The following is a transcript of Episode 149 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 Wednesday, July 26th, 2023.
It has been so hot here in Jerusalem this summer. Not the usual very hot. We had some days last week that were just unbearable, stifling and suffocating heat that continued even into the usually cooler evening hours. Our family tried to escape to Tel Aviv for the weekend, but the temperature was actually a little bit lower, but of course the humidity was off the charts. For the brief windows of time when you could dip your head underwater in the Mediterranean, where the water was warm, but not as warm as the air, you could get a little bit of relief. Otherwise, you just had to get back to the hotel room, the air conditioning working its hardest to withstand the climate, or to what Yehuda Amichai called once in one of his poems, the cool blue bathrooms.
That was just the actual climate. The political climate has been even hotter. Actually, all talk now in 2023 about climate is political. There’s a graphic novel I read, now at least a decade ago, was the first that I remember that argued that climate change was the main invisible driver of the Syrian civil war, an ominous portending of what will likely await all of us. It’s not a coincidence that there are regular outbreaks of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, specifically during the summertime. Tensions, tempers, temperatures, correlate to each other. Simmering pots, simmering people, all are going to boil over eventually.
The temples were destroyed in the heat of summer too. Hot conflagrations of fire and fury that took place according to Jewish memory nearly 2, 000 years ago tomorrow on the Jewish calendar on the 9th of Av. According to the legend, the temple continued burning for several days after. The rainless skies over Jerusalem and the scorching air surely didn’t help. I felt the heat rising from the earth literally and metaphorically when we went to the protests at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv that same weekend.
See, I’ve been in Israel here now for almost two months, and I’ve gone to the Jerusalem anti-judicial reform protests several times. The protests in Jerusalem are impressive in their consistency and their coherence, but they also kind of feel like neighborhood gatherings. We needed to get to Tel Aviv to see and experience the protest movement at a different scale. We stayed in Tel Aviv for Shabbat, and late in the afternoon began walking to the heart of the demonstrations, gradually finding ourselves streaming towards the crowds together with many others who were finding their way there.
It was so hot in Tel Aviv, but the sheer anger around us made it feel even hotter. It’s a little hard to describe. All along the demonstration route were different subgroups, part of the messy coalition that opposes these government led reforms, but who often have separate, independent, and even competing agendas as to why. There’s even been a little bit of intra demonstration violence at times. A fight a few weeks ago between the large anti occupation block, which argues that the occupation is the central problem facing Israeli democracy and that the current coalition antics are just a kind of sideshow. And then on the other side, a group of Israeli reservists who viewed that argument as a kind of treason.
The truth is given the amount of anger, it’s more surprising to me how relatively peaceful all of this disruption has been. Much of the violence actually has come from law enforcement, from water cannons or people dragged off the street. I’ve seen more than one bitter, ironic comment or tweet that says that as awful as the water cannons have been, at least they’ve brought some relief from the heat.
All of this is happening in the week building up to Tisha B’Av, which feels so ridiculously on the nose, as though the Jewish people simply cannot escape the analogy to our own history and memory, even if we tried. You know, earlier this summer, I was teaching a group of Israeli rabbis about the meaning of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and it was hard for a lot of them. Their Zionism is so rooted in the belief that the Jewish people only have one homeland and that it’s here in Israel, that a story about the flourishing and adaptation of Jewish life in America feels to them somewhere between a mystery and a threat. At one point I was teaching a text about the ancient synagogue of Alexandria as a kind of analogy to the present.
It’s the story of a Jewish community building an idealized version of the temple, but not in the land of Israel, which is an implicit rebuke of the idea that Jewish life is supposed to be here, or at least revolve around Jerusalem. One of the Israeli rabbis, who came from a highly nationalist religious-Zionist background, sputtered in anger, but what happened to the Alexandria Jewish community? Didn’t it ultimately get destroyed? And I barely had to answer back the obvious retort He actually slumped back in his chair as soon as he said it.
If we’re gonna measure Jewish civilizations based on what ultimately happened to them, well, both of the previous iterations of a Jewish Commonwealth in the land of Israel failed too. What’s the guarantee that past performance is going to be worse for Diaspora Jews today than those living here in the state of Israel?
Now, maybe some of the apocalypticism that’s in the air is a little overblown. I’m not sure. But it’s definitely in the air. Maybe the annual Israeli end of summer need to get on vacation. People getting out of the country, or at least out of the cities. Maybe it will provide a little bit of relief. Maybe the Knesset going on recess is happening at exactly the right time to let things cool down.
But I don’t think anyone here believes that the relief is going to be permanent. I think I’m too much of an optimist to believe that democracy is really going to die here or that the state of Israel is facing as much an existential threat as some of today’s Jeremiahs seem to believe, but it’s hot and it’s getting hotter and anything that we built here is going to be flammable and there are plenty of people here who seem very willing to light the matches.
I’m joined today by my friend and a repeat Identity Crisis guest, Matti Friedman. Matti is a widely beloved author and commentator on all things modern Israel. He was on the show last summer as part of the book tour for Who By Fire: Leonard Cohen and the Sinai, and maybe in a normal year, we’d be talking about what it will mean to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War just this fall. But now I wanna talk to Matti about these protests because although I think many diaspora Jews were here this summer and witnessed or participated in this outburst of democratic culture, most surely have not.
And I think it’s actually really hard to understand what’s going on here from afar. Matti stepped far from his lane earlier this spring, inviting diaspora Jews to become active in the protest movement abroad and to become more critical of Israel publicly than he has previously argued. Like many Israelis, I suspect Matti is devoting a huge percentage of his time and emotional energy to merely being a citizen right now with all of the costs that that incurs. And I heard Matti speak at the protests here in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, and I wanted more people to hear his message.
So Matti, thanks for coming on the show. And I want to actually rewind us back a few months ago, what changed for you to make you move from role as journalist, commentator, interpreter of Israel, usually for an English speaking audience, which oftentimes requires of you to sell this place, to becoming a much more outspoken public critic, so much so that you wrote in English to an English speaking audience, get involved and get angry.
Matti: First of all, thank you so much for having me, although I’ll go anywhere with an air conditioner. So it’s less a personal comment on the podcast than it is a comment about the superb air conditioning at the Hartman Institute here in Jerusalem.
I have been a journalist here for, I mean, for a long time. I moved to Israel when I was 17. This was in 1995 and I was a student, I was a soldier, and I milked cows for a while, but most of the time I’ve been a journalist and that has involved writing very critical things about Israel. And that’s involved defending Israel when I thought that the story that people were being told was inaccurate.
And this government, I think, is really a kind of unprecedented change in the way that the country has been run. So until now, I’ve been content mostly as a writer to explain the way the country works, explain why Israelis think the way they do, explain the mistakes that I think Israelis are are making, and I’ve never made it a secret of the fact that I’ve always been on the left side of the political spectrum here, but I often think that right wing Israelis have a point or certainly I can, I can understand why you would reach many of the conclusions that they reach.
And I think that my own inborn Canadian conclusions with which I arrived in Israel in 1995 are incorrect. But something big has changed. And I think that we’re seeing a government of a type that we’ve never seen before. And for me, the trigger was really not the legal reform. The legal reform has become the focus of this, and in many ways, it’s become a way of talking about what we’re fighting about. And I think that it’s convenient for Netanyahu to present this as a debate about a point of constitutional law. And that’s really the way it’s being discussed, particularly on the American right, if you read coverage in the Wall Street Journal, for example, they think it’s an argument about the power of judges relative to the power of Parliament, but that’s not really what it is.
The moment for me and I think for many others was Netanyahu’s appointment of Itamar Ben Gvir as the minister in charge of law enforcement in Israel. Itamar Ben Gvir is a hooligan from the fringes of the racist, right? He was radioactive even among the co members about a year ago. He’s been convicted for terrorism related offenses. He had until recently, a poster of Baruch Goldstein, who is of course famously or infamously, was the mass murderer in Chevron, at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, and he murdered a few dozen Muslim worshipers in, Maharat Hamachpelah, in the Cave of the Patriarchs. And Ben Gvir had a poster of him up on the wall.
Ben Gvir’s name surfaced repeatedly in the interrogation of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Rabin, and Netanyahu’s decision to not only bring him into the government, not only bring him into the Knesset, which is a move that Netanyahu made in order to free up a few Knesset seats that he sensed were floating around on the extreme right, so he brings him into Knesset, legitimizes him as a member of Knesset, and then brings him into the government and makes him a cabinet minister. And not only does he do that, he says, this is now the face of law enforcement in Israel. Now, that is the most irresponsible appointment ever made in the history of Israel.
And it’s a message from the leader of Israel, that our values don’t matter and our lives don’t matter because someone who appoints someone like Itamar Ben Gvir to be in charge of the police force on which we all depend for law and order in the country is a message that this leadership does not care about the safety of me and my children and certainly not the safety of the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arab Muslims.
And that was the moment I realized something different was going on. This wasn’t just another kind of cynical, rhetorical Netanyahu move. This was going to be a very different kind of government. Netanyahu has always governed with a party to his left. He did not do this this time, in part because the parties of the center and the left will no longer sit with Netanyahu because he’s crossed them too many times.
The obvious responsible move would be to step down and allow someone else from Likud to form a center-right coalition that even in this Knesset, without having another election, would have 74 seats out of 120. And that’s clearly the coalition that Israel needs. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he kind of amassed the forces of grievance in Israeli society, people who have a grievance against the founders of Israel and the liberal vision that’s put forward in the Declaration of Independence.
And that includes the settlers and particularly the extreme weighing of the settler movement. It includes the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox and it includes many of the Likud voters who have a grievance about the way Jews from the Arab world and Jews from the Islamic world were treated upon arriving in Israel, which is a grievance that I’ve written a lot about and I think is largely justified.
So all those grievances are deployed against the state and a government that calls itself a nationalist government, but is in fact an anti national government. And I wrote very early on that Israel has always been able to live with its extremes, but cannot be governed by its extremes. And fortunately, or unfortunately, that’s what we’ve seen in the past half year.
Yehuda: What’s obviously so striking for those of us who follow this history for a long time is that until relatively recently, Likud was probably the party that would be best described as committed over the span of its history to liberal democracy. That doesn’t mean left wing in this context. It means liberal democracy as opposed to, for instance, social democracy, you know, the socialism of the Labor party of the 1970s.
Likud comes along and actually is kind of a free market party, liberal to the point of libertarian on a set of issues. So the most striking dissenters against the Netanyahu position are actually from his own party. I had heard Dan Meridor when we were at Kaplan speaking, he’s not coming here and making a left argument against Bibi, it’s a what the heck happened to the liberal foundation of even right wing Israel?
So, but, but I want you now put that back together with judicial reform because they are connected to each other, right? Netanyahu needs the ultra right parties and the Haredi parties to form his coalition. They want to see a transformation of the legal infrastructure around the Supreme Court so that they can railroad a whole bunch of legislation to come next.
So it kind of becomes inseparable, the right wing parties in the government from the judicial reform agenda. Correct? So once you’re in, Ben Gvir may be the reason to join the protest movement, but once you’re in, you’re kind of in for the whole thing. Is that right?
Matti: Yes, I think that’s true. I mean, the Likud was always, as you said, not only a liberal party, but very much committed to the independence of the legal system. And that was in part because they were persecuted by the labor establishment for decades. And people who’d been in the Etzel or in the right wing militias before the state was founded, found it really hard to get jobs and Ben Gurion would get you fired, you know, from your teaching job or from any official job if you were affiliated with the right.
So Begin, who’s the founder of what eventually becomes the Likud, he very much needs a legal system that can protect him as a minority from the dictatorship of the majority. And that’s why the Likud always had this tradition of being quite in favor of the court system. And this activist Supreme Court, which has emerged over the past three decades or so, four decades, emerges equally under governments of the right and governments of the left.
So it’s not a left wing invention. In fact, Likud is as responsible for it as anyone else, and I too have heard many disillusioned and very angry former Likudniks speaking at the protest. I mean, Ruvi Rivlin, the former president of Israel, Likudnik, was speaking to the protest on Sunday night. Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, spoke at the protest, which is quite an incredible thing.
The dividing line here has really become, I mean, I think the Ben Gvir issue is a good way of dividing Israelis, we don’t, the terms left and right, I think at this point, obscure more than they, than they reveal.
I think what you’re seeing right now in Israel is that there are people who can live with the fact that Itamar Ben Gvir is the minister in charge of law enforcement and those who cannot. And if you cannot, you’re at the protest, and that includes lots of people who are on the right. And if your values allow you to live with that, then you are in the Netanyahu coalition, whether you think it’s fine or you’re willing to kind of hold your nose and go with it in order to get what you want from the government.
In the case of the ultra Orthodox, that means a continuation of the draft exemption, increased funding for their various projects and seminaries for the settler movement. They want a freer hand in the West Bank. And for many people in the Likud party, they want a kind of justice for the grievance they feel that they’ve been dealt by the founders of the state and their descendants and the fact that they’ve been kept on the margins in their eyes.
And it’s hard to argue with the fact that we’ve never had a Mizrahi prime minister, Mizrahi being the kind of catch all term we use here for anyone who came from the Islamic world. We have a Supreme court that is woefully lacking in ethnic diversity. So it’s not like this critique is, is crazy. It’s not. It’s just that Netanyahu is not interested in addressing the problem. He’s interested in kind of Trumpy style in identifying a problem that can be exploited for political gain. And that’s what’s happening. And because this is such an explosive issue in Israeli society, it’s blowing the place apart. So you have different grievances that have been funneled to the same target, which at the at the moment is the court.
But it’s worth looking at the way Netanyahu has always run politics. Netanyahu will always identify an enemy or come up with some kind of controversial plan that everyone will talk about for about half a year. And there’ve been different iterations of this. For a while, it was the nation state law. For a while, it was the idea that he was going to annex a big part of the West Bank. For a while, it was going to be a plan to expel illegal migrants from Africa, mostly from Eritrea.
And these plans, whether they happen or not, some of them do, some of them don’t, they animate the electorate for a period of time. They allow him to posture as the protector of Jewish values and national values and to portray the left as treasonous, as hopelessly naive, as irredeemably cosmopolitan. And then that either happens or doesn’t happen, but it is then discarded in favor of some new plan that everyone is going to talk about.
And I think this, this plan to go against the courts is one of those plans that got out of hand. I think Netanyahu has released forces here that he can no longer control. It’s clear that he’s no longer the grandmaster that he once was. He seems like a shell of his former self. He seems kind of like a, kind of like a geriatric puppet being operated by other people and by forces that he himself released, but which he can’t control and which are threatening to consume us all.
Yehuda: I mean, one of the news stories about this this week was the Moody’s people are mad because allegedly Netanyahu said to them in private, I’m never going to let this thing pass. So keep Israel’s credit rating where it is. And now they’re mad that he did. And you could see it kind of, he was not at this point capable of stopping this because anything that would have involved actually stopping the first round of legislation that passed this week would have looked like a capitulation to the majority of this country that wanted to see the process stopped.
But then at that point, you are, what are you even running as a government? You’re effectively capitulating to the populist system, and then his coalition falls apart. I mean, that’s pretty clear. Had this not gone through, the coalition would have fallen apart. So I don’t know what that means. Let me shift the focus to America for a second. And then I want to come back to Israel.
Matti: What it means, by the way, is that if you try to ride a wild horse, it will kick you in the head.
Yehuda: Yeah. Yes. And make a sign out of that. I want to go to America for a second and then I’ll come back to Israel. You alluded before to the way in which publications like the Wall Street Journal are continuing to hold to a line that this is a right wing left wing divide. I’ve seen that also portrayed as like, look, this is the same as the anarchic Black Lives Matter protests. This is just the left going crazy. It’s totally not the story of what’s actually materializing here, but there does seem to be a commitment in parts of the American right to hold to that story here.
You saw it even in the Herzog speech last week in Congress where Republicans were applauding for only the things that sounded like good Republican politics as opposed to seeing that they don’t fully line up. And I guess I’m, I’m particularly troubled by the places in the American Jewish community where that line continues to persist as though to be center, center-right in America is to still be pro Netanyahu, even though actually center, center-right in this country has turned deeply against Netanyahu.
I think part of the motivation for you to line up with Yossi Klein Halevi and Danny Gordis, who are the folks who American Jews on the center center right kind of look to, to be the guides of where are we supposed to line up in Israel was to speak to that population in particular and say, guys, you’re on the wrong side of this, but it seems to persist.
I mean, Tablet is still, seems to hold to a, I wouldn’t say pro-Netanyahu position, but something that wants to show that like, no, the protest movement is in what it claims to be. What do you think is going on there?
Matti: I think that when Americans look at foreign countries, and in this case Israel, they see America. And I’ve been dealing with this for many years from the other side, which is this tendency on the left to see Israel as a version of racial politics in America, which is very prevalent on the left. And Israeli Jews are some version of white Americans and the Palestinians are somehow African Americans. So you can draw a line from Ferguson to Palestine and that will somehow help you understand this country, which is 7,000 miles away from the United States. And that, of course, is no way to understand this place.
And it’s been, I guess I’ll say funny for lack of a better word, although I’m not laughing all the time, to see another projection emerge in the past six months, which is this idea that protesters here are part of the Biden left-wing internationalist universe, and that the American ambassador here is somehow stoking the protests. This has actually been written. And that the protesters here are kind of liberal elites who are trying to keep the people down and the pro-reform faction or the government, I guess, I should call it, you know, the settlers, the religious settler movement, which is, you know, a completely ideological religious movement backed up by the ultra Orthodox who have their own package of religious beliefs, somehow they are equivalent to the American working class that is, you know, striving for greater representation and being wronged by liberal elites. I mean, that has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on here, but it is a very compelling American story. And Americans will make anything American because it makes them care about it more.
And I really have seen that narrative emerge, including among people who until recently were listening to me and Yossi and Danny. And now some people still do and have changed their minds as a result, but many will prefer this narrative, which is more, it speaks to them more deeply than understanding something very complicated about a country that they actually don’t understand very well.
And if you speak to Yossi or to Danny, and I’m sure you have, you’ll hear similar stories about them, you know, pitching a column to someone and having it greeted with utter incomprehension because it just doesn’t match the American narratives of the moment. So I found myself kind of fighting a lonely battle on the left.
And now I find myself fighting a lonely battle on the right, but I’ve come to expect it from American observers, to be honest. It’s not true of everyone, of course, but, but people looking at foreign countries, they, they don’t really want to see a foreign country. They want a mirror. They want to see themselves.
Yehuda: Yeah. I think there’s an additional element there, which is a lot of these folks have basically built their identities as a relationship to the state of Israel as one that is rooted in defending the state of Israel to its critics. And it’s hard then to process what happens when it’s citizenry or its dominant critics.
So who do I stand with? Do I stand with Israel, aka the government, which is the kind of an argument that pro Israel made for a long time, or do I stand with the Israeli people? We’re in a democracy. They are the sovereign, but that’s like a hard move for people to make. How do you want pro Israel folks to show up right now outside of Israel where there is a lot of anxiety of if I stand up and protest against Israel in public, I’m making common cause with people who want to see the destruction of this enterprise, and I’ve been fighting them for a long time, and I have all these obligations, I feel this myself, like who am I pushing against in order to hold to this position? But something has changed, and I guess I’m curious, what do you actually want out of pro Israel Jews right now outside of Israel?
Matti: I really feel that dilemma, and I’m approached by people who read that column that I wrote with Yossi and Danny and say, okay, now what? I like to say that I’m a journalist. I just point out the problem and what people do about it, you know, that’s really someone else’s department. I think it might be yours, Yehuda. But of course I feel, I feel that pain, and the campaign against Israel is real, and the demonization of Israel is real, and I’ve written a lot about it, and I experienced it firsthand when I was a reporter for the International Presser, and I saw kind of an American fantasy narrative or a Western fantasy narrative projected here, and I tried to explain it, and a lot of people who love Israel really what I wrote. Some of those same people really hate what I write now because I see my job as being a journalist who explains what’s going on in Israel. And sometimes that sounds nice and sometimes it sounds, you know, not so great, but it’s true. And this is the real world and we have to understand that it’s complicated.
So if you have this idea that Israel is this kind of, you know, utopian Jewish project that can do no wrong, then it’s going to be very upsetting to realize that what has happened here is a kind of democratic malfunction where a coalition that less than 49% of the popular vote has come to power because of the way our electoral system work. And it’s legitimate. It’s a legitimate government, but it’s only one of several legitimate governments that could have resulted from the same election, which is not the way it works in America, right, Netanyahu had a few options. And this was not the only option. No Israeli voter was presented with this government and voted for it. That’s not the way our electoral system works.
So opposing the government is not the same as rejecting the result of an election in the United States. For example, in a parliamentary system, the opposition works to bring down the government from day one. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding that just results from Americans thinking that the Israeli system is like the American system. And they think that Netanyahu is the president end who won more than 50% of the vote. Netanyahu won a quarter of the vote, and our system is completely different. So what I was trying to do, I think, is look a year down the road and realize that if this government is not a passing episode, if it’s not an aberration. If it’s the new normal, then the relationship between most American Jews and Israel is over.
And it’ll take time, you know, it won’t be now, but it could be in a year, and it’ll certainly be in two years, there’s just no way that a liberal American Jew, particularly someone who’s young, will look at this country, if it’s headed by Itamar Ben Gvir, Betzalel Smotrich, and Aryeh Deri and Netanyahu, and say, yes, that is a country that I’m interested in supporting.
So I decided, along with Danny and Yossi, that what we had to do was try to avert the course now. And say to American Jews, this is really happening, it’s not more anti Israel propaganda, which a lot of people were going to try to say, or, you know, they would dismiss it as just more lies about Israel, because there are many lies about Israel. And we were trying to say, you trust us. This is true. This is an extremely dangerous government that is changing the nature of the Zionist project and turning it into something which you will not be able to support, so the time to say something about it is now, not to wait until the changes are irreversible, not to wait until the rupture between our communities has gone too far to be healed. The time to say that you oppose the government is now.
What I envisioned happening, which hasn’t really happened, is that American Jewish organizations that have the ear of the Israeli government would come, bang on the table, and say no. We’re not cooperating with this, and you know, in my ideal world, that included AIPAC, which means a lot to the Israeli government, and it would include, you know, the AJC, and it would include the conference of presidents of major Jewish organizations, and it would, you know, include the players who will, you know, they’re not major power brokers in Israel, but they have the ear of the government. And they needed to come here and say, our people will not live with a government that includes racists. We’re not going to live with people who speak about Reform Jews in the way that members of this government do.
Our vision of Israel is the liberal vision of the founders of the state. And it is not this. So if you want our continued support. You have to stop what you’re doing. And that’s what I hoped would happen. It wouldn’t have changed the game on its own, but it would have been added to the cost column that the government was tallying at that time, which was earlier this year. You know, there are going to be benefits of going ahead with this policy and there were going to be costs. And I wanted one of the clauses in the cost column to be an irreversible rupture with American Jews that needed to be in the column from the beginning, not some kind of polite criticism that could be misinterpreted or disregarded, but something that was very clear because we’re all going to pay that price in a year. And we have to pay it. We have to at least make the threat now, not in order to carry out the threat, but in order to avert the course.
I don’t know what happens in the back rooms of the American Jewish Israel relationship and maybe there was screaming and table turning, etc., but with the exception of a fairly strong statement from the Jewish federations pretty early on, I didn’t hear very much. And it’s been disappointing.
Yehuda: So there’s one surprising thing about that story for me, which is the, a surprising thing and two things that I think were wrong hypotheses. The surprising thing is that what you’re saying is worrying to you is the disconnect between American Jews and Israel. Whereas I, as an American Jew, I’m worried about that professionally, I’m worried about that, it’s a big part of what we do at the Hartman Institute in North America. But what I’m much more worried about actually is for Israelis. Like, we’re the least of your problem, right? We don’t have their support anymore. Okay, it’s not that significant actually for a whole bunch of indexes, but like, what about Israelis?
This place is going to be a lot worse for a lot of people, not just the vulnerable populations already. Not just vis a vis occupation and the West Bank, but also there’s going to be a brain drain. There’s going to be huge economic marginalization around the world. Israel making a decision that they’d rather hang around with India, China, Hungary, and Poland as their long term allies has a huge effect on what this country is going to be like and feel like. So that feels like already strange.
But then your strategy of how do I get American Jewish institutions to bang on the table and say, we’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take it anymore. There’s two problems with that. One is that by and large, this Israeli government has written off American Jews. They did it almost explicitly over the years. So there’s a very weird imbalance of affection between American Jewish leaders and the Israeli government. It just doesn’t exist. So it’s not a factor that Netanyahu actually seems to want to care about.
The second variable is that American Jews by and large are not institutional anymore. The vast majority of American Jews wouldn’t know what a conference of presidents of major Jewish organizations is, much less feel as though it represents them. So the theory of change of getting American Jews involved and engaged, I don’t think it can run through the institutions.
You’re right. It didn’t happen. In fact, there are all sort of weird ways in which the American Jewish community is sometimes gravely concerned in a statement put out Twitter, but basically absent. But a lot of American Jews are really worked up about this and don’t know what to do.
Matti: Right. So that’s interesting to hear. And clearly you’re right. It wasn’t merely to get the leadership of the community to pick up that phone, the people who can actually make a call to the Israeli government and make some kind of threat, although I hope that that would happen. And of course, the most significant loaded gun that could be placed on the table would come from AIPAC.
Yehuda: And AIPAC doesn’t exist anymore. Yeah.
Matti: But that would mean completely disrupting the way these organizations have always operated. So that might have been naive. The second part of it was to address our readers, who, as you said, trust us to be guides to Israel and explain to them that this is real. It’s not propaganda and you should still care about Israel. There are people here who are fighting against it, including us. And it shouldn’t make you less emotionally involved with Israel. In some ways, it might make you more emotionally involved with Israel, but that will involve taking an adversarial stance toward the government.
And I kind of saw the letter as a kind of like a kashrut certificate, sounds ridiculous, but I kind of thought of it that way, in a meeting in a shul, or in a boardroom, or at a Jewish school, or even in a family, someone would be able to say, this Israeli government is unacceptable to me, and you cannot accuse me of being an anti Zionist or BDS supporter because look at this letter from people who cannot be accused of those things, people who have impeccable Zionist credentials. So here’s a kind of kashrut certificate that allows me to be a Zionist and make my Zionist position a criticism of a government that’s a mutation, that’s a complete warping of what the values of this country should be.
Maybe there we were successful. I don’t know. What do you think?
Yehuda: I actually, I think that that metaphor of kashrut certificate is very significant. I think that’s, I would go further. I want leaders all the time to say, okay, I understand why you have to build up credibility. But then you have to spend it and I see a lot of leaders who never do that.
They’re holding on to this cache of credibility on any, whatever issue, not about Israel, other things. And then when there’s a moment for actually courageous leadership, they never cash it in because they’re nervous about losing their credibility. And I’m subtweeting a bunch of you. You know who you are. I’ve told you you’re wrong. But that’s not the point.
I like, I appreciated that. I think that’s what you guys were doing and, and I think it did help in certain circles. Pro Israel folks who maybe said, I know AIPAC is never going to move what they’re going to do. That’s not their lane. But I, as a private citizen, I’m going to get more involved with other NGOs in Israel. I’m going to show up at a protest against the Israeli government in America, which I would never do before. I’m going to imitate what my Israeli friends are doing with Israeli flags and all those types of things. I just don’t know if it’s enough.
And here’s the question. Like, there are much more powerful levers that I am personally opposed to using and scared of using. One of which of course is military aid. Should American Jews be part of the chorus that is rising on the American left about conditioning or limiting American aid? Partly I think this is a dumb strategy because all it does is it plays into the Israeli right that also wants Israel to get weaned off of American aid because it doesn’t like being annoyed by the Biden government all the time. I just feel like that’s a long term loser. So I just don’t know what are the bigger levers that we as American Jews are supposed to engage in to fight against this.
Matti: Yeah, I’m not sure they exist. And I mean, even we Israelis who, I mean, I’ve been at at least one demonstration every week for the past half year, and many of us have been doing absolutely everything that we can.
I think we’ve managed in many ways to blunt the plan and get it scaled down from what they were planning in January when they announced it. But it’s still, it went ahead this week. So even we have failed to adequately work the levers. And I think what we, what we can do is, is work on the relationship and yeah, as we were saying before we hit record, this is a plastic moment, it’s a moment of crisis and it’s a moment that we might use to create a better and more interesting relationship between the two major Jewish communities of our time, the one in Israel and the one in North America. That’s, you know, among many other things that are up in the air, is also up in the air.
And just as I think Zionism needs to be rebooted and kind of rethought, and just as we clearly need a second Israeli Republic, I don’t think we can just stagger on after this crisis. I think this is an opportunity to think about how this is going to work. If Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, we have a connection with Jews who live outside Israel. We would be impoverished by the disappearance of that relationship no matter what this government thinks and no matter how much it thinks that the support of evangelical Christians is more important than the support of Jews abroad. And we have clearly a major crisis that threatens the future of the country. And we also have an opportunity internally in Israel and externally toward our brothers and sisters who live outside Israel.
Yehuda: Yeah. I told my team yesterday, you know, a lot of people are asking me, what’s our role here in North America? I’m still in here in Israel. My team is back home. I said, I think there are three things that we’re going to push.
One is there’s a growing number of NGOs who are now responding, not just to the protests, which needs support, but also we’re pivoting towards what happens after the protests, what happens after judicial reform passes, what do we need to be prepared for to preserve liberal democracy, whether or not it’s preserved in the semi constitutional system. But for vulnerable populations, that’s a big piece of our work. It’s hard to do, right? To say, I’m probably going to lose politically now, but I need to be prepared on the other end.
The second thing we do in North America is just do a lot of this, explaining to American Jews what’s at stake in a way that’s not hysterical. And it’s also not just in slogans, but it’s in long form that people really understand this.
And the third is to express empathy and love for our Israeli friends.
Matti: That’s key. I mean, you know that because you’re here, but it, it sounds silly and kind of, you know, sentimental that Israelis need to hear that you’re on our side and you’re with us. And I know it means a lot to people when, you know, there are visitors from abroad at the protests. And I know you’ll be speaking at the protest that’s coming, I’m going to say Shabbat, this coming Saturday night here in Jerusalem. And it means something. Things feel pretty lonely over here sometimes.
And I wrote a book about Leonard Cohen and the Yom Kippur War. It meant something that he came here in the Yom Kippur War. I mean, he wasn’t a plane full of weapons. He wasn’t bringing a battalion of infantry. He was just this Canadian poet with a guitar, but it meant something. It meant something and it means something to people here that they have allies abroad because it can feel pretty lonely. And now many Israelis are feeling lonely even inside the state. And we’re used to feeling lonely as Jews, as 6 million Jews inside the Arab world, which has 300 million people. But even as a liberal in Israel, certainly in Jerusalem, sometimes we can feel that we’re embattled. And it does mean something that we have allies.
And another thing I think that’s going on is that American Jews, like all Americans, are experiencing many of the same things. And I think that the Trump years were in some ways a mental preparation for what we’re seeing now in Israel. And what we’re seeing now in Israel might be a mental preparation for what may yet be coming in the United States. It’s not just Israel. We’re talking about something global that’s happening, some kind of democratic breakdown that’s connected to social media, and it’s connected to the general vibe of the 21st century in ways that we haven’t, I don’t think we have quite put our fingers on yet, but the problems here and thinking about them and finding ways to oppose the government patriotically and thinking about, you know, methods of opposition and methods of protests and ways of thinking about it and ways of continuing life despite adverse political outcomes, we’re doing it here now, but it might become useful on your side of the pond pretty quick.
Yehuda: Oh yeah. I mean, I wrote a piece on this early on when I was here in January, which was six lessons for Israelis from the Trump years. And I think I was right about them, about like, how do you build resilience? How do you identify the difference between the scandalous things that a reckless administration is going to do versus the things that are actually about changing policy.
So your Ben Gvir moment was a good one of like, I’m not going to get exercised about, I don’t know, May Golan, I’m going to wait till Ben Gvir, because if I get exercised here, then once I get exercised later, people don’t trust you anymore. They just think you’re a partisan.
But I think you’re right. There is a larger battle for liberal democracy that’s taking place and maybe there’s an opportunity now to actually build allyship in a very different way than we had before.
But let’s take the plasticity. Use that metaphor that you used before. There’s something plastic about this moment that’s happening here also. And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the messiness of the coalitions themselves here at the protests. You know, famously, there’s the big anti occupation block, the folks who argue, if you understand the geography of the protest in Jerusalem, they tend to stand on the periphery because that enables them to say, I’m here, but I’m not here. But also they’re like a filter you have to walk through to get to the middle.
Matti: Depends which side you come from. Some people go from the other side.
Yehuda: Correct. The signs, which say there’s no democracy with occupation. So all of this is a sideshow. They want to oppose the government, but their argument is, we should have been fighting for democracy well before this.
And on the other extreme, as I alluded to before, are the reservists, right? And they’re out of central casting. The guys from the 70, the veterans of the Yom Kippur War, totally out of central casting. They would never show up at a protest together. I’m wondering whether you think that there’s any plasticity around those issues, or whether this is a momentary coalition of people who have common cause, but there’s not going to be really any ability to negotiate those kind of existential questions for Israel right now.
Matti: It’s such a good question. And it’s been so interesting to be at the protest and see that there are right wingers at the protest, for example, Ze’ev Elkin, who is a hardcore right winger. He’s at the protests. And there are other examples, people who care about the rule of law, care about the purity of governance, is that, that’s a pretty weird way of putting it, but I mean, you know, corruption. And there are a lot of people like that, particularly at the Jerusalem protest.
And a few weeks ago, a rabbi from Yeshivat Har Etzion spoke and spoke beautifully. And this came immediately after there had been settler violence against Palestinians. And he condemned, he came to the protest to condemn it. The following week, the sister of a Palestinian kid who was shot by mistake by a cop in Jerusalem, a kid who was autistic, and the policemen mistook him for a terrorist, and it was a terrible tragedy, Eyad al-Hallaq, and his sister came to the protest and read passages from the Quran to the crowd. I mean, she stood in front of thousands of Israeli flags at a podium draped with an Israeli flag and read passages from the Quran, which were then translated into Hebrew and the crowd stood respectfully and not everyone loved it, but it happened in Jerusalem at the same protest. So very interesting thing as are going on at the Jerusalem protest.
The Israeli left was really blown to pieces by the Intifada, as you know, because you were here, you know, in those years and the suicide bombings and the rockets just blew the left apart and ended the significant Israeli camp that thought compromise with the Palestinians is possible. And everything that’s happened since then has really served to strengthen that impression, that if we pull out of the West Bank, what we’re going to get in the West Bank is not a peaceful Palestinian state as we thought in the 90s, but it is going to be at best some kind of chaotic mess like Iraq or or Lebanon or Libya and at worst it will be a, you know, an Iranian state that will be a five minute walk from my house.
So it’s hard to really find a constituency for that view. And I understand that. Although I think, you know, for many years, Israelis have just been in denial about what is going on in the West Bank and the only people who really see it are the soldiers who serve there. And I was one of them and the settlers, of course, and news crews, who are there in the situation is pretty rough and a kind of a stain on our democratic conscience, even if it’s a necessary evil and it might be still evil.
I think this protest movement has to be a mainstream Zionist protest movement, because it has the ability to really gather the Zionist center, which has been asleep for about a decade and a half since the disengagement and wake it up. And that’s happened. I mean, we have hundreds of thousands of people out on the street because they love the country and some of the country in one way and some of the country and the other, and some have differences of opinion about exactly what the country should be, but there is a broad sector of the electorate that is a potential political force for good in the country, and if you can access that and bring people together with that Israeli flag and bring them out onto the street and get them fighting for democracy, then you’ve done something really big in the existence of the protest.
Palestinian flags, for example, will undermine that, because many Israelis will see a Palestinian flag and associate it or interpret it correctly, in my opinion, as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel. That’s one thing that the Palestinian flag means, not the only thing. And then they won’t come. So I think the benefit of having a few anti occupation protesters out is outweighed by the number of liberal Israelis who will stay away if they interpret the protest as being a pro Palestinian, anti Israeli protest.
And I think one reason that the Israeli flag became the symbol of the protests, it’s such an effective way and it’s been an amazing kind of spiritual resurgence of the importance of the Israeli flag and a reclamation of the Israeli flag and maybe of Zionism by people who’ve not been too attached in in recent years, it was response to the appearance of Palestinian flags and the fear that these protests were going to turn into some kind of radical anti Israel protest, in which case they would fail immediately.
And what’s made them so successful is the fact that they’re mainstream. The last thing I’ll say is that there’s clearly a growing awareness among people of the center who are at the protests, that their enemies are the religious settlement movement. And that has been kind of swept under the rug for many years because we can’t pull out of the West Bank and we’re not about to take on the settlers for no reason. We’re not going to start ripping ourselves apart in order to create a Hamas state that will shoot rockets at us. And that aspect of the political debate here has really gone to sleep.
And the settler movement, I think, in an example of overreach was not content with digging in the West Bank and expanding its presence in the West Bank. They’ve now gone for the jugular of Israeli democracy and the brains behind the so-called legal reform are really, that’s who’s behind it. And we get it. People get it, that this is an ideology that is opposed to the democratic values of the state of Israel as we understand it, it’s opposed to the liberal principles of the founders of the state.
And there is growing awareness of that and a growing awareness, I think, that the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank might have been off our radar for too long. So I think that this might end up being an example, I hope, where the political power of the settlers oversteps when they should have let the Israeli center keep sleeping and not think about it too deeply.
And now people are kind of wired, they’re on it, they understand who is trying to carry out this plan. And you’re seeing a lot of people, for example, from the reserve army refusing to serve and thousands of people, and in part, it’s the sense that we’ve become mercenaries for an ideological movement that is anathema to us and people are no longer willing to go to a settlement, certainly not to an illegal outpost and risk their life for people who are trying to undermine Israeli democracy.
Now should this have happened 10, 20 years ago? Probably. But is it happening now? It seems to be and there there’s, I think, potential for change, but it’ll come from the center and not from the fringes.
Yehuda: I want to come back to the reservist in a moment, but I want to push on this a little harder because you’re effectively saying there may be a kind of necessary evil here that we’re going to preserve democracy and then wind up with a kind of evil in our midst, which is a consensus that can go back to sleep that winds up preserving occupation for a long time.
I think your insight about the overreach of the settlers is interesting. There was an effort a few years ago, there was this incredibly weird video at CPAC, the conservative conference in America, that came out of the settlement movement, which tried to argue that the settlement project is the frontier of liberal democracy in Israel, free enterprise, the right to live wherever we want, freedom of religion, etc. It was so absurd on its face. But I think there are a handful of people on Twitter who still believe it, but it basically was absurd on its face.
But it may be, Matti, that it’s not, you’re making a pragmatic argument that the protest movement has to stay centrist in Israel, which means not making occupation and settlement the core of what it’s about. There’s this map that’s now gone viral on Twitter, which shows the Hasa’ot, shows where people are getting picked up to get rides to protests, either pro judicial reform or anti judicial reform. And it correlates to the Green Line.
In other words, the argument is not, what should the strategy be? The argument might be under the surface of this is the fundamental existential question that still divides Israeli society that the protest movement doesn’t really want to talk about, which is, are we committed to settlement and permanent occupation, or are we only temporarily invested in this, but we need to start solving it?
And I, I fear a little bit that when you say, well, necessary evil, and we should have a kind of centrist protest movement that you’re, you’re basically then building again, a straw house on top of a fault line. So it manifests now, but if that doesn’t get solved, you’re never really going to be able to resolve the tensions around democracy here.
Matti: On the other hand, I think if this protest movement fails, we’re definitely not going to solve it. So the first step has to be to somehow block the plans of this government to gut the judiciary and make it impossible for any power in the state to put brakes on the settlement project and on the ultra-Orthodox. So I think that we have to think in a practical way. What is the way to mobilize the greatest number of Israelis and bring them together in a political camp that is as coherent as possible that can then go to the next election and win it.
And then it’d be nice if we thought about, you know, our many moral problems, but if that doesn’t happen, then nothing will happen. And we have to make sure that we can save the liberal apparatus of the state, because without that we have nothing. I would also say that the, you know, for Israelis, including for me, the settlements and the occupation are not synonymous. So the occupation of the West Bank has been going on for, since 1967.
And there are two and a half million Palestinians who live under different forms of military occupation, but basically under, under Israeli control. And this is obviously a terrible situation for them and for us because it corrodes the rule of law in Israel and it corrodes Israeli democracy and much of what we’re seeing now is a result of that corrosion.
On the other hand, we’ve seen what happens if we try to pull out. The Palestinian national project is not dedicated to creating a state alongside Israel. It’s explicitly dedicated to replacing Israel with an Arab state. And if we leave the West Bank, the Palestinian national movement will not control it in any case for very long because there are external actors who are much stronger than, than them. And they’ll move in, the Iranians primarily, but there are others and they’ll move into the West Bank as they moved into Lebanon, as they moved into Syria, as they moved into Yemen. So there’s no withdrawal option in the Middle East of 2023.
And that allows the settlement project to continue, even though the settlement project has never enjoyed majority support in Israel and mainstream Israelis, if we can use that term, they see the settlers as fringe eccentrics. And I think that there’s going to be increasing animosity toward them and toward that project because they’ve overstepped and because people can no longer dismiss them as fringe eccentrics.
Clearly they’re at the center of government power. They’re running the police. They’re running the treasury. They’re trying to gut the judiciary. They’re changing the fabric of the state in a way that the liberal mainstream can’t play ball with. So I think you’re going to see growing animosity to the settlement movement, where at the same time, there’s not really a withdrawal possibility as we imagined in the nineties. And that’s going to be very complicated. I’m not sure exactly what the outcome of that looks like, but it’s going to be part of the Israeli political scene in the next couple of years.
Yehuda: I’m curious what your thoughts were on the threat of military reservists not participating. The security establishment, at least on the volunteer level, distancing itself from the government.
And I’ve heard a couple of different theories on this. One of which is that the only reason ultimately the government was able to push forward and finally pass the reasonableness clause was that the reservist protest as it was mounting gave them a window of being able to say, look, we’re the adults, we’re going to control this country. And of course, the pro reservist camp would say, no, this is just a lever. It’s just another lever. It’s about it’s like literally the nerve center of Israeli society. If a army that relies on the reservists effectively decides not to do that work. Not clear whether it actually jeopardizes Israeli security in the long run. I don’t know.
Matti: It does.
Yehuda: It does. I’m curious, therefore, what’s your attitude towards that as an element of the protests?
Matti: I see the, this kind of snowballing refusal to serve as less a calculated lever than as a kind of howl of distress. You know, many people have continued to serve even though they disagree with the policies of the government, many of us have served in the West Bank, even though we disagree with the settlement project and we do it because of a sense of national unity, you go to the army and you follow orders and just as soldiers from the right had to dismantle settlements in Gaza in 2005, then I, as a reservist, I had to go on occasion and protect settlers, even though I find their ideological project abhorrent. And we do it because that’s what we do, and we agree on the rules of the game.
And now the right wing is changing the rules of the game. So, you know, if you’re a pilot, for example, and you’re given orders to carry out a strike in a certain place, or if you’re a commando unit that has to go in and carry out a certain mission, you know that that has been vetted by the legal system of a democratic state, and that gives you the sense that even if you disagree with the politics behind what you’re doing, you haven’t crossed the line.
So the existence of a legal system is very important for the military and changing that fundamentally changes the nature of the contract between reservists and the state and people who fly F-16s or people who serve in infantry units do not see themselves as mercenaries serving the settler movement, they see themselves as people who serve the democratic state of Israel. And if that state is changing and if the people in charge of our security are people like Itamar Ben Gvir or people like Betzalel Smotrich who called to wipe a Palestinian village off the map before he was forced to issue an unconvincing apology, we’re not going to do it. We’re just not going to do it.
It’s not a matter of a calculated attempt to sway government policy, although it’s also that, it’s just, it’s almost a primal response to a feeling that we can’t do things that are opposed to our values. And I aged out of the infantry reserves about six years ago, but if I
Yehuda: So you missed your chance.
Matti: If I was still in, I would, I would do the same.
Yehuda: Even though one of the clear elements of Ben Gvir’s platform and rise to power was standing up for soldiers, regardless of what they did. In other words, that’s one of the ironies of this, right? So I forgot the name of the soldier who shot the disarmed Palestinian in Chevron while he was on the ground and killed him.
Matti: Yeah. Elor Azaria.
Yehuda: Right. Elor Azaria. And Ben Gvir mobilized populist outrage against the judicial system, which was holding Azaria accountable for doing something that was outside the framework of how you’re supposed to conduct yourself to an unarmed threat. And Ben Gvir argues on behalf of the soldier. So he’s kind of like a pro union guy in that sense. It’s interesting that reservists would respond to this by saying, no, I actually prefer the rule of, the rule of law protects me more than it is that I want Itamar Ben Gvir protect to me.
Matti: Yeah, no one wants the protection of Itamar Ben Gvir. No one’s saying, of course, Itamar Ben Gvir never served in the army and has never been anywhere near uniform. He’s a very, I think he has the idea that the army is supposed to be kind of a Jewish tribal militia, you know, kind of like the, you know, the tribal militias in the, you know, in the Arabian peninsula where we all drive around in, you know, pickup trucks with anti aircraft guns and shoot the other guys.
And that’s not the Israeli army. And, as we know, and I think this often sounds strange to American ears, but the army in Israel has always been a liberal institution. And that has to do with the kibbutz movement founding it, and it remains in its DNA. The Mossad is a liberal institution. The Shin Bet, which does internal security, is a liberal institution, which we’ve seen now because almost all of the former heads of the Shin Bet have come out against the government, including, quite incredibly, a call from Nadav Argaman, who was one of the former heads of the Shin Bet, appointed by Netanyahu, actually, who came out a few days ago and said, if this passes, we should refuse to serve, the head of the Shin Bet.
So these organizations also rely on the rule of law. And they also see themselves as serving a democracy, whatever they have to do in the service of the democracy, it’s sometimes dirty and undemocratic, but it’s an important part of the identity to serve a democracy. And when these people joined the Mossad or the Shin Bet or the army in the 90s or the 80s or whenever it was, they had a certain idea of the country they were serving. And that idea is being pulled out from under their feet. That’s why we’re hearing these real, really screams of dissent from Inside the army.
We hear the reservists because the reservists are allowed to speak because they’re, they’re civilians, but it’s quite clear that there are major cracks in the Mossad and in the Shin Bet and we’re hearing the people who are allowed to talk about it and we can’t hear the people who are inside and cannot talk about, but it’s clearly going to affect who’s signing up for service. If people are about to get out in a year and could conceivably sign on for another five. They’re not going to, we’re going to see a real impact on Israeli security. And I don’t think it’s going to take very long.
Yehuda: My question for you is about despair and hope. I’m going to resist the American impulse to make you end on a hopeful note. And I say that actually very seriously, because this will be released on Tisha B’Av, which is the day of Jewish despair. I think part of the whole idea of Tisha B’Av is that you’re actually supposed to find a black hole and sit in it for a little while. Because if you didn’t, if you had to commemorate all the terrible things that happened to Jewish people throughout the year, you’d be sad all the time. So I think it’s okay to lean into that.
I’m also reminded, where you started was when you made Aliyah in 1995. And I have to say personally, it feels like right now, 1995. It feels like 94, 95, the amount of hostility in the country, it feels like the specter of intra Israeli violence feels very close by. It’s okay. I want to kind of take the temperature of your own despair and hopefulness. And I guess I’m giving you permission to be Israeli and to talk mostly about despair. But I’m curious for those of us who are following from afar, where should we be on that index?
Matti: One difference between 2023 and 1994, 95 is that much of the left was very hopeful in those years. And of course, there were awful times with the Rabin assassination, but people believed that there was a chance for peace. They thought that, you know, we’d be shopping in Damascus in the near term and that the problem with the Palestinians was about to be resolved and that a new Middle East was being born. So amid the all of the violence and the vitriol of those years, there was real hope that we were moving toward a solution. And those were the years in which I moved to Israel.
And that’s a big difference between that time and now. Now there’s very little hope for a resolution of Israel’s external problems and increasingly of Israel’s internal problems, and that is leading to, I would say, deep despair among many Israelis, including people who are at the protest. We’re drawing a lot of inspiration from the protests because they’re, you know, they just can see just the masses of great, good Israelis on the street. And you’re reminded what a great country this is and go to the tent encampment in Sacher Park here, you see there are hundreds of tents and everyone’s getting organized and they’re making food and they’re giving out water and there’s this great kind of like, let’s go attitude, which is great. And it makes you feel very, very hopeful.
But at the same time, I mean, there’s a headline today that according to a poll, 28% of Israelis are considering immigration. And I have to say, never in all of my years in Israel have I heard as many people talking seriously about leaving the country and just looking ahead and seeing very little hope, little hope for peace with, you know, with the Palestinians, little hope that our internal problems can be resolved. If you look at this government and you, you know, if you look at this as the new normal, there’s very little to offer some young person who’s just turning 21 in Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem.
So, it’s a moment of deep despair. People are, they’re not going to go down without a fight, but they’re also not necessarily going to go down with the ship. And there’s real reason for concern about the future of the state. And it’s not going to go out, you know, in one day with one big explosion, it’ll be, you know, a slow fade.
And that’s what we have to avert. I mean, the, the national anthem of Israel is called “The Hope.” That’s what it’s called. And the project is a project of hope. It brings hope to people who are hopeless. And that was Herzl’s genius. He took people who had no hope and told them a story. And the story was such a great one that we actually made it happen. It’s really one of the most, the most remarkable things that have ever happened.
And that, I think, is the reason for hope. Because if we pulled that off, I mean, the country is such an unlikely story. And no matter what the odds are here, they’re better than the odds that Herzl faced in Vienna at the end of the 1890s when he, you know, created a state or the idea of a state out of nothing.
So we’ve seen that we can pull off the impossible. Reality is very strong, and it seems to be going in the wrong direction, but we’ve learned as Zionists that our will is stronger than reality. It’s not something that I would believe necessarily had I not seen it happen, and did I not live in a country that is purely the result of, of hope and optimism. So there’s still some of that around.
Yehuda: You know, the funny thing is that Tisha B’Av is the darkest day of the year and the least hopeful, but actually the most hopeful day of the year starts at noon on Tisha B’Av. It’s just once you’ve hit bottom, then it’s actually a day of emergence.
We had, our middle son was born on Tisha B’Av. That’s why we named him Tzemach Yishai, sprout of Jesse. It’s hard for me ever since to feel the ultimate despair. Happy birthday, Jesse. But I think it’s really, really important not to replace despair with hope, but to notice the ways that they are intimately related to each other. They also involve certain choices.
So anyway, thank you so much for being here today, Matti Friedman, and thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president for communications and creative, and our music is provided by Socalled.
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