Writer Yossi Klein Halevi to speak for JNF-USA
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Writer Yossi Klein Halevi to speak for JNF-USA

After 40 years, he’s upbeat about Israel’s intractable dilemmas

Yossi Klein Halevi
Yossi Klein Halevi

This coming summer, Yossi Klein Halevi will mark the 40th anniversary of making aliyah, moving from his native New York to Jerusalem.

“That was the moment that shaped me as an Israeli,” Mr. Halevi said this week. Then a 29-year-old journalist, with a degree in journalism and freelance contracts with the Village Voice, today he is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of books of nonfiction, including “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” which won the Everett Family Jewish Book of the Year Award from the Jewish Book Council, and “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”

On Tuesday, November 30, he will speak in a breakfast webcast by JNF-USA; see box for details.

“We are excited to have Yossi Klein Halevi address this year’s Breakfast for Israel, where he will share what gives him hope for the future — a topic that’s close to our hearts,” Celine Leeds, director of JNF-USA’s central New Jersey region, which is based in Livingston, said. (The program also is being promoted by JNF-USA’s northern New Jersey and Rockland region; participants from that region are asked to use the website set up for the central New Jersey region.)

“I made aliyah into one of the most divisive moments in Israeli history,” Mr Halevi remembered.

It was the summer of the Lebanon War, which began on June 6, 1982.

“We were fighting a war, and at the same time hundreds of thousands of Israelis were demonstrating against the government. I was joining a society that was tearing itself apart in what should have been a moment of national unity. It helped determine my professional interests as a writer and lecturer on Israel’s schisms and helped shape me as a political and cultural centrist, committed to finding as broad a tent as possible for our competing ideologies.”

Israel’s internal schisms is one of the stated topics of Mr. Halevi’s JNF talk — he plans to talk about three of those schisms.

“The first schism is about the contours of the Israeli map — what will be in and what will be out,” he said. “That’s a gentler way of saying it’s about the future of our relationship with the occupation.

“The second schism is about our internal borders, the borders of the relationship between religion and secularism in Israeli identity, as well as the institutional relationship between religion and the state.

“The third schism is probably the most intractable of our internal divides, the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and the Arab minority.

“My argument is that Israel’s challenge is to continue to search for compromise solutions in all of our challenges that still manage to preserve the basic equilibrium of Israeli society.

“I think we do a better job of that than we often give ourselves credit for.”

In the wake of the Abraham Accords, Mr. Halevi has been in contact with the broader Arab world. (His loving exploration of non-Jewish spirituality among Israel’s Arab communities was chronicled in a book he wrote, called “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” which had the misfortune to be published on September 11, 2001.) He has connected with organizations of young people in Morocco “that are keenly interested in relations with Israel,” he said. “These are young people who look to Israel as an inspiring success story.”

This comes in the wake of the Arabic translation of his 2018 book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” in which he set forth an unapologetic defense of the Jewish narrative of Zionism. “We had about 5,000 downloads in Arabic,” he said.

Free downloads, he noted, are available only for the Arabic translation. “For the English edition you have to pay,” he said — though with the paperback edition of the English original, readers also get a selection of Palestinian responses to the book.

And recently, the book appeared in Hebrew — its tenth language. (Mr. Halevi writes in English.)

“I hope it will stimulate an Israeli conversation on the future of our relationship with the Palestinians,” Mr. Halevi said. He wants to “offer Israeli readers of ‘Letters’ a politically centrist language for peace-making with the Palestinians. Many American Jews haven’t yet internalized that Israel is no longer divided between right and left, but between right and center. This book is an attempt to articulate a centrist worldview on the conflict which is very different from either a left-wing or a right-wing worldview, although the center incorporates elements of both. “The threat of Israel becoming a long-term ruler over another people is the left-wing side of my centrist persona. And the realization that no part of the Palestinian national movement has truly come to terms with our legitimacy — and that creating a Palestinian state under these conditions would therefore be a disaster — is the right-wing part of my centrist person.

“A centrist believes we must create a Palestinian state and we can’t create a Palestinian state. So what do you do in this murky interim?

“One point is that you don’t undermine the status quo. You don’t foreclose the long-term possibility of a two-state solution. And of course, expanding settlements outside the areas we call settlement blocs is exactly that.

“My narrative is a mainstream Israeli one, deeply Zionist. It affirms our right in principle to the entirety of the land of Israel, but it realizes there’s another people we need to come terms with. Just as we can’t have everything we want in our personal lives, we can’t have everything we want, or may deserve, in our national life.”

The book he is now writing — which doesn’t have a title yet, and “the publication date is completely irrelevant, because I’m usually late and will certainly be again,” he said — begins at a key moment in Mr. Halevi’s family history: The end of his father’s Holocaust ordeal in 1944.

“The book opens with my father emerging from his hiding place in a Transylvanian forest, where he was hiding with two friends in a hole,” Mr. Halevi said. “The hole becomes operative metaphor for the book. My father emerging from the earth is the techiyat hametim, the post-Holocaust resurrection of the Jewish people.”

The book opens there and continues with the story of the Jewish societies “that the displaced persons created in Germany after the Shoah. I’m making the case that contemporary Jewish identity was born in the Displaced Persons camps.”

His father was not among those in the DP camps; like most Hungarian survivors, he made his way to America without going through those camps, which housed mainly Jews from Poland.

“The first layer of the DP camp society were Jews who were liberated from the concentration and death camps, including survivors of the death marches. The next and much larger layer began coming about a year later, and that was about 200,000 Polish Jews who had fled into the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. Many of these people had families, so the DP camps became much more ‘normal’ societies.”

Along with this history, Mr. Klein hopes to make a broader statement about the Jewish people.

“It’s about the need for us to consciously own our identity as a survivor people, and how that needs to affect the ways in which we relate to each other, in how we navigate our internal divides,” he said. “And here again is an echo of my trauma from the summer of ’82.”

By survivor people, “I don’t only mean a people that experienced trauma but, much more profoundly, a people that overcame trauma. We are commanded by the Haggadah to imagine ourselves as if we left Egypt; we are not commanded to imagine ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt. That experience belongs to those who endured Egypt and who endured the Shoah. It doesn’t belong to us. But we are commanded to imagine ourselves as if we survived Egypt, and every Jew who identifies with the Jewish story today is, by definition, a survivor of the Shoah. We are all partners in helping to shape the post-Holocaust Jewish reality.”

Meanwhile, he is delighted by the current chapter of Israeli history, the government headed by former New Jersey resident Naftali Bennett, which includes right-wing parties, left-wing parties, and even a religious Muslim party — and which just reached a key milestone with the passing of its first budget.

“It’s a crazy government,” he said. “There’s no more erratic and improbable government in the world that I can think of, and that’s why I love it. It’s an expression of our ability to transcend insoluble differences and mutual antipathies and be Israelis together. There’s something deeply inspiring about this government and this really goes to the heart of the message I’ll delivering.”

As for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who was relegated to being the leader of the opposition with the formation of Mr. Bennett’s government in June, he is “less a threat to Israeli society and its democratic ethos than he is a tragic figure and a wasted opportunity,” Mr. Halevi believes. “He is by far our most talented leader. He has great achievements to his credit. I voted for him in the past. And what has happened to him in recent years — what he allowed to happen to himself — what he’s become — is an Israeli tragedy. He has become a politician who appears to be ready to sacrifice the most basic national interests for his own political gain, who wakes up in the morning and asks himself, ‘How can I poison Israeli discourse today and turn one group of Israelis against another for my own advantage? How can I sow doubt and suspicion toward our foundational democratic institutions? How can I undermine a shared Israeli ethos?’ That’s the Netanyahu of the last years.”

If he could go back in time to the summer of 1982, what would Mr. Halevi tell his 29-year-old self?

“That all of the seemingly overwhelming problems that Israel was facing in the summer of ’82 — disunity during war, tensions between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, hyperinflation, no aliyah — every one of those problems would be well on their way to being solved, if not disappearing entirely, 40 years later. That’s the good news: Israel has a track record of dealing successfully with seemingly intractable problems.

“The less good news is that we tend to replace one set of existential dilemmas with another; today we face a whole new set of existential threats. But the fact that we have a proven ability to deal with threats that would overwhelm any other country should give us a measure of confidence in our ability to continue to deal with challenges.

“Take a deep breath. Yihyeh b’seder. It will be okay. And then you’ll have to deal with a whole new set of problems.”

And that, Mr. Halevi said, is how his scheduled talk about “Israel’s most intractable dilemmas” ultimately will be “an upbeat conversation. It won’t ruin your morning mood.”


Who: Yossi Klein Halevi

What: Keynote speaker at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Virtual Breakfast for Israel

When: Tuesday, November 30, 8 a.m.

Where: Online; register at jnf.org/bficentralnewjersey

How much: No charge to participate, but donations to JNF-USA strongly encouraged

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