The following is a transcript of Episode 116 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 we’re recording on Tuesday, November 8th, 2022.
You know, given the frequency of Israeli elections, there were five since 2019, the coincidence of this last round of elections falling in the same week as this round of American midterm elections is not such a big deal. It still feels, though, like democracy and its limitations are in the air all around us. And I will say I do kind of like it when both my colleagues in Israel and I are engaged in the same kinds of anxious speculation at the same time about our political futures.
So we have the results of the Israeli elections already, although no news yet about what exactly the coalition negotiations will yield. We’ll talk a little bit about that today. But at the time of this recording, it’s the morning of the midterms, so by the time you hear this, you’ll know a lot more about what happened on America on this election day, November 8th, 2022.
I guess I hold three different swirling feelings around election times. The first is that I still love democracy and the opportunity to participate in it. I like taking my kids with me when I go vote because I think kids understand something different about their parents’ values when they see them in action. I can’t say I’m always the most informed voter, especially about ballot questions, but I still take the process seriously and I feel like I know enough about Jewish history to recognize why it’s still special for Jews to be equal players in a political process and why participatory democracy is still better than any other form of government under which we’ve lived. I also think Jewish values here and American democracy are far more intertwined than we tend to think that they are, and that needs to be cultivated.
The second feeling is that I fear the ways that political anxiety has taken over our lives and our public discourse. I don’t remember this always being the case. I remember as a teenager finding the political process fascinating, closely following the 1992 Democratic Presidential primary after three consecutive elections in which the Democrats had gotten whooped. It reminded me at the time of fantasy baseball. I liked the math and the intrigue. I definitely remember being very upset about the results of Bush v Gore and very moved and excited by aspects of the Obama candidacy.
But all of that was early in the days of 24-hour breaking news and well before the era of social media. Now, politics often feels oppressive to me, and I say that as a person who’s often responsible professionally for responding to the news cycle. Maybe it’s not the politics itself, maybe it’s all the fear and anxiety that comes with it. All the apocalyptic scenarios.
Over the weekend, Joe Biden called these midterms, quote, one of the most important elections of our lifetime. And honestly, it feels a little bit exhausting. Congressional elections here are every two years. In Israel, parliamentary elections take place about every 20 minutes. How are we supposed to sustain this pace?
But the third feeling I have is that, yeah, there are a lot of things that concern me more about the current state of our democratic process now much more than before, and obviously even more about the results that those processes are yielding. In many American races, especially local ones, democracy itself is subversively on the ballot in questions about gerrymandering, in candidates who are threatening to overturn the ways we count votes and certify elections. In both America and Israel, there are ascendent political views that are explicitly opposed to democratic values and norms even as they participate in the democratic process to gain power.
I fear for the actual lives of Palestinian-Israeli friends in the ascendancy of the Ben Gvir party. As we discussed last week with Yako Katz, Ben Gvir got 15 out of 120 seats and it doesn’t really matter whether in fact that percentage of the population actually shares his racist or his homophobic views, they are now licensed views and empowered in the political system.
Ben Gvir, who claims to have been indicted 53 times, now seeks the ministry that would oversee the police and internal security in Israel. Meanwhile, here in America, the Supreme Court is already setting back decades of progress on the mainstream liberal agenda, on reproductive freedom, and other matters, and it strangely does not seem to register to the American public that they do so even though the majority of Americans disagree with them.
Now, I’m aware that part of what comes with living in democracies is accepting that you lose sometimes. And part of believing in pluralism is passionately advocating for your ideas in an ideally open marketplace of ideas for your own convictions, and then accepting the outcome if it doesn’t go your way.
It scares me, obviously, when some people wanna rig the outcome and then threaten the public about the results. Like for instance, contesting an election and storming the capital. But I also recognize that elections tend to only be a yardstick about ideological processes long underway by the time they produce results at the ballot.
The reality I’m most scared of is the ideological change in both America and Israel that has made the moment like this politically plausible. This is scary because you can win an election and still be losing a war for the heart and soul of a society. So democracy rolls along, and today we’re gonna talk about it.
I wanted to talk today to Donniel Hartman, president of SHI and host of our sister podcast, For Heaven’s Sake. I wanted to talk to Donniel, not just for Israeli election analysis, we’re gonna do some of that, but also because of all the ways the current elections here and there mask these bigger existential questions about democracy and the values we stand for.
Because to really win in the marketplace of ideas and ideologies, we have to figure out how to play a longer game than can be measured in annual or biennial elections. And because we at the Hartman Institute are implicated. We’re not dispassionate about the political issues that define Israeli-American society. And maybe, I say that gently, I think the answer is yes, there’s a role for us to play in the educational and value systems that our political systems are meant to represent.
Donniel, thanks for coming back on Identity Crisis and, um, and let’s start with the results in Israel. And I’m curious if you felt like there was anything that was particularly interesting or surprising about this last round of election results. Obviously it brings Bibi back into power, but what kind of surprised you either about the lead-up to the elections or the results of the elections in Israel?
Donniel: Hi, Yehuda. Uh, thank you for inviting me, and it’s really nice to be here. You know, it’s now a week. It feels like a lifetime ago. Literally feels like a lifetime. I, um, after the elections, I, I felt like I was starting shiva. Well, shiva is over, you know, and, it’s, a week is, is is a long time.
Donniel: And it gives me different, you have different perspectives after the shock of the moment. What surprised me the most was the ineffectiveness of the ideological discourse in Israel to convince or sway people from, um, another political camp or, or, or block you would think. The Israeli were actually quite ideological and there were serious issues on the table. Candidates said very serious and sometimes horrific things, but we weren’t able to convince people who said something was very often more significant thn what was said, and the fixedness of the situation.
It was surprising because as an educator, you know, our whole lives are based on the premise that you can talk, you can teach, people can change their opinions. And here, you know, there were shifts, so people moved from the Likud bloc to the religious Zionist Ben Gvir bloc. Um, some poeple left Meretz and Labor and voted for Yesh Atid.
But they stayed within the bloc despite very passionate conversations. Our discourse towards the other was completely ineffective.
Yehuda: In other words, nobody is moving really anymore from center, center left to the righ,t or from the right to the left. But I guess one, one curiosity about this is, it is almost exactly divided in terms of the number of votes in Israel between the two big camps in Israel, which appear no longer to be left versus right, but appear to be okay with Bibi or anti-Bibi.
How much is that distorting whether there’s actually an ideological ground in Israeli society? How much is this simply about the fact that you have an incredibly effective and polarizing politician? And what would it look like if, you know, if this election wasn’t entirely about Bibi? What do you think the map would actually look like in, in terms of the Knesset?
Donniel: Um, I don’t know. Nobody really knows. Bibi is an unbelievably talented man and in the Middle East or in Israel, people vote also on the basis of who they believe keep them safer. And Netanyahu has the trust of a very large segment of Israeli society. Um, so if he would leave the equation, would somebody else from a different blocc be able to convince people that they’re trustworthy?
It’s possible. You know, we saw Bennett and we saw Yair Lapid as Prime Ministers and they conducted the Israeli Security affairs vis a vis Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad as effectively, objectively as Netanyahu. There was no dropoff.
But could they even get the credit for that? That would be, that would be an interesting question. So, I don’t know, if, if it was a Bibi, not Bibi vote. Now I do believe this last was different than the one, um, a year ago or the three two years ago, which were very focused on the “just not Bibi. This really wasn’t a “just not Bibi.”
The people on the right who were part of this coalition spoke about liberal values. Even Avigdor Lieberman spoke about himself as liberal right. That there were, there was an issue about the place of religion and religious coercion, and social responsibility. Gideon Sa’ar, who joins the, this new party, spoke about Supreme Court. So it wasn’t just Bibi, not Bibi.
And the people on the right didn’t just speak about Bibi. They spoke about personal security. They spoke about terrorism within the borders of Israel. They spoke about the economy. They spoke about disenfranchisement. They spoke about the dictatorship of the supreme court.
So there were a lot of ideologies put on the table in this last election. More than before. It was actually quite, it, it was momentous, I loved your introduction. You’re like this is, like democracy, the, the future, was on the table, yet again, right.
Donniel: So I don’t know if, it wasn’t a Bibi-centered election right now. It was actually a deeply ideological one, which means that the two blocs, there are 50% on both sides who have a very different sense on what are the most critical things facing Israeli society.
Yehuda: Yeah. Well, there was another statistical anomaly that I read about afterwards, which is so interesting, which is that the Smotritch Ben Gvir party, which was a merger of the historic religious Zionist party, which is led by Smotritch with an extreme religious Zionist party led by Ben Gvir. They come together, they probably don’t like each other, but they come together for political expediency and they got approximately 515,000 votes, which in this Knesset turns into uh, uh, 15 seats.
If you take the three Arab parties which ran, had previously run together and now ran separately, they got 505,000 votes. So only 10,000 votes separated the two. But because of the way that the coalitions are built, they wind up with double the seats.
So that part of that, you look at that story and you say this is partly a story about ideology, but it’s also partly about how do you play the game in a parliamentary system because they had changed the rules so that only you need three and a quarter percentage in order to cross the threshold to enter into the Knesset.
So are the lessons here for the center, center left about the limitations of their own ideological positions, or is the lessons here merely, you have to be much more intelligent about playing the game, about partnering together, building stronger coalitions on the left. What do you think?
Donniel: Uh, I, it’s yes and yes. So the, one of the advantages that the Bibi government, uh coalition had is that they had an even number of parties. Um, one of the ways in which you make sure that your votes don’t get lost is you have these agreements, um, to share excess votes.
So Netanya had an even number of parties, so all his parties had their votes covered the other coalition had odd numbers. So we lost votes. Also on the center, center left coalition, there were two parties that didn’t pass the, didn’t pass the threshold. And so there was a huge number. There were six seats, whose votes didn’t count and were lost.
But you see, even from my perspective, it’s the fact that 50% of Israeli society is mainstreaming a Ben Gvir ultranationalist ideology is what’s concerning. I appreciate that this Netanyahu won because of the system. He won it fair and square even, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s Israel’s version of, of the electoral, uh, conundrum of America.
So it’s, it’s, he won it, nobody contested the election. It was clear that according to the rules, which we all like, for a number of reasons, he won. And the center, center left has to be more effective. It also didn’t get out the vote the areas. There was a lot of passivity, much greater passivity on the center, center left in the areas where their population resides.
But for me, it wasn’t the, the issue of of losing the election is not as if I’ve lost Israel, but it’s recognizing that there is a deep ideological divide in the country. And, um, it’s serious. It’s not just Bibi, not Bibi. There’s a group of people who see the Supreme Court as a danger to Israel’s democracy. There’s a group of people who believe that Israeli soldiers, that that attempts to create moral guidelines for Israeli soldiers beyond what ex or is weakens our army and weakens our soldiers, there’s a legitimacy to talk about who owns the country owning the country is we Jews own the country.
These are, these are real, real issues, or most significantly is a, what seems to be innocuous supported in particular by the Ultra-Orthodox, is the passing of an override clause, which will allow simple of the cabinet of the Knesset to override the Supreme Court, basically ridding Israel of any constitutional checks and balances and allowing the majority to do anything they want to.
And if the Ultra-Orthodox wanna pass a law banning certain practices or limiting the rights of conservative or reform Jews. Or, you know, for example, now if you get married on the Zoom in Utah, it’s called a civil marriage in Israel. Because under international law every country has to recognize the marriages of another country.
But that could be so, the Knesset could vote to override it, the Supreme Court came, could come and say, excuse me, this is not acceptable, and then a 61 vote majority will override the Supreme Court, and all that, all you’ll have is, they’ll threaten a governmental crisis, and everybody will vote.
Now, these are serious issues. Now, half of the country, I see each one of these issues as critical and I like your statement, that I don’t want to speak uh, as if the democracy in Israel is over. It, it you know, I think we need a little, we have to have a little more trust. There’s dangers. There’s serious dangers. And 50% of my society aren’t concerned about dangers that I believe are critical to the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Yehuda: So let me, I wanna parse something that I think you’re saying, and I wanna pull it apart, which is, it sounds like what you’re describing is, you identify as politically liberal in the broadest sense. There’s a version of people who you would characterize as, uh, as representing ideologically opposing positions who are within the realm of the tolerable to you.
There are those who are your contesting you know, legitimate, like they have legitimate views that need to be interacted or fought with you. That’s the whole marketplace of ideas notion, and you’re gonna fight passionately and respect the results.
And then there’s some percentage of Israeli society who are intolerable. So, right, in other words, who are not merely threatening to advance in Israel that’s different than yours, but to actually threaten the apparatus and the infrastructure.
How do you draw the distinction between those who you would say are your, legitimate enemy combatants, right. Versus it’s, but wrong analogy, like the legitimate combatants in a political process. Who, it’s okay, those are your sparring partners versus those who you feel are destroying the system. And if there’s a real difference between those two, what does it mean when the other half is tolerating those views as part of their, as part of their coalition government?
Donniel: Could I make it even harder, Yehuda with, cause, there are people who I see as political opponents, mainstream people who I have to take their positions into account who are also advocating intolerable positions. So I, I think it’s incoherent to speak about the ultra-orthodox parties who make up what 15% of Israeli society, tentatively, as intolerable not most of what they care about. I, I could either agree or understand. And if I, or, or a party I voted for, would win an election, I would be for including them into the coalition. So there’s real issues and real arguments and discussions.
But if the Ultra-Orthodox do not wanna give their children a secular education because they feel threatened by it, while I could disagree with it, I don’t find that position beyond the pale. I don’t find an ultra-orthodox position which says I don’t want my children to serve in the army, I also don’t find that beyond the pale, that might sound strange, cause I understand where they’re coming from. They know that if they don’t keep their kids till the age of 22, married with two to three children in Yeshiva, their chance of keeping them within their community um, decreases.
So I could disagree, that’s where you could have a political conversation, but right now they wanna use a tool of this override clause, which is from my perspective, nuclear to democracy. And they’re the ones pushing it more than anybody else. So there are Likud supporters who are doing it so that they could maybe get Netanyahu’s, cancel his trial.
But that’s, even Netanyahu says, you know, I don’t, I, that’s not kosher. Um, but so you have people who are mainstream opponents, but that’s the essence of a coalition government in Israel. You sit with people who you disagree with.
Now, some of their policies are now very destructive. So part of the, of the challenge of this other bloc, or the consequence of this election is mainstream people having or presenting intolerable positions. Many of the people who voted for Ben Gvir, it’s not that, you know, Ben Gvir went over. Ben Gvir and Smotritch in the last election were six. The election beforehand they didn’t even passed the threshold.
All of a sudden another eight seats surfaced. What is it, all of a sudden, another 300,000 people in Israel woke up and became ultra-national racists? No, for many of them, Ben Gvir embodies an ideology which they feel will look out for or respond to certain fears that they have. But at the same time, while they do that, they’re tolerating the intolerable. So I have to work with them.
Now, what makes somebody intolerable? It’s consistent, it’s where your core ideology is based on fundamental, anti-Democratic, ultranationalist, or racist principles. The core feature that’s the difference between Ben Gvir himself and many of his voters. Now, Ben Gvir himself is also now arguing, no, no, you’re not, you’re getting me wrong. I’m actually much closer to many of my, of my voters. Maybe I was like that in the past. What did you say? I was tried 53 times. Was it 53 or 57?
Yehuda: He claims 53, yeah.
Donniel: 53. Great. You know, he says, you know, when I was 17, is my record based on everything that I have done in my life, or could I say I have changed? Now, I don’t know if he’s changed. You know, time will tell. At least on the surface, your whole persona is about waving your gun and lording over minorities. When that’s your persona, you’re beyond the pale. But when people resonate to it for multiple reasons, that’s part of my people, and I have to engage with them.
By the way, similarly, and while, you know, it’s not exactly the same, I reach out to Israeli Arabs who are anti-Zionists and sometimes they also profess positions that I find to be profoundly disturbing: supporting terrorists, now, when a Arab member of Knesset supports, or comes out positively towards someone who has killed Jews. Is it, is it just part of who he is? Does it define who he, all that he is? There’s different ones.
And in each time it’s a very very difficult balance. Because at the end of the day being an Israeli and a Jew, my natural inclination is to want to have as broad a coalition and as small a number of people who are beyond the pale. But that requires a lot of work.
Yehuda: I can’t tell whether that commitment, which is a kind of negotiative approach to politics, but it’s also a commitment that comes from being an educator, right? Because you, you simply can’t convince people that they’re wrong if you don’t talk to them.
Donniel: Correct. Correct.
Yehuda: That’s like the tragedies of persuasion. I can’t tell whether that’s an, an educator’s disposition, or whether it’s because you live in a coalition system.
We don’t live in a coalition system in America. We live in a binary political system. So if you don’t defeat your opponents, you actually weaken your own capacity to fight back.
Yehuda: And I don’t know, maybe you could unpack that is, or maybe it’s a, so maybe it’s a disposition, maybe it’s a position because you work as an educator. Maybe it’s the infrastructure of the political system in which you’re operating. But I can tell you that in the American context, those who are advocating for the kind of negotiative position that you’re in are viewed as politically feeble, right?
They look like the people who are normalizing the extremism of the other, and it kind of feels like loser talk. So what do you think? Where do you think it comes from?
Donniel: First of all, I appreciate that, you know, an outsider, and you’ll correct me, I actually think America has the same coalition system. You know, you talk about, how often is there a division between and the presidents? That’s a coalition, that when the Senate and the Congress are split, that’s, it requires cooperation.
Um, but now in the environment that you described, the minute there is any separation on who wins what you have, you have, what is it called? Gridlock. You, there no bipartisanship is, is a necessity in American politics because you also have a need for coalitions because you, it’s not within the Knesset itself, but it’s within the different branches of government. Now I think there’s no doubt that it’s defined by the educator in me, but it also, it actually grows very much out of my Jewish identity. And my Jewish identity gets expanded to my Israeli which includes 20% of uh, Palestinians who aren’t part of my Jewish community, but are part of my Israeli, my Israeli community. They’re part of the people of Israel. The people, the children of Israel today aren’t just Jews.
But I was raised to a deep sense of loyalty, connection, and responsibility to my people. As a Jew, I don’t see myself as an individual walking in the world. I just don’t. That’s not my primary disposition. You know, the, the, the state of nature for me as a Jew is not the individual who has to fight for my inalienable rights, or for my ability to survive.
The, the state of nature for me is to be a part of my people. Who obligate me and who I have to be responsible for, and who therefore demand that I be unbelievably careful in the boundaries that I select. Cause that’s the end of my collective assistance. I bring that consciousness also to my Israeliness. And therefore my natural disposition is to wanna be very, very careful before anyone who is my citizen, anyone who’s a shared citizen, I, I define them as, as intolerably deviant.
So it’s the way in which I try to do good within my community. It’s not about perfection and it’s not about defeatism. It’s about trying to, and here the educator comes in, it’s about taking steps of progress and reaching out and building bridges of understanding.
For me to be a liberal means that the default position that I have towards disagreement is pluralism or tolerance. That’s my default. And I only get to deviance or, or boundaries after much, much effort. So that, it’s really a combination of my educator and my Jewishness, and in fact, my liberalism. And I know that one of the problems that I felt in this last election in Israel and as a spectator I see in America, is how boundaries and deviance become the default positions to which you see the other.
You judge them by their worst possible reading instead of their best. You take one dimension of what they say, and therefore cancel them completely, instead of being able to separate and to say yes, there’s ten things you’re saying, could we work with 6? So these are, this is the, the type of person I wanna be in the world. That’s what it means to respect people, to want to live with difference. So I, I start from a different place, both as an educator, a Jew, and then ultimately as an Israeli.
Yehuda: What do we do then with the fact that the politically ascendent positions in both of our societies, it’s not just that they are hard to reach through that approach, but that they seem to be thriving on the basis of the opposite approach.
Cult of personality, with the image of Ben Gvir who set up his political office in the street in Sheikh Jarrah, literally the most contested stretch of property in Jerusalem, it kind of, it’s like a whole metaphor for the whole history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sets up shop in the street, with a gun, um, and attracts
Donniel: Guns. Guns.
Yehuda: And attracts a lot of enthusiasm, especially by young people. Uh, and it’s true also in this country without exact analogies. I mean, you know, somebody asked me recently, wait, is Ben Gvir Trump? And I said, No, Ben Gvir is imagine that Marjorie Taylor Green is now the Secretary of State or is running the Justice Department. It’s like, oh, that’s like, but there’s something that’s also magnetizing people towards charismatic individuals who have radical extremist political ideas.
And what you’re describing as the negotiative approach is a powerful moral disposition of how a person might wanna be in the world. But it seems to be completely uncompelling on the increasingly empowered fringes of these societies that we’re in.
Donniel: It’s true. You know, Yehuda, you said we have to be politically involved. And that as an institute, you and I, we are very deeply invested in political issues. You and I, we’ve chosen and our colleagues and the institution that we head is one that have chosen to be educators.
If we would be politicians, we would probably fail quite royally. And that’s okay. That’s okay. Politicians aren’t the only ones who shape a society. So they might be able to excite people on election day and they have power, but politicians don’t have all the power.
Teachers, principals, social activists, educators impact people every day of their life. And so we are choosing a different methodology. It’s not one which will sweep as educators. We’re not gonna sweep the masses with a campaign, but we are gonna go student after student, teacher after teacher and identify a different ideology and we have to be content and feel that in the long run, this is what shapes the future of a country. Now it’s true. We have to fight against politicians. And very often they excite people, and they motivate people. But they all the power is not in their hands. Political power, public relations, visibility, the cycle.
That’s also why I believe that educators should not try to be news personalities. It’s the wrong thing. Cause then you have to play the same game. You have to have, it’s gimmicky and you have to, there has to be blacks and whites and, and everything has to be a dichotomy. That’s not who we are. We have to be more effective in the public domain.
When, when people ask me when I have to, I just had to fill out a test, well, like, Donniel, what are you, I’m like, what’s, you, I’m a teacher. I’m not president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m a teacher who believes that ideas matter. And I know you’ve said this over and again, and I love it when you say it and it always reaffirms my commitment to the Hartman Institute when I hear you talking.
I love working with you and I love when you talk about who we are cause you say it in such a, say we are an institute that believes that our theory of change is built on ideas. Now that’s true. That’s not politics. That’s not gonna win an election. But it will shape the nature of our society. And that’s what we have to do.
Now some people are saying, oh if you can’t Twitterize, and oh, ideas matter. And our world needs people who believe that ideas matter. And I know in most cases the hare defeats the, what is it, the tortoise? But slow processes also count. And that’s the game we’re in. It’s a long-term game, which has a lot of ups and downs and losses, and both in Israel and America, another discourse seems to be winning right now, but they’re only winning on the political level. They’re not necessarily winning on an educational, social, and value level.
There’s a lot of work to be done. We waste the talent and the gift that we could possibly be by trying to judge ourselves and only play in the political realm.
Yehuda: So I wanna come back to that in a moment about what that actually looks like. But I wanna ask, one of the ways in which I know that you can retain that commitment is because you are okay with losing. You’ve said to me before, I think this was probably not true, in one of the last of the five elections, that you never successfully voted for a Prime Minister and it doesn’t seem to phase you, right? It may be frustrating, but there are a lot of people who really, not only get demoralized by losing, but actually have more to lose. Right?
So I look at myself here in this country. I share a lot of what you described. I feel that I’m primarily in the ideas business. And you know, in the rabbinic tradition, if you think that your ideas are supposed to be implemented in your lifetime, you’re a narcissist, right? And, um, that you probably aren’t dreaming big enough about what the future is supposed to be. I’m with you. It’s how I live my life too.
And I also know that like if the Supreme Court overturns gay marriage, it’s not gonna destroy my marriage. I know that Israelis who lose on the center-left in Israel, Israeli Jews who lose on the center-left, are gonna be less jeopardized than Palestinian citizens of Israel in terms of their basic ability to walk down the street and feel safe.
So, you know, the buzzword for what I’m talking about is privilege, is the ability to lose and not be as destroyed by it. Does that tell us a story simply about the fact that some of us have the luxury of losing, the privilege of losing, and if that’s so, how do we lean empathetically towards those for whom losing actually may constitute a real existential crisis?
Donniel: There’s no doubt that you’re correct. But I think one of the of responsibilities of privilege is that we have to be, in this moment, far more attuned to those who feel existentially threatened and in danger and reach out to them.
You know, right now I’m in the process with you, you know, and, uh, we’re working on it, of trying to figure out what are the things that we have to do differently as an institution now? What are the new things we have to do? What are the things that we did that we have to change? There is no doubt that after an election such as this, with the rise of certain ultra-nationalist forces, that we have to stand up much more clearly for those who are in danger. We have to listen to them. We have to be far less tolerant for the fears and that they are expressing.
Now here too, we have to be clear. Do I think the Ultra-Orthodox are gonna dramatically change the status quo in Israel on issues of state and religion? I think not. I think there’s already a lot of flaws. But there is a marketplace. So the Rabbinate, for example, could control marriages. So people will join together without getting married. That’s what’s happening. Less and less people are going to the rabbinate. I and my colleagues in the Israeli rabbinate, we’re performing more and more weddings than we ever did before.
So there are vehicles in which the marginalized have a way to shape their future. I am much more worried about Israeli Arabs, for whom very often protest is defined as disloyalty and terrorism. Who, when Jews demonstrate violently, it’s because they’re passionate and they care. And, uh, when Israeli Palestinians demonstrate, they’re terrorists.
So we also have to make divisions amongst the less privileged. Who really is less privileged? I’m not frightened over gay and lesbian rights here in Israel. There are issues that already now have preexisted on issues of marriage or ability to have surrogate children. Those were already on the table, so they weren’t rectified and so it’s not gonna get worse. We’re just gonna remain, illiberal on many of these issues.
But there too, there’s all these bypasses developing, but it’s those who don’t have bypasses, it’s those who aren’t just simply, not simply that some of their rights are being marginalized, but that their essential being is being marginalized. Those are the people that we are gonna have to stand up for and make it clear, I stand with you. And what happens to you is what’s happening to me. And to develop ever increasing avenues of communication, and even public advocacy and demonstration, we have to be there. Um, Israeli Arabs can’t be alone.
Now, it’s interesting, I don’t know what the case will be, because, you know, Netanyahu in the past was the first one to reach out to Israeli Arabs in ways that the center and center-left did not. He’s the one who koshered, um, Monsour Abbas, then he backtracked, but he, I don’t want to now prophesize about the dangers that will be. But it is no doubt that losing is easier for the privileged, and it requires of us a, an involvement and a vigilance that was not there in the past.
Yehuda: So a strategy to combine these kind of last two questions. Any sort of strategy around social change does have to involve some amount of allyship, advocacy for the marginalized and the vulnerable, a willingness, not necessarily to stand with the Israeli Palestinian population does not mean necessarily to publicly endorse the political parties of the Arab community. But it does require activities that go beyond merely what we might call educational. It does require some amount of political activity.
And then it has to live together the kind of educational strategy that others will find plausible in spite of the fact that you’ve showed them your hands in terms of this form of allyship. So where do you feel that there’s actually room to influence the hearts and minds of the Israeli Jewish majority about the ethos of democracy, minority rights, respecting the other,, that would materially transform the relationship that Israeli Jews have with Israeli Arabs.
Where, do you feel that there’s actually ability to move? And by the way, an ability to move that won’t be immediately set to the side of, oh, that’s another lefty political agenda that’s masking itself as education.
Donniel: Right. The truth is, Yehuda, we don’t know. This is part of what we have to figure out. It really is.
There are three different groups within the Jewish community that we have to look at. There’s one group who, the mere fact that we have our name make anything that we say irrelevant. Uh, we’re not a force for change either in the ultra-Orthodox community or in the Radical Ultranationalist community. In many ways, they see us, the Hartman Institute as enemy number one.
That’s a group of people, I don’t know what percentage they are. You know, let’s say there is, it’s true, there are the ultra-Orthodox parties, even though there are members of the ultra-Orthodox parties who are very close to the Hartman Institute, but I don’t see us as an educational force to change ultra-Orthodoxy. Somebody else is better qualified to do that than us.
And the ultranationalists aren’t listening to us. Like, you know, one of the great leaders of the ultranationalist community, um, came to the institute, uh, a couple of years ago, for a program. She showed up once and she said, I want you to understand that for me to sit at the Hartman Institute is more difficult than to go a church.
So I’m not, I’m not expecting to have a profound influence on those ideal ideologues. But there are two other groups which we have to focus on within the Jewish community. One of them are the yes, but, Ben Gvir supporters. Those who say, yes, I know Ben Gvir is a racist, but, or yes, I know he said and this is more common, by the way. Most of what people said was, I know he sounds like ultranationalist, but you will see he isn’t.
Now the people who said that, like here, family members. My family members, not my children, but people who are, who married into our family, many of them are Ben Gvir supporters. And at a recent, my daughter just gave birth and we had a bris and 25 of members of this family were at my house, eating at my table, sitting, friendly, we’re family, we’re mishpacha, we care about each other.
One of them, sweet, sensitive, nice man, says to me, Donniel, don’t worry about Ben Gvir. Don’t worry about Ben Gvir. He’s not as bad as you think he is. See right there, there’s an educational moment. What I have to work with this person and with people like him is to say, okay, you said he’s not as bad. Let’s define what the not as bad is. Let’s together define what our red lines are, because you seem to be saying that my red lines, that I accept that I don’t wanna disenfranchise Arabs and I don’t.
But what he’s gonna do, he is gonna make it safer for Jews, and you’re gonna see it’s not gonna be that bad. So let’s have that conversation. Let’s have a conversation about what does loyalty require? What are minimal loyalties? What do we want? There are people who are the yes, but Ben Gvir supporters who I wanna explore. Many of them are in the religious Zionist community, but not only. Many of them are secular as well. Many of them are younger, who, what do they say? Ben Gvir got the same number of votes in the Army as the Likud and Yesh Atid. What is it that’s moving them to Ben Gvir that I could possibly identify with and hopefully move them away from that? That’s one group.
But the other group where I wanna do a lot of work are those people who clearly reject Ben Gvir. Including those who vote for the Likud. Who would say, I would never vote for Ben Gvir. I might be in a coalition. But in many ways they even say, you forced me into that coalition by the just not Netanyahu policy. I have no choice.
There’s a whole segment that I would even say is a majority of Israelis who don’t wanna vote for Ben Gvir. I wanna make that rejection of Ben Gvir much more ideological. I don’t think we’ve articulated effectively enough what it is that we care about? What does democracy mean? What are the Jewish values? What does a Jewish state mean? What are our responsibilities to minorities? Who do we wanna be in the world?
And maybe a lot of the just not Netanyahu conversation, um, gave us a way to as if present an ideology without really developing it. I don’t think either the center-left, left or the liberal right have a clearly defined ideology on the issues that we’re talking about. And I, I wanna fight. I wanna fight over, this is the cultural war that I wanna engage in. I don’t know what will happen. But there are two groups that I want to work with within the Jewish community, and a major segment within the Israeli Palestinian community who are unequivocal about their desire to be in Israel.
And I want to work with them. What does it mean for you to say I want to be Israeli but I’m not a Zionist. How far, what does it mean, is there a difference between saying Israel’s the homeland of the Jewish people, or Israel’s a Jewish state. How do you speak about your affinity with Palestinians even when, with some of them we’re at war? I think there’s a lot of work that we need to do. And so, uh, until the next election I expect us to be very very busy.
Yehuda: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I, I definitely identify with the piece that you said, of the failure to articulate. Liberal ideologies have actually been so on the defensive for the last 30 or 40 years that they have oftentimes not articulated their own positions very clearly. They sometimes say, well, I’m between A and B. Right? This is the major problem in the centrist institutions of American Judaism. Centrism is not a position.
Um, it’s a means of saying, Well, where’s the map? Where’s the weather going? And I’m gonna stand in the middle of it. And no surprise, you get kind of knocked over. And I think that that happened with a not Bibi as opposed to a yes vision for Israeli society.
But what you describe is very subtle. And there are two areas of real complex subtlety here. One is your example was very telling because it’s rooted in relationships. When someone’s sitting around at your table already and when you’re already family, your ability to say, rooted in this atmosphere of love and trust, and I can now have a different kind of conversation.
Whereas many educational institutions are self, which includes our own institution. The hard work is establishing that relationship to begin with, and it’s sometimes rendered more difficult by the work of this is who I am ideologically now, it actually impedes my ability to enter a relationship.
I guess the second subtlety is everybody’s watching all the time who you’re sitting with. So we have colleagues who I’m sure when they hear that you’re breaking bread with Ben Gvir supporters are gonna say, I don’t wanna have anything to do with the Hartman institute. I feel anxious about that.
And it’s every choice you make, every time I speak at Conference X or conference Y, I’m watching my back, that showing up and talking to those people is a means of legitimating or licensing them. And that too gets in the way of either clear ideological commitments that we put out into the world or building the kind of relationships that make this work.
How do we, I guess I’m cur, how do you navigate that?
Donniel: You know, Yehuda first our job together is each one of us has each other’s back, right?
Yehuda: Well, that’s for you and me, but I’m talking about for the Jewish people,
Donniel: I know, know, but, but it’s, but that’s part of the way we start. And part of what we do is, we are for talking with people. That’s our default. And if we could move somebody who is beyond the pale to be within a consensus, that’s a victory.
But that means you had to have spoken to them. You had to have spoken to them. And I will talk with everyone, anybody who invites me, I will go talk. Unless it is just total manipulation and there’s no, if there’s a possibility, I’m open to it.
Sp I wanna tell you, Yehuda, let the haters hate. Let those who’d wanna delegitimize us, delegitimize us, knock yourself out. And you tell me whether the world is gonna be better or not. Our job is to create a space in the Jewish world where we talk. And where talking doesn’t mean legitimizing. Talking actually means trying to educate and change people’s minds. That’s what we do.
And so it’s true. There are those who will attack us. Okay. Knock yourself out. Thank God. Maybe that’s what it means also to be an educator. To be a politician, you always have about the polls. To be an educator, you don’t. You don’t. I’m not in that business. I’m not. I do believe, and I will always believe that goodness is contagious. I wanna believe that.
Is Ben Gvir redeemable? I hope so. If I had the opportunity to do something about it, would I engage in it? Absolutely. Absolutely. Why should I not? We’ve always spoken about how Israel, you make peace with enemies. Okay. Now, does it mean that I’m going to accept for the sake of peace, Ben Gvir, with his immoral positions?
No. But if I could move his supporters to be yes buts, you know, it’s a lonelier job. It’s, it’s more difficult. It’s easy to attack us. We’re exposed. For us as institutional heads, we don’t care about polls, but we are susceptible to donors. And that’s okay.
You and I have said very often that we will take an institute that’s 30% smaller, but that’s doing the right thing. And doing the right thing is not buying into this canceling of people. Quite to the contrary. I, I want to build an Israel and a Jewish world in which certain core values of respect for all of humanity and democracy and for human rights and for decency and for peace and for equality are central, this, this is my Judaism.
I will go anywhere and speak to anyone if doing so will further that cause. And then, those who will walk with us, will walk with us. Those who will hate us, will hate us. At the end, history will decide who was more loyal to the cause.
Yehuda: You know, um, I think one of the things that feels very different about our two societies is that in spite of such radical political differences, there is a different intimacy in Israel between people of different political positions is almost by necessity, it’s a smaller country, there’s a greater interdependency between these kind of positions.
There’s no such thing as local politics. There is, obviously, there’s municipalities, but on any policy issue, essentially the country is implicated all at the same time, and families are knitted together in a different way. I think one of the things that has really gotten away from the American people is that to, it’s not just to say we live in echo chambers, that’s not really the issue.
The issue is actually families don’t really cross-pollinate politically that much anymore. There’s geographic change of people migrating and living in different political geographies. The gerrymandering is tracking and creating totally different universes of political realities. Plus local politics in Iowa don’t implicate local politics in New York.
So, um, what you’re describing sounds like it’s a, almost a necessity in Israeli society, and it feels like an aspiration here for America that we just, that we don’t have.
Let me ask you one last question, which is one of the, in my work, in traveling around, you’ve put on a lot on the table here around what we need to do, and you’ve told the story about what the Hartman Institute’s response is in Israel and in America, but one of the corollary issues for us is there are great many American Jews who watch these elections, they’re not even that far left about Israel, but there are aspects of this last election that are just a bridge too far.
What do you wanna say to those people? Because fundamentally we need, liberal Zionist Israelis need those people to stay in the game, desperately to stay in the game. What do you say to those people to make sure that they continue to walk with us and to, you know, not just stay with Israel, but help Israel to do this kind of work that you’re talking about?
Donniel: Here, too, Yehuda, it’s getting harder and there is no simple slogan. I think all that we can do. Is not tell them or plead with them, You know, I could do that and I could maybe move people to tears and I could speak about the challenge of our time and I could speak about the fact that if you leave, the other side wins and I, you know, and I could speak about how our ancestors had to survive despite this challenge and this is ours and that this, who knows, if it wasn’t for this moment, I could go on and on, move myself deeply and even maybe get one or two people to cry.
But at the end of the day, Yehuda, the conversation will be alive if we could show that there is a powerful group of people in Israel who are keeping liberal Zionism alive. You said in your analysis it’s a 50-50 split right now. We have to marshal our forces. We’re not marginal and we can’t buy into the language of being marginal.
We have to see ourselves and communicate as being big. We have to show that there is a cultural war that there is a side that’s fighting and gives somebody a place to belong. People have no problem separating between a government and a country. Now, Israel’s split, I don’t have the country, but I certainly am part of that country. I’m not a minor force. I’m a powerful force.
We have to energize our work. We have to do more and more. We have to be clear. We have to be part of that public sphere so that when a liberal Jew in America gets up and says, oh yeah, Israel, that’s my Israel. That’s our job right now is to take up a lot of space.
And if we, Yehuda, if we do our job, then people will say, oh that’s who I’m a part of. Because those who want to still be part of the conversation will resonate. Those who don’t, the end of the day there’s nothing that we could say. But there’s enough Jews who for decades now in America, you know, and every survey shows Israel is important, they say, 95, Israel is important to a Jewish identity.
Let’s give the Jewish people an Israel that they can identify with. And so it might not be a government. But the Hartman Institute together with 30, 40, 50, a hundred other institutions working together, being clear, we’re Israel too. And if we’re good at what we do, and if we’re clear and we’re inspiring, they’ll have an Israel to which they could still belong.
Yehuda: Well, from your mouth to the Jewish people’s ears. Thank you, Donniel for being here.
Donniel: Thank you Yehuda.
Yehuda: And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled.
Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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