Transcript: Yossi Klein Halevi On Zionism
The Israeli journalist brings empathy to an intractable issue.
Yossi is an American-born Israeli journalist and his latest book is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. Last summer, following our episode with Peter Beinart, many readers recommended Yossi as a guest to balance out the discussion on Israel. I’m grateful for the suggestion and truly enjoyed our conversation — alternately honest and difficult. How can one admire Israel while also being candid about its flaws? How deeply utopian was Zionism in the first place?
For a refresher on our episode with Peter that spurred Yossi’s appearance, here’s Peter on the state of Zionism:
The Yossi episode aired on January 7, 2022. Some of his money quotes:
“The reason I think Israel may be the only 19th century ‘ism’ that hasn’t failed is because it isn’t only a 19th century ‘ism.’ It’s also the expression of a 3500-year-old faith and story.”
“I’m not going to judge the Palestinians for trying to stop the Jews from coming home. I understand that, in their place, I would’ve done the same.”
“I understand the Palestinian rejection of partition in 1947. I don’t understand the Palestinian rejection in the year 2000.”
“The settlers, to my mind, are leading us into a dead end.”
Andrew: Today on the Dishcast, we're gonna do something really very simple, which is attempt to resolve the entire Israel-Palestine question and come to some resolution about it.
We're not actually! But we're gonna try and talk about some of the deeper questions about it. After I talked with Peter Beinart a while back, many listeners said, "Look, you're presenting a rather skewed view of this. You need to have other people from other perspectives." And obviously that's exactly what I want to do.
Many of you recommended Yossi Klein Halevi, whose writing I've long known and used to edit and read at The New Republic. Yossi is a principled two-state liberal Zionist in Jerusalem and a beautiful writer. I spent the weekend reading his rather beautiful New York Times bestseller, which I truly recommend. It's called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. It's really a series of reflections on the whole project of Zionism, and its future, and its past, and the state of the state of Israel today.
I'm going to try and think this through from first principles and I can't think of anyone better to do it with. Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and he is talking with me from Jerusalem. I'm most thrilled to have you as a guest, Yossi, thank you for coming.
Yossi: Thank you for having me, Andrew. Good to be with you.
Andrew: I normally start with this question, but with you this is actually a really deep question, which is: How you came to be who you are. You're an American to begin with. Maybe you could tell us how your childhood and adolescence led you to, at the age of 29, immigrate and repatriate to the state of Israel.
Yossi: I grew up technically in the United States, but in fact, I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was really in some sense more an extension of Transylvania, which is where my parents were from. Most of the neighbors were from there too. It's a neighborhood called Borough Park, which today has the largest concentration of Hasidic Jews. When I was growing up it was more heterogeneous, at least religiously, but very homogeneous in terms of the experiences that people had. Most of the grownups were survivors of the Holocaust and that really informed my childhood in the most tangible way possible. I lived with a Survivor, my father. My mother came out just before the war, she was from Transylvania as well, but her family left. All my friends were children of Survivors. That was the normal in Borough Park.
Andrew: That is not a normal normal though, is it? It's kind of a staggering thing.
Yossi: When you're a kid, whatever your environment is, is normal. When I look back on it now, it's astonishing to me that I was growing up 20 years after the Holocaust and in a Survivor family. It was almost a contemporary experience. My father raised me with the intention of creating a contemporary. He told me his stories from when I was very young and raised me with very much of an us-vs.-them mindset. He thought the Holocaust happened because the whole world hates the Jews, and the world is essentially divided between two types of non-Jews: those who actively want to kill Jews, and those who are quietly glad that others are doing the dirty work.
That is what I took for granted growing up. I'd say that my process of growing up was growing out of my father's Survivor mindset and of beginning to own my reality as an American-born Jew. I was growing up in the 1960s with an American passport, in the most welcoming country that Jews had ever lived in. It took me a long time — longer than it should have — to make that transition from being my father's pretend contemporary to owning my generation's experience and really owning the '60s and '70s.
Andrew: Nonetheless, the memory of the Holocaust obviously had to be incredibly potent. It's very hard, to be honest, to imagine growing up with a whole generation of people who had experienced that kind of horror. I don't blame your father a millisecond for feeling the way that he did. I wouldn't blame you for absorbing those feelings. You're still in the '60s, only a couple decades away. I think it's easy to forget the psychological trauma, and the way in which that trauma also replicates itself in other generations. To find the strength to try and figure your way out of that is incredibly hard.
But you then decided to go to Israel. You resolve this question, you come to terms of the fact you live in this country which is about as welcoming as any country has ever been to Jews. And yet, you went. Tell me about that evolution.