By Larry Gordon
It seems that life goes by so quickly, packed with events as it is, that it can be difficult to take a step back and reflect on it, or even appreciate what is taking place around us. Yossi Klein Halevi, who was born and raised in New York and has lived in Israel for the last 30 years, is one of those charged with the task of contemplating the condition of Israel and the Jewish people. A journalist, author, and lecturer, Klein Halevi demonstrates a grasp of the core issues that will continue to define the future for both Israel and the American Jewish community.
Over this coming Shabbos, December 27–28, he will be the scholar in residence at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, where the community will have the opportunity to listen to his incisive ideas about the state of Jewish life.
“Yossi Klein Halevi has been a frequent and beloved guest speaker in Beth Sholom for the past 15 years,” says Rabbi Kenneth Hain. “He always presents the Israeli reality in an original and heartfelt way. Coming from a religious background, he is also able to explain complex opposing perspectives with fairness and nuance. I never fail to learn from his words and to be moved by his humanity.”
Klein Halevi has been touring Jewish communities in the United States for the last few months, ostensibly to promote his latest book, Like Dreamers, a look at the lives of former soldiers in the Israeli army who were instrumental in the liberation of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. It is through their eyes that Yossi Klein Halevi takes a look at their divergent paths over the years and their views on today’s Israel. It is from the deep and thoughtful perspective of everyday people that the author is able to peek into the years ahead and analyze what he sees as the Jewish future.
We talked in some detail a few days ago about the major issues that he believes confront our communities—here and in Israel—and he explored, as he will do at his upcoming lectures at Beth Sholom over Shabbos, what he believes are solutions to some very difficult and agonizing questions.
On Israel, Yossi Klein Halevi says that the item at the top of his agenda is finding a way for all of Israel to live together and look past the schism that seems to be tearing the fabric of Israeli society apart. “I think we need to stop looking at ourselves as community members and go back to seeing ourselves as a people,” he says. He adds that, today, it seems that just about the only place where Jews can vehemently disagree with one another and still get along is the Knesset.
From the exterior looking in, Jews across the board look to the world like one complex but still united people. Internally, we deal with a far different reality, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
On the religious or observant aspects of Jewish life, Israelis as well as American Jews seem more divided than ever. A recent study in Israel showed that Israelis want “less Judaism in legislation and more in school and family lives,” Klein Halevi says. Here in the States, the debate does not rage to the extent it does in Israel about more religion or less religion in our lives. “There really isn’t that much of a religious divide in Israel,” the journalist says. “It is the chareidim on one side and everyone else on the other side.” Yossi Klein-Halevi explains that the ongoing process vis-à-vis the role of the chareidi community in Israel is a complex one. He notes that today the chareidi community makes up 8% of the overall Jewish population in Israel, but that, over the next decade, that number will double.
Spokespeople for the chareidi community are indignant and feel that they are being singled out in a most discriminatory way. He says that we can rest assured that, despite such suggestions, discrimination is not the Israeli government’s agenda. The only issue that separates the chareidi community from the rest of society is their demand that the balance of the country continue to economically provide support for them.
“The country can barely afford to support the current numbers and, when their population doubles, the economy in the country will collapse if these changes are not implemented,” he says. And the plan, he explains, is integrating the chareidi community into the rest of the Israel population, to an extent. That does not mean in any way, shape, or form, that the objective is to shake apart or upset that community in terms of their observance or religious commitment.
For Israel, he says, it is a matter of survival, and the message is currently being sent to that community—though they are resisting receiving that message—is that you are a part of us and that we are all in this together. “I think it’s really an expression of love to the chareidim,” Yossi says. “It may be a dose of tough love, but it is love nevertheless.”
He says that the old ways in which things have been done in Israel are just not workable anymore. Despite this observation, Yossi Klein Halevi says that, having spent the last few months on a speaking/book tour in the U.S., he is more concerned about the future vitality of the American Jewish community than about what is taking place in Israel.
He explains that in Israel there are certainly differences, but there is also constant debate and engagement on the issues. He explains that Jews in Israel have something that is not possible to replicate here in the States: “miluim,” or military reserve duty. Almost all citizens of the country—aside from doing some form of army service when younger—have an obligation extending up through their forties to do two weeks to a month of reserve duty in the army each year, depending on the needs of the country.
He says that it is during these stints of reserve duty that Israelis from diverse backgrounds and shades of religious observance, or lack thereof, are brought together. And often there is not much more to do than to talk and get to know one another. This, he adds, if nothing else, leads to different types of Jews from varied backgrounds developing a sensitivity to and some understanding of one another.
Here in the U.S., he says, the divisions seem very profound and pronounced. He says that while in Israel there is what he refers to as “a shared tent,” here in the States he has found “total alienation” and that, from what he has observed, “American Jews do not know how to communicate with one another.”
Some other topics that we discussed briefly, and into which he may delve deeper over the weekend, are his view of President Obama, his impressions of the ongoing Jonathan Pollard issue, and his once close relationship and then his break with JDL founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. Today, in addition to his writing, Klein Halevi is a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research and educational center in Jerusalem.
On Obama, he says that he considers the recent negotiated agreement with Iran to be “a betrayal” of Israel. On Pollard, he says that the U.S. not releasing him after three decades in prison “is simply torment for the sake of torment.” On Meir Kahane and the JDL, Yossi Klein Halevi says that when it came to Jews and Israel, very few spoke as passionately. “But,” he adds, “Kahane asked great questions but came up with a lot of wrong answers.”
The Shabbos weekend at Congregation Beth Sholom will give listeners an opportunity to absorb thoughtful and eloquent dissertations on vital issues that most of us care about with intensity. There are many theories and opinions about what Israel should be doing next on a plethora of matters. If nothing else is clear, it is that Yossi Klein Halevi has a handle on, and an insight into, issues that too often elude our grasp and understanding. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.