ve reached the conclusion that the whole thing is a mistake. It’s a moral mistake. It’s a political mistake. It’s a disaster. And now I’m an anti-Zionist. And he said, and I’m, my plea to you is, don’t write me out of the Jewish people. And that, that’s haunted me.
And so, my the way that I try to navigate that is I do write out of our communal framework any organized expressions of anti-Zionism. I think there can be no place for that. Individually, this is a very complicated and evolving situation.
Yehuda: Part of the reason I don’t love the the wicked son, the wicked child move is precisely because the ritual that more Jews do than any other is the Pesach Seder. And they do so regardless of their politics. Or, put differently, everybody orchestrates and organizes the message of the Pesach Seder in ways that are consistent to their politics. So the minute you’ve said, that’s the wicked child, you know that there’s someone else doing a Pesach Seder in which you are the wicked child.
Yossi: Oh they are. They are. Jewish Voice for Peace has as an anti-zionist Seder that, and the wicked child is a Zionist.
Yehuda: Right so, it almost feels like, an attempt to make a empirical line to declare something a heresy, when it’s like, no, you’re the heresy, you’re the heresy.
Yossi: That’s how we do heresy in Judaism.
Yehuda: Yeah. Yeah, and I suppose that’s true, but the distinction between the organizations and individuals is an interesting one.
So let me ask whether the flip side is also true. And I’ll share my own view on this first, and I’ll ask maybe one other thing and then open up to the crowd for some questions.
I think the opposite is also true in this. I mean, there’s a weird moment to all of this, which is, you’ve classed the folks who you identify as anti-Zionist as outside your camp, but they are right now, unlike maybe other, any other time in history, closer to being your political allies against this government which you oppose. Now they’re gonna oppose even the government that you would prefer, but right now, they happen to be the people who are aligned with you politically in opposing this government.
But I wonder whether the same is true when it comes to organizations and individuals also on the extreme right in this country. I’ll share my hypothesis. I was very, very pleased when the organized Jewish community, almost entirely, in America, stood wall to wall in refusing a public audience with the finance minister Betzalel Smotrich when he came to the states back in, I want to say April, it was around then. I thought it was a fascinating moment and it was a kind of shifting of the goal post. I don’t remember the American Jewish community doing that to an Israeli public official ever.
It was an easy call, not just because he was a representative of this government, but because, you remember, he visited right after the pogrom in Huwara, in which he had also said Huwara should be leveled to the ground. He made a genocidal call in the midst of this whole story. So it felt like an easy and powerful decision, that almost all Jewish organizations, with the exception I believe of the ZOA and the Orthodox Union, refused to meet with him and there’s a whole bunch of reasons why those organizations would have.
Yossi: The leaders of French Jewry, which is the most, probably the most right-wing Jewish diaspora, refused to meet with Smotrich.
Yehuda: Did the same thing to him. Right.
It got revealed a few weeks ago that that was the public story, but privately, leaders from a bunch of different organizations had, in fact, met with Smotrich. Of course, when this got released, you can hear it in the crowd, it was like a scandal. They said they wouldn’t meet with him but they actually did.
When I looked at it, I said, I actually think that divide is okay. I think it’s okay for a community to say, as you’re dividing between individuals and organizations, I’m making a slightly different divide, I think it’s okay for the community to say, public, symbolic messaging of, we will not meet with these officials, we will deny them the photo ops that are useful for them politically in Israel, to show up as a big shot among American Jews, we will not allow that story to take place, but that one of the fundamental commitments that we continue to make as human beings is that we sit together with even sometimes people we find to be despicable.
And the reason we do that is because there’s no possible way, going back to the David Hartman line, of telling people that you think they’re wrong, if you won’t talk to them, of rebuking them, of repudiating them, whereas, I can’t really do it in public with them, because it won’t really work, but I have to be willing to humanize the other. The minute I say, I cannot meet with you, then you’re engaging in the same activity of the anti-normalization movement and the Boycott movement, which says, you, as an individual, are collectively responsible for much more than you see.
Does that line work for you, Yossi?
Yossi: Look, the truth is, that’s how I’ve lived my life, by exactly those distinctions. There is no one that I can think of that I would not meet with privately, if that person was willing to meet with me. And by no one, I really mean no one. I’ve met with Hamas. I’ve met with Nazis, in America, as a journalist, but I was also curious.
And so for me, you know, I appreciate the humanizing language, but that’s, it’s not the language I would use. I would approach it, first of all, from a place of, I’m curious. I really want to understand how someone can think this way. And secondly, from the place of what I spoke about earlier, as relating to each soul as a work in progress, and, bless you, and if we’re evolving, if all of life is a question of spiritual evolution, then I have to leave open the possibility for teshuvah, which is a a wonderful word, that does not mean penitence, it means return. And it means, really, return, return to your soul, returning to your divine essence. And every human being, without exception, has that capacity for growth. So in the end, we approach it in different ways, but I think we come to the same place.
Let me open up to some questions from the crowd. I think, it’s, the, my colleagues are coming around with, with a microphone.
Audience Member #1: I guess, I am troubled by your comment that American Jews should criticize Israel and the reason I’m troubled is, a great majority of American Jews know very little about Judaism or about Israel, and all their information is coming from snippets on the news, and most of the news today is biased. I’m not talking about the editorials. The actual journal articles are biased. Can you comment further?
Yehuda: I was at the AJC Global Forum last week, debating this exact question with a journalist from Yisrael Hayom, Ariel Kahana, we had a blast, it’s online, it’s on the Hartman website.
Yossi: It’s terrific. You should really watch it.
Yehuda: And this was exactly the subject of the debate. And, in fact, one of the arguments that he made is, American Jews criticizing Israel in public in America, in a context in which there is hostile anti-Israel opinion, gives room and space for critics of Israel to be able to do so with impunity. I totally disagree. I think this is the whole business of intelligent persuasion. The difference between how one criticizes something that they are attached to and passionate about and as an act of love and commitment, and not allowing that to get classed with, well, someone else has that opinion, and therefore I don’t want to be grouped with them.
I think fear of being grouped together with other people who might share some aspect of your opinion is a really quick shortcut to not having serious opinions. What it comes down to me is, the reason for American Jews to criticize Israel, and to praise Israel, is basically the same. Israel is a project of Jewish peoplehood. It has been since the founding. It re-established, it actually redefined the meaning of Jewish peoplehood, by connecting us more together around a shared project, than anything else in the history of our civilization since the first century CE.
To say to us we need you to kind of step away or aside from this, to not be passionate about it, to not be mad about it, is to invite people to disconnect from Jewish peoplehood. And I’m not willing to do that because someone else also doesn’t like the state of Israel.
Audience Member #2: I actually had two questions. You may only want to answer one of them. I would love to hear more, Yossi, about your point that the evolution of the Jewish soul, or of the soul, is also a Jewish concept, because I’m unfamiliar with that, and I would love to learn more about that.
The other question is, you know, as somebody who is very active as a Zionist in left, fairly left-leaning politics, my experience is that there are different kinds of anti-Zionists. There are those who make space for anti-Semitism or encourage it or enable it, and there are those who don’t. And that that difference in the relationship, while hard to find the threat of it, can be critical for the nature of conversations.
Does that resemble in any way your experience? Do you think that that’s a valid distinction?
Yossi: It’s a, for me, it’s an irrelevant distinction because the great threat that I feel today for the Jewish people is the is the assault on the credibility of our story. And that’s coming from anti-Zionists, whether their motive is anti-Semitic or not. It doesn’t matter to me. I think that one of the problems that we have is that we haven’t fully owned the transformation of the Jewish people from a powerless people to a powerful people.
And what that means in in relation to the conversation on anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is, we’re used to having enemies who are unequivocally evil. They’re bad guys. And they hated us for no good reason. We actually didn’t kill Jesus. We actually don’t control the world. We’re actually not race polluters. So all of those traditional reasons for hating the Jews placed us in a very comfortable position, psychologically, because we knew that our enemies, those who are delegitimizing us, were themselves illegitimate.
Today it’s a little more complicated. There are dead children in Gaza. I believe the story is much more complicated than that image, but it is complicated, and in our longing to portray anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism is this need to once again be innocent victims. And I don’t want to be an innocent victim. I own the complexity of power. That means that I also own our moral failures and I don’t have a need for my enemies to be classically anti-Semitic for them to be my enemies.
Anyone who wants to destroy Jewish power and set us back to the condition of the Jewish people pre-19 1948 or pre-1939 is for me an enemy of the Jewish people, whether their motives are moral or hateful. It doesn’t matter to me.
Yehuda: But Yossi, can I just, I’m going to add on to that question. What’s so interesting to me and surprising is that in the work that we did together in the Muslim Leadership Initiative, and continue to do with the Muslim Leadership Initiative network, there are a lot of folks in that group who will describe themselves as anti-Zionist. I think you’re more forgiving of a Muslim anti-Zionist than you are of a Jewish anti-Zionist, for obvious reasons.
Yossi: For sure.
Yehuda: And in some cases, some of those folks will describe themselves as having once held anti-Semitic views and through building a relationship with you, a lot of those folks have found the ability to scale back, to detoxify some aspects of their anti-Zionism, and certainly to walk away from their anti-Semitism, to interrogate it, to investigate it, and you have stayed so courageously in relationship with those folks, even as they have confessed their deep skepticism about aspects of the Jewish story that you consider to be core.
So what is it that allows you to do it there, that prevents you from saying, you know what, if there’s a whole rise of this movement of Jews who are anti-Zionists, it’s my job to talk to them?
Yossi: So because we are in a conflict, a very bitter conflict, with large parts of the Arab world, the Muslim world, that imposes a responsibility on me to sit at the table with any Muslim who’s willing to sit with me.
And the things that we’ve heard over the years around the MLI table are not for the delicate of soul. They’re really, we’ve had some very, very brutal conversations. And my commitment as part of MLI has always been that, if you, as a Muslim, are ready to sit at the table and hear what I have to say, I’ll sit at the table and hear what you have to say. Including virtual Holocaust denial. I mean, it, well, it never got quite that bad, but it came close. Certainly Israel is Nazis. And I’m ready to hear that and to grapple with that from Muslims. I’m not ready to to hear that from Jews. Certainly not publicly. Privately, I’ll engage with anyone, including Jewish anti-Zionists.
Yehuda: We can take another question.
Audience Member #3: In terms of the the power dynamic that you were discussing, it seems like on the American side, there’s also an interesting shift in power dynamics, with like, the rise of anti-Semitism on the left and on the right, sort of threatening Jewish influence in the U.S. And how do you see that, and how do you see that sort of affecting the relationship between American Jews and Israel, you know, now that it seems like they kind of have their own big problems to deal with, and, you know, for the first time in a long time?
Yehuda: Without denying what you’re describing, in terms of the rise of anti-Semitism, I hate the phrase the rise of anti-Semitism on the right and the left, because it, even though it’s acknowledging that anti-Semitism can exist in both places, it pretends as though the politics matter, instead of just the rise of anti-Semitism, where we know that it can infect any particular political ideology or movement. Even as that’s true, number one, I really hope it doesn’t disincentivize the complicated relationships with Israel that are essential to American Jewishness, and move us away from our own engagement with Israel, because we’re nervous about what they’re gonna say.
I’m really, I don’t like that. I really believe in agency for the Jewish people. We take control of our story and that means sometimes standing in support of our fellow Jews and sometimes criticizing them. I think that’s essential for Jewish peoplehood.
The second thing I want to say here is I am very, very scared about the future of an American Jewish Community when its primary focus is fighting anti-Semitism. Especially because I’m not persuaded yet that it is 19, I’m not persuaded yet that it’s 1932. I think we are so far from that story. And I understand psychologically why a traumatized people is so unbelievably vigilant about the risks of anti-Semitism, but we are seeing a kind of transformation of the Jewish institutional economy in North America in terms of a fight against anti-Semitism, just when we were on the moment, on the verge of spending our time trying to actually build up Jewish identity, community, and meaning.
It’s like we slid right back into the essential project of Jewish life being fighting anti-Semitism. The number of non-profits that fight anti-Semitism as their exclusive mission have seen an increase, something in the neighborhood of 40 percent, in terms of their fundraising over the last couple of years.
Number one, I’m not convinced that we know exactly to use that money, right. So we have some pretty bad examples of hashtag campaigns and billboards and a blue square at the bottom of a football game as attempts to fight anti-Semitism. I don’t think that’s fighting anti-Semitism at all.
What I’m really nervous about is the reshift of what I, the baseline of what I could do to be Jewish is to fight anti-Semitism, as opposed to the much harder, and I believe the work with more integrity, which is to build vibrant Jewish life.
So I know that what you’re describing is a real fear. This is happening all around us and therefore, maybe we should constrict our own commitments and own discourse accordingly. I don’t think you’re suggesting it, but it’s embedded in the question. And I feel it’s actually our job to resist that. Our job is to fight anti-Semitism in smart, strategic ways that American Jews actually have tools to do. There’s never been a society or a government like the American government, taking for itself responsibility to fight anti-Semitism. This is something Jews, by the way, have said for centuries. Our job is not to fight anti-Semitism. Your job is to fight anti-Semitism.
So when you see the US government getting involved, I think that’s great. I think our priority as a Jewish community should be be vigilant, but spend most of our time actually trying to build Jewish life.
Yossi: It isn’t 1932 and I don’t believe it is going to ever be 1932 in a European meaning of of that date for American Jewry. It could become 1932 in an American context, what America was in the 1930s for Jews, which was an uncomfortable society, a society where Jews did not feel fully welcome or fully safe. Not existentially threatened, but also not fully at home.
And I think that what’s opened up in the last few years, is the beginning of what could lead to some version of that, and what worries me about anti-Zionism is not ultimately its consequences for Israel, because I don’t think it will fundamentally hurt Israel. It can hurt us in many ways, but not fundamentally. I think it’s a much greater threat to you than it is to me. And it’s a greater threat to you because of what I’ve experienced on some campuses, which is what I would call the return of the Jewish whisper.
And when I was growing up in the American Jewish community of the 1960s, I remember my parents and their friends when they would be in a public non-Jewish space, if you said anything remotely to do with the word Jew, you lowered your voice. That was the American Jewish whisper.
A great achievement of American Jewry in the last two generations, and I saw this, I moved to Israel in 1982. and I saw the gradual emergence of a thoroughly self-confident Jewish community which was not the Jewish community that I grew up in. And anti-zionism is restoring, in some ways, the Jewish whisper, and it’s also restoring the conditionality of Jewish acceptance into American society.
And by that I mean that, until the last couple generations, Jews were in some sense accepted by American society. But not entirely. You have to conform. Maybe it would be a good idea to change your name. You certainly shouldn’t speak too Jewish. You shouldn’t be too aggressive, too tribal. There were assumptions about how Jews needed to fit in and that changed. It changed in the last two generations.
What anti-zionism is saying to Jews on campus is, you’re welcome to come into our progressive space, but you need to repudiate that part of your Jewishness. That’s a problem. Anti-Zionism has made Jewishness or certain aspects of Jewishness a problem again. And that to me is really a major threat psychologically to American Jews.
Yehuda: Okay, we’re going to take one last question. Go ahead.
Audience Member #4: Thanks very much for the very helpful conversation.
I think what makes this a particularly fraught moment is that for almost the first time, we now have two very compelling narratives battling with each other. You have the the Jewish narrative, which is compelling for all the reasons you indicated, Yossi, but I think we have to recognize that the Palestinians themselves have a very compelling narrative.
And we live, maybe in a simplistic world, but a world that tries, in many respects, to measure in any conflict, who’s the bad guy, who’s the good guy? And the bad guy is often the guy with the greater power than the so-called good guy. And I think that what we’re facing here is Israel perhaps needing to do a better job of understanding that, when it does have a superior power position, how that plays in the rest of the world, and how they deal with that competing narrative, which is, for the first time, maybe dealing with Jews, is itself compelling. And how to modulate that use of power so you don’t get caught into being cast as the bad guy because you have that excess power.
Yehuda: There’s a great essay by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker from a couple years ago, in which she, maybe 2021, in which she talks about the last great moment of extreme political polarization in America, which was the early 30s. And what it took to end that period of polarization and get to the period of great, essentially, in some ways, bipartisanship, that lasted from basically, 50s through the Cold War, through the end of the Cold War.
And there’s geopolitical reasons why that happened. World War II was a big part of it. The Cold War was a part of it. But she also tracks that one of the main difference makers was people who courageously found ways to talk to people on the other side. People, institutions emerged in that moment. People noticed and recognized the problem.
So you are right. There is a compelling Jewish narrative that is about Zionism that I feel attached to. And my Palestinian friends and colleagues here at Hartman tell a compelling narrative about their belonging to this place.
Best I ever heard was, on this, was Mohammad Darawsha speaking here at the institute in 2014 or 2015, said to a group of rabbis, his family is 14th generation on this land. Palestinian citizens of Israel. He said to the group of rabbis, I see how you feel at home here when you come visit. He said, that’s okay with me. It’s okay for you as a diaspora Jew to show up here and feel at home, as long as you’re at-homeness doesn’t come at the cost of my at-homeness.
I thought that was an incredible way to say, these stories are going to find political combat with one another, especially in the hands of exclusivists, on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, who insist that they are in an existential fight with one another that can only be won by an absolute victory. And there are plenty of absolutists among Israelis and Palestinians.
But like Leore is saying, you basically need a critical mass of people, and then institutions, who insist on the possibility, not of full narrative reconciliation, there’s never going to be full narrative reconciliation between Zionism and Palestinian-ness, but there is the possibility of a kind of encounter and kind of human relationships that set the stage for ultimately a transformation of a society. It has happened in periods of political polarization in America and I think it’s altogether possible to happen here. Yossi?
Yossi: Look, as a writer, I love good stories. And that’s why I’m a Zionist, because it’s a really good story. The Palestinians have a good story too. And I’ve become more and more interested in their story. And I would use your formulation, Yehuda, but in the,
Yehuda: In reverse.
Yossi: In reverse. What Darawsha said works in the other way as well. I want to know your story, I want to honor your story, but not at the expense of my story. That, for me, really is, maybe more than a political commitment, is a literary commitment, to be able to hold interesting stories, even when they contradict each other. I think in that sense we all have to be writers of the Jewish story.
Yehuda: Thank you, everybody. Layla Tov.
Justin: Thanks for listening to our show. Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller and Sarina Shohet. This episode was edited by Ben Azevedo, our Production Manager is M. Louis Gordon, Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled.
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