You Asked, We Answered. Q&A with Donniel, Yossi, and Elana

The following is a transcript of Episode 39 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today is Monday, December 21st, 2021 and this is For heaven Sake, a podcast from the Hartman institute’s iEngage project. Today in our last podcast for the 2021 year, we will deviate from our normal format. Instead of discussing what we think is an essential and critical issue, today, we will follow your lead and allow you to shape the discussion to the questions that you sent to us.

Many of you have sent questions. And because of the volume, we apologize that we’ll not be able to address them all. I hope that this will be a beginning of a regular segment in our podcast, in which we can transcend some of the one-dimensionality of the podcast format and allow your voices, our loyal listeners to have greater input.

Yossi and Elana. It’s really nice to be with you.

Yossi: Great to be with you, Donniel.

Are you ready for a different format? We’re going to let our listeners guide us.

Donniel: Our first listener asks this question: should Israel have given permission this week to birthright participants to enter Israel despite its blanket COVID travel ban? At the same time, Christian pilgrims planning to celebrate Christmas have been denied visas. Some people call it racist. Is this legitimate, Yossi?

Yossi: First of all, before we get to whether it’s a legitimate policy or not. Let’s talk about what it isn’t. It’s not racism. You can say that it’s unfair. You can say it’s discriminatory. Not everything that’s unfair is racist. that’s that first of all. And I think it’s really important to put on the table.

The second point is that Israel is simultaneously two things. It is the State of Israel, it’s the Jewish state and it is the holy land. And usually, they coexist in reasonable harmony. What’s so interesting and upsetting about this moment is that there is a clash between the interests of the Jewish state and the interests of the holy land. I think that Israel has the right to prioritize the Jewish state over the holy land. That’s what this decision has done. It is the state of the Jewish people and it has the right to say we prioritize tourists at a very delicate time. We take that prerogative as a natural expression of the sovereignty of the Jewish people.

But wait a minute. Not only is this the holy land. This is a peak moment for the holy land. This is Christmas. And I would feel a lot better about this decision if I had the sense that the government bureaucrats who were deliberating, took this seriously. And I wished that I could say I believe that they did. I’m not so sure

Donniel: Really interesting, Yossi. Elana from 6,000 miles away, does this pass the smell test?

Elana: Well, I’m really seeing this through a very American prism because, throughout COVID, we’ve been having these arguments in the judicial branch and in public about what kind of dispensations religious groups get during COVID? Can they be as open as whatever businesses we consider to be essential? Are they essential? And I’ve really come to believe that of course, you need very careful rubrics in place to keep everybody safe. But I think you don’t want to make the comment that religion is not as important as other essential services. And when I look at birthright and I look at people coming on pilgrimage for their religion. I see birthright. Sure, there’s a religious aspect of birthright, but I think it’s really more of a Jewish continuity project, Jewish identity. I’m not necessarily sure that it’s religious. I think there’s a statement when you say, we’ll let in – to me, it’s not just about the Jewish state or others. It’s about showing that you actually think that religion matters and it’s an essential service. The Christmas piece, that’s like a purely religious interest. And how much do you focus on people’s religious needs, not just Jews, but people’s religious needs during COVID? And I’m not sure I would’ve made the same decision to be honest.

Donniel: Elana, I’m a little closer to you on this one, even though Yossi said yes and yes at the same time. I wasn’t sure, on the one hand, your point was really important. It’s like, you’re tired that every time Israel does something we’re called racist.

It’s a policy. It might be right. It might be wrong. It might be discriminative, might be smart, but immediately that it becomes racist. It’s just tiring and it’s difficult to even take the criticism seriously. I wonder whether some non-Jews feel that we do the same thing when it comes to antisemitism, but we’ll leave that that’s for another –  the overuse of these terms.  But here, and going back to “your I have no patience for religious dispensation when it comes to life and death,” that also is a big part of my tradition because life and death is a religious issue. Frankly, if Israel is going to let in birthright, it has to let in Christmas Christian pilgrims. It shouldn’t let in birthright. If we’re dealing now with a very difficult time, it shouldn’t let any group in. And if it’s going to let groups in, I think we just have to grow up and realize we’re not a little shul. You’re not a little ghetto. Who gets to come visit my shul? You could say this, you could tell them how you have to dress. You’re a country. And as you said, Yossi, I think this is a really powerful point where Israel is both the state of Israel, but it is also the holy land. And that’s a very sacred responsibility grounded in Israeli law. We accept that to be that Israel takes its responsibility to protect her of holy sites as a core feature of Israeli legal tradition. At this time we shouldn’t have let anybody in and to let the exception be only for a birthright group just doesn’t make sense.

Yossi: Donniel, do we have the right to prioritize the Jewish state over the holy land? I think we do.

Donniel: Okay. Fair enough. Now here one of the interesting things about rights is you might have lots of rights, but because you have a right, as my colleague, Moshe Halbertal often says, because you have a right it doesn’t mean that you’re right when you exercise those rights. Not every right needs to be exercised. Not every right. So we have a right. Great. Okay.

Yossi: Fair enough.

Donniel: Okay. We have a right. That you could do lots of  – countries could shut off their borders to people. You could do lots of things. I just think this one isn’t right. You know, it feels like a shtetl. It feels like a private little thing. And I think my Israel is bigger than that. And my Israel is also an Israel that when it comes to COVID, we don’t make an exception for a birthright group. Okay. I appreciate the difficulties and I appreciate the consequences, but God willing in a couple of years, we’ll find a way. And if we don’t find a way, then we’ll have to come up with a plan. But right now letting in 150, it’s not 4,000. It’s one little – to do that in December, this wasn’t the right time.

Since we just referenced Israel as the holy land, let’s go to another part of the holy land and that’s Hebron. This question is from Gordon Silverman. He writes. The celebration of Hanukkah this year has been very difficult because of the lighting of the candles by the president of Israel, at the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs, abutting the Ibrahimi mosque, the site of the murders perpetrated by Baraka Goldstein, without acknowledging the incident. There was no apology for the murders. There was no apology for the oppressive occupation of the Palestinians. The tragedy is that Hanukkah in Israel is not about heroism or religious freedom or even Jewish pride. It is rather the paradigmatic celebration of oppression.

Yossi: Give me a break. Give me a break. Really?

Donniel: I’ll give you a break. Elana,

Elana: This makes me so sad. When I was listening to the question, the first thing that comes to mind is what Herzog did a month ago, literally at Kfar Kassem. A month ago, he stood up and apologized for a terrible massacre that Jewish border police carried out there in the 1950s. And yeah, a month later, he goes to and he’s asserting Jewish relationship to this land.

And by the way, he did say, it’s complex. And there are other religions that have a connection to this place. Meaning, they have to appeal to a lot of different people with a lot of different values in Israel. And I think if you can have the same guy get up a month ago and apologize for Kfar Kassam and say, I bow my head before you, and the same guy a month later goes to Hebron and says, I’m here to celebrate the Jewish relationship to Hebron and my own family’s relationship to Hebron…

He talks about five generations, a family member who was in the 1929 massacre that he talks about and says, and it’s complex and other religions have a relationship to this. The people who are in his audience don’t want to hear “and it’s complex and other people have a relationship to it.” I think he’s trying to balance a lot of things. I do think that maybe there was room for him to nod more to that fact, maybe there was, but I don’t think the fact of him going there is in itself a move that says here we are lording something over you. It’s the first place in the Torah that we have a relationship with according to our founding document. So that’s my gut reaction.

Donniel: Yossi, what’s yours?

Yossi: After the Goldstein massacre prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin stood up in the Knesset and effectively ex-communicated Goldstein from the Jewish people. The outrage in Israel at the time was so widespread and so profound. I don’t think that every time we connect, as individuals or as a people, to the place of our origins we need to do an al het, a breast-beating about the Goldstein massacre in 1994.

I was profoundly shaken by the massacre, but my relationship to the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs precedes the Goldstein massacre and the Jewish relationship will continue long into the future.

So let’s not overdo Jewish guilt.

Donniel: I have a different take on this. I agree with both of you, but this goes, I think, to something Elana said, we speak so often about the settlers. And so often our conversation is so either/or. Now I’ve spoken very clearly about my own politics, about how I want a two-state solution and I want us to leave Hebron. We’ll have some technical solution for how Jews could continue to pray in maarat hamahpela. But is this either/or. Which side are you on? There are the good guys. Then there are the bad ones. There’s my enemy. There’s my friend. I actually really appreciate Herzog getting up and saying, yes, there’s a large part of Israeli society who live in Judea and Samaria. There’s a large part of Israeli society for whom Judea and Samaria is home and using all the land – that I want to speak to them too.

We’re not going to win this by turning Israel into blue states and red states. And he went to Hebron. Okay. We can politicize it. But not every moment is this ultimate political statement. When we get to that, we silence everybody. Nobody could talk anymore.

Let’s turn to our next question. This questioner sent in a voice note. Let’s listen.

Guest: My name is David Bernstein. I’m a long-time American Jewish professional leader and founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values. My question is as follows: an ideological trend happening in the US and other Anglo countries impacts the discourse on Israel. What is sometimes referred to as woke ideology, posits a binary of oppressed versus a oppressor that makes nuanced discussions around Israel immensely more difficult and fuels anti-Zionism. It also represents an attack on the enlightenment values, which is bad for America and bad for the Jews. What’s your take on this ascending ideology? And what do you tell your fellow Jews in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere? Thank you.

Donniel: Elana you’re probably – while we all live with this wokeness, you’re the closest. What’s your take?

Elana: So I really think that in America, there’s something amazing going on right now, which is that we’re starting to realize that there are people who have by virtue of especially skin color, but other reasons as well, who have had to lead a very different life just by virtue of how they were born, what they look like, what their race is. and I think it’s an amazing, really important moment. The question is whether we can be constructive in the area of actually addressing that without turning everybody into either victor or victim. And I want to give an example from actually how all this started, which is decades ago, Professor Crenshaw, she coined the term intersectionality. And this is what intersectionality meant. It meant that people are intersections of many identities and those different identities impact the way they have to live differently. So for example, I could be a Jewish woman living in America. Those three different identities, all push in different directions for me.

Being a woman, there are some things I can’t do. There’s some things I can do. Being Jewish affords me certain things, allows antisemitism to come my way. But also affords me power. Being an American, affords me certain things in the world and not other things. And what she was arguing for is that you have to see people not as either/or, but specifically as the composite of the various parts of themselves.

And unfortunately, that kind of nuance has gotten lost. And instead, it’s become the reverse. That everybody gets flattened. You’ve got to be either/or. So this one’s crying victim, and this one’s crying victim. This one’s crying. You’re the oppressor. This one’s crying. You’re the oppressor. Instead of looking at what this was really about, which is originally, we want to see how we can make people’s lives better and make society better. Flattening things doesn’t make society better, but recognizing where people are vulnerable and where people have power to help with that vulnerability, that is really good. And so I don’t do woke/anti-woke. I find that binary problematic. I want to think about how we can be constructive and true to the principles of looking at people for the various dimensions that they carry both the vulnerable and the powerful.

Donniel: But is wokeness being used to attack Israel right now?

Elana: Of course it is. Meaning there are some people for whom what wokeness is doing is it’s allowing them to see things that they’ve never seen before and they’re being constructive about it. But there are some people who are using wokeness to say, okay, I know who you are. You’re the victor. They’re the victim. This is very simple. No two ways about it. And that’s it. But I don’t think that’s the fault of originally coming to terms with the fact that there are people who have been vulnerable and persecuted because of the color of their skin. I think like every mass movement it’s become its most simplistic and fundamentalist version of itself. And that’s not the way it needs to be.

Yossi: Yeah. I hear what you’re saying, Elana and I appreciate the passion and the horror toward America’s racist tradition that’s erupting now among young people. But I think that there’s a deeper problem here, a deeper Jewish values critique that needs to be applied to the woke moment. I see two problems here. Two woke principles that are antithetical to what I considered to be essential Jewish values. The first is creating a hierarchy of victimhood, relating to people purely on the basis of their victimhood. This becomes the totality of their identity. And there’s a lot of what is either characterized as victim or a victimizer? I think that erases individuality. It erases the soul. To my mind, it is not conducive to a Jewish outlook. The second problem is the suppression of free speech which goes against everything that we love about the Jewish tradition. It is the opposite of the culture of the Beit Midrash, of the study hall, the suppression of differences. The people are afraid in the woke culture to speak up, to offer a different take because you’re immediately branded as racist. And this is to my mind, a very dangerous term in American culture.

Donniel: As a Jew, and I think every religious tradition, I think the essence of every religious tradition is to create an individual who is awakened to the possibilities of their aspirations, who is awakened to their shortcomings, who is awakened to thinking about who they ought to be. The purpose of waking up is to be able to look at yourself in order to grow. And one of the questions whether when a person is woke or awakened in a sense, whether the purpose of that is to allow a journey or is whether the purpose of that is to stand in judgment. And so I resonate very much with Elana that it can’t be an either/or, but the issue has to be how it’s being used. And how do we marshal a tradition which wants to improve our moral excellence without it transitioning into being this cancel judgmentalism? That’s where it’s antithetical to – do you want to wake up for what? If I’m playing with the term, what is it that you want to wake up for? Do you want to wake up to ascertain who is good or do you want to create a greater moral universe? Moral growth? And I think part of this is to in fact enhance our moral universe. Where it doesn’t, I think it has to be profoundly critiqued. And it can’t be an either/or.

Elana: First of all, I love your characterization that religious traditions are trying to wake people up. And what are we trying to wake people up to? I’m really thinking about a piece of Torah right now where the rabbis say, don’t judge another person until you’ve been in their place. And I think what’s happening right now in at least the American discourses that I’m seeing is that what we’re doing is we’re identifying who we are by judging other people who are not like us. And I think that’s really problematic because it just swings the pendulum in the opposite direction. And I think there’s a lot that we can do. And a lot that we do as an institute in North America to actually complicate this picture in a lot of our educational offerings. And we do so with partners from outside the Jewish community and partners who experienced this kind of racism who are part of the Jewish community.

The goal is to actually understand people’s subjective experiences, which means you can’t decide what a person is before talking to them. And that is the problem of what’s happening here. In the desire to understand certain people’s experiences, other people’s experiences are getting flattened.

Donniel: We talk a lot about Israeli politics, obviously, and we use certain terms and assume certain things.

Our next question is from our friend Nancy Connors, who wants more clarification about some of the categories that we discussed. So often in this podcast, she wrote, I continue to be confused by which side supports a one-state solution. Does a one-state solution mean Arabs received equal rights and therefore Israel will be a democracy with the downside of the one-state solution being that over time, Israel will not be a Jewish state as the Arabs will outnumber the Jews? Or does the one-state solution mean that Israel will be an openly apartheid state or whatever you call a country that treats citizens differently? Where its Jewishness is protected, but not its democracy? Yossi, do you want to take this one?

Yossi: Well, it’s really interesting because if you think about it, Donniel, the left-wing one-statists who are anti-Zionist and the right-wing one-statists who are let’s say if not blatantly anti-democratic at least not as committed to democracy as they are to the Jewishness of the state, essentially agree that the two founding identities of Israel as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, which is that Israel would be a Jewish and democratic state is really untenable.

That’s what all the one-statists, whether you’re left-wing or right-wing are effectively saying. We carried this idea for 70 years that we’re a Jewish state and a democratic state. Let’s get real. And so if you’re a one-statist, stuff from the Jewishness of the state is expendable.

And if you are a one-statist from the right, democracy is less important if not entirely expendable. And those of us who are still insisting on a two-state solution, I think more deeply, what we are really affirming is the ongoing validity and necessity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Donniel: But isn’t there, Yossi, a third one-statist right now? And those are people who are looking to, we spoke about it, shrink the conflict? Or let’s call them right-wing Democrats in Israel who speak about a one-state, but still want to ensure that it’s democratic. Isn’t there some move to complexify the one-state divide?

Yossi: Well, okay, so there is a third, camp, but my question to the third camp is, are you envisioning a long-term interim solution? Or is this going to be a permanent part of Israeli reality? In other words, disenfranchising several million Palestinians, denying them any form of citizenship, is that going to be built into Israeliness. And if it is, I don’t see how we can conscientious really call ourselves a democratic state. If you’re telling me that we are now in a prolonged interim period and the security concerns preclude the creation of a Palestinian state at this moment, I’m with you. But if you’re telling me there’s never going to be a Palestinian state and Palestinians are going to basically be in limbo. They’ll have autonomy, but they’re not going to be citizens of any country, let alone their own, I find that from a democratic perspective, deeply problematic

Donniel: We’re almost out of time, but let’s take one last question for today. And it’s from Guy Whitehouse. I’ll paraphrase.  I read in the Times of Israel about an increase in anti-Arabic rhetoric within the Knesset. This seems to have been spurred by the fact that the current government includes the Islamicist Arab party, Ra’am. Some even branding the current coalition members as being traitors for being willing to sit with members of this party. Where is this coming from?

Elana: It’s funny. I’m reading news about Israel every day and when I woke up this morning, I saw that Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List, I saw that he made a statement that Israel was born as a Jewish state and it will remain one. Which I think is really interesting coming from somebody who is actively involved in what has become somewhat of a tension.

And you can’t say that every time Jews give Arabs a vote that that’s going to undermine Israel as a Jewish state. Again, I would say the idea that people actually want to work together, I understand that it’s threatening because who knows where it’ll go and could be a slippery slope. And sometimes these things will feel mutually exclusive or be mutually exclusive. But if you actually have people who want to work together, try to build on that. Just try to build on that and see what comes because it resonates with me a lot, Donniel, what you said that if we try to make Israel into a red state versus blue state, it’s not going to go anywhere. Meaning, look at what’s happening in America. Don’t do that. Don’t be like America. So I’m very disheartened by the fact that people keep trying to take down this coalition in one way or another because there’s potential here for something that isn’t just the same old zero-sum game.

Yossi: What you said Elana about Mansour Abbas’ extraordinary statement, this is the first time that we’ve heard the leader of any major Arab party in Israel not only affirm that Israel is a Jewish state, but insists that Israel is going to remain a Jewish state. And the significance of what’s happening in these last months is being played out in Mansour Abbas’ statement. In other words, if you embrace the Arab minority, if you give them a place in the mainstream it not only will not undermine the Jewishness of the state, it’s going to enhance it because what we see with Mansour Abbas is a certain reciprocity. He’s given us a gesture in return for us giving him a place at the table. When you acknowledge people, when you give them the power that they deserve, they’re going to be part of your coalition. Not only technically, but substantively, and that’s really what we’re seeing playing out now.

Donniel: You know, Yossi, I want to go back to what you said that initially that Israel is both the state of Israel and it’s also the holy land. Israel is both a Jewish state and it’s also the state of Israel and the state of all of its citizens. And part of the tension that’s being expressed is that the nature of our governments is that a small minority has an inordinate amount of power.

Now we’ve gotten used to initially in the Labor governments, the kibbutz movement had an inordinate power. Under Menachem Begin, the religious Zionists and settler parties had an inordinate amount of power. Under Netanyahu, the minority of Haredim had an inordinate amount of power.

We are a country of tribes in which there are a number of larger mega tribes who are – secular Israelis might be 35, 40%.  Traditional Jews might be another 30 or so percent. Then there’s 20% of Orthodox divided half between religious Zionists, half between Haredim. And there’s 20% Arab.

I hope that made up 50. It might’ve made up 110, but then that’ll be part of the miracle of the holy land. But we got used to small minorities being able to determine for our larger society. And here the feeling is one second who are we giving this power to? Because now in our coalition governments, all of a sudden, Mansour Abbas comes in and he changes the whole equation. There’s a new kingmaker. There’s a new minority, which is going to have the power. And yes, I think part of what we have to realize is that as Jews if Israel is going to be Israel, it’s not simply about allowing Arabs a place at the table.

It’s not simply recognizing that we have minorities, but given our coalition politics, recognizing that they’re going to coerce us, recognizing that their voices are going to claim us. And that’s okay. That’s the nature of the system. And it’s part of the maturation of Israel. I think we’re at a unique moment and I think Abbas knows this and that’s why he chose not to be a minister, but he sits in the coalition. He wants to educate us. He wants Israelis to slowly but surely get over our exclusivist notion that somehow a Jewish state will come to an end the minute we realized that Israel is the state of all of its citizens and that the Arab citizens claim us. And I think the purpose of his speech is he’s trying to educate us. The question is how long it’ll last, but I think there’s something remarkable here. I think there’s a necessary step for Israel to becoming Israel. And Israel is not just a Jewish state. Israel is also the state of its citizens, of all of its citizens. There’s an Israel qua Israel and there’s a unique moment. And I think people are being very threatened because their hold on power was built around giving this inordinate amount of a voice to their minority. And now there’s a new minority who’s changing the equation.

Last thoughts, Elana or Yossi?

Elana: What I love about what we’re doing in this session is, the goal of this podcast is to talk Jewish values and Israel. And what’s incredible is to see how people are responding in kind by asking questions that touch on these values. And I really just love the dialogue that we’ve set up here from the question of Jewish state or state and holy land, Jewish state or state of its citizens, the intersectionality of people’s various identities versus intersectionality of flattening people’s identities. I really think that through people’s questions, we’ve put a lot on the table values wise and I want to thank everybody who sent in questions. It was really meaningful.

Donniel: Thank you, Elana. Yossi, last thoughts.

Yossi: Actually I think that Elana spoke for all of us. And thanks, Elana.

Donniel: Echoing Elana, I too want to, thank all of you for writing to us. I want to apologize to those of you who we weren’t able to get to your questions this time. We’ll do it in a future podcast. And I’m very, very, very moved and I want to speak on behalf of all of us both hearing from you and hearing about the place that For Heaven’s Sake now has and the place in the discourse around Israel in the American and Canadian Jewish community.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show.

You can also write to us at [email protected] Subscribe to our show in the apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, audible, and everywhere else podcasts are available. See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. And Yossi and Elana, a pleasure being with you. Thank you.