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Yair Lapid Wants to Teach Israelis to Understand American Jews. Will He Get the Chance?

The Israeli opposition leader has a very different vision for American and Israeli Jews than the current government

Yair Rosenberg
September 17, 2019
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

You can tell that Yair Lapid, the co-leader of Israel’s chief opposition party, used to be a journalist by how he is already thinking about how I will tell his story.

Midway through our conversation about how Israel should relate to American Jews, he pauses and declares, “I’m gonna tell you a story and I’m betting this is how you’re going to start your story.”

Suddenly, he is telling me about a road trip he recently took to Montana.

“When this campaign started, it was a mess,” he begins. “There was an election, and all of a sudden there was another election.” Lapid’s Blue and White, the centrist party that had just tied Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in Knesset seats, now had to ramp up for an unprecedented second campaign, and the party was beset with questions about what to do next.

“Anytime I have something to think about, I always do the same thing,” Lapid says. “I fly somewhere, I take a car, and go on a road trip for a few days.” This time he landed in Denver, Colorado, and started driving toward Seattle, where he intended to catch a flight home. “There’s a new, unbelievable Bruce Springsteen album, so I’m listening to it, and I get to a place called Billings, Montana.”

There, he unexpectedly discovered some Jews. “I see a building with a Magen David [Star of David] on it,” he recalls. “I’m a curious guy, and it’s Friday afternoon, so I go and ring the bell and a young man opens the door.” Lapid asks him about Sabbath services, “but he just stares at me.” It turns out that the man is a rabbinical student who is completing a masters degree in international relations, and has written several papers about Lapid and his Yesh Atid party. “So all the things I was running away from, he knows,” Lapid chuckles.

The man asks Lapid if he’d like to address the class that is meeting in the building. Lapid agrees, and he is introduced to the group. “There’s 35 people there, from the age of 16 to the age of 80, and I’m talking to them about my father’s experience in the ghetto in Budapest, and the creation of Israel.” It gets emotional. They explain to him that they have “been coming here for a year, once a week, to learn about the Holocaust and what it means to be a Jew after it.”

And here’s the kicker, Lapid says: “These people were told by the Israeli government that they were not really Jewish—because it’s a Reform synagogue. These are people in Billings, Montana, who come every Friday to learn about the Holocaust and to teach their children about their Jewish destiny, and they’ve been told that they’re not Jewish.”

“We have to fix this. And this is a prime minister’s role: to make sure people understand that these are not good Jews, these are great Jews. These are our brothers and sisters, and they care about us and we should care about them.”

Needless to say, Lapid won the bet.

The Montana anecdote encapsulates the qualities that made Lapid such a successful journalist, and later, such a surprisingly successful politician. Simply put, he goes out and meets people where they are, listens to their stories, and knows how to tell them his own.

When I interview him, it’s at a nondescript coffee shop in Lod, the central Israeli town where Lapid is campaigning but many other Israeli politicians will never set foot before Election Day. Places like this are the unheralded underbelly of his political machine. When Lapid founded his Yesh Atid party, which now comprises half of the opposition Blue and White slate, he set about building local branches across Israel. The result: Unlike past Israeli third-way parties, from his father’s secularist Shinui to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid has stubbornly stuck around for multiple elections, buoyed by genuine grassroots support across the country.

The Billings tale also illustrates Lapid’s skills as a storyteller, an ability that is inextricable from his ascent. Before Lapid, some Israeli political scientists had argued that there was no Israeli “center,” and that third parties were merely way stations for voters seeking to defect from one camp but not yet ready to join the other. This theory explained why centrist parties perpetually cratered after one election: Their voters had completed their transition to another mainstream party. Lapid disagreed—and built a centrist party with staying power to prove it. He told Israelis a different story, and they believed it, turning a former boxer and TV presenter into a viable contender for the prime ministership.

Today, critics argue that Lapid is too much of a storyteller—that he presents himself differently to different audiences, and has shape-shifted his positions with the political winds, from leftist social democrat to security hawk. It’s a critique that undoubtedly has some merit, and also doubles as evidence of the man’s successful transition into the political profession.

Always looking for a good story, Lapid is exactly the sort of person who would walk up to a random synagogue in middle America and knock on the door. But most people—let alone Israelis—are not. This is natural: Most Israeli Jews will never set foot in America, and have little experience with how Jews overseas might experience their Judaism. “This is already the second generation of Israelis,” Lapid notes, “that has no vivid memory of what it is to live in a diaspora or the difficulties for a Jew living in the diaspora—maintaining and dealing with the duality of their identity.”

I ask Lapid if he believes that one of the roles of the Israeli prime minister is to educate Jews in Israel about the sort of Jews they might not otherwise encounter. “The answer, of course, is yes,” he says. “It’s common knowledge that sometimes leaders need to do something that is unpopular because it’s the right thing to do. But there’s another role of leadership which is to point to the things people don’t care about and say: ‘You should care.’”

When it comes to bridging divides between Israeli and American Jews, he adds, “It is not even a very difficult task. You’re right, it’s an ocean away, but on the other hand, the ethos, the mutual feelings, the emotions, the legacy, the commitment are there. They were just neglected for a while.”

Lapid already has the perfect story to tell both Jewish communities about each other. He first recounted it at the National Convention for Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly in 2012:

As the years go by, I realize more and more that there’s something that connects us that is stronger than all ornaments, and it is this eerie unexplainable thing called “the Jewish fate.” This is our big secret. This is the thing that makes me stand here and you sit here. Because the split between us, the division between us, is just an historical accident. If we are to move the biographies of our fathers and grandfathers a half inch to the right or to the left, I could be you and you could be me.

I could be you and you could be me, because somewhere down the line of the family history of each and every person who sits in this room, there is a man standing on a pier in a harbor, trying to figure out which direction he is going.

Reflecting on that speech seven years later, Lapid tells me, “I remember what I was thinking about when I was giving this lecture—I was thinking about Tom Lantos.” Tamás Lantos, who would go on to serve as a Democratic member of Congress for 27 years, lived in the same Budapest ghetto as Tommy Lapid, Yair’s father. Both survived. “They were together in the ghetto,” Lapid explains, “and when the war ended, they metaphorically went to the same harbor, to different piers, and one took the boat going to the right and one took the boat going to the left.” One ended up in America and the other in Israel, where both left their marks in the political arena.

“And it could easily have been the other way around,” Lapid observes. “So every American Jew I look at, I think: He could be me and I could be him.”

At a time when American and Israeli Jews increasingly struggle to see their likeness reflected in the other’s eyes, Lapid’s story writes both back into each other’s narrative. The question to be answered today is: Will he get the chance to tell it?

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.