In Yossi Klein Halevi’s first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” published in 1995, the American-born Israeli journalist told the story of growing up among Holocaust survivors in an Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, where the community saw the rest of the world as hostile and suspicious. It was a natural progression, he has written, for him to move politically to the right, and as a teenager, to join the Jewish Defense League of Meir Kahane as a way to respond to the persecution of Jews.
Flash forward several decades, and Halevi — who moved to Israel in his 20s — has shucked his militant persona, moving toward a softer approach while still steadfastly defending the story of the Jews and their right to live in the land of Israel.
His most recent book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” seeks common ground while explaining the Jewish narrative to an audience that may not be receptive to hearing it.
Last week, he visited Pittsburgh to address two very different audiences: one at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and the other at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian-run campus that has been criticized in the past by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for hosting anti-Israel speakers.
Halevi, who is currently a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, sat down to chat with the Chronicle while in Pittsburgh. The interview has been edited for length.
Your message to the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary last night was gentle. You didn’t come off as hardline to the right at all.
No, I don’t. On the other hand, I don’t compromise on what I believe is the truth of our narrative. I think that there are ways in which we can make a better case for ourselves if we are less defensive and if we don’t give expression to our understandable anger. And—I think this is crucial to making our case—to acknowledge the suffering and the shattering of the Palestinian people. Now, I believe that the primary blame for that shattering belongs to the Palestinian leadership, but the fact remains that my return home resulted in their homelessness. Jews should be able to acknowledge that without taking on excessive blame.
The dysfunctional nature of Jewish conversation on Israel is reflected in the way that the left and the right speak about Palestinians. The left, increasingly, will express empathy for the Palestinians but without defending our story. And the right defends our story and regards expression of empathy for the Palestinians as a kind of betrayal of Israel. I think we are going to need to learn to hold the two together.
You are speaking tonight to a primarily Jewish audience. How is your talk going to
First of all, it’s a talk among family. This is the first time I’ve come back to Pittsburgh since the massacre. I have really wanted to be here ever since, and I didn’t have the opportunity over the last six months, so when [Rabbi] Jamie [Gibson] offered to bring me, I just jumped at the opportunity.
What I want to unpack tonight is two questions. One is, what is this moment in terms of the threat against the Jewish people externally–looking at the far right, the far left, and to try to unpack which is the greater threat, to try to make sense over the nature of the multiple threats.
Is it important to distinguish which is worse, the far right
or the far left?
No, but it is important to deal with both of the threats, and that’s the core of the issue. Those progressive Jews who insist on focusing only on white supremacism as the threat are effectively trying to remove American Jews from the world Jewish situation because Jews in different countries are facing existential threats from different forces.
Right now, at this particular moment in America, the lethal threat to Jewish lives is coming primarily from the far right. That could change. It could come from Islamists. In France, it’s coming from Islamists. In England, the threat to the long-term viability to the Jewish community is coming from the far left.
There is something deeply solipsistic about the progressive Jewish approach to the resurgence of anti-Semitism, and this relentless focus on the far right. Yes, that’s your particular situation at this particular moment, but if you see yourself as a global Jewish citizen, as a citizen of the Jewish people, then you need to seriously take into account why so many of us are focusing on the far left.
And far left anti-Semitism is not completely absent here, right?
It certainly isn’t. I wouldn’t call it an existential threat at this moment. But the reason I see the far left as such a serious threat is because they are challenging the legitimacy of our story. And my definition of who we are as a people is that we are a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are. That’s my understanding of who the Jews are, and that’s why the seder is the most important ritual in the Jewish year, why almost any Jew who has the most remote connection will be at a seder, because that’s the moment when we tell our story again.
The far left is trying to turn our story into a crime. Today, in America, the far right is a threat to individual Jewish lives, but the far left is an existential threat to the Jewish people, because we have no existence without our story.
You have said that this is an exceptional time in Jewish history because we are unprecedentedly safe. Has your opinion changed since Tree of Life?
I would say that what distinguishes this time from any other time, certainly in the last 2000 years — and longer than that — is that we have rarely been in such a strong position to defend ourselves. So even if serious threats remain, we are not the same people that we were.
We are positioned now to defend ourselves in ways that were inconceivable in the past. Israel is the strongest expression of Jewish sovereignty in 4,000 years of history. We have never had anything resembling the power, clout, reach of Jewish sovereignty that the modern state of Israel presents, and we never have had a diaspora community that is as powerful as American Jewry.
The great Jewish victory after the Holocaust was the reclamation of power. In Israel, we reclaimed hard power, military power. And in America Jews reclaimed soft power — soft power meaning the power to lobby, to organize politically, to create alliances, to use philanthropy strategically.
What is under assault today is the legitimacy of Israeli hard power, and American Jewish soft power. So Ilhan Omar’s attack against ‘the Benjamins’ is an attack on Jewish soft power. The left’s denial of Israel’s right to defend itself, whether on Lebanon or on the Gaza border, is an expression of an assault on the legitimacy of hard power. And so, that’s what we’re facing. And that assault is coming from the far right as well as the far left.
It’s a scary moment. And what’s happening to the Jewish people internally is even scarier. At precisely the moment when we most need Jewish unity, much of American Jewry and Israel are drifting further apart.
What do we need to do to reorient the relationship?
The American Jewish/Israeli relationship was traditionally based on two foundations. The first was a shared responsibility for the well-being of the Jewish people. And the second was a sense of shared values, that we were all committed to the Israel that was laid out by the Declaration of Independence [of Israel] as a Jewish state and a Democratic state. These two foundational principles of the relationship — shared commitment and shared responsibility for protecting the Jewish people, and shared values — are both under assault.
The sense of shared commitment to Jewish safety has been undermined in recent years on both sides of the relationship. On the Israeli side, the unequivocal, passionate embrace of Trump by my government has sent the message to American Jews that we are not paying attention to your acute anxiety about what Trump means for the future of America, and the future of the post-World War II liberal order that allowed American Jewry to thrive. Trump is a direct threat to the America that has allowed American Jewry to become the most successful diaspora in Jewish history. American Jewry thrives only under conditions of openness, pluralism, respect for law, and democracy, and Trump is a threat to that. And we’re not paying attention in Israel.
On the American Jewish side — and this is something many American Jews never internalized — is that the support for Obama during the Iran deal on the part of many American Jews was interpreted in Israel as a betrayal. And I certainly felt that way. For most Israelis, the Iran deal posed an acute threat to our security. I would go so far as to say that the Iran deal was the greatest threat to Israel since 1967. And I have friends in Israel who will say I’m wrong, who will say it was actually the greatest threat to Israel since 1948 because it all but guaranteed a nuclear Iran. That’s how we understood it, and the fact that so many American Jews endorsed the deal was seen as a stab in the back.
If you put these two trends together, American Jews and Israelis are not sure that they can trust each other anymore for their most basic, physical self-interest. This is a new situation in the relationship. That’s one piece of it.
The next piece, in terms of shared values — well, we have a government coming in in Israel whose commitment to democracy can’t be trusted. I have never been worried about Israeli democracy, but I am now.
What I believe the basis for a renewal of an American Jewish/Israeli alliance needs to be, is first of all, based on a shared commitment to each other’s well-being. We need to listen to each other’s anxieties, and we are not doing that now. And we need to reestablish an alliance based on shared values of defending Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state.
The alliance that needs to happen between American Jews and Israel needs to be an alliance with the Israeli center. American Jews have not yet caught on to the deep transformation of Israeli politics. We are no longer divided between right and left. We are divided between right and center. For all practical purposes, there is no Israeli left anymore. The Israeli left exists most strongly among American Jews.
The center now is the second largest party, and it has emerged as the most formidable opposition. And the center is that place on the Israeli political map that is committed to Israel unequivocally as a Jewish and democratic state, and that is committed to trying to extricate ourselves from occupying another people, but without any illusion of peace now. It’s a combination of right and left. The mainstream American Jewish community needs to align itself with the Israeli center. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at