‘Internal unraveling’: Yossi Klein Halevi on Israel, Iran and American Jewry

April 22, 2024

Watch the recording.

As I enter his hotel room at the venerable Claremont Club & Spa, Yossi Klein Halevi tells me that he’s just returned from a stealth outing to nearby UC Berkeley.

A respected Israeli journalist, author and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Halevi has spent much of his career seeking out his Muslim and Christian neighbors in an effort to understand their worldviews — and, in turn, to help them understand his. It is little surprise, then, that among the first things he did on landing in the Bay Area was to set out to seek a voice from the other side — to try for himself to grasp what’s been going on there since Oct. 7.

Approaching the UC Berkeley entrance at Sather Gate, Halevi slipped a cap onto his head to cover his kippah, approached a young Palestinian woman and, feigning ignorance of the conflict, began asking questions about a two-state solution. The conversation didn’t go far, ending with the woman’s declaration that there should be one state and Jews could live there — but maybe not all of them.

I’ve heard there’s something called a two-state solution, he said. Do you support that?

No, she said, I don’t.

What should happen, then? he asked.

There should be one state, and all of its citizens should be treated equally, she said.

Can Jews live in this state?

Yes, she said, then quickly added a caveat. But there weren’t always so many Jews in Israel.

So in this new state, should the number of Jews shrink back down to what it once was? Halevi asked.

That’s up to the government, she said.

“So,” Halevi tells me now, looking out over the Claremont’s well-appointed tennis courts and, beyond, the San Francisco Bay, “that was interesting.”

In 2018, Klein Halevi wrote the bestselling “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor,” a series of missives to an imagined Palestinian in which he lays out Israel’s self-narrative and earnestly chases an understanding of how Palestinians see their own place in the region. In 2002, he published “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” a religious travelogue in which he pursued a common spiritual language with members of disparate faiths. For more than a decade, Halevi has served as co-director of Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, which teaches Muslim Americans about Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel.

On this day in Berkeley he’s wearing a dark sweater with a blue button-down peeking out the collar, and a knit kippah of identical colors. He’s into the second month of a three-month lecture tour in the United States and Canada, but his clothes remain elegantly pressed. His feelings about the situation in Israel aren’t so tidy. Over the next hour, he expresses hopes for Israel’s future that are at once measured and messianic — alongside deep-seated fears that the whole project could unravel. Six months removed from Oct. 7, and two days after Iran’s aerial salvo, Halevi says the gravest threats Israel faces today emanate as much from Israelis themselves as from enemies outside.

Following is a transcript of the interview, edited for space and clarity.

Chanan Tigay: You arrived in Berkeley during an extraordinary moment back home. Iran attacked Israel two days ago, which opens another front in the Middle East war. We saw pictures of Iranian projectiles over Jerusalem, where you live. How should Israel respond?

Yossi Klein Halevi: It ought to be no “response.” We don’t “respond.” We don’t “retaliate.” We are in a war with Iran, and we haven’t fought this war strategically. We have fought it in three ways. One is to try to slow down their nuclear program — to sabotage. We fight Iran in Syria and sometimes Iraq, to stop the arms supply to Hezbollah. And most of all, we fight Iran through its proxies, including now in Gaza. And all three of those approaches are necessary but inadequate. Bringing down the Iranian regime should be the official goal. In the same way that their goal is the destruction of the State of Israel, our goal should be the destruction of the regime. And if that’s the case, then retaliation is irrelevant. You retaliate when you’re trying to maintain a status quo. I’m against the status quo. Iran wants to destroy us. I’m very hawkish on Iran.

CT: Why does Iran uniquely have to have its regime toppled?

YKH: This is a regime that is not only committed to Israel’s destruction but has surrounded Israel with its proxies. Iran’s historic victory over Israel was to expose us on most of our borders with either allies or proxies — Hamas is an ally, Hezbollah is a proxy. And now in the last couple of years it’s been flooding the West Bank with weapons to turn that into a conflict zone as well. You know, that’s our last border we have effective control over. So Iran has strategically outmaneuvered us. And we need to hit back against Iran directly.

CT: Some people looked at what Iran did and said, my God, this is more than we expected they were able to do, this is frightening. Other people looked and said, well, if this is it, we really managed to defend ourselves impressively.

YKH: It’s an illusion. If Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, the Houthis, Iraq, fired their entire missile arsenal at us, our defense system would collapse. We can handle 300 missiles. We can’t handle 30,000.

CT: Could this have been a test run?

YKH: I’m sure it was a test run.

CT: And this comes on top of Oct. 7, the war in Gaza, attacks by Hezbollah — all of which follow directly on the heels of a very tumultuous period of discord over proposed changes to Israel’s judiciary. I’m curious how it feels to be an Israeli living day-to-day in these circumstances.

YKH: This is the first time that I’m out of Israel since Oct. 7. It’s extremely disorienting. On the one hand, since Oct. 7, Israel is the most dangerous place, physically, for Jews by far anywhere in the world. But it is the safest place psychologically. Since being out of Israel, I find myself weighing every conversation. Every conversation here is potentially fraught. The one sense of relief that you have in Israel is that everyone around you, more or less, is going through the same thing. We have rarely seen this kind of emotional unanimity in Israel, probably since the Second Intifada, maybe not since the Yom Kippur War. So it’s this extraordinary dichotomy of feeling intensely insecure physically, and psychologically embraced. And I miss that. I really miss it.

CT: We’ve heard calls for a cease-fire in Gaza from many corners here in the U.S. Earlier this month, the Forward called for a cease-fire. How do you feel when you hear American Jews offering advice about what Israel should do?

YKH: My heart pulls one way, and my head pulls another. My heart tells me, how dare they, where’s their humility? They have no idea what it’s like living under the conditions we live in. And they’re always quick with advice. My head tells me that if we insist that the State of Israel is the centerpoint of Jewish life today in the way that the land of Israel was the centerpoint of the Jewish imagination before the Zionist return, then we have to own that. We have to own the consequences of that.

I draw a distinction between American Jews who are speaking within the tent and those who are speaking outside the tent. And the tent is defined for me in a very simple way. If you support Israel as a Jewish majority state, you’re part of the conversation, whether I like what you have to say or not. If you’re anti-Zionist, in whatever variation, then you’re not part of my conversation, and I have no obligation to take seriously what you say. We don’t share a common storyline and a shared commitment.

Now, those who are calling for a cease-fire I think are wrong. But they’re not treasonous. I have a responsibility to not only listen, but to push back. And they have a responsibility to hear me. We need a serious conversation.

So how do I feel emotionally when we’re under attack by enemies who want to destroy us and American Jews gather to advocate policies that, I believe, tie our hands? I hate it. But I’m trying to learn to separate the emotions from what I believe is a necessary policy position toward the diaspora.

CT: In December, the New York Times quoted you as saying, “Something fundamental has changed here, and we don’t know what it is yet. What we do know is that this is kind of a last chance for this country.”

YKH: Oh, yeah. I hated that quote.

CT: And now here I am, asking about that one line.

YKH: (laughing) It’s an interesting quote.

CT: I found it arresting. Do you have a better sense, about four months later, about what has changed? And when you said this is a last chance for Israel — last chance for what?

YKH: I think the two questions you’re asking are actually related. I think that many Israelis now feel that this moment is a last chance to pull the country back from the abyss. Until Oct. 7, many of us were struggling to save Israeli democracy from a profoundly antidemocratic government. And that presented one scenario for the destruction of Israel, an internal unraveling: Israel’s democratic institutions are weakened to the point of irrelevance. Very large numbers of liberal Israelis, especially young Israelis, leave the country. Startup nation begins to unravel. That was a very real scenario until Oct. 7.

The second scenario was Oct. 7, what the destruction of Israel would look like from an external attack, because October 7 was a kind of a microcosm of the destruction of Israel. That’s what it would look like: Armies overrunning the border. The army nowhere to be seen, in complete disarray. Civilians left to their own devices. We experienced a taste of a churban (destruction) coming from without. Many Israelis, I would say a majority of Israelis, have internalized that, to one extent or another. There is a feeling of desperation, which the first months after the war suppressed. We were busy, as we needed to be, mobilizing ourselves.

We’ve never gone to war feeling that our leadership is not just incompetent — we always felt that in previous wars, that’s standard in Israel — but to feel that this is a leadership of scoundrels, a leadership that places their own self-interest ahead of the interest of the country, even during war. It was an extraordinary experience to see Israeli society behaving so responsibly without any faith in its leaders. For me, it was the moment of maturation of Israeli society. When we behaved in a way that made leadership irrelevant. We knew what we had to do, and we defended the country and went to war on our own steam. Netanyahu didn’t rouse us, didn’t inspire us. When he holds a press conference, I turn off the TV. Everybody I know does that. And so we inspired ourselves, we dredged up that sense of dedication to the country, to Jewish history, and we went to war.

CT: You made aliyah in 1982, more than 40 years ago. Does Zionism mean the same thing to you today as it did when you decided to move to Israel?

YKH: I have some sympathy for the old Israeli position that saw Zionism as archaic. We created the state, we reestablished Jewish majority, sovereignty, Jewish power.

One can say that the goal is now defending the state, ingathering the Jewish people home. But I no longer feel tempted by a soft post-Zionism, and one reason for that is Zionism is under assault. I forget who said this, some pre-state Zionist, that as long as the Jewish people are under attack, I will remain a Jew. Now, it’s not the highest form of Jewish identity. But there is a certain dignity in that position. If Zionism is under such sustained assault, I have an obligation to uphold Zionism, to proudly call myself a Zionist and to appear publicly as a Zionist.

If Zionism is to have any relevance in our time, it is as the ideology of Jewish peoplehood. What was so radical about Zionism in the 19th century is that it was a response to other movements in Jewish modernity that were redefining the essence of Jewishness. Zionism comes along and says the essence of Jewish identity is the Jewish people. That was an extraordinary response to the destructive fragmentation of Jewish identity that 19th-century Europe brought. Looking at the Jewish world today, at the profound chaos in Jewish identities, I think we need to embrace that chaos to some extent, provided that we’re able to hold on to some shared commonality. And that’s what Zionism provides the Jewish people.

I would take it one step further. In terms of Israeli society, Zionism is about upholding the Declaration of Independence, which affirms Israel as holding two identities. On the one hand, Israel is the state or the homeland of every Jew, whether or not they are Israeli citizens. And it is the state of all of its citizens, whether or not they’re Jews. Any attempt to undermine either of those identities is a mortal threat to the state.

CT: All of this brings up the question of Arab Israelis and their place in such a state. It’s been six years since you published “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor.”

YKH: It feels like about 100 years.

CT: In that book, you present Israel’s narrative, as you see it, about its place in the world. You acknowledge that Palestinians have their own narrative about the region. You note that neither side is likely to change its narrative. And you urge Palestinians explicitly to respond to you about the issues you raise in the book. I’m curious if you could write “Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor” now. Or has something shifted so profoundly since Oct. 7 that the kind of understanding and communication that you’re urging in the book is not even possible?

YKH: I couldn’t write it now. Not because I disagree with what I wrote. I still affirm the ideas of the book. And I’m glad that I wrote it. I’m glad it’s out there. And it’s been useful to people since Oct. 7. It’s actually had a new life since Oct. 7, and I’m very glad for that.

CT: I read it again.

YKH: I am emotionally detached from it. I hope that a time will come when I’ll be able to emotionally re-own the book. But right now, look, I’m a very kind of mainstream, ordinary Israeli in my instincts, in my responses. Right now in Israel, we are in a state of rage and grief. We haven’t begun to unpack Oct. 7. Oct. 7 is such a profound threat to everything that Israel stands for. The promise of Jewish self-protection. The notion of Israeli military deterrence. The promise of a safe refuge for the Jewish people. Oct. 7 is an earthquake. It’s not just one more event, magnified. It’s qualitatively different from anything we’ve ever experienced.

In terms of our relations to the Palestinians, this really takes us back to the Hebron massacre of 1929 in terms of the atrocities and the celebrations afterward, which I heard from my home [on Oct. 7], from the Palestinian villages across the way. And so I’ve been struggling with rage, never a good emotion under any circumstance. And I’ve been trying to own the misery that we’re inflicting on Palestinians, and to look at questions of whether we could be doing better in terms of humanitarian assistance. And trying to listen to the criticism of our friends, as opposed to the criticism of our enemies. But that’s a real struggle.

To write a book that actively reaches out to Palestinians, that is based on an attempt to empathically understand the Palestinian narrative, which is in some ways antithetical to my narrative, but to create a place in myself where the opposing narrative can be heard — I don’t have the ability to do that. I don’t know too many Israeli Jews who do.

CT: As someone who spent the first couple of decades of their life, more or less, in the United States—

YKH: More or less. I grew up in Borough Park, which was somewhere between Poland and Hungary, though officially it was part of the United States of America.

CT: It’s a different world. That said, what do you know about American Jews that your average Israeli doesn’t but ought to know?

YKH: The first thing is that assimilation does not equal betrayal of the Jewish people. Israelis really don’t understand that it was precisely because American Jews assimilated into American society that Israel’s position was so strong. Because American Jews were not outliers; they were neighbors, they created alliances with other groups. That worked in favor of Israel.

What I would actually like American Jews and Israelis to understand about each other is an appreciation of how each community has responded to the circumstances in which it found itself. American Jews live in what is still, despite everything, the most welcoming home that Jews have ever experienced. American Jews responded by creating forms of Judaism, religious Judaism, communal Judaism, that are open and flexible. And that was exactly the right response to the circumstances.

Israeli Jews live in a region that has rejected our existence for almost the entirety of the last 76 years. So we responded with deterrence, and that was the right response. Each community was responding with its own version of the wisdom of Jewish adaptability. If there’s going to be any possibility of a conversation between these two communities, we need to begin from a place of appreciating how each community was really embodying the wisdom of Jewish survival.

CT: Just to drill down a little bit more, as someone who has spent most of his adult life in Israel, is there anything specific American Jews should know about Israelis that we don’t?

YKH: There is no country like Israel. I’m saying that in a neutral way. I’m not saying it to praise Israel or to damn Israel. It has taken me years to understand Israel, and to peel away layers of romanticism or, the opposite, of misplaced cynicism. And realizing that certain facets of Israeli society that I’ve been cynical about are actually really necessary to the vibrancy of Israel.

I’m still learning about Israel. There are so many Israels. There are so many layers of Israeli consciousness and experience. Israel is an ingathering of, on the one hand, the vitality of the diaspora, the extraordinary diversity of the diaspora. There’s nowhere else in the Jewish world where you’ve absorbed the diversity of the diaspora as you have in Israel. The ethnic vitality of the Jewish people is reflected in Israel as it is nowhere else. But we’ve also gathered the traumas of the Jewish people. The Israeli psyche is multiple layers of unresolved traumas that just keep accumulating. And now we have really a mega-trauma on top of all the other traumas.

I think that American Jews need to understand that Israelis are really not like them. Our experiences are so radically different from anything that American Jews can imagine that I would want that factored in to some extent. Not necessarily in your critique of Israeli policies, but maybe how you critique. With a little bit of sensitivity, a little bit of, dare I say, humility.

The humility works both ways. Israelis need a little bit of humility when we address American Jews. Humility is not our national strong suit. We dismiss the variations of American Judaism without knowing what they are, without understanding the gifts that American Jews have given the Jewish people. Israelis need to understand that this is a much more interesting community than they think. Israelis have a very one-dimensional idea of American Jewry. The Pew polls say 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. What an extraordinary statistic.

CT: I’ve heard it said that Americans, including American Jews, don’t have a full sense of what’s going on in Israel and in Gaza because we’re getting our news by and large from American sources. And I’ve heard something similar about Israelis, that the media in Israel, at least initially, has gotten behind Israel’s response in Gaza to such a degree that Israelis aren’t getting a nuanced sense of what’s actually happening.

YKH: I think they’re both true.

CT: So as someone who I presume consumes news from both places, what is each side missing?

YKH: What I find missing when I read the (New York) Times and other foreign outlets is appreciation of what Israel is facing in Gaza, the entwinement of the Hamas infrastructure with the civilian infrastructure, and how there is no possible way to fight this war except the way we’re doing it. That’s not to say that every aspect of how Israel has fought this war should be defended. I’m very upset that it was the Biden administration that had to pressure us into taking the food crisis in Gaza seriously. That should have been our initiative. And I think the accusation that the IDF targets civilians is so outrageous that I refuse to even engage with it. On the other hand, the accusation that we’re not doing enough to protect the lives of innocents seems to me valid.

What I miss, generally, when I read American coverage — and European coverage is probably even worse — is an understanding of what the nature of this war is about, and why Israel is determined to destroy the Hamas regime. Somehow the goal of this war has gotten displaced. I also find outrageous how the media and then, by extension, just about everybody I speak to, uses the number 30,000 for Palestinian dead as self-evident. Well, 30,000 who? There are no Hamas combatants among those 30,000? We say we’ve killed up to 14,000. If that’s the case, the ratio between fighters and civilians is well within the norm of this kind of war. I hate making that argument because you sound like an accountant of death. But we’re being accused of fighting a war of unprecedented atrocity, or infliction of misery on civilians. And that is a lie. I would call it a big lie.

What we’re missing in Israel is the extent of the catastrophe that we’ve inflicted. I supported this war, I continue to support this war, and so I have to own it. But owning it also means looking at it, and knowing what has so traumatized so much of world opinion. We’re not getting those things, for the most part.

CT: What is your greatest fear for Israel?

YKH: My greatest fear is internal unraveling. That’s the nightmare that opened up in this last year. What we experienced leading up to Oct. 7 was something I’d never felt before, which is wondering whether I have anything really in common with people in the other camp. If you could support this government of criminals — leaving aside the ideology — the corruption of this government. Look at what this government is doing to Israeli society, it’s tearing us apart, and yet you continue to support Netanyahu, and this junta? For the first time since becoming an Israeli, I feared that I was losing my most basic sense of solidarity and common purpose with Israelis with whom I disagreed. And so I worry.

The way that Jewish history worked in the past, when we were sovereign in ancient Judea, is first we unraveled and then the enemy destroyed us from without. In other words, we weaken ourselves to such a point that the enemy comes along and basically just picks up the pieces. This last year was a similar dynamic. We tore ourselves apart, and then Hamas, the weakest of our enemies, just sauntered across the border. That’s the model of how Israel is destroyed. It begins with internal unraveling, and it culminates with physical destruction. So that’s my greatest fear, is that that dynamic is now plausible.

CT: And what’s your most fervent dream for Israel?

YKH: I don’t know how wild to get here.

CT: You’re in Berkeley — it’s a safe space.

YKH: I am a religious Jew. I take the promise of a redeemed world seriously. This notion of the world not being a random place. That there is a purpose, a creator, a creation and a goal to this story will become self-evident, in the same way that the laws of science are becoming self-evident. That the spiritual laws of science will become self-evident, too. I don’t know if that means believing in a particular great soul that will come along — Hindus call it the avatar, we call it the Mashiach. If there’s any truth to this expectation in Judaism that we’re moving toward a culmination of history, of this story, then this is a good moment for that to happen. So my dream for Israel is that we will be one of those places in the world where the reality of God will become manifest. That was always the idea that we carried as a people: that we’re going to come back to the Land of Israel, and God will become manifest, the Shechinah will rise.

What I feel since Oct. 7 is that this is basically a time of going for broke. We have nothing to lose anymore. So I’m coming out of the closet as a Messianist. Ultimately that’s why I find the story of Israel so personally engaging and hopeful. Because I really believe that something spiritually profound is going to happen in that crazy place. Whether it’s a particular avatar who we call the Mashiach, or it’s just some really profound new turn in Judaism. I sense that more and more Israelis — secular, and from the different Orthodox communities — feel a sense of spiritual restlessness. I see a coming together of Israelis from across the cultural spectrum to together help create the next stage of Judaism. That’s where I personally am interested in devoting the last part of my working life. Writing less about political and identity issues, and more about spiritual issues. Because I think that’s where Israeli society and the Jewish people as a whole want to go and need to go. I think we’re reaching the limits of the ability of secularism to hold the modern Jewish story.

The Jewish News of Northern California