Lunch with Yossi Klein Halevi
When Yossi Klein Halevi gets around to writing the essay he is working on, what follows, I’m guessing, will be the lead. It is November 1975. The settlement movement is in its infancy. Settlers stage a Masada-like stand at Sabastia, near Nablus in the West Bank, and the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin—who, during his second go-round as head-of-government, was assassinated 15 years ago yesterday—gives in, despite being ill-inclined to the movement. The cause of the settlers’ fervency? The cause for Rabin’s backing down? Simple: Mere months before, the United Nations had declared that Zionism is equivalent to racism, and, as one of the settlers, a young man named Ehud Olmert, put it at the time, “This is the Zionist answer to the U.N.”
Halevi, a kind-looking, good-humored middle-aged man with close-cropped whitish hair and a kippah, made aliyah in 1982 (he grew up in Boro Park, Brooklyn), but yesterday he sat around a table with 20 or so journalists and activists, mostly Jewish (though Irshad Manji, the prominent Muslim critic of Islam, sat opposite me), as we munched on kosher sandwiches as guests of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. I decided to schlep to the fourth floor of SoHo’s Puck Building all the way from Tablet Magazine’s offices on the fifth floor of SoHo’s Puck Building to hear what Halevi had to say, because I’ve long admired—though not always agreed with—his work in The New Republic, where he is a contributing editor.
Halevi used hand-written notes as he talked for the first 30 minutes. In between writing his book—which will follow a group of paratroopers from the Six Day War, some of whom ended up leaders in the settlement movement, some of whom ended up leaders in the peace movement—he has been grappling with an essay about the danger of what he called the “re-ghettoization” of the Jewish people. Lunch was based around his essay-in-the-making, and therefore had the welcome feel of a creative writing workshop: One person reads his story; then everyone else responds with their constructive criticism and complaints; the story itself is strengthened.
In a nutshell, Halevi’s thesis is that the right-wing agenda, which focuses on combating the international demonization of Israel, and the left-wing agenda, with its litany of grievances—settlements, the threat to democracy posed by the religious and nationalist parties—are really targeting the same fear: “That the Jews stand to be re-ghettoized.” If the Holocaust is the ultimate of ghettoization, then the state of Israel and the thriving American Jewish community—and the pact the two have made—mark a resistance to lapsing back in that direction. In turn, the far left’s attempts to de-legitimize Israel and the far right’s gambits that turn American Jews off the Jewish state mark threats to that resistance.
The Israeli right wants a loyalty oath to spite the world; the world wants to spite Israel because of the loyalty oath. And so on. Yet, curiously, the moderate right and the moderate left remain at odds. Halevi wants a re-alignment wherein the sensible, moderate forces on each side, without abandoning their substantive ideologies—he is no mushy-middle Jon Stewart or anything like that—recognize their common goals and common enemies and, together, wage a two-fronted, coordinated counter-attack against worldwide demonization and domestic right-wing alternatives, the twin tools of re-ghettoization.
Acknowledging first the legitimacy of right-wing fears, he noted: “This is a classic anti-Semitic moment. Israel has become the symbol of human rights violations, apartheid, and colonialism.” He continued: “It’s not that the U.N. Human Rights Council has singled Israel out for condemnation more than any other country. It’s that it has singled it out more than all the other countries combined.” The ultra-Orthodox—Halevi listens to their radio stations, almost as a mischievous hobby—see the international campaign of delegitimization “as confirmation of their theological despair: How it is an inviolate law of human nature that Esau, the goy, hates Jacob, the Jew.” And, he added, it’s not just the right: 55 percent of voters for the left-wing Meretz party recently said that they believe there is nothing Israel could do to alter international perceptions. The left-wing party! “I’ve never seen a statistic that shocked me more,” he said.
Therefore, as a moderate Israeli, he has little but contempt for those in America who “support those Israeli groups aligned with the demonization of Israel.” “There needs to be a red line drawn between the American Jewish community and the far left,” he added. And what is the red line? It is Judge Goldstone—whom he kept coming back to, as both symbol and touchstone, metaphor and metonym, of the international community’s unique animus toward Israel. (He noted that J Street dissociated itself from Goldstone only after significant external urging. “If J Street understood what Goldstone means to the mainstream of Israel,” he argued, “there would not have been hesitation.”)
“That’s not to let us off the hook,” he continued. Ah: Time to switch gears, to the left’s fears. I was surprised, though perhaps I should not have been, to hear him endorse President Clinton’s controversial statement regarding the illiberalness of the million Russian immigrants—“they come from a non-democratic culture,” Halevi noted. “In their minds, they’re associating democracy with the radical left.” He condemned Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s “genocidal banter”—the man who was formerly Israel’s chief rabbi recently mused that all Palestinians should go away, pretty much for good. As for settlements? Our host, Professor Steven M. Cohen, noted that in a recent essay Halevi devoted most of his word count to explaining why Israel is unlikely to abandon settlements, while mentioning, in a brief aside, that he would personally support an extension of the freeze. Halevi’s emphasis remained on the first point. Besides, he pointed out, when war with Hezbollah and who knows who else could start any day, do you really want to antagonize the religious Zionist movement whose members constitute 40 percent of the IDF’s combat-officer corps?
But Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the influential president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who sat directly across from me, would not accept Halevi’s more-in-sorrow defense of not extending the freeze. For many American Jews, Yoffie argued, it is difficult to move onto combating international demonization when that demonization is provoked by the blatant moral and practical blight that is continued West Bank construction.
Here came, for me, the most useful part of the conversation, because I got to see, in Halevi, something I had heretofore only read about: The widespread Israeli understanding of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from all the Gaza settlements and a few in the West Bank as a complete disaster, which must never be repeated. “I don’t want Netanyahu to give anything away for free,” Halevi insisted, his voice carrying a harsh undercurrent for the only time that afternoon. The problem with extending the freeze for nothing in return, he said, is that the last time the settlements were put on hold—indeed, they were eliminated—in exchange for nothing, there were rockets; and then there was an attempt to stop the rockets; and then there was a near-total absence of international support for stopping the rockets; and then there was the Goldstone Report.
I decided to ask a question. Earlier, Halevi had set up an equivalence between the fringe Israeli right and the fringe Israeli left, in how they both are working, consciously or not, to re-ghettoize the Jewish people—the former by casting Jews as uniquely just, the latter by casting Jews as uniquely unjust. Even if that’s so, I inquired, in Israel, right now, the fringe left has barely half a voice, while the fringe right is running much of the government. Therefore, I inquired, shouldn’t American Jews focus on condemning the Israeli right fringe, if only to help bring about an equilibrium? He ceded my point about the fringe right’s outsize power in Israel—after all, when the foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman, the point is inarguable—but parried by referring back to the international community, where, he said, the fringe left is at least as strong. (My rebuttal, which I didn’t get the opportunity to make, would be that “the international community” doesn’t really matter—what matters, really, is Israel and the United States, and in those two communities, the fringe right maintains far more power than the fringe left.)
No doubt lefties familiar with Halevi cringed when I described him as moderate, but the fact is that well over an hour had passed before I heard a genuine right-wing voice, and it wasn’t Halevi. Jonathan Mark, an associate editor at The Jewish Week, had been sitting skeptically silent with an overly large tape recorder perched on the table in front him; its red light was especially big, giving the impression that every word was being captured extra clearly, the better to be thrown back at their speakers with extra velocity. Finaly, Mark spoke, comparing Shas, the premier ultra-religious Israeli party (of which Rabbi Yosef is spiritual leader), to Herschel Grynszpan, the teenage Jew who shot a German official in Paris and thereby “provoked” Kristallnacht, as Nazi propoganda had it. It is an ugly analogy—that Mark floated it confirms that, for some Jews, it will always be 1938—but one that can be engaged without being taken completely literally. Essentially, Mark was arguing that Shas’s desire to religiously regulate most facets of Israeli life, Ovadia’s “genocidal banter,” and the rest, is not why the world hates Israel, and that blaming the world’s hatred of Israel on Shas is a canard equivalent to blaming Kristallnacht on one Jew. Israel could banish Shas tomorrow, Mark was saying, and many of Israel’s enemies would continue to be Israel’s enemies.
Halevi’s response was deft: Not even addressing those irreconcilably ill-disposed to the Jewish state, he said, “I’m concerned how Rabbi Ovadia plays to our friends.” I’ll lift a kosher salmon sandwich to that.
Halevi is just one man, with idiosyncratic views. Yet I won’t consider it the height of irresponsibility to extrapolate somewhat from him to a broader Israeli consensus. Which means I’ll be waiting for that essay (which hopefully I haven’t just ruined!) Toward the end, without anyone even attempting to define his specific politics, Halevi volunteered them: “I’ve voted for every winning Israeli prime minister since 1992,” he said.
Related: Why Israel Won’t Abandon the Settlers [WSJ]
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