Interview: Yossi Klein Halevi
An acclaimed author, journalist and lecturer, Yossi Klein Halevi, 55, moved to Israel from New York 26 years ago. He serves as a senior fellow at the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem and is contributing editor and Israel correspondent for The New Republic. He is writing a book, The Paratroopers Wept, which looks at how the Six-Day War transformed the Jewish state.
Q. The Jewish state at 60 seems to reflect the “best of times and the worst of times”: a vital economy, more Jewish studies than ever, but widespread, high-level corruption and a military failure in Lebanon. Where is Israel?
A. This year  saw the most painful anniversary celebration I can recall. A [former] president accused of rape, a prime minister accused of stealing from charities, on and on. On the other hand…we’re living the miracle of Israel’s resurrection. If you think of where the Jewish people were 60 years ago and where we are today, we have made the transition from the lowest point in our history…to what I would argue is our highest point ever. And we did it in just decades.
Q. Can you give specifics?
A. In absolute terms, Israel is the most successful country in the Middle East—admittedly the competition is not fierce. But if you look at all the nations in Asia and Africa that achieved independence in the postcolonial era, we are by far the most successful, beating incredible odds to do it. We have dealt with massive immigration, poverty, unending hostility—the only country in the world whose neighbors, to this day, don’t recognize its legitimacy. At 60, we feel…proud and ashamed at the same time. There’s something very Israeli about that…. Historically, we go in and out of extreme emotional states, either on the verge of annihilation as we were in the weeks before the Six-Day War and now perhaps facing an Iranian atomic bomb— or we’re invincible, such as we felt after the Six-Day War.
Q. You were part of the generation that set out to save Soviet Jewry. What are your reflections today?
A. The struggle…empowered a generation of American Jews and taught them how to play the political game effectively. It sharply emphasized the difference between us and the previous generation of American Jews who did not act as full citizens during the Shoah to protect the Jews in Eu- rope. We internalized the lessons of their failures and forced ourselves to overcome centuries of Jewish timidity to enter public life as equal Americans. The atmosphere of the ’60s, of course, was the opposite of the atmosphere in the ’30s and ’40s. I would argue that it was the Soviet Jewry movement that gave birth to the self-confident, powerful American Jewry that we know today.
Q. What challenges are you working on at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies?
A. One of our goals is to consider the role of democracy and of national identity in the struggle against jihadism. Natan Sharansky, who heads the institute, was unique in the Soviet Jewry movement because of his insistence on combining Zionist activism with democratic dissident activism. Yet democracy alone isn’t enough. Democracy without a strong identity—ethnic, religious or national—to ground you risks producing the kind of democracies that we see in Europe today. They lack backbone, [have] little capability for defending themselves in the real world against real threats.
One of [our] commitments…is to put the challenge of democracy back on the agenda of the peacemakers in the Middle East. You cannot create peace in the Middle East without the creation of a civil society among Palestinians. One of the reasons the Oslo process failed was that [it] not only ignored the needs of Palestinian society, it set itself against the creation of a civil society. [The late Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin erred tragically when he said…we [could] make peace with Arafat because he’s not encumbered with a supreme court and human rights organizations. This became a recipe for disaster. Peace could not be won…on the basis of Palestinian dictatorship.
Q. What else are you exploring?
A. I’m very interested in the changing relationship between Israel and the Jewish people…and Eastern Europe. We are forfeiting a historic opportunity to build alliances in the new Europe. Israel’s best friends in Europe today are in Eastern Europe. We don’t notice because we’re still relating to Eastern Europe through the past.
Q. You were once a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane and wrote about it in Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. How did he shape the ’60s and ’70s?
A. Professor Avi Ravitsky once called Meir Kahane the evil inclination of the Jewish people. He meant that Kahane said out loud what so many of us in our darker moments said to ourselves or whispered in the back rows of the synagogues. Kahane was an inevitable product of the post-Holocaust psyche. We needed a voice for our fears; he was the embodiment of Jewish rage. The Kahane I followed in New York was violent and manipulative. But when he moved to Israel [in 1971], he…became an outright racist. That’s when I broke with him, and so did most of my friends. Still, I can’t repudiate my Kahane experience, because I understand that for me, personally, as a child of survivors, and for Jews generally of my generation, we needed to go through our Meir Kahane period.
Q. In At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden, you sought a common spiritual language with Arab Muslims and Christians. Did you find one?
A. The short answer is yes, the long answer is that an authentic dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths depends on not obscuring the problems. For Jews, that means affirming the centrality of Israel in Jewish religious identity. What often happens in interfaith dialogue is that the Christian or Muslim partner, especially the Muslim, will say “let’s not talk about Israel because that’s political and will divide us.” But if you truly want to understand me as I want to understand you, if you want to understand my spiritual essence, then there’s no way to circumvent Israel, because the return of the Jews home is how I experience the presence of God in history and I encounter the reality of the miraculous by living as a Jew in Jerusalem. If you’re asking me to leave that part out because it’s political, you’re asking me to perform a spiritual lobotomy.
Q. How do you get over the impasse?
A. It doesn’t mean I have to show up to the dialogue waving an Israeli flag or limit my potential dialogue partners to those who are ready to sign on to a pro-Israel statement…. But it does mean that at a certain point in the dialogue we are going to have to get real because…dialogue is the attempt to reach empathy. Empathy means stepping out of your own faith commitment…and trying to learn another faith language. Each religion is a language of intimacy that human beings developed.
This is an extraordinary time for interfaith relations because there are more and more people in all the religions who understand that we have an unprecedented opportunity to encounter the other in ways inconceivable just 50 years ago. The wisdom of the world’s religions is available in paperback. We have access to each other’s inner devotional lives in a way that you never had previously even within your own religion…. Religion is either going to be part of helping humanity evolve to our next state of consciousness or it is going to be the force that will destroy us. Interfaith dialogue is not a luxury anymore…. It’s an existential necessity.
Q. But doesn’t religious change take time?
A. One of the most extraordinary human achievements of the 20th century, and one of the least celebrated, was the post-Holocaust Christian-Jewish dialogue. It achieved nothing less than the reversal of one of the key theological tenets of Christianity. Whereas until then Jews were ostensibly cursed by God, they became, in Christian eyes, blessed by God. When Pope John Paul II stood at the Western Wall in 2000 and placed a note in the cracks asking God’s forgiveness for [the Church’s] crimes committed against “the people of the covenant,” he was undoing 2,000 years of theological contempt. This is all a direct result of 60 years of dialogue. We take this for granted now, but imagine the courage it took for that first generation of Christians and even more so for Jews after the Holocaust. Imagine Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish Jew, going to Pope Paul VI—not necessarily a friend of the Jewish people—to attempt further dialogue.
Q. Should Israel destroy Iran’s developing nuclear capabilities?
A. History shows an unmistakable pattern in which the Jewish people have repeatedly found themselves on the frontline against totalitarian threats to civilization. Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism and now Islamic jihadism. All aspired to take over the world, remake humanity in their own image, and targeted the Jews as the primary obstacle to their goal.
Given that [Israel has] been targeted as the most likely recipient of Iran’s atomic largesse, we owe it first of all to ourselves to ensure that Iran does not get the bomb—preferably by peaceful means. Should Israel allow Iran to go nuclear, Zionism will have failed in its primary goal of creating a safe refuge for the Jewish people. If we have the military means to prevent that regime from obtaining atomic weapons and out of weakness or indecisiveness we allow Iran to go nuclear, then historical judgment will have been passed on Zionism.
In a better world, it would be the international community that would resolve [to keep] Iran [from going] nuclear. Given that [it] is almost certainly going to fail to stand up to Iran, we may have that job by default.
The Israeli version of tikkun olam is not just doing good but resisting evil. In confronting Iran and saving the world from a nuclear danger, Israel would be performing an ultimate act of tikkun olam, and that would make me very proud to be an Israeli.