Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
“To Israel’s friends in North America: We are taking the unusual step of directly addressing you at a moment of acute crisis in Israel. We write with a sense of anguish and anxiety for the future of our country…”
With these words, authors Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Matti Friedman began a February op-ed on The Times of Israel that they titled, “An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America.”
The Times of Israel hosted the trio this week in a webinar and this week’s What Matters Now episode is a very lightly edited recording of the event. It’s rather long, so we’ll get right to it.
So this week, we ask Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Matti Friedman, what matters now.
The following podcast has been very lightly edited.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Welcome, everyone, to today’s webinar: “Diaspora Jews: Time to Take a Stand,” which is co-sponsored by The Times of Israel and SOS (Save our Shared Home). I’m Times of Israel Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan here with Times of Israel contributors, the authors Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Matti Friedman.
We are happy at The Times of Israel to host three of our most esteemed contributors for this webinar to hear them speak and put our Times of Israel readers’ questions to them. Our intention is that this is just one of several online events aimed at giving you, our readers, a real-time look at all perspectives driving the current judicial overhaul crisis. So today’s webinar has its roots in an op-ed called “An Open Letter to Israel’s Friends in North America” that Yossi, Daniel and Matti jointly wrote for The Times of Israel seven months ago, shortly after the judicial overhaul was announced. Now, ahead of today’s hour-long webinar, we received dozens of questions from readers, really, around the globe, and I’ve broken them up into several themes which I’ll put to our panel, and some of your questions will be directly addressed. Now, before we hear what they have to say about your concerns, let me introduce each one and ask each one separately a question to help us understand where these thinkers are coming from during this very tense time in Israel.
So let’s start with Yossi Klein Halevi, who recently wrote an essay for The Times of Israel that lays out many of his concerns. It’s called “The Wounded Jewish Psyche and the Divided Israeli Soul.” Yossi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His 2013 book, “Like Dreamers,” won the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Book of the Year Award, and his 2019 book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” was a New York Times bestseller. So, Yossi, in your many decades as a thinker and an author, as an American who adopted Israel as his home, you’ve never really been a public critic of the Israeli government. So I ask you, why now?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, first of all, thank you, Amanda. Thank you, Times of Israel and SOS for hosting, and Matti and Dani, it’s truly an honor to be doing this with you. And thank you all for joining us.
In a way, Amanda, my participation in the protest movement negates 40 years of a commitment to upholding Jewish unity as the most essential factor in the well-being of Israel and the Jewish people. And my fear, my dread of schism, dates from the summer of 1982, which is when I became an Israeli, made aliyah into a very fraught and divided Israel. This was the beginning of what we now call the First Lebanon War. And Israel, for the first time, not only failed to be united around war, but it was the war itself that was tearing the country apart. And so I made aliyah into a dysfunctional society. And that is my formative Israeli experience. And as a result of that trauma, and it was a very deep trauma for me, as it was for Israeli society. I adopted an approach that if I needed to sum it up in a kind of motto, it would be, “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim” — the Talmudic dictum that “these and these are both the words of the living God.” And I applied that to the various conflicts that were dividing Israelis, whether it was left versus right over the future of Judea and Samaria, whether it was secular-religious, Arab-Israeli, Jewish-Israeli. I was always searching for that essential insight, the truth that was spread around to all of our warring camps and really looking for ways to try to help bring the Jewish people together. And I was also haunted, as Jewish consciousness has been haunted for 2,000 years, by the rabbinic warning that the ancient state of Judea was destroyed by sinat hinam, by needless hatred among Jews.
Fast forward 40 years, and this government has taught me that there actually is an existential threat, an internal existential threat even greater than Jewish schism. And that is the meeting point between corruption, political corruption, and zealotry, whether political or religious fanaticism. And that convergence between corruption and zealotry is what this government embodies. And if you go back 2,000 years and I’m now really rethinking why the temple was destroyed and why we lost our ancient sovereignty even more than sinat hinam, more than hatred among Jews, I now believe that it was precisely this convergence, between corruption and fanaticism that destroyed ancient Judean sovereignty. Whether it was the corruption within the royal family and the priesthood, or the fanaticism of the zealots. And by threatening democracy through this meeting point of political and religious fanaticism and corruption, by threatening Israel’s democratic roots, what this government really is threatening is the Israeli success story, the startup nation. And my greatest fear is that this government is going to lead to a mass emigration of despair, we’re seeing the first signs of that. And the young people who, God forbid, will leave, will be precisely those who are the backbone of the future of the Israeli success story. That’s the fear that haunts me.
There’s also an ideological dimension here that’s playing out, and that is that the foundation of Israeli democracy from the very beginning until this government was a very broad consensus about what we mean by democracy. And what Israelis, from moderate-left to center to moderate-right, very much including the Likud up until the last few years, was that we meant liberal democracy. Liberal democracy in an Israeli context is not necessarily the same as it is in the West abroad. It doesn’t mean left. It means respect for minority rights. It means understanding that democracy is not just majoritarian rule, it’s not just winner-take-all, which is the position of this government. And that if you win an election, you even have the right to destroy democracy, democratic institutions, the democratic ethos, all in the name, of course, of having won a democratic election. But a liberal understanding of democracy is that this is a very delicate dance between the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority. At one of our demonstrations a few weeks ago, Benny Begin, the son of Menachem Begin spoke, and he said: “There is nothing in common with the Likud of my father and this version of the Likud. The Likud of my father was a liberal-national party.” That may sound like an oxymoron to American or Western sensibilities. In an Israeli context, we took for granted that the Likud was a liberal, democratic party. Benny Begin then said: “This version of the Likud, Netanyahu’s version of the Likud, is an ultra-right, anti-democratic nationalist party.” And that is why this moment is qualitatively different from anything we’ve ever experienced before.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Yossi, thank you so much for that. And we’ll delve into many of these issues in the coming minutes and for the rest of the hour with Daniel Gordis.
So, Daniel, hello. Daniel is the Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, he is the author of 13 books. His one-volume “History of Israel” received the 2016 National Jewish Book Award as Book of the Year. He’s also, incidentally, required reading for one of my son’s gap year programs. His most recent book, “Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years after its Creation, has Israel Fulfilled its Founders’ Dreams?” was published in 2023. So, Daniel, I have a question for you as well. You’ve often called for the non-interference of the diaspora in internal Israeli affairs, so why the sudden turnabout?
Daniel Gordis: Well, again, Amanda, first of all, I just want to join with Yossi in thanking you, and thanking Times of Israel and your colleagues for hosting us and for making it possible for us, along with Saving our Shared Home, the Shomrim movement in Jerusalem, to make all of this possible. We really think it’s a really important opportunity to speak to a lot of people who care, and it wouldn’t have been possible without you and your cooperation and your invitation, so we’re really very grateful for it.
Why now? Look, I think Yossi really covered a lot of it. This is not about a change in policy. You can agree or disagree about policy. This is not about a change in an attitude, towards, whether it’s a West Bank issue, or an economic issue, or the Temple Mount or the Kotel. Those are all issues about which people get very worked up, but that’s the nature of democracies. People get worked up. This is about fundamentally, as Yossi said, so articulately changing the rules of the game so that the fundamental nature of the kind of country that Israel would be is about to change. And why did we reach out to Diaspora Jews when, as you quite correctly say, that for a very long time, I think all three of us in different ways, but certainly I’ll speak for myself, have been y’know, “Let us work this out. We’re a sovereign, independent nation. We have elections. We have to figure this out on our own.” Why change now?
To make it clear — because some people have written to us directly and certainly have written to me directly — that it is not because we hope people in England, Canada, the United States, or anywhere else are going to get their governments to intervene here. We are not looking for foreign governmental intervention. That is not at all what this is about. So what’s the idea of bringing the Diaspora into this? This is actually a little bit for us, but I think it’s also very much for the Diaspora itself, and for a sense of a unified Jewish people. Look, I’ll say something about what’s in it for us.
We’re in, I think, week 35, heading into week 36 of these protests — it’s hard. Thirty-six weeks in a row to be out there. It was hot, it was cold, it’s getting cold again. This is going to go on for a very long time. And to feel that we are in the midst of really what is an internationally-recognized movement, as being really unparalleled anywhere. The police in Israel came out today and said that there have been 7 million participants in the protest since we got started. And you can literally count on the finger of one hand the number of cases of vandalism and police brutality in both directions. It’s basically not happened. That’s an extraordinary thing. I think Israel is making a mark for itself in this regard, in a way that we didn’t expect we’d have to. And for us to be doing this, and for Diaspora Jews to not be participating in, was an extraordinary demonstration of the deep love that people have for this country is a loss for us because it would be nice now, 10 months in, and it’s going to go on for a lot longer, to feel that we have significant partnership among the mainstream of American, Canadian, British, French, Jewish life, everywhere we are.
So some of it is about asking them to be with us in what’s going to be a very long slog, and for us to understand that even if we’re the ones out there on Saturday nights, we’re not alone. That we are part of a world Jewish people that cares deeply about the nature of the country that Israel is. But I think that inviting Diaspora Jews into this is actually as much for Diaspora Jews as it is for us. I think everybody who follows the news understands — whether you’re right or you’re left, really doesn’t make any difference, whether you’re religious or secular doesn’t make any difference, whether you’re an immigrant or a native, doesn’t make any difference — there is something very nefarious going on here. Some people are willing to talk about it and some people want to pretend that they don’t understand it. I don’t think this is a moment for pretense, but this is a government that wants to change the reality on the West Bank.
The settlement movement is finding that it can’t build on privately-held Palestinian territory. The Supreme Court, as people may not be aware, has actually been fairly supportive of the settlement movement over the decades. Its one red line has been you can’t build on privately owned Palestinian land. And there’s a lot of that. And so some of the people in this government want to change the Supreme Court because they want to actually change that policy, which would of course, make Israel a pariah in even more ways in the international community. The Haredim have the idea here of passing a basic law which would make permanent the exemption of their young men from army service, which as they now become 11-12% percent of the country, is a very serious moral issue and undermines the notion of a people’s army. We have ministers in this government who actually had pictures of Baruch Goldstein on their wall in their living room, and even as recently as the most recent weeks, have taken people to visit his grave out of some sort of connection to the “sanctity of his memory.” I mean, we have things here that are just simply unthinkable.
And so, the first reason that I would say that it’s important for the Diaspora community to get involved, is because if you know that this is happening — and you do, everybody knows it’s happening — to stay silent is to put yourself firmly on the wrong side of history. To say that, “I have an agenda because of my organization, or my congregation, or my JCC, or my whatever, and it’s going to rock the boat if I come out on this.” There’s been lots of other places in human history where people felt it would be rocking the boat to come out on a very clear moral issue, and they’re not looked at kindly in history. So this is actually, I think, an opportunity for many people in the Diaspora — United States, England, Canada, France, et cetera, et cetera, and far beyond, Australia, South Africa. I mean, there’s lots of people on this call from all different countries, which makes it very moving and very compelling. This is an opportunity for them not to place themselves on what is the wrong side of history. I think if there’s anything that Yossi and Matti and I have in common, is that we know how histories of Israel get written. We’ve all done a little bit of that ourselves, and it’s very clear how this is going to get written ultimately. And the way in which Diaspora communities and Diaspora leaders have responded to this moment, or not responded to this moment, is, I think, going to be something that’s going to be for the history books, and we’re begging Diaspora Jews to be on the right side of history.
Another thing that I’ll say is that what’s at stake is the question of the moral caliber of the Diaspora community. If you understand what Ben Gvir wants to do to Israeli Arabs, if you understand that Ben Gvir, just in a TV interview that went viral here, because he talked about his freedom of movement and everybody’s heard that part of the conversation, but then he said, “Slicha Muhammad” — who was Muhammad? We won’t go into who Muhammad is, but a very respectable Israeli Arab, who is a professional and a really thoughtful person, he’s not a Palestinian, he’s an Israeli citizen. And with that little, like, “Slicha Muhammad — sorry, Muhammad, about what I said about the Palestinians,” it was a simple but very clear point: “As far as I’m concerned, you’re all the same. Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, you’re all the same.” And we all know what he thinks should happen to the Palestinians. And I think that very few people in the protest movement will be surprised if in a few years, if this government does not change to see them trying to outlaw Israeli Arab political parties. They’ll make a law that parties have to be Zionist parties and so on and so forth, and very quickly we might see something like that.
So there’s really a critical question about the moral nature of the kind of country this is. And we’re asking the Diaspora to just, “Please say something about that.” Because if we’re in this by ourselves I’ll put this a little starkly, then let’s not pretend that we’re one people anymore. Let’s just call off the pretense. If the Jewish state can be flirting with becoming, as Yossi said, not only full of zealotry and corruption, but fundamental racism, bigotry, misogyny, hatred of the LGBT community and making that part of the foundation, and people outside don’t want to respond to it, then I think what we have to say to ourselves as Israelis is: “We’re all Jews, but the notion of this shared peoplehood thing is really a thing of the past.” And I would find that personally devastating.
And the last thing that I’ll say simply is that the leadership of the Diaspora community should ask themselves how they want their children and grandchildren to see them at this moment, and what values are going to be expressed as being the values of those Diaspora communities by virtue of what those communities do or not do at this time? Twenty years from now, 30 years, 40 years from now, what are you going to actually say — whether you’re a rabbi or you run a JCC or you run this national organization or that organization, or you’re just a person in the community — what are you going to say when your grandson or granddaughter says to you: “But back then, in 2023, Israel was fighting for its liberal life…” again liberal, not left-wing, but liberal, the philosophic political sense… “How could you have been silent?” Or, if the country ultimately became a non-democracy and then completely fell apart because that’s what would happen, what did you say? What did you not say? What did you do? And we know that American Jews, and here I’m speaking specifically about American Jews for a second, failed during the Holocaust. There was one protest of 400 people outside the White House, most of them Orthodox rabbis. And for the rest of the time of the Holocaust, there were no mass protests on the part of American Jews. That was a badge of shame. And American Jews actually sought to kind of make amends for that, to a certain extent, by throwing themselves into the Zionist project. If they now abandon the Zionist project at a critical moment when they need their voice to be heard, when’s going to be the opportunity to make amends for that? I fear that it’s not coming quickly. So we’re begging the Diaspora to become involved, not to change the position of their governments, but to make it clear that we are a worldwide Jewish people committed to justice, committed to morality, and committed to making Israel the kind of country of which our children and grandchildren can continue to be proud.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Daniel, really tough questions there. And later on in the hour we’ll have some, I hope, some real takhles and really concrete answers on how you feel the Diaspora should help out.
So finally, we have Matti Friedman. Matti is a journalist and the author of four books who have won a slew of prizes, really. And most recently he published “Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai,” which, if I’m not mistaken, is being adapted for television. So it’s great to see you, Matti. And you recently spoke at one of the Jerusalem protests, which are held, of course, each week on Saturday night. And during your speech, you drew on your experiences as a young soldier in Lebanon. So I’m asking you, could you share with us a little of what you said and explain how this relates to today’s judicial overhaul crisis?
Matti Friedman: Sure. My fellow panelists have already expressed gratitude for being here, so I won’t repeat it, but of course, I feel the same. I wish we could talk about Leonard Cohen, but here we are in a different set of historical circumstances.
Many of my dreams and nightmares come from this time that I spent as a young person, a Canadian who’d moved to Israel aged 17, joined the army and found myself engaged in this very small and strange guerrilla war in South Lebanon against Hezbollah. This was 1998-1999, and I was sent, I thought I was moving to Israel. But very quickly I found myself in a completely different country, which was Lebanon. The army held this buffer zone north of the Israeli border, which we called the security zone. And on the far side of that buffer zone, there was a string of outposts. And in one of those outposts — which was called, ludicrously, Outpost Pumpkin — mutzav dlat — I found myself with a company of 19-year-old Israelis and looking out at this country called Lebanon. And we were shelled on occasion and we had a few scary experiences, but most of the time we were just looking at this country that’s directly to the north of Israel, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour, three-hour drive from where I’m sitting right now. And we looked out through the firing slits of these concrete positions where we spent just hours and hours, and we saw a country that had fallen apart.
At the time, I wasn’t really a very sophisticated thinker, but in retrospect, that’s what we were seeing. We were seeing a country that had once existed, I mean 1950s Lebanon was going places, Beirut was the “Paris of the Middle East” and it was a democracy of some kind, and it was definitely affiliated with liberal ideas in the West, and people spoke French, and it was a party capital, and it had a beach and it had some skiing — if that sounds familiar to Israelis, then it should — and then everything fell apart. The leaders of Lebanon could not come up with a unifying narrative. The country devolved into sectarian rule. There was a lot of corruption, as Yossi said, a lot of zealotry. The power of the state is parceled out between different clerics, different religious groups. There’s no one idea that guides the country. And the country then splinters into groups which are really competing for the spoils of what had once been a state. And when we were there in the late 1990s, this process was very far along. And we’d look out at these abandoned houses on the outskirts of this town called Nabatieh, which is a Shi’a town in south Lebanon, and these houses were used by Hezbollah guerrillas to fire rockets at the outpost. And Hezbollah was the main military force in Lebanon, but it is not the Lebanese army. The main military force in Lebanon was a non-state force that had somehow taken control not just a part of Lebanese territory, but part of the power of the Lebanese state. And it did not occur to me at that time that I was seeing not just a neighboring country, but that I was seeing a possible future for Israel. And I got out of the army in 2000, went to study Islamic Studies at Hebrew University, in large part in order to understand my Lebanon experience better, I took courses about Lebanon.
I eventually went back to Lebanon with my Canadian passport in 2002 in an attempt to get back to this outpost and see it with a different pair of eyes, and I saw Lebanon. I was in Beirut. Beirut feels a lot like Tel Aviv, or at least it did at the time. You’re on one side of the street and it’s miniskirts and cellphones, and then you cross the street and it’s women draped completely in black and posters of clerics on the walls, and it has kind of a love of life and a very kind of hardcore religious atmosphere at the same time. And it has mountains and it has beaches and it felt very, very familiar — that’s what I’m trying to say. And that familiarity has really haunted me since then, because it’s not just a nice thing to point out, but it means that Lebanon is not just a neighbor, it’s a potential future. What happened there can happen to us if we’re not careful. And I wrote that in an article maybe three years ago, when I could kind of smell the beginnings of it, but I didn’t really take it seriously. I was kind of y’know, just playing with that idea. It’s happening now.
The Lebanonization of Israel is not something that may happen in a year or two. It is the process that’s happening now. The power of the state is being parceled out among different extremist groups. The minister in charge of police is a hooligan from the fringes of the right, someone who was completely unacceptable even in the Likud party a year ago. And not only is he now in charge of law enforcement in Israel, meaning that he’s in charge of the lives of me and my children, and the one-fifth of our citizens who are Arab Muslims. He also is putting together his own armed militia, which is supposed to answer directly to him, and this is approved by the prime minister and set to be funded by Israeli taxpayers. The Israeli Treasury and part of the Defense Ministry has been given to a settler from the extreme edge of the settlement movement, Bezalel Smotrich, from the messianic edge of the settler movement. Different parts of state power are breaking down. Many liberal Israelis who have long been the backbone of the military, of the intelligence services of the Air Force, can no longer serve the country with their whole heart. And those institutions which we need for our survival are breaking down. So the process that we’re seeing now is the breakdown of the unifying state institutions that we need. The army, the judiciary, law enforcement — those systems are splintering. And if this continues for much longer, the country will not be able to hold on.
So this is not a theoretical threat, and it’s not some kind of discussion that intellectuals are having about something that may happen ten years down the line. It is happening. That is what’s happening. And if we want Israel to survive, we need to arrest this process immediately and we need all hands on deck. And that really lies behind our decision to take this different approach in writing directly to the Diaspora to make sure that people understand that this is not more anti-Israel propaganda. There is lots of anti-Israel propaganda, and we’ve written about it extensively. This is not more lies about Israel. There are many lies about Israel, and I’ve written about that extensively. This is real, this is actually happening. And anyone who values the State of Israel as it is presented in the Declaration of Independence, and as American, Canadian, French, South African, Australian Jewry has always pictured this country, if we want that country to survive for another year or five years or 10 years, we have to act right now.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Matti, really dismal dire picture you’re painting.
Now, before we dive into our readers’ questions, gentlemen, something I personally have been asked many times ahead of this webinar is, why didn’t you include any women in your open letter or on today’s panel? So, Daniel, do you want to take a stab on that?
Daniel Gordis: Sure. We tried when we wrote our first letter. We wanted the letter to be written by people who were fairly well-known in North America, because that’s where the letter was addressed to, who had written several books, who were centrists, who were making this plea, who believed what we believed and so on and so forth. So, we were turned down by one woman who just wasn’t interested in joining us. We had another woman who was signed on the letter and at the very last minute decided that she didn’t want to sign. So it was important to us also to have women on the letter. We just were unable to find people who fit the categories, and the two people that we’d hoped would join us chose not to, which is, of course, their right. And then in the case of the second letter, we really felt that part of the power of this change over the last six months would be reflected by having the same three people write the letter. But clearly, in an ideal world, we would have wanted women to be part of writing both letters, and we made very significant efforts the first time around, especially to try to find people to join us.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Okay, let’s move to some of our readers’ questions. And the first topic I’m going to call “Shande far di goyim,” and this is a theme that was touched upon a little bit, it’s “Shande far di goyim” or shame before all the other nations. So, several readers wrote in saying, for example: “If you don’t like the result of a democratic election, vote next time,” meaning make aliyah, move here. “This is how a democracy works. Shame on you for bringing this outside of Israel.” Or as another reader put it: “Why should those who vote in other countries and pay taxes there have a say in the internal politics of Israel? How can this be a push for democracy?” So, Daniel gave his perspective on this in his opening remarks. We’ve heard a little bit about this, but Matti, can you tell us a little bit more? Why is the judicial overhaul a Jewish Diaspora issue?
Matti Friedman: Sure, I’d first like to say that the issue is not the judicial overhaul. The judicial overhaul is a tool being used by the people. Who are now wielding central positions of power in Israel. The story here is the rise to power of the extreme right. That’s what’s happening. That’s the process. People who were beyond the pale a year or two years ago are now holding central positions of power in Israel in a way that would have been unthinkable, even to people on the right, five years ago. Things that you would never have been able to say a few years ago are now being said openly. Support, tacit or explicit, for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, for example. And that’s just one example. Many examples of racism and homophobia that you just would not have heard, are now being mainstreamed. That’s the issue.
The judicial reform is the tool being used by this government to remove any possible obstacle to its platform, because the only check on government power in Israel, unfortunately — and it’s ludicrous that this is the case — but the only check is the court. So if you want to pursue a new agenda and some of the points have been mentioned, you have to remove the court, because the court is the only force that can stop you. So, the judicial reform is a tool. It’s not the issue. And I think that’s one part of the confusion that has greeted much of this in the United States in particular, where the idea of an unelected judiciary having too much power, that kind of sounds familiar to Americans, and they feel like it is an argument that they understand — that’s not what’s going on. And the Israeli system is built completely differently, of course, than it is in the United States. So, even democracy here works differently. People, I think, sometimes assume that Netanyahu is the president, and he won more than 50% of the vote. Netanyahu is the prime minister, and he won a quarter of the vote. He managed to get over the 50% threshold in Knesset by bringing together a coalition that altogether has 48.4% of the popular vote. So we’re not talking about a president who won an election outright. Of course, the results of the election are legitimate. They are legitimate. Our system did return this result. And I’m not saying that the vote was illegitimate or that the government by nature is illegitimate, but the positions of this government have no moral legitimacy. They’re beyond the pale of Zionism, they contradict the founding values of the country.
To your question, and I’ll just make this very short, Israel’s future will be decided by Israelis. It’ll be decided by the people who vote here. That’s clear. I do encourage people to move here and vote, if you agree with me. So if you don’t, please don’t. But Diaspora Jews can decide what they will or will not support, of course, and always have. And you must. You have to decide whether or not you will support something going on in Israel. And I think, unfortunately, we’re in a position where everyone, people who are supportive of Israel. People who love Israel as we do, we’re people who deeply love this country, they have to ask themselves what Israel they’re supporting? It’s not enough to say, I support Israel — what Israel? Do you support this government which contravenes liberal values? Do you support the protest movement? Do you support the democratic movement? Do you support institutions that foster the kind of Israel you would like to see, like hospitals and universities? Or are you supporting the messianic settler movement’s vision for what this country should be? So we all have to ask ourselves what Israel we’re supporting? And that’s the question I want people to ask. I don’t think that American, Canadian, French or any other kind of Jew will be able to decide the future of Israel. But Israel is at the center of the Jewish world, and everyone has to ask themselves where they stand and what they will and will not support.
Amand Borschel-Dan: Yossi, I know you want to weigh in here, and the next question is for you. So give your remarks and then I’ll ask you a question. Go for it.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yeah, I think it’s a philosophical question about what is Israel? Who are the Jewish people? What does it mean to be a citizen not only of the State of Israel, but a citizen of the Jewish people? And here I believe in a very expansive definition of Jewish peoplehood. And to my mind it’s an outgrowth of classical Zionism, which is that if we insist, and I believe rightfully so, that Israel is the center point — the State of Israel is the center point of Jewish life today. In the way that the Land of Israel was the center point of Jewish dreams for 2,000 years, today the State of Israel is the center point of Jewish reality. Now, that imposes a certain amount of responsibility on Israel. To be the center point of Jewish life doesn’t only entitle us, it does entitle us to support from the Diaspora, but I believe it also binds us to, at the very least, make some place at the table for Diaspora voices. And I believe that Diaspora Jews not only have the right to voice their concerns about Israel, whether I agree with those concerns or not. And I realize that I’m opening the door here to criticism in ways that I don’t always agree with, or feel comfortable with. But nevertheless, it is a consequence of the basic premise of Zionism as the state of the Jewish people that imposes on us the responsibility to hear Diaspora concerns, and imposes on Diaspora Jews the responsibility to speak when they feel that the Israel that they love is taking a wrong turn.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Many wrote in speaking about the Israel that they love that is taking a wrong turn, and they expressed dissatisfaction that the judicial overhaul is usurping the attention that could be used to end the occupation. And as one reader put it, “Does a democratic state guarantee equal rights for non-Jews who are indigenous to the area?” And as another said, “Center-right commentators have been defending Israel’s status quo for decades. That status quo includes an antidemocratic occupation with its two-tiered system of justice, violent settler attacks, and a settler population explosion that has doomed the two-state solution. Why are you surprised that the same religious nationalism and autocracy that has been practiced in the territories is now infecting Israel proper? The chickens have come home to roost.” Yossi, what do you have to say?
Yossi Klein Halevi: Yeah, I think that that is one legitimate way of reading this moment. The reason that the protest movement — and I’d be very happy to hear Danny and Matti on this — the reason that the protest movement has refrained from placing the situation in Judea and Samaria at the center point of our demonstrations is, first of all, practical. Most Israelis, including Israeli liberals, unlike many Diaspora liberals, see the Palestinian tragedy in a much more complicated and nuanced way. We certainly don’t place all or most of the blame on the Israeli side. The Palestinian leadership has ample shares in this unfolding tragedy. That’s not to let us off the hook. I believe that we let ourselves off the hook, sometimes a little too glibly. But at the very least, most Israeli Jews would agree that not only is there ample blame to go around on both sides, but that to create a Palestinian state anytime soon in Judea and Samaria would be to essentially invite Hamas and Gaza, five minutes from the Israeli heartland. And most Israelis will not do that now. And so to promote a position that is antithetical to the strong majority of most Israelis is to doom the protest movement to the periphery.
Now, we used to have a slogan here in Israel that was applied to, it was part of a road safety campaign called “Don’t be Right, be Smart.” And sometimes, when I hear left-wing voices in the Diaspora, I wish that they’d pay more attention to that slogan. And it’s not always enough to be right. And this is in some ways, I think that’s the definition of Zionism is that you take responsibility for Jewish faith in the real world. And in the real world in which I live as an Israeli, to place the occupation at the center of a protest movement is to doom it. And we are building a coalition that must include the soft right. It must include disillusioned Netanyahu voters in order to succeed. Another way that and with this I’ll wrap up, another way to think about this is that the occupation of the Palestinians is a long-term tragedy. It’s a cancer in the Israeli body. What we’re experiencing in these last months is a massive heart attack. And if you’re a cancer patient, God forbid, and on top of that, you suddenly are confronting a massive heart attack, you obviously deal with the emergency first. And that’s the situation at hand. If we, God forbid, lose an independent court, we’ve lost everything. The independent court is the last line that’s keeping Israel a morally coherent society.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: So Daniel, you touched on many of the themes of this next question in your opening statement, but I’d like you to drill down a little bit and perhaps other members of the panelists as well. So several readers have complained that their local federations or Jewish organizations are reluctant to take a stance for or against the judicial overhaul, any stance, perhaps out of fear of fanning the flames of antisemitism or BDS. And as one reader writes: “I’m hoping you can explore how to navigate the line between American Jews who are afraid, or at least reluctant to criticize any Israeli government, lest they be seen as giving comfort to the BDS, anti-Zionist crowd and progressive uninvolved American Jews,” which he believes is the clear majority, “who see this government as confirming their harshest criticisms of Israel as a state. What are they meant to do here?”
Daniel Gordis: It’s a very hard and painful question. Look, I think first of all, the notion that raising criticism of Israel is going to fuel the fires or fan the flames of antisemitism or BDS and so on and so forth, that’s, I have to say, just silly. First of all, BDS and antisemitism and Jewish Voice for Peace and all of those organizations that hate Israel, they’ve never had a problem of not having enough material to talk about. Their main supply of material is Itamar Ben Gvir. That’s who their person is. When we have somebody like Ben Gvir or Smotrich talking about how their right to drive in the West Bank should trump any right of movement of Palestinians, it doesn’t matter what Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi or Matti Friedman say or think or do, because that’s the material that the anti-Israel forces need. So the idea that we’re adding fuel to this, I think, is just not true. In fact, I think quite the contrary is true. What the world is going to see is that there is an enormous part of Israeli society — and again, I mentioned this earlier, but according to the police — 7 million individual participants over the course of these weeks, even if that number is a little high and it strikes me that it might be a little high, it’s an extraordinary number of people — that’s a statement about Israel that is unbelievable. And it’s unlike anything that happened in Portland and Seattle. It’s unlike, like we saw in France recently, anything like we’ve seen in England recently. It’s an extraordinary statement about the love of this population for this country. And what American Jews would be doing by criticizing the overtly, racist, misogynist, corrupt, fanatical, ultra-nationalist, hyper-religious government is to say that our Jewishness is committed to a series of very serious ethical principles. And I think that silence is what feeds the antisemites out there and the Israel critics out there, and not speaking about it.
Now, in terms of what people can actually do, here we do understand some of the frustration and some of the limitations on what being a non-citizen allows, because clearly it’s correct that this is ultimately going to get resolved at the polls. There are organizations here that need your help. These protests aren’t free. There’s AV equipment and there’s security and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that has to happen. And the protest movements are now beginning to turn to Diaspora Jews and saying: “This isn’t a five-week thing or a 10-week thing, this is so far 35 weeks, and it’s going to go on for a very long time. We need your help with that.”
Look, there are other things that can be done. And here I know that I’m going to sketch out a little bit further on the branch, but if you believe that Bibi Netanyahu, for whatever reason, has brought Israel to this potentially devastating juncture — and let’s just understand if the judicial reform goes through in anything like what it was looking like it was going to be, it may or may not happen now — but if it does, the number of young people in this country who are not going to be here in five years is enormous. Enormous. You cannot begin to imagine that 3,000 doctors are already signed up looking for jobs overseas. People that I know in the tech world say the tech jobs are already moving out and the tech money is already moving out. It’s not a threat. It’s already happening. When I go to shul — and I go to the same shul that Matti goes to, although sometimes I go to the early minyan and he comes to the later minyan, but he can be forgiven for that — but I’m surrounded by really the very best of the Jewish people. I mean, people who are deeply learned, people who are academics and doctors and lawyers and work in all kinds of social organizations and are very educated, so they’re the most able to move if they choose. And I look at the people in shul every Friday night and every Shabbat morning, and my heart breaks because I ask myself, how many of these people are going to be here in 10 years if this stuff changes? And it’s going to be not a lot of them. There will be a huge bleeding of the very best and brightest of Israeli society. So, doing everything that one can to make sure this doesn’t happen is not “shande fur di goyim.” It’s actually trying to save the Jewish people. So I would say if you know of organizations that are taking people to meet with Bibi Netanyahu or other ministers of the government, tell them not to do it. If you are supporting organizations that are meeting with the people that are taking Israel to this precipice, stop supporting the organizations. If you believe that there is money that can be used to help the protest movement, which is hundreds of thousands of people every week, and a heterogeneous group, the very best of Israeli society, help make all that possible.
So at the end of the day, yes, we’re going to settle this or not settle it at the polls. And I hope and pray that we will settle it at the polls in the right way. And Yossi spoke very importantly about the fact that this heterogeneous group includes left, center and soft right, and that’s a conglomeration of Israeli voters we haven’t seen together in a very long time. Something very powerful is developing here. But if we can make this all happen, we will have saved the Jewish state, and we will have saved the Jewish people. But everything that anyone can do to pressure anyone, anywhere, not to give this government legitimacy, is actually a service of the very best of the Jewish world, and a service of the very best that the Jewish state can be.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Oky, Yossi, let’s springboard off of this. And many, many of our readers talked a little more takhles than what Daniel was talking about, and it’s more a matter of putting their money where their mouth is. And many people asked, should they, for example, stop donating money to the Jewish Federations? Should they stop giving money to AIPAC? Should they stop buying Israel Bonds? That’s a very American-centric way of dealing with problems — to throw or not throw your money at things — but it’s a very good gauge of how to have some sort of protest as well. What do you say about that?
Yossi Klein Halevi: I think that we need to be a little nuanced here, and not to throw out the essential communal infrastructure that is a gift to the Jewish people of the generation that overcame the Holocaust, and that we’ve inherited this tremendous power base. And we need to protect it, whether it’s Federation, whether it’s AIPAC. Now, look, I honestly, I’m very frustrated with some of the Jewish organizations and their silence on an issue that I consider to be life and death. This is an existential moment, no less to my mind, than the first days of the Yom Kippur War. That’s what we’re facing, and that’s why Israelis are reacting with such desperation and such consistency. And so I feel this sense of, it’s more than disappointment. This is the community that all three of us have been working with and speaking to for decades, and we three feel this desperate need to convey the urgency at this moment. At the same time, we have only one AIPAC, we have only one Federation, and we need to preserve and strengthen those communal structures. But, let me try to answer the question about what Diaspora Jews should do, first of all, conceptually, and then perhaps offer a few concrete ideas.
Conceptually, I think that what we need to do is learn to speak, simultaneously, two languages on Israel. The first language is unequivocal defense of Israel’s moral integrity and legitimacy, the moral integrity of Zionism, of the extraordinary society we’ve created in Israel, and unequivocal pushback against BDS and all of those who seek to criminalize Israel. That’s the first language. The second language we need to learn to speak is a language of moral credibility — and that is to confront those within us, those Jews in our midst, who would turn us, God forbid, into precisely the kind of state that our enemies say we are. And there, I need to speak with equal passion, and one does not contradict the other. And what makes me often so frustrated about Jewish life is that we tend to be divided into one or another linguistic camp. There’s one camp that knows very well how to defend Israel, and there’s another camp that knows very well how to criticize what’s wrong with Israel. Why can’t we speak two languages simultaneously? And I think that what this moment requires is a little bit of linguistic sophistication, so that’s conceptually.
More practically, I would love to see thousands of Diaspora Jews across the world join in the demonstrations that are happening in cities all over the West. Every Sunday, you have demonstrations from Seattle to Melbourne. And they tend to be organized and led by Israelis living abroad. And they’ve been a tremendous resource at this moment. And I think something very interesting is happening in terms of the relationship between Israelis abroad and the state that really should be examined. And I want to see thousands of American Jews, Australian Jews, British Jews, doing what we do every week, which is come with giant Israeli flags and affirm the Israel that you love in the streets of the West. Let this be a teaching moment for your children and grandchildren, a reminder of why Israel matters and what is the Israel that matters. The second, I think, concrete proposal, is to start organizing study groups in your synagogues, in your Jewish organizations. Become aware of the issues. President Herzog made a speech the other day where he said, something really important has happened in Israel in the last month, which is that all of us have become amateur legal experts. Now, until this started, I had no idea how many justices there were in the Supreme Court. Now, I can tell you the difference between the German system and New Zealand and the Israeli system. And so we’ve taken this on by necessity.
And it’s not only our responsibility to learn these issues, we need serious partners in the Diaspora to study these issues with us, so that we don’t hear, as we do all the time from friends in the Diaspora, “Well, isn’t the legal reform, the judicial reform that this government proposing just like America? What’s the difference?” Eight months into this crisis, we shouldn’t be hearing that kind of ignorant question from Jews who love Israel. So the final thing I would say is pay attention to the organizations in the Diaspora. There are several organizations that are promoting the democracy advocacy movement in Israel. Pay attention to the organizations in Israel. Invite leaders of the Israeli Democracy Movement to your communities. I know that this happened recently in Seattle. They brought Brothers in Arms, one of the leading organizations, to speak to the local community. This should be happening all over the Diaspora. And something significant is happening here, which is that a large part of the Israeli public is turning to the Diaspora and saying, be our partners in helping determine the future of Israel. We haven’t had this before. This is a moment where we can reshape, reimagine the Diaspora-Israel relationship. And if we don’t reimagine this relationship, I believe, I fear — this is something that Danny said earlier — that the Diaspora-Israel relationship is going to begin to wither. It’s going to begin to fade away. And this is a moment to rejuvenate that relationship.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Our time is drawing to a close, but we may steal a few minutes from the next hour. And Matti, I want you to speak with your reporter’s cap on a little bit, and talk to us a little bit about the Jerusalem demonstrations. What makes them so unique? Jerusalem is obviously unique in and of itself. Obviously, there’s only one Jerusalem, as my Jerusalemite husband always told me. But I also, in addition to describing the Jerusalem protest, I’d like you to answer what a reader wrote: “You’re asking us to join the protest, but what specifically are the protests protesting? And what specifically are the protests asking for? Are the protests’ goal simply to remove this government?”
Matti Friedman: So the Jerusalem protest is an incredibly unique occurrence. And it is worth a few words because I’m not sure that everyone outside Israel gets the landscape of the protest movement. It’s not a unified movement, it’s not a big organization, it’s not centrally run. It’s groups of volunteers in different places who have different personalities. So the biggest demonstration is the one in Tel Aviv, which has a personality that’s more militantly secular in the old Israeli style. In Jerusalem, the language of the organization that runs the protest in Jerusalem — which is just a wonderful group of volunteers. The organization again is called in Hebrew, “Shomrim al HaBait HaMeshutaf,” in English, “Save our Shared Home” or SOS, and the details are in the chat — the language is the language of tolerant Judaism. And that, I think, makes the Jerusalem protest better match for the Diaspora than any other protest movement in Israel because it’s a language that easily translates. And just to give you an example of protests in the past couple of weeks, and we’ve been out, almost everyone for the past 35 weeks or so. You’ll have a speaker who represents the Bedouin community in the Negev, then you’ll have someone, a rabbi from the moderate right, maybe from a yeshiva in the West Bank, and that happened a few weeks ago. You’ll have someone representing LGBT Israelis in Jerusalem, you’ll have a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, you’ll have a figure from one of the liberal religious movements. It’s a very unique coming together of different kinds of Israelis who disagree about many, many things, but who can meet outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem and agree that all of this will only be possible in a liberal democratic state. And again, liberal does not mean left in the American sense, it means a state that’s committed to the principles of liberal democracy, which are the principles that are now under assault. So the Jerusalem protest is remarkable. It’s a real reason for hope. When I’m feeling depressed and I want to just kind of crawl into my basement and lock the door, I go to protest and I come back feeling really optimistic, the number of people we have engaged out on the street every single wave for 35 weeks is incredible. The people are incredible, the speakers are incredible, even though I disagree with them much of the time. But the fact that we could all stand and respectfully listen to each other and wave Israeli flags in opposition to the Israeli government, I mean, it’s quite an amazing thing, and I encourage you to visit. If you can come to Israel and if you’re in Israel, make sure that you hit one of the protests if possible.
The Jerusalem protests, Shomrim al HaBait HaMeshutaf, this will be too long an answer, so I’m just going to cut it really quick. What do we want? The protest movement — if it can be said to want one thing and many people in it, want many different things — we want to preserve the Israel that’s presented in the Declaration of Independence. And you can pull up the Declaration of Independence, I would sign that document right now if I was asked to. The Declaration of Independence presents the state that we want. It’s a Jewish state that’s rooted in Jewish history and it provides equal rights to minorities and equal rights to different religions and equal rights to different genders. And that has always been the dream of Israel. It was written in that document on the first day of the state’s life. And the groups that are coming together under the banner of the protests want that state, and not the state that is being proposed by this completely unacceptable coalition of extremists.
Amanda Borschel-Dan: Matti, thank you for that. So I want to thank you, all of you, Yossi, Daniel, Matti, for joining me today. The Times of Israel will continue to cover all aspects of this judicial overhaul dispute. So, if you would like to hear more already, please check out a lengthy podcast devoted solely to an interview with Simcha Rothman, who is the coalition MK who has been steering the legislation through the Knesset coalition, as well as other episodes of the What Matters Now podcast. We hope to see you again soon for future events with pro and anti-overhaul personalities. So again, thank you Yossi, Matti, Daniel, and until next time, shalom.
Check out last week’s What Matters Now episode:
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