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Special Episode: Wondering about Zionism with Haviv Rettig Gur

S1
E17
50mins

What does Zionism mean to you? What does it mean to the Jewish people and the world at large? Noam and Mijal welcome special guest journalist Haviv Rettig Gur to delve into the history of Zionism as a means of survival for the Jewish people while pondering Western and Palestinian misunderstandings of Zionism. In this thought-provoking episode, they discuss self-determination, resilience, and Jewish identity.

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Noam: Hey everyone, welcome to Wondering Jews with Mijal and Noam. 

Mijal: I’m Mijal.

Noam: And I’m Noam and this podcast is our way of trying to figure out the Jewish world. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’re gonna try to figure out some big items together. And today we have a third traveler with us, a third wonderer. That’s right. We’ve never done this before, but we have our first guest this week.

Mijal: And we not only have our first guest, but we have a very special guest. Haviv Gur is a veteran Israeli journalist who serves as senior analyst for the Times of Israel. He has covered Israel’s politics, foreign policy, education system, and relationship with the Jewish diaspora since 2005, reported from over 20 countries, served as director of communications for the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s largest NGO, and taught at prestigious pre-military academies. I’ll also add to this, Haviv, can I call you a friend? Can I say that we’re friends?

Haviv Rettig Gur (courtesy)

Haviv: I would be insulted if you didn’t.

Mijal: Thank you. So Haviv is a friend, I would say. Haviv, I think since October 7th, I feel like there’s two people I quote every day. One is you, one is Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory. And really you have been a source of wisdom and inspiration for so many. So I know both for Noam and for myself, it is such a privilege to always learn from you and to have you here with us today.

Haviv: Thank you. Thank you very much. To be useful right now is not a small thing. I appreciate it.

Noam: So I want to echo what Mijal said, but before we start our very serious conversations, we have a general question just to get to know each other and we read our listener questions. And the listener question that we have is from Jack. Jack’s question is this. What is the most spectacular place you’ve ever traveled to? So, Haviv, you’re the newest to this show, so why don’t you tell us?

Haviv: Boy, I travel quite a bit. But I think the most spectacular place I’ve ever been in the most spectacular context I’ve ever been to a place, is, I went backpacking with my then girlfriend, who is now my wife, through northern India. Israelis, I don’t know if you know, are legally required by law to go backpacking after the army in northern India. So I did that. There are literally, when you get to Dharamsala and the street leading up to the Dalai Lama’s palace, there are literally falafel places with Hebrew signs. So that’s how many Israelis go through those areas.

But standing at the foothills of the Himalayas, which are really part of a continental plate pushed up 30,000 feet into the air. And what you don’t know until you’re standing there is that embedded in the rock all through the mountains is this kind of, I guess crystallized something in the rock, in the silicate, and it actually shimmers. And so you are standing at the bottom of an impossibly immense landscape that shimmers in the sunlight. It’s something you have to see. And I picked up a rock and took it home just to show people this little rock I’m holding in my hand, as you turn it, it actually reflects light and shimmers a little bit. And imagine the Himalayas made out of it.

Noam: Wow. Wow.

Mijal: We should do a trip. We should just go. You know, I didn’t go to Israel or to the army, so I never had that legal requirement to travel to India, but maybe we should, we should create one.

Haviv: Absolutely.

Mijal: Noam, what’s your place?

Noam: I’m inserting myself. There is no such thing as a legal requirement to go to Northern India. Okay, so I just want to clarify that for everyone. Just to be clear. I know.

Mijal: Yeah, it’s a joke.

Haviv: It’s a joke, it’s just extremely popular among Israelis after the army to travel backpacking to India, Argentina or places with beautiful landscapes.

Noam: I know. I know. So I was going to say, that sounds amazing. I’m going to go with, Mijal, you know I’m going with a food option right now. I’m just taking myself back. I’m taking myself back to this past summer. Shout out to Yehuda Kurtzer from the Hartman Institute, who told me to go to Bruno’s. Bruno’s a small, little, amazing restaurant shop on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem. My son who was 10 years old at the time. We went to Bruno’s, he always talks to me about Bruno’s. So that sandwich shop on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, that’s the golden place for me right now. It doesn’t shimmer in the sunlight in the same way that your Northern India experience has, but it’s pretty good.

Haviv: Noam, you have put me to shame. I’m born and bred in Jerusalem and I don’t know Bruno’s and I have to take my kids there.

Noam: Yes, you do. Yes, you do.

Mijal: Well, one good thing came out of this podcast. We’re all going to Brno’s or India or yeah. 

Noam: Both, maybe. What about you, Mijal?

Mijal: Yeah. I have so many random memories from different places. I think going to Dubrovnik in Croatia and just there’s some like really magnificent ruins there and some like intense Jewish history of just like seeing where Jews escaped like the Inquisition and like stopped in different places and traveled and being there was just very powerful. It was also like the last big trip before I had kids and before I could travel far, far away.

Noam: Okay, so you, the two of you have some really interesting places that you’ve traveled. Clearly, there’s a throughline, it’s before you had children, just saying. And mine was with my son. But there you have it, Jack. That’s the answer to the question about the most spectacular places we’ve all traveled. Dubrovnik, the northern part of India, and Bruno’s. Okay, so.

Haviv: Yes.

Noam: We have an expert with us today. Haviv, you’re an expert. But what we also want to do is we want to wonder. We’re going to discuss, we’re going to think, we’re going to explore, and we’re going to take it from there. We’re going to see where that goes. How does that sound?

Mijal: Great.

Haviv: Wonderful.

Noam: Okay, so Mijal, let’s get this party started.

Mijal: So, Haviv, like I mentioned before, I’ve been reading you, listening to you really carefully since October 7th. And I think in many ways you’ve been a storyteller. You’ve been telling the story of Israel, the story of the Jewish people. And you’ve also been insisting that many people are misunderstanding Israel and the Jewish story. So I just wanted to ask you to maybe like flesh that out a little bit for us. Like what is this message you want to share about the story of Jews and Israel that is misunderstood and why that misunderstanding is at the heart of the conflict?

Haviv: Yeah, it is exactly as you put it. The basic story, I think, one of the reasons that outsiders, foreigners, Palestinians don’t know our story or the part of our story they should know and need to know in order to seriously strategize about us and interact with us in productive ways is that we don’t know our story. We don’t tell our story as it actually happened. We tell a slightly different version of it.

I think, you know, there are basically two kinds of Zionism, okay? One kind of Zionism is the ideological, idealistic kinds. There are communist Zionisms and socialist Zionisms and British aristocratic Zionisms and religious redemptionist Zionisms and American liberal Zionisms. And these are all ways of saying Jews need a place of their own, and when they develop that place of their own part and parcel of being an independent nation is being a moral nation is solving all the great problems of the world. Those are idealistic and ideological Zionisms.

And what’s interesting is that you use the word Zionism to describe all of them. But they’re radically different ideas. What connects a communist who says the Jews should have a state with a religious, orthodox Jew who thinks that this is the beginning of the coming of the Messianic Age, the Jewish ingathering of exiles? And so what is the Zionism that overlaps between these two radically different kinds of ideas?

And my argument is that there’s a second kind of Zionism and it’s what makes all of them Zionist and it’s the Zionism that actually built Israel.We teach our kids in Hebrew that Zionism is making a chevrat mofet, a model society, but we’re lying.

It’s something much, much more important than beautiful idealism. Zionism is a rescue project. And that’s why Theodor Herzl is Theodor Herzl. That’s why his face is on the wall of every classroom in Israel.

And not only Herzl, he draws from a tradition of serious strategists and thinkers, but he sort of distills it into a political movement that starts to get to work to do the thing. Herzl’s argument is not idealistic. It’s a warning of the catastrophe that is coming. That’s his word he uses, catastrophe. He has this vision of a European modernity that turns on its minorities, not just its Jews, all minorities in brutal ways.

And at one point he records in his diary meeting with the Rothschilds and saying to them, “I don’t know how it will come. I don’t know if it will come from the communists. He says if it will be expropriation from below. I don’t know if it’ll be oppression from above. I don’t know if they will expel us or rob us or murder us. I suspect it’ll be all these things at once.”

Herzl predicts the next 60 years. Now, everybody’s heard of the Holocaust, and everybody kind of thinks that the Holocaust is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the emptying of Europe, of its Jews. But the Holocaust is the end. The Holocaust is the apotheosis, it’s the crescendo, but it’s not the story. The story is that the Holocaust is merely the end of six decades of emptying of Jews, beginning in 1881. You start to see after the assassination of the Tsar in 1881 this mass wave of pogroms that doesn’t stop for 40 years, 1,300 pogroms in the Russian Empire sends something like 3 million Jews fleeing. They flee westward, America by far the largest target of Jewish flight, and they’re fleeing for their lives.

Mijal: Can I interrupt? So if I’m hearing you correctly, if you want to understand the story of Israel and Zionism and today, you have to understand that the overwhelming majority came here because they had no other choice. It was a survival project. And all those ideological reasons that we can talk about is a very small part of the project, and not the main kind of impetus for what ends up happening, which is decades and decades of persecution and having nowhere else to go.

Haviv: Right, now literally having nowhere else to go. I mean, the Jews are fleeing mass persecution and death. The vast, vast majority go West. While in the period of 40 years when two and a half million Jews enter America, that’s the demographic bulk of what we call American Jews, American Jewry today. And those two and a half million in those 40 years go to America. Just about 50,000 turn Zionist and make aliyah to Palestine at the time, under the Ottoman Empire or later under the British Empire. So it’s a tiny fraction of the Jews are ideological Zionists while the doors to America are open. In the entire 40 years of the beginning of Zionism, of the flight, maybe 50,000. So the Jews literally had nowhere to go. And that’s when they go to Israel. Yeah.

Noam: So what is the precise misunderstanding?

Mijal: And why does it matter?

Haviv: I think there are two kinds. There’s a Western misunderstanding and there’s a Palestinian misunderstanding. What the Palestinians think about us, how they interpret us is going to have a tremendous effect on my children’s future. And so it matters to me very, very much. I care more about what Palestinians think of me than I do about the entire totality of the rest of the world.

Noam: That’s an important point. That’s an important point. That’s an important point.

Mijal: Yeah.

Haviv: Yes, yes, absolutely. And not that the totality of the rest of the world’s opinion doesn’t matter to me, although I’m an Israeli, so I struggle to have it matter, but I do try.

Noam: That was one of the most Israeli things I’ve ever heard. That’s the Ben-Gurion line, it’s not important what the non-Jews say, it’s important what Ben-Gurion famous says, what the Jews do. That is like the most Israeli ethos that was just expressed in one moment right there.

Haviv: Yes. Yes, my only defense is that I think it’s true. But there are different ways of misunderstanding us in my view. Misunderstanding just my basic point, which is that it is a massive rescue project. An Israeli looks out at the eastern hemisphere of this earth, at Africa, Asia, and Europe, and sees basically no Jews. To an Israeli, all the Jews of the eastern hemisphere are either Hebrew-speaking or dead. And by the way, it is not completely ridiculous to argue that the story of the 20th century is that Jews learned English, learned Hebrew, or died. Those are the two living Jews left. Apologies to Argentina, apologies to France. But I mean, French Jews, right, are 90% Sephardi. Where does French Jewry come from? They’re Jews who fled Northern Africa in the 20th century.

So, what does it mean to an Israeli if you say you’re an anti-Zionist? What are you arguing? I should not have survived? If you’re anti-Zionist to an Israeli, that’s a complaint you need to take to literally everyone except me. Because I can’t survive anywhere else in the 20th century, so I’m here. Now, you’re upset that I’m here? That’s a complaint to the Iraqis, who emptied a quarter of Baghdad of its ancient Jewish community that had been there a thousand years before the first Arab step foot in Baghdad.

Mijal: I just want to pull on one of the threads, though, because I mean, I’ll just highlight one message that I’ve heard you say in relation to this, that part of the tragedy of the conflict can be explained by very often like Palestinian leadership misunderstanding of the Jewish story. That if Jews are seen as anything other than a desperate movement seeking survival. So if you think Jews are ideologues or colonialists that have a different place to go and I’ve heard you say you’re going to believe that you can just quote unquote resist, have terror and push them out. But that essentially misunderstands the basic character of Zionism and the Jewish story today, which is that Israel was built from a society of refugees and Jews have nowhere else to go.

Haviv: Yeah, everything I said right now is sort of Western intellectual misunderstanding of Zionism because they insist on seeing history as a history of elites. The only part of Zionism they can see is the minority of the Zionist world and the Zionist movement that is elite chatter rather than the millions of actual refugees who gave Zionism its demographic backbone. If all we had in Israel was the 500,000 elite, the Arab armies would have destroyed Israel in 1948 in about a week.

But there were hundreds of thousands of refugees, and later it would be millions of refugees. And that’s the demographic backbone that ensured Zionism’s success. So if you don’t have a deeper social history of Zionism, one last example, and then we’ll talk about Palestinians. But the IDF in 1948, Palestinians want to talk about the Nakba.

The Nakba is the disaster of ’48. That used to mean the word begins as an Arabic word for the Arab armies failing to dislodge the Jewish state in that war. And it shifts, Palestinian elites shift the meaning of the word to mean the experience of Palestinians of mass displacement in ’48. Okay.

But here’s the conversation we should be having about the Nakba if you want to actually incorporate the Israeli experience into it, which you have to to understand it. You don’t have to exonerate Israel, but you do have to understand. 8,000 Palestinians are killed in the Nakba. Palestinian historians say 13,000. Western historians generally sort of fall down on something like 8,000. That’s a tragedy. But in the middle of the 1940s, 8,000 dead is 8,000 dead. It’s a horrific tragedy, but it’s still not. We’re three years out of the Holocaust. We’re, you know, we’re talking, just in the region, within 100 miles, there are vastly larger conflicts and vastly larger death tolls.

But the Israelis at that period, who are they? Something like one in four of the soldiers of the IDF are DPs from DP camps in Europe that are still sitting on German soil three years after the Holocaust. Congress won’t lift the quotas it set down in 1921 and 1924, even after the Holocaust, even when the West knows about Auschwitz. The Jews still can’t leave German soil after the liberation, right? American high schoolers are taught that American soldiers went into Dachau or Buchenwald. Well, two years later, Jews are still living in those places, sometimes behind barbed wire patrolled by British and American troops. Why? Nobody would take them in. Nobody would take them in.

Noam: Haviv, my father-in-law was born in Foehrenwald in Germany in 1949, four years after.

Haviv: In 1949, right?

Noam: Yes, 1949, yeah.

Haviv: When do the DP camps mostly empty out? In 1948, into Israel. That’s a quarter of the Jews of the IDF, a quarter of the fighters of the IDF in that war are people who know because they have checked, because history has taught them, that no one on earth will take them.

So the Jews of 1948, We have polls of Israelis in ’48 by the Haganah in which Israelis express a lot of empathy, a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian villagers being displaced and also if the Jews don’t have a state they die. So anyway, yeah.

Noam: Wait, Haviv, I wanna ask you, one of the things that you said about the Nakba is what it was originally meant and now how it’s, what it’s come to mean. How does that at all influence whether or not people should have empathy for the expulsions that took place towards the Palestinians in 1948? Meaning, are you therefore saying and therefore they’re either that’s not true, no, they just fled or they just had their Arab leaders tell them what to do or are you saying that there shouldn’t be any empathy for the Palestinian expulsions that took place?

And then I have like a really much more difficult question. One of the phrases that we often hear is, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. And we look at that phrase and we say that is incredibly antisemitic because it negates the opportunity for the Jews to have their own Jewish state. On the other hand, something that’s been said to me is that, wait, wait, wait, the leader of the Israeli government, Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud platform says the following. I’ll read it to you, okay? “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace. Therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration between the sea and the Jordan. There will only be Israeli sovereignty.” And they say, how is that different than screaming from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free? How do you reconcile that? Or are they two totally different things? Or are the people who are claiming that totally butchering and misunderstanding the context of this all.

Haviv: What was the first question?

Noam: The first question is how you deal with the question about the Nakba.

Haviv: Yeah. I would say this. Absolutely, you should feel sympathy. Hundreds of thousands of people, some of them peasants and villagers, not soldiers, families, are set to wandering by war. There’s a debate among historians, Palestinian historians insist that a hundred percent of the Palestinians were made to leave by specific acts of expulsion by the Israelis. We absolutely know for sure that that is not true. There is a long paper trail of huge numbers of Palestinians fleeing because Arab armies told them, and we have the paper trail of this, leave, we will destroy the Jews, and then you come back. On the other hand, we absolutely know for certain that the version of history told by some Israelis, which is that all of them fled that way of their own accord because the Arab governments told them something and then failed to actually deliver for them, is also not true. When Israeli forces surround the city of Tzfat and leave one gate open and say, we’re coming in tomorrow morning, right? You do what you will. And then masses of Palestinian families flee in the night. That is an Israeli act of expulsion.

I take my cues from Benny Morris. His point is very, very simple and he does, and when he delivers the point, he delivers it with such a vast paper trail for both sides that it’s very convincing, which is that all of it happened all at once. Everyone’s right. There’s no question that a lot of Palestinians fled because of Arab rhetoric and discourse. There’s also no question that a lot of Palestinians were expelled. And what should I feel about that? It’s my history. My history includes some bad deeds committed by my country. That doesn’t make me fall out of my chair because it’s a country. And I don’t know if people are going to see the video from this, but I can report that neither of you fell off your chair. I’m not dismissing it as not important.

Mijal: Kind of, there. Just kidding.

Haviv: Okay, so it was teetering. But the point is, of course my country did things wrong. When I was in basic training, my first week in basic training in the IDF in the Nahal Infantry Brigade. We had more than one class on Israeli war crimes. You learn Israeli war crimes and you are given to read Supreme Court decisions that explain why they’re war crimes so that you don’t commit war crimes. That’s part of the education of Israeli soldiers in basic training.

Noam: Wow. Amazing. It’s amazing.

Haviv: In other words, yes, my country did things wrong. And of course you need to have sympathy. I, as an Israeli, also know that the Palestinians were kept refugees for generations and generations in order to destroy me, by other Arab countries that don’t care about their populations. In Lebanon for decades, Palestinians couldn’t own real estate and couldn’t work as doctors. They were kept intentionally poor and closed in in refugee camps for generation after generation after generation so that one day they will come and destroy me. They were used as tools and they were not allowed to rebuild.

And that’s how the Palestinian story of ’48 is maintained until today. No Jew is going back to Baghdad. And millions of descendants of the refugees of ’48 can’t come back into Israel. And that, I’m sorry about that, and I have tremendous sympathy for ’48, but two nations were built in ’48, and two peoples experienced mass expulsion in ’48, mine also, mass death, theirs’, not. And how we think about those times, if we think about them ideologically, we trap ourselves in that history. I happen to think there needs to be a Palestinian state. I think that’s fundamental. I don’t think they’re going anywhere, and I don’t think this ends without support, and Palestinian self-determination. Yeah.

Mijal: So, Haviv, that’s a good segue to the question that Noam asked before about the… You just said that you think that we need to have two states.

Haviv: From the river to the sea. Yeah, so look, it’s real simple. The question is what they mean. If from the river to the sea means everyone living in a civic democracy… Like America. America is a civic, non-ethnic democracy.

By the way, most democracies are not that. Most democracies are ethnic democracies. Ireland has a constitutional provision granting special naturalization to people of Irish heritage. Or, in the way Jews talk, the law of return. So does Finland, so does Greece. But the standard to demand from Israel, the standard of American civic identity, civic nationalism, where you’re just an individual and there is no recognition of any ethnicity, It would be the first in the Middle East. It would be the first in most of the democratic world, never mind most of the world. But nevertheless, it is a legitimate argument.

Alas, the sentence doesn’t come from liberal democrats. They get it from Hamas’s charter. From the river to the sea, Palestine in Arabic, it says Palestine will be Arab. And it is about removing the Jews. When on those college campuses they chant it in Arabic, they say Palestine will be Arab. Some of the signs at Columbia, at the encampment, says Arab. When the Hamas charter says, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free, by which it says in Arabic, Arab, what it means is the Jews are gone. You want to make an argument for civic democracy everywhere? Great. You want to make it only for Jews so that the Jews don’t have a nation-state? I’m a Jew. It’s hard not to feel like there’s a name for that.

And you want me to compare that to Likud? I think that’s a great challenge to Likud. I don’t know how to get away from the need for Palestinian self-determination. I don’t know what the argument is. I know the argument that we can’t have it now because Palestinian politics is led by Hamas, it’s led by the idea, not Hamas the movement, also in many ways Hamas the movement, and if I pull out of some inch of the West Bank they will use that inch to murder my children. They say it, they say it in those words and they say it every day in every mosque. And so, the Israeli experience, the Israeli-Jewish mainstream experience of the last 30 years is the experience of repeatedly electing governments to make peace, Rabin in  Okay, so it was teetering. But the point is, of course my country did things wrong. When I was in basic training, ’92.

Rabin never talked about a Palestinian state in those words, but he begins the idea of separation. When Barak is running in 99, it’s already clear to everybody who’s voting for him that he’s going to go for a state. And then when Ehud Olmert is elected in 2006, not even Israelis remember this, but he actually gave a speech before the election in 2006. We’re a year out of the Gaza disengagement, which was incredibly popular in its day. Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip to the last inch. And, Olmert then gives a speech in which he says, just like we pulled out of Gaza, I have a plan for the West Bank. And it’s called the Convergence Plan, people can Google it. It’s about pulling out of 90% of the West Bank unilaterally, because we can’t wait around for Palestinian politics. And he wins the election. My point is not that Olmert offered a proposal at some point. My point is that won an election. An election in which Likud shrinks down to 12 seats.

Again, it’s a big history. There’s different narratives among the Jews. There’s a lot of different narratives among the Palestinians. But Israeli Jews, most of them believe that they actually constantly, repeatedly went for this peace thing. When the Palestinians were willing with them, and then when they were unwilling, how did the Oslo process end in the fall of 2000? Israeli soldiers are pulled out of every Palestinian city. Barak and Arafat are negotiating at Camp David with Bill Clinton, shared sovereignty on the Temple Mount between two independent states. And that’s when a wave of 140 suicide bombings hit Israeli societies, Israeli towns, Israeli cities, and the Israeli left never recovers. It never wins an election again. So the Israelis think that they have tried, and it keeps failing, and they don’t know how to pull out of the West Bank.

By the way, we Israelis, there’s a deep misunderstanding of us in the West, especially in the progressive Western protester community. They want to squeeze us, they want to pressure us to pull out, to create space for Palestinian self-determination. And they think that they’re going to do that with sanctions and social ostracizing and all of that. The problem is that their very demand from the Palestinian political world, we get an opposite demand. In other words, the Western protester says, pull out of the West Bank, and Hamas says, anywhere you pull out of, I’m going to murder your children from that place. Now, to me, the Israeli, they should get in a room and sort that out.

Noam: Hahahahaha.

Haviv: Because they’re telling me opposite things, and they don’t know enough,they don’t know enough about my story, my experience, to know that they’re self-canceling in my head. So the refusal of the activist world and of the Palestinian political world to seriously analyze me, to think about me, to learn my history, to understand me, is a disaster for the Palestinians. It’s a disaster for Palestinian strategy. They’re going to mobilize the whole world against me, and it’s still not going to work, and they’re not going to understand why.

Mijal: Haviv, I want to actually ask a couple of questions that I think really relate to American Jews right now and how we relate to these stories and misunderstood stories and conflict. The first question is actually a follow up on what Noam said earlier, because you were just talking a couple of minutes ago about different peace efforts. And I think one of the things that is really hard for liberal American Jews who support Israel, is that even as we see demonization of Israel and rising anti-Zionism and an antisemitism problem in the anti-Zionist movement and all of these awful things, there’s also for many people a government in Israel that has very strong extremist elements and that doesn’t seem to want to say that it wants to find a solution or it wants to find peace.

So I’d love for you to reflect on that a little bit, even giving us advice, like what do you say to American Jews and other Americans who want to defend Israel because we see some of this clearly and at the same time we feel a little bit, I don’t know if the word is constrained or perplexed or confused, like we’re struggling to figure out how to do this with the voices that are also emerging from certain parts of the Israeli government.

Noam: Are you saying, Mijal, that there would be a different perspective if there was a different government potentially?

Mijal: So that’s an opinion that many people have. I’ve heard a lot of people who basically say, if Netanyahu wasn’t in charge, if we had a government that was clear, like, that made a huge deal about humanitarian aid, if we had a government that made its case better and that spoke more about peace and compromise, a lot of the problems would go away. I feel ambivalent about that because I see a lot of clear antisemitism that to me is independent of what Israelis do. But at the same time, I take it seriously. And there’s also, you know, just like some elements in the Israeli government that, from a generous perspective, you can say they’re not doing a good job or they’re dysfunctional. From a very non-generous perspective, you can say they are extremists and they’re contributing to the problem.

Haviv: Yeah, I mean, I agree.

Mijal: We want wisdom, Haviv, give us your wisdom!

Haviv: Look, I mean, I’m one of those people who say that if our government was made up of people who are less incompetent and less drunk on their own ideology slash ego, this would look better. I am one of those people who says that. And I say that while completely agreeing with your point that the ideas and the political impulses that drive the anti-Israel whirlwind that’s happening right now, doesn’t care what Israeli leaders say. It would be happening anyway. Look, the destroy Israel protests, mass protests didn’t begin with a ground invasion in Gaza or with Gallant saying a mean sentence that he never repeated again and said the opposite of 20 times. It began with October 7 itself. It was a response to October 7. October 7 lit the fires of anti-Israel protests who were thrilled not at Israeli evil, but at October 7 itself. At what they thought was a reliving in their time of the great and heroic and seminal story of the Algerian resistance to the French, of the great anti-colonial war of Algerian independence. And here we have it again, and we get to, to be on the right side of history and they went out and they marched. This is what happened to the Muslim world and this is what happened in those parts of the West that are very, I would say, sensitive to discourses in the Third World and in the Muslim world about these issues. So I’m not going to convince them. In other words, that Itamar Ben-Gvir talks about, you know, burning and kicking them all out and resettling Gaza, they didn’t need him to do that. However, there are other audiences, Jewish audiences, for whom Itamar Ben-Gvir providing the paper trail that the anti-Israel activists needs to show that they’re not crazy extremists, but in fact perfectly good analysts of the Israeli situation needed. Itamar Ben-Gvir fed the proofs that those people needed and allowed them to carry their case out of the political extremes and into quite centrist center-left places where most Jews live in the West. And so the crime committed by the Israeli government with its insane, stupid, egomaniacal rhetoric–

Mijal: Don’t hold back, Haviv.

Haviv: was a crime against Jews. It was a crime against Jews. This is completely separate from the question of the actual war in Gaza, but just the rhetorical war around it, where I think the Israeli army has a statistical record of extraordinary care. Not every time, 30,000 airstrikes, some of them were wrong, were crimes. But yes, obviously, there’s never been a war without that. But statistically, the Israeli army is one of the most careful armies in the history of the world in this kind of warfare. At this point in the Algeria war, for example, the French had killed 100,000 people. And would go on to kill half a million. So it’s still a terrible war. It’s an absolutely catastrophic war in those terms. But it is the best you can do in a war in which Hamas has spent 17 years building tunnels in order to draw in a war and make sure civilians die in that war. That’s how they plan to survive this war.

If that’s the war you have to fight, if that’s the war Hamas is imposing on you, a war of civilian death, don’t sound evil as you go off to that war. The scale of stupidity and folly of the rhetoric of the Israelis at the beginning of the war is absolutely unconscionable. It’s a crime in itself. And it’s a crime committed mostly against Jews around the world who have to live with the people seeing the evidence of Israeli evil, even if on the ground in the war itself Israel did fairly okay.

Mijal: Haviv, like part of what you’re saying, part of what it brings home to me is that there is this like huge war happening right now and there’s a lot of different fronts and different battles. And I would say for you and for Israeli citizens, there’s the military front. And I’m also hearing from you, there’s the front to have a competent and good government that can, you know, carry out the war correctly. But I actually want to ask your advice about this other front that you just named, which is Jews in the West. So Noam and I work a lot with all kinds of Jews, but I think we both have a special place in our heart and in our work for young Jews. And they are increasingly being isolated or ostracized if they believe Israel existing is a good idea. Many of them have to become almost like information warriors overnight in their campuses.

And I’ll tell you something, Haviv, I remember I had coffee with you a couple of months ago, and you said one sentence that stuck with me. When I asked you at the end for some advice, I think you told me the most important thing you can do right now is raise strong kids and have strong people and have almost… I almost heard you say, like, you’re going to need to take this on as American Jews and fight. So I’m wondering if you have just some thoughts about how American Jews, from where you’re sitting, what are some of the ways that you advise that we need to have right now, the strategies that we need to take on if we are going to stand up and fight the front that we are in.

I’ll tell you a story that I had with an experience that I had with a young American Jew. I was doing a tour of college campuses a few months ago, maybe three, four months ago. And I gave one talk at Harvard Law. And it was a talk where I actually had protesters, which was really nice, because if you’re an Israeli speaker and you speak at college campuses and you don’t get protesters, people start wondering if you matter. So it’s a good thing to, I appreciated it.

Mijal: Hahaha.

Haviv: But these protesters, they stand up, they walk down through the, they go out and the talk happens. And then after the talk, the Jewish kids, by the way, who came, and it was a pretty full lecture hall, were rattled by these protesters, which really surprised me because I found them to be very childish and silly. And then after the talk, one kid comes up to me and it’s a conversation I remembered very, very clearly, and it basically changed the next few months of my work. The kid says to me, I can’t cross the quad without them screaming at me, Zionism is colonialism. And I said to him, OK, I’m sorry to hear that. That’s really sad. That sounds frustrating. And he says, no, it really hurts. And I said, what do you mean it hurts? Israeli kids your age are a war. I mean, buck up, right? And then he says, no, what hurts is that I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what to say back.

And then I got really upset at him. And that’s my fault. And he taught me a lesson. I said to him, what do you mean you don’t know the answer to Zionism is colonialism? Are you serious? 95% of Israeli Jews came as refugees with nowhere else to go. You know another such colonialism? We come from 60 countries. There’s no mother country we are coming from. You know a colonialism with no mother country? There’s an ancient tradition of belonging to the land. Every synagogue in the world faces it and has done so for 2,000 years. There’s no colonialism with any of the features of Zionism. So, other than showing up in a place, what are we talking about? You really don’t know why Zionism and colonialism aren’t the same thing? And then he looks at me and he says, can we curse on this podcast? I don’t want anyone to be offended.

Noam: You can.

Mijal: You can, Haviv. You’re our guest. You’re our first guest, so you’re going to establish new standards for us. Yeah.

Noam: Feel at home.

Haviv: I’m going to establish the norms. I’m going to establish them very low as a service to future guests. He says to me, holy shit, now I’m invincible. I’m invincible. And I was shocked, I was shocked, A, because the things I said to him were the most basic, foundational, simple facts of our history. He didn’t know them. And when he did know them, everything was solved in 45 seconds.

If we tell our kids their story, they’re invincible. The Jews haven’t been teaching their story to their kids for probably five generations in America. American Jews show up and they’re deeply uninterested in the story. They’re interested in deep integration into American Jewry. And then they discover, probably around generation two or three, 1940s, that their kids are in terrible danger. The great existential threat to American Jewry is assimilation. Their kids are in terrible danger of becoming bored with Judaism. That’s the danger, boredom. And they will just go off and assimilate into American society.

So they’ve been spending five generations now teaching their kids not history of the Jews, but how to be Jewish. Holidays, rituals. You know, your Bar Mitzvah is the foundational experience of most American Jews and also one of the last experiences of most American Jews. And why whatever you think is sexy is Judaism. In other words, whatever you want to be, that’s what Judaism is. Please, please stay Jewish. So, welcome to a generation of Jews whose parents and grandparents don’t know history.

These kids were rattled by these protesters at my talk, not because the protest was violent, it wasn’t at all, but because they don’t know their story enough to withstand the assault. What I have to do, our generation’s task, is to remember our story. And to teach it and to have a shared one with 16 different versions and narratives and all that, but to teach our fundamental story.

I have to tell you, I have taught thousands of, or lectured to thousands and thousands of American college students, probably 6,000 in the last seven or eight years. I’m one of the stations that a lot of different college student programs, visits in Israel have to go through, or choose to go through, nobody forces them. And they know nothing. They know nothing. I don’t just mean that Georgia Tech engineering students don’t know anything about Middle Eastern history. I don’t expect them to. I mean, master’s degree programs in Middle Eastern studies. I tell them Israelis are a nation of refugees and they’re shocked and surprised. The most fundamental social history of the Israeli Jews that you kind of need to understand if you’re going to influence them, be just understand what the hell is happening. Elite American academia, doesn’t think it has the responsibility to tell the story, the basic outlines of the Israeli story. That’s our task and we have to do that. And then yes, once we do that, our kids are gonna take the fight to the enemy by themselves. In other words, we’re not gonna have to tell them how to do it. We don’t know how to do it.

Noam: I love it, Haviv. Mijal texted me as you were talking. She wrote everything that Haviv is saying is… manna to my ears. It’s like precisely my mantra and Carl Sandberg, who’s the winner of multiple Pulitzer prizes, wrote in Remembrance Rock, he said the following, “we know that when a nation goes down and never comes back, when a society or civilization perishes, one condition may always be found. They forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what brought them along. The hard beginnings were forgotten and the struggles farther along.” I think that is precisely what you’re talking about. We have to know our story. And if we know our story, we are invincible.

Mijal: And Haviv, part of what I think is really powerful about what you’re saying is that one challenge or problem is when “others” misunderstand us or tell the wrong story. But you’re saying it’s not only about them, it’s really about us.

Noam: Exactly. 

Mijal: That that can only happen when we are not confident in who we are. But, we’re beginning to wrap up, like one of the closing questions, you know, I turn to you often when I need to hear like wisdom. I’m curious if you’re open to sharing, like what are the things that you’re wondering about? Like things that you are almost like, what’s confusing right now? I don’t mean in terms of like strategy, but in terms of the moment that we’re in or in terms of our story.

Haviv: I’ll tell you the one great task before us that I don’t think we’re up to and I don’t really know how to start.

Mijal: Okay, we’ll figure it out in the next three minutes. Okay.

Haviv: Perfect. The one question we didn’t get to that you asked was on the Palestinian side of that story. What do Palestinians misunderstand or misinterpret about us, in my view?

And the simple answer is they’ve thought of us over the last 140 years. From the very first Zionist immigration in the 1880s, they think of us in all kinds of ways that miss the foundational sort of drive of the immigration, which is desperation, which is refugeehood. And then we are a colonialist project and an imperialist project. And there’s always a reason to think it. We are getting help from the British Empire or even the Germans or, you know, various empires. And then we are a Soviet project in ’48, the Egyptian declaration of war against us actually says that you know it’s a war against Marxism, nihilism and atheism because the Jews are getting weapons from the Soviets and the Jews are a bunch of communists, right? Ben Gurion and the kibbutzim and all of that. In other words, the Jews lost their socialism and communism and lost nothing when they shed those ideologies. The Jews shed all kinds of different ideologies, and remained, and remained in Israel, and remained strong and steadfast and resilient. Which means that the things making them strong, steadfast and resilient aren’t the ideological elite narratives that Palestinians have seen in us and interpreted us as being them over the many years. But among Palestinians, it’s fundamentally a strategic argument, which says that as other colonialist projects were dismantled, so too they will be dismantled. The Jews will be pushed out. The problem is, if I am colonialist, I’m a weird colonialism, and I’m the kind that can’t be pushed out with that kind of a strategy. And so they misinterpret us in ways that lead them into strategies that can’t work.

I want them to wake up. I want them to see me. I want them to see me not in the ways that they have learned to think of me in their own discourses among the ideological elites. Hamas has a story of Islamic renewal and resurgence that it borrows from Salafi Islamic theologians and thinks that my destruction is the beginning of the redemption of Islam from its weakened, dilapidated state in the last 400 years. Iran thinks a similar thought about us, you know, in a Shia version. The anti-colonialists of the PLO like Arafat thought of us as French Algeria. I want them to just see me and understand me and learn me, and then they will be able to influence me. They will be able to make demands of me.

I owe them a moral debt. Palestinians in the West Bank don’t vote for the military governor of the West Bank. I don’t know how we solve that. Do we split the West Bank? Is West Bank and Gaza a state even if it wants to be a state? Is it viable? Maybe there’s some kind of confederation between a Palestinian state that’s 70% of the West Bank plus Gaza plus Jordan. A confederation in which nobody has to move anywhere. Everybody gets citizenship. Maybe we can incorporate the Palestinians into a relationship in which Israel is the great protector, because it needs to protect its frontiers of the Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

I’m completely making stuff up here, but I’m just saying if they can start to come to me with demands that understand who I am, what I see, what my needs are, the fact is if you want to come to the Jews today and demand a civic democracy where everyone has citizenship, you’re telling the Jews that they now are going to be a minority. And they’re going to be a minority that will just kind of hope that the Arab world of 2024 will be kind to them. It’s hard to explain to someone outside the Middle East how utterly, phenomenally stupid that idea is. The only thing I know from the 20th century is that I have to be safe by my own self-reliance and exertions. The Americans came in to help us to be our allies. After we were already a regional power, after ’67. And until then, we weren’t useful to the Americans. In fact, in the ’48 war, America had us under an arms embargo. So if you think that if you lift American aid to us and then we collapse, you know what? Let’s do it. I hope you succeed and I hope American aid evaporates. And then when we don’t collapse, maybe you’ll start to see us and understand the actual nation you face and influence us in ways that might actually work.

I don’t know how we wake the Palestinians up to who we actually are. I don’t want to teach them their story. I don’t have that right. Except for the small part of their story or the very large part of their story that is their interpretation of me. Because until they understand me, we’re stuck.

Mijal: Well, I’m not sure we’re going to solve that in the next couple of minutes, but I do think it’s just really important to remind to all of us, there’s a lot of noise out there, but there’s also like fundamental questions about how do we move to a better place? How can we dream of peace in a way that is real? Noam, you had something?

Noam: No, I just wanted to thank you, Haviv. Thank you for the conversation, for giving me a lot to think about, a tremendous amount of history, and I’m gonna continue wondering. So thank you.

Mijal: Yeah, thank you so much, Haviv. And thank you for always giving us history and also hope for the future.

Haviv: Thank you.

Mijal: So, Noam, what do you think?

Noam: Mijal, I have so many thoughts on that conversation with Haviv. He’s got, you know, a tremendous amount of knowledge, breadth, depth, all the things. I’ll just tell you one thought that came to my head that we didn’t get enough into. He was speaking about the two different types of Zionism, the ideological type of Zionism and lived Zionism and that they’re in tension with each other and that there’s been a desperate nature to the Jewish story and that if you don’t understand that there’s desperation to the refugee issue the Jews need to be in Israel that is what the story is about because they were pushed out of their host countries.

Mijal, what I was thinking about was, what about the pull? There’s something just not romantic enough to me about it. The pull of the Jewish past and the pull of the Jewish future. And so the push I understood, but what about the pull?

Mijal: Yeah, it’s funny. I was thinking about you when he was saying that because I’ve heard you speak about your Zionism in the past. Like the positive story, you know, not just we were kicked out, but like, no, we came to do something. So I was thinking that I was wondering how you would think about it. I do find it very compelling though that there’s just this like, this story of having no other choice.

Like I don’t think he would deny the pull, but maybe he would say underneath all of that, the most primal element back then and now is we have nowhere else to go. And that, that he’s, I’m quoting him because as you could hear in our conversation, I follow him very carefully. That’s almost like the most potent weapon of just today. That desperation is our weapon, is knowing that we have.

Noam: You know who said that? You know who said that?

Mijal: Who said that? 

Noam: That our secret weapon, that Israel’s secret weapon is–

Mijal: Golda Meir, is that it?

Noam: Golda Meir. Yeah, Golda Meir.

Mijal: Yeah. Right, right. So I’ve…

Noam: So we have no choice. Ein breira. We have no choice. That is something that I thought Haviv was going to get to, but he basically was alluding to this also that one of the misunderstandings of maybe the Palestinian world to the Israeli side is ein breira, no, no, this is, we did a few thousand years of not having this. The future of world history will contain the Jewish presence as a majority in the Jewish state in the land of Israel. And that is something that the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people need to come to terms with.

Mijal: Yeah, the level of mistrust that we have in the world, which for so many of us in the diaspora, October 7th has heightened that. So long as that is the case, they’re just going to push us against the wall and push it into a defensive posture. And we’re not going to be able to make anything better. I find it very compelling, yeah.

Noam: And nothing that either you or I just said, or what Haviv said, no one’s negating Palestinian future self-determination by saying what either of us just said, I think.

Mijal: Not just that, but, Haviv and others have said, like no one’s going anywhere.

Noam: No one’s going anywhere.

Mijal: But the problem is when, one side thinks the other side can go somewhere, it just perpetuates the conflict and war and dying and all of that. But, yeah, I find Haviv so wise. Like he’s knowledgeable, but he’s wise also. And I also, every time that I speak with him or hear him, I feel like Haviv is like, you remember your story. Remember where you come from. Be strong, choose to be resilient. Don’t you dare, dare, you know, disappoint your parents and grandparents and betray their strength and figure out what you can do to not let down Jewish history before you and after you.

And I think that American Jewry, I think needs to hear that. I think many of us tend to just, you know, just be moan and be sad. And I think he’s demanding that we choose to be strong, which is beautiful and which I find important.

Noam: Yeah, I’ll end with this. Knowledge, like my father-in-law says, is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing that you don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad. And there it is.

Mijal: Sure, that’s the conclusion. Don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad.

Noam: Thank you. That’s it. That’s it. All right. And there you have it.

Mijal: Okay.

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