The ProsenPeople

Interview: Yossi Klein Halevi

Tuesday, January 13, 2015| Permalink

by Philip K. Jason

Yossi Klein Halevi's first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was first published in 1995 and was reprinted in fall 2014. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land appeared in 2001. His latest book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award and was released in paperback in fall 2014. Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Philip K. Jason recently spoke with Yossi about his writing and his current project.

Philip K. Jason: In the course of your research and interviews for Like Dreamers, what were your most surprising discoveries?

Yossi Klein Halevi: I was constantly amazed at the intensity of life in Israel, from the very founding of the state. I kept wondering how one small country could contain so much history. One of the characters in the book, Arik Achmon, participated in every one of Israel’s wars, beginning in 1948. Where else does life make such demands on the citizens of a nation? Sometimes it seemed to me as if we were trying to compensate for centuries of Jewish life without sovereignty by cramming as much experience into our national life as possible.

I was struck too by the manic depressive nature of the Israeli experience. In 1967 we were euphoric with victory; in 1973, only six years later, we were in despair. And yet, militarily at least, the Yom Kippur War was in some senses more impressive than the Six Day War.

One pattern emerged in the post-67 story of Israel that has particular relevance today, and that is this: When Israelis feel that the international community is against them, they retreat into hardline positions. When they feel more accepted, they are ready to take risks for peace. The Oslo process was launched in an atmosphere of growing acceptance of Israel, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. By contrast, the settlement movement became mainstream in the weeks following the 1975 UN Zionism-Racism resolution. Israelis pushed back by embracing the settlers.

PKJ: In Like Dreamers, you position yourself as a centrist, someone who is obligated to listen to both (or all) sides – perhaps more than listen. Has this stance helped you gain you access as a journalist?

YKH: Being open to hearing opposing voices gave me emotional access – allowed me to empathize with opposing camps. I moved to Israel at the beginning of the first Lebanon War in 1982, when Israelis were literally shouting at each other on the streets. That was the first time that war had failed to unite the country – worse, the war itself was dividing us. As a new immigrant I had two choices. I could either choose a camp, or learn to listen. I chose the second option and forced myself to listen deeply to what all of Israel’s political and cultural and ethnic groups were really saying. What were the fears of left and right? The visions of Israel being expressed by secularists and religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis? I not only tried to become absorbed into Israeli society, but to absorb Israel, in all its complexity, into my being. That’s how I became an Israeli.

PKJ: I believe it was Jabotinsky who most vigorously argued that social democracy was not and would not be a blessing for Jewish survival. Anti-Semitism would always trump ideological purity. Has that writer-thinker-politician been an influence on your thinking?

YKH: I grew up in the Betar youth movement founded by Jabotinsky: In Betar we called him “Rosh Betar,” head of Betar, a title reserved only for him. So yes, love for Jabotinsky goes deep in me. As for the ideological influence: I support territorial compromise, and Jabotinsky of course was a territorial maximalist. Though I’m not sure that Jabotinsky himself would be a maximalist today. He envisioned solutions for a different time. He was trying to save Europe’s Jews, and Israel was not yet a sovereign state. Today we face threats that Jabotinsky couldn’t imagine.

It’s interesting to go back to the great Jabotinsky-Ben-Gurion debates of the 1930s. Each of them won a different argument. Ben-Gurion won the argument over partition. But Jabotinsky won the argument over what he called the “iron wall” -- the need for a powerful military presence against those who would destroy us. Today we have a literal wall – I see it from my porch on the edge of Jerusalem, bordering the West Bank.

For me, what endures as an example is Jabotinsky’s courage, his willingness to go against the conventional wisdom and try to save Europe’s Jews. He was the only Jewish leader, the only Zionist leader in the 30s, to foresee a coming catastrophe and try to mobilize the Jewish world. He failed of course, and died of a heart attack in 1940.

PKJ: You have taken a close look at Israel’s wars, especially the Six-Day (1967) War, and explored how the conduct and resolution of those wars affected the course of Israel’s identity, political and otherwise. In one way or another, this perennially stressed nation finds ways of reinventing and reimagining itself – sometimes losing its memory in the process. From your own experiences, and from those paratroopers and others whose lives you have researched, what do you see is the most likely direction for the future?

YKH: The question that became increasingly urgent for me as I was writing Like Dreamers is: Where will the next great messianic Jewish dream come from? The story that the book tells is not only about the divide between left and right but about the fate of Israel’s great dreams. Two utopian dreams successively defined Israel. The first was the kibbutz movement, the dream of an egalitarian Israel that would be a laboratory for creating the world’s purest democratic communism. Then came the settlement movement, which believed that the messianic era was upon us. Each of those movements helped shape Israel as we know it – from the country’s borders to the quality of its army. In the end though, both failed to win the trust of mainstream Israel.

We’ve paid a price for the utopian delusions of the Jews. But we’ve also been tremendously energized by these two utopian movements. This is the first time in the history of the state – the history of Zionism – when there is no utopian avant-garde trying to lead the nation. The result is a growing sense of drift among Israelis.

My sense – maybe it’s only a hope – is that the next great outbreak of utopian energy in Israeli society will be spiritual, not political, and will focus on creating the next phase of Judaism. What kind of Judaism will we live as a sovereign people in its land? So far, we’ve mostly imported forms of Judaism that emerged under conditions of a persecuted, ghettoized minority. We need forms of Judaism that are worthy of the profound transformation in Jewish life we’ve experienced over the last two centuries, and especially since the creation of Israel.

PKJ: In Memoirs, you write: “To be an American Jew meant being inherently inauthentic, a spectator to Jewish history.” This outlook grows, in part, out of you experience while in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Do you mean to root this viewpoint in that time, or do you feel that it is a general truth? Is there no Jewish history unfolding in the diaspora?

YKH: That was definitely a reflection of my thinking as a young American Jew. It is certainly not my thinking today. Ironically, I feel more connected to American Jews since becoming an Israeli than I did growing up in America. My American Jewish experience was highly peculiar. I grew up in Borough Park, in a survivor community, on the edges of American Jewish life. I had a great deal of anger against American Jewry. My father, a survivor from Hungary, blamed American Jews for not trying to rescue European Jewry, and I turned his anger into political alienation. That’s why I joined Betar, and then the Jewish Defense League – I deliberately positioned myself on the fringes of American Jewry.

Since moving to Israel, I’ve gotten to know American Jewry far better than I knew it when I was actually living in America. I spend a good deal of time lecturing about Israel in Jewish communities and I’ve come to love and respect American Jewry. Our generation is blessed with two unimaginable Jewish options. The first is to live in a sovereign Jewish state, where we can determine the nature of our public space. The second is to live in the most free and accepted Diaspora in history, where Jews are invited to help shape the public space of the most powerful country in the world. Our great-grandparents would have been amazed if only one of those options had emerged. We are overwhelmed with riches.

PKJ: What are your responsibilities to / benefits from your position as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute?

YKH: I’m a member of the Institute’s iEngage seminar, which creates a curriculum on Israel for Diaspora Jews. iEngage is an attempt to give Diaspora Jews a richer language in speaking about Israel – less political and more conceptual, an attempt to create a shared values conversation.

Also, I co-direct the institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, or MLI, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University. MLI aims at educating young emerging Muslim American leaders about the meaning of Israel in Judaism and for Jews today. We’ve graduated our first cohort of 15 participants – a remarkable group of people – and we have two new groups.

Along with those responsibilities, I spend my mornings at the institute writing. It’s a wonderful arrangement for a writer.

PKJ: When/why did you add Halevi to your name? [I realize that it could have always been part of your “ritual” name.]

YKH: When my wife, Sarah, and I moved to Israel, we decided to Hebraize our name. We chose Halevi because, well, I’m a Levi, and the Levites were a caste of service in the Temple, playing music, and Sarah and I were drawn to the idea of serving God through creativity. Sarah and I met in a writing program – at City College.

PKJ: Any new book projects on your to do list?

YKH: I’ve just begun a new book project, which is about the Palestinians. I’ll say only that I intend this to be much shorter than Like Dreamers – both in terms of book length and the amount of time I’ll invest in it. Like Dreamers took eleven years to research and write. As we used to say in JDL – never again.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don't Wave Goodbye: The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.

Related Content:

Have You Read...