Yossi Klein Halevi
Thin Places, Thick Realities
A new show from Jerusalem with American-Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who says Jerusalem is a place where the essential human story plays itself out with particular intensity.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a correspondent for The New Republic, senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land.
May 12, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Today: “Thin Places, Thick Realities,” a new conversation in our series from Israel and the West Bank, listening for realities and possibilities that get hidden by headlines.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: When you’re so caught up in your own story, especially in a situation of conflict, you can’t separate religion from the conflict that we’re living — from the fears. And Jerusalem, if you can manage at least sometimes to overcome your own fears and grievances, it’s all here. It’s so obvious, when you open yourself to it, what God is saying to humanity in this city.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a vast statement. I sat down with Yossi Klein Halevi in Jerusalem to understand it. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: Religions evolve, says Yossi Klein Halevi. And whether we are religious or secular, we all have a stake in what happens in the Holy Land. With his voice, we continue unraveling meaning and identity in the Holy Land. We went there looking for realities and possibilities that get hidden by headlines. Yossi Klein Halevi — author, journalist, and son of a Holocaust survivor — grew up in Brooklyn and immigrated to Israel in the early ’80s. He describes himself as spiritually devout, but “post-orthodox”; politically he speaks of two sides to himself that alternately emerge: one hawkish and one centrist. I sat down with him in Jerusalem — a place where he experiences the essential human story to play itself out with particular intensity.
MR. HALEVI: The Jewish story is about God taking a people, which is a random group of people, no better or no worse than any other people, and using this people as a test case for what happens when you have divine intimacy with human beings. It’s not a group of saints, the Jewish people. And that’s precisely the point.
MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being in Israel and the West Bank: “Thin Places, Thick Realities.”
I last spoke with Yossi Klein Halevi in 2006 in another tumultuos Middle Eastern moment. Israel was building a security wall, and Hamas had just come to power in Gaza. But I first discovered him by way of his 2001 book, written in the more hopeful era of the Oslo peace accords: At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
MS. TIPPETT: Your book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden was such a beautiful and hopeful book in many ways. And I recommend it to people all the time still.
MR. HALEVI: You’re the one.
MS. TIPPETT: And you had said to me that even by the time that book was published and the pub date was September 11, 2001, you couldn’t have written the same book. I mean, the Second Intifada was happening.
But then when we spoke again in 2006 I was really aware of your pain and grief and that even there was a despair. There was a distance, even, from that experience of praying with your skullcap on in mosques. So here we are. What are we, five years later? I can’t believe that. One place I just wanted to start is my running something by you. It’s a simple sentence that someone uttered yesterday when we were on a tour of the old city.
So let me just set the scene, which will be very familiar to you. We have somebody who we hired to help us here, organize things on the ground. He is a Palestinian with an Israeli passport. Our tour guide yesterday of the Old City was a Palestinian Christian. And then…
MR. HALEVI: Without an Israeli passport.
MS. TIPPETT: Without an Israeli passport. A citizen of Jerusalem, which is then another, but you know, it was interesting because he was showing us the Old City and it took about 15 — you know, he was an objective tour guide for about 15 minutes. And then at a certain point, I think when we were in the Armenian quarter and he transitioned into the language of “We” “We Christians,” it was very clear that we’re getting a way of seeing something very complex. And it’s true with you too.
MR. HALEVI: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And you admit that.
MR. HALEVI: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: So this sentence — I don’t remember who uttered it — “There are no facts here.” And it does seem true, Yossi, that there are so many different histories and experiences that create ways of living facts that render the facts different. And it’s just very…
MR. HALEVI: Yeah. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: …strange experience for someone coming in from the outside.
MR. HALEVI: You know, I think that one of the motives that I had for going on my journey into Islam and Christianity in this land was to try to expand my file of facts and to try to incorporate…
MS. TIPPETT: And actually, because you draw up a list of true facts.
MR. HALEVI: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: Whatever that means.
MR. HALEVI: And to try to understand, really, how other communities here experience the same history and the same events. In a sense, I think that our reality is a kind of a Rashoman and it’s not necessarily that there are different facts but there are such radically different interpretations of those same facts.
And so, for example, for me as an American Jew who came home, and that’s the language that I use, I’m part of an indigenous people that is being repatriated. For Palestinians, I’m part of a colonialist wave that’s threatening their sense of home. And so I was trying in some sense in this journey, really, to step out of my comfort zone and see how the same set of facts looks through other eyes.
You know, you mentioned that I had said to you that I would not have been able to write that book after the collapse of the peace process and the suicide bombings began and that’s true, but I’m really grateful that I was able to do it before that happened.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and to that point, I absolutely understand what you mean when you say you couldn’t write the book now and yet I think the book continues to have value as you wrote it.
MR. HALEVI: You know, sometimes I’ll pick it up and just briefly at random open it up and read an experience and just be amazed. I’ll say, wow, that happened to me; it didn’t happen to someone else.
MS. TIPPETT: So some of your experiences of shared prayer or something, I mean, those are some of the most really moving sections.
MR. HALEVI: And it reminds me of not just what’s possible but what’s actually happened. And so that I wouldn’t say that I’m in despair. I wouldn’t use that strong a language. I certainly don’t feel that peace is possible any time soon, but I have to believe that this reality is not going to be permanent.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I think it stands as a testament, for you, of what really happened; for others, what is possible, what was possible, what should, could…
MR. HALEVI: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: …really must be possible again.
MR. HALEVI: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So here’s something else I want to talk to you about: the whole notion of identity. And I think we were sitting with you with a group of 20-something aspiring journalists and I’m so aware that some of these basic concepts — this would be true of any nationality, but certainly that Americans bring — simply don’t function here. Right? I mean, identity is not just a different notion; it’s a different experience.
MR. HALEVI: I think it begins with a relationship to history that’s very far into the American sensibility. The greatness of America is that everyone could start all over again and you can rewrite your biography. You can pick and choose how much of your past, your own personal past, but your family or national past, you choose to carry. Here there is not that luxury.
That’s not only true for Israel; it’s very true for the Middle East. You know, events that happened 100 or 200 years ago are considered virtually contemporary here. Because the extended memory of Jews and Arabs goes back — a contiguous memory — to millennia. So the strength of that experience is that you don’t feel cut off. Your reality tends to be pretty defined. Obviously, the negative expression of that is that you can get boxed into the past and your options can be very narrow.
MS. TIPPETT: It also seems to me that you could get lost in the complexity of it. I mean, right, which path do you choose to get boxed into?
MR. HALEVI: Right. Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, so in the Old City yesterday, a mosque used to be a church, a church used to be a mosque. I mean, there have been layers of history. There was a very striking moment to me where our tour guide was telling the story, I believe, of the Dome of the Rock — one of those, but it could have been any number of places. And then he said, “And then the Crusaders came and they put crosses on the roof.” He said, “But they were only here for 200 years so it really couldn’t make much of a difference.” I mean, he said that, they were only here for 200 years…
MR. HALEVI: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: …so they couldn’t do very much.
MR. HALEVI: Right. But he also still feels the outrage of that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. HALEVI: I mean, that was, true, it was a thousand years but look what they did.
MS. TIPPETT: It was a thousand years ago; it was only 200 years. But then there are the moments in the old city which, as an American, I think you experience as very baffling and, again, this goes to the difference of our histories and the relative youth, you know, that kind of the clean slate of American history, although, of course it wasn’t a clean slate.
So he was pointing out one of the few buildings where on one level there’s a Christian family and then there’s on another level the Jewish family, and another level there was some family and he said, “This is so unusual that they walk through the same door. They have the key to the same door to enter the places they live in.” That’s hard. That’s hard to grasp for an American.
MR. HALEVI: You know, it’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it this way but just listening to you, I think that our challenge here for those of us who live within a historical consciousness is to prove that one can honor the past and be in dialogue with the past but not be imprisoned by it. That, I think, is really the challenge of Arabs and Jews in this conflict. And I, look, as someone who group up in America…
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: …and left, I…
MS. TIPPETT: And you grew up in Brooklyn. I mean, you know what it’s like where all kinds of people are living on top of each other all the time.
MR. HALEVI: Yes. And I grew up in the ’60s. And I bring that sensibility with me here, so in a way I feel that clash between the expansiveness, the limitless possibility of the American present and future and that deep sense of honoring the past and how important it is not to feel one’s self adrift in history.
So in some way, I suppose that the journey that I took into Islam and Christianity was an attempt to bring together that American sensibility with the reality of the Middle East. And that’s actually very useful to me, Krista. Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Thin Places, Thick Realities” — in Jerusalem, with Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. He’s a frequent commentator in American and Israeli media and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s talk about the complex reality of Jewish identity, Israeli identity — which, again, is multilayered — and also the categories, even if you can use words like “left” and “right,” “center,” they don’t translate. So I wonder if you would describe that landscape.
MR. HALEVI: Well, I think that built in to Israeli identity is a fundamental clash of sensibilities. The religious sensibility sees the creation of Israel, the existence of Israel, as a miracle. As a providential act. The fulfillment of prophecies that go back thousands of years and especially the circumstances under which Israel was created that we moved from the Holocaust directly into sovereignty. Which is to say, from our worst historical nightmare into our greatest historical fantasy, dream.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. HALEVI: And the ability, I think, of the Jewish people to make that abrupt shift —this kind of alchemy of turning nightmare into dream — is the stuff of Judaism. It is the validation of Judaism. And I think that any previous generation of believing Jews who would’ve been able to see our time would’ve instantly identified this as the fulfillment of all that Judaism claimed would happen and believed about how the Jewish story would end.
So in that sense, the religious Jew looks at the state of Israel and sees the fulfillment of what he or she believes. The secular Israeli looks at exactly — you talked about how reality can look so different.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: It isn’t only between Arabs and Jews.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: It’s among Jewish Israelis. So the secular Israeli looks at the same event, the founding of Israel, and says Israel became a reality only once the Jews revolted against passivity, against this religious faith that God will one day through the Messiah then gather the Jews back to this land. And we took our fate in our own hands. Zionism was a profoundly secular movement.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: And so the secular Israeli says the state is proof of the absence of a guiding hand in history. And that’s built in to the existence of Israel, let alone all of the issues that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis here.
MS. TIPPETT: So what’s the proportion? Do you know what the proportion is of secular or religious Israelis?
MR. HALEVI: There’s a spectrum here. And it isn’t a society divided between secular and religious. That tends to be the perception abroad but it’s much more nuanced. So you have up to 10 percent ultra-orthodox, another 10 or 15 percent modern orthodox. Then you have a very large percentage of traditional and traditional can mean anything, really. It’s people who identify themselves as traditional who have some relationship to Judaism but don’t live a strictly religious life. And hardcore secular I would say is probably 20 percent.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. HALEVI: A large of proportion of them are Russian immigrants, maybe 25 percent.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting. So one thing you said I found really interesting, that for Jews peoplehood is a religious category. So even a secular Jew has an understanding of peoplehood that would look…
MR. HALEVI: Oh, deeply.
MS. TIPPETT: …religious to someone else.
MR. HALEVI: I think that’s true and the willingness of Israelis to sacrifice for this country, to fight one war after another, to send our children to the army, is in some sense motivated by, I don’t know, let’s not use the word “religious” but certainly a kind of a spiritual feeling, a sense of connectedness, and a certain transcendent stake in this story. And a sense that this story means something that’s really worth defending.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: But I would also say that it’s not just that many secular Israelis feel a stake in Judaism; it’s that Judaism itself validates a nonreligious Jewish identity to some extent.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. HALEVI: I don’t want to overstate it, but if you are a Jewish atheist…
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s true globally, the statement you just made.
MR. HALEVI: Oh, very much so. Very much so.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not just in Israel. Right.
MR. HALEVI: No, of course. And you have a sense of attachment to the Jewish people, to the Jewish story. You raise your children with Jewish values. Then you are a, depending on who you ask, but a Jew in reasonably good standing. You’re certainly part of the story. You can be a heretic and not be totally cut off from Judaism.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know if you know that I did several, we did some work, a show on Einstein and then we did a book that kind of grew out of that this year.
MR. HALEVI: I do know, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And one of the interesting pieces of that was Einstein’s spiritual imagination. He did not have any — he didn’t believe in a transcendent god but he did have a rich spiritual imagination.
MR. HALEVI: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And an ethical imagination. And I remember something he said that he came to revere more and more about Judaism is that — this is a paraphrase, I think — but that at the essence it is about life as we live it, as we live it and can know it and nothing else. It was that how do you live rather than what do you believe emphasis in Judaism.
MR. HALEVI: Yeah, I think you can trace that to the seminal moment of the formation of the Jewish people, which was the revelation at Mt. Sinai. And the biblical text is a very strange moment where the Jews say to God, “Na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will listen, or we will obey.” And the doing comes before the understanding.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: And I think that that’s really in some sense wired into the Jewish experience that there is a sense that you live the life, you engage with Judaism, and it creates its own reality. Now, I respect that and I appreciate it but I’m not fully satisfied with it. As a religious Jew, as someone who is connected to the mystical side of Judaism and who feels that the quest for a living relationship with a personal god is too often displaced in modern Judaism. We too often emphasize this worldliness of Judaism, and there’s a whole vast tradition that we’ve displaced which is the same mystical needs and longings that one finds in other religious traditions and has been buried in Judaism by a modern rationalist Jewish approach. So I’m not fully with Einstein on that.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. HALEVI: If I may disagree with him.
MS. TIPPETT: You may. I think he also was very clear that he was an expert on physics and not an expert on religion.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you think about this complex reality of identity that we’ve been talking about? Even these divisions within Judaism and these parallel identities of Christians, Jews, Muslims even in the, especially I’d say, in the city of Jerusalem. How do think about God in terms of that kind of identity? What aspects of the tradition for you speak to that — both in terms of how you explain it or how you might find that unsatisfactory? I don’t know.
MR. HALEVI: Do you mean in terms of a Jewish approach to religious pluralism or to understanding the different faces of God?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I don’t know. Is that one way you think about it, that there are different faces of God?
MR. HALEVI: Very much so.
MS. TIPPETT: How do you look at this fact of, yes, as I say, parallel as opposed to even coexistent identities, even within Judaism and think about the nature of God and kind of add those things up.
MR. HALEVI: In terms of my relationship as a Jew with other faiths, the constant struggle — being in this reality, being in Jerusalem — is to be rooted in your own tradition, in your own faith. And Jerusalem demands that because everyone here is rooted in their specificity. And how do I as a religious Jew manage to — this is really an extension of what we were speaking about earlier. How do I manage to be faithful to my understanding of reality and at the same time accommodate alternative readings of reality?
And Jerusalem does not take kindly to religious pluralism. The way in which we measure religious tolerance in this city is by the distance that we’re able to safely maintain among the faiths. And there’s good historic reason for that because the more the faiths get closer, the more they touch each other, the more they start to infringe on each other’s sacred spaces. So you try to maintain distance here. And I don’t think that that model is suitable anymore for this city at this time. I believe very strongly that Jerusalem needs to be a model for a more expansive sense of religious identity and pluralism.
But I struggle with that because when you’re so caught up in your own story, especially in a situation of conflict, you can’t separate religion from the conflict that we’re living, from the fears. The historic grievances that we’re all carrying in this conflict. And how do I relate to other religions from a more universal place without sacrificing my particular identity? And Jerusalem, if you can manage at least sometimes, to overcome your own fears and grievances, it’s all here.
It’s so obvious when you open yourself to it what God is saying to humanity in this city. And my understanding is that God is saying to us, “I’ve spoken to each of you faith communities in a language that you can understand. But look around you and look at the devotion that’s surrounding you, and how can you not be moved?” How can I as a Jew not be moved by the monastic communities that cherish this city? How can I not be moved by the love and the devotion that Muslims have lavished on what for me is the focal point of sacred space on the planet, which is the Temple Mount. And look at how Islam has beautified the Temple Mount.
So that building is certainly more beautiful than any synagogue that I know, and I can cherish that as a religious person. Sometimes. Other times, I feel threatened by the Muslim presence on the Temple Mount, which is trying to exclude me, which says, “You as a Jew don’t have a place here.” So it’s so complicated.
MS. TIPPETT: “Complicated” is the first word that rolls off the tongue after being in Jerusalem. This is the second voice we’ve brought to the air from our March production trip to Israel and the West Bank. And in that span of time, there’s been new violence on both sides of that Israeli-Palestinian divide. Our first program, with Mohammad Darawshe — which we called “Children of Both Identities” — was a window inside one identity that straddles that divide: the world of Arab citizens of Israel. We’ll be unfolding other uncommon perspectives in coming months, including my conversation in East Jerusalem with the wise Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. Right now, on our blog at OnBeing.org, you will find three surprising angles of vision from journalism student Christin Davis, a Jewish community builder in Haifa who creates casual human encounters between Arabs and Jews through walking clubs and photography classes.
Also, an Arab-Israeli professor in Galilee who partners with a Jewish university in Jerusalem, and a group of Palestinians and Israelis who use social media to share stories of their loved ones killed in that conflict.
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, how secular modernity forces vastly different religious people into a whole new relationship.
MR. HALEVI: On some level, we’re all implicated in each other’s spiritual failures. So that if there’s a suicide bomber who kills innocents in the name of the Muslim God, for the secular world, that isn’t just a crime that implicates Islam, it implicates religion. Look at what religion does. And that really creates a forced commonality among religious people that I think is going to create the grounds, has to create the grounds for us to move toward a more pluralistic understanding.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being,, “Thin Places, Thick Realities” — in Jerusalem with Yossi Klein Halevi. This is the second in our series of conversations from Israel and the West Bank, unfolding the many faces of identity there. We went looking for realities and possibilities hidden by breaking news headlines. Yossi Klein Halevi is an American-born Israeli journalist and writer. He articulates and lives the complex nature of Jewish-Israeli identity. And he experiences the Holy Land as a place where not merely religion but the essential human story is played out with particular intensity. I sat down with him at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a kind of think tank for Jewish life in modernity, where he’s a fellow.
MS. TIPPETT: So, Yossi, I keep thinking of this beautiful Celtic image of “thin places.” Are you aware of that language?
MR. HALEVI: No.
MS. TIPPETT: That there are thin places, thin times, where the veil between the temporal and the eternal has worn thin, where it comes through. But it’s a very beautiful gentle image. I mean, I think of it in terms of, oh, I’ve thought of it being in monasteries where you feel there’s a presence. You feel that the distance and humanity and the divine, whatever that is, is not quite so vast and it’s as much an experience as something you can put words around. Another place that phrase got uses was there was a little chapel next to Ground Zero where the emergency workers were treated.
MR. HALEVI: Oh, I’ve been there.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And people refer to that as a thin place.
MR. HALEVI: Wonderful language.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s wonderful language and it keeps coming to me here but it feels to me like it’s much too mild for the reality of Jerusalem. I mean, this is almost like a place where it’s seeping and flooding. Do you know what I’m saying?
MR. HALEVI: It’s a thin place and a thick reality.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s too much. It’s too much.
MR. HALEVI: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s like humanity can’t handle it.
MR. HALEVI: It’s too much. Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: I think, especially maybe for people who are not religious, the idea that this holy city where these most sacred sites for so many people are concentrated should be a place where these great transcendent virtues of religion should come to the fore.
MR. HALEVI: You know, Krista, the religion and the place where I feel most in resonance with, outside of this land, is Hinduism in India. Because I think that there is a basic wisdom in India about the nature of this world. And there’s something in me — this is my strong Israeli sensibility — that rejects the Western need for religion to be nice and safe. I understand that. I understand that need, but I see religion as struggling with the deepest contradictions of our being souls trapped in bodies, of our being in this world where we don’t fundamentally belong, and Hinduism understands that. I think Judaism understands that. The Bible is not a pretty book. We were talking about this.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a messy book.
MR. HALEVI: It’s a really messy book. The heroes of the Bible…
MS. TIPPETT: Just like human life is messy.
MR. HALEVI: Exactly. And so I feel very strongly that the Jews have returned home in order to, in some sense, try to get the Bible right this time. And the Bible is not, in the end, an uplifting story of the success of the Jewish people. It’s a very strange ancient myth because it’s not celebratory. It’s relentlessly self-critical, and I feel that we are in some sense writing the next chapter of the Bible in our return here. And that means that we have to carry all of our history into this reality. We have to try to in some sense make sense of it. What does it mean that we came home right after the Holocaust? What does it mean that we’re in the middle of a seemingly hopeless struggle with another indigenous people that has a powerful claim to the same land that we have a powerful claim to? How do we resolve that?
All the issues of religion and state that’s convulsing the whole world and that’s concentrated with particular vehemence in our lives here, partly because this is a small place and everything is so intimate here. Everything matters all the time.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: There’s no break here.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. HALEVI: But I see that as a fulfillment of what the Jews are supposed to be doing in the world at this time. And that for me is not a — the very messiness is the point of it.
MS. TIPPETT: You said something about — I think this is echoing what you just said, that this is a place where the human story is being played out with particular intensity and that’s what’s at stake here is precisely an important part of what makes us human, what makes all of us human.
MR. HALEVI: Yes. This is a place that changed the world. And the religions, the prophecy, the force that came out of this land 2,000 years ago has helped define what humanity is. And I think that that’s why the world is so riveted to this place, sometimes in absurd ways. We have more journalists here, foreign journalists, than almost any other place in the world. Every little shift in the conflict is front-page news around the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: And we’re living under a microscope and Israelis are driven mad by that. And to some extent, they’re right when they say there’s a double standard. You apply this relentless moral critique to Israeli that you certainly don’t apply to our Arab neighbors and virtually no other country in the world is subjected to that same relentless critique.
On the other hand, as a religious person, I feel, well, if that’s the nature of the game, we’re playing for very high stakes here. And Judaism makes some very powerful claims about the nature of Jewish history. And in our self-understanding, the Jewish story is about God taking a people, which is a random group of people, no better or no worse than any other people, and using this people as a test case for what happens when you have divine intimacy with human beings. It’s not a group of saints, the Jewish people.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. HALEVI: And that’s precisely the point. And in the Jewish understanding of this very intense and often unhappy relationship between God and the Jewish people, we’re a test case for the eventual divine intimacy and revelation with all of humanity, which is the messianic age. So we make some very powerful claims about the nature of Jewish history. And I feel, looking at Israel’s reality, that, well, OK, how else could this story after 4,000 years possibly turn out except with this people in this impossible situation back in its land and the whole world peering in all the time and judging every move that we make? We set that story up for ourselves and we have to, to some extent, accept that as the ground rules.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Thin Places, Thick Realities” — in Jerusalem with Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, as we were speaking, these tensions and even the violence that is part of the reality here goes on. And there are these uprisings in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya all playing out differently in those different countries.
MR. HALEVI: Things keep happening.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You know, your despair comes through, as does, I think, a hope. I’ve heard you say a few times in the last couple of days that in the short term, you’re not hopeful, but that you do have some hope in the medium and long term. Talk to me about how you can envision that, because even for all of the excitement and the vastness of what it means just that Israel exists for you, there’s so much, both things that happen in real time every day, and that weight of history behind them. It makes it hard — impossible — to imagine real breakthrough.
MR. HALEVI: I think that the source of my short-term despair and of my long-term hope is the same, and it’s rooted in religion. The question for this region and maybe in some way for the world, is, is religion going to be part of healing or is it going to intensify the destructive process? And certainly the way things appear to be going in the Middle East, religion is very much a part of the problem. More and more, this conflict is becoming overtly religious. The front-line war against Israel is being led by Jihadist movements, by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, of course. So that even the language of this conflict in the last 10 years or so with the suicide bombings in the early 2000s has really changed.
It’s no longer pretending to be a national conflict over land. It’s very much a religious conflict. And on the Jewish side we have, certainly, the settler movement is fused by religious claims. Although within Israeli Judaism there’s been for many years a very important debate about the place of religion in the peace process and whether one is permitted to exchange sacred land for peace. And there is a substantial body of religious opinion that affirms a land for peace agreement. And I think that Islam is capable of making that same transition — or at least part of Islam is — and what gives me hope is that I believe in faith. I believe in the basic wisdom of religion to rise to the occasions. Not immediately and not always and not before necessarily exhausting all of the negative capabilities, but I think that more and more religious people are feeling a justified sense of shame.
And what I find hopeful about this moment in history, and this doesn’t only apply to our conflict, is that with the creation of a secular space, religion now occupies a common ground, because in the past, in pre-secular times, the only way to identify yourself against others is, “I believe in this and you believe…” “My god is this and your god is that.” Now we have a whole space in which there is no god so that those of us who believe in God are, however unhappily, put in the same space and that means on some level we’re all implicated in each others’ spiritual failures.
So that if there’s a suicide bomber who kills innocents in the name of the Muslim God, for the secular world, that isn’t just a crime that implicates Islam.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. HALEVI: It implicates religion. Look at what religion does. And that really creates a forced commonality among religious people that I think is going to create the grounds, has to create the grounds, for us to move to a more pluralistic understanding.
MS. TIPPETT: And you said something very striking the other night when we were speaking. You said you also had an idea that change, at least in the hearts of the Israelis, might be something that could be instantaneous, right? You talked about the moment when Sadat, did he come to Jerusalem?
MR. HALEVI: Oh, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: And you said that that was a miraculous sudden change of heart and mind and that for you, even with all of this complexity that we’ve been describing, that’s also how you imagine how the future might look different.
MR. HALEVI: Not only in the hearts of Israelis. I think very much in the hearts of the Arabs too, if we’re using Sadat as a reference point. And I think it’s worth going back to that moment.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, would you tell that story?
MR. HALEVI: Because it’s, I think, one of the great lost moments of transcendence in the recent history of the Middle East.
In 1977, November 1977, Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt, flew to Israel and was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and given literally and figuratively the red carpet treatment and he spoke in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Israelis lined the streets waving Egyptian flags. The radio played peace songs. And then Menachem Begin went to visit Egypt — I think he went to Alexandria — and the same thing happened over there. Tens of thousands of Egyptians cheered the Israeli prime minister.
Now, bear in mind who Anwar Sadat was and who Menachem Begin was. Four years earlier Anwar Sadat had launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, our holiest day. There was no more hated man in this country than Anwar Sadat. Menachem Begin, who had just come to the power a few months earlier, was the first Likud prime minister, who broke 29 years of labor hegemony, the labor party. The left had ruled this country. For the first time, we had a right-wing prime minister and the media around the world and much of the media in Israeli greeted Menachem Begin’s rise to power saying, “The hawks have taken over and it’s just a matter of time before the Middle East is going to be plunged into the next war.”
And instead, Sadat comes to Israel, is embraced as a hero. There are streets named after Sadat in this country. And Menachem Begin responds by withdrawing from every inch of the Sinai desert, which was almost four times the territorial size of Israel, which Israel had conquered in the Six Day War as in a preemptive measure. And Israelis were convinced that we’re never going to leave the Sinai. That was our military buffer with Egypt. So that was a moment of almost messianic impossibility. And every so often in the history of Israel, we find ourselves in a moment that’s almost metaphysical, meta-historical.
I experienced hat with the mass airlift of Ethiopian Jews that happened shortly after I moved to Israel in 1982. And then suddenly, thousands of Ethiopian Jews, barefoot, in white robes, wide-eyed, step off of these planes. They’ve never seen a plane, let alone been on a plane, and they step out from Ethiopia into the post-modern world, but for them his is Zion. This is the biblical story. And it was one of those moments we all realized we’re in a story that’s more than just the conflict or our daily life. There’s something else going on here; there’s a transcendent dimension.
And that’s what gives me hope here and certainly that’s what brought me to Israel in the first place. And for all of the disappointments and the failures and the tragedies that I’ve experienced in the 30 years that I’ve lived here, the sense of the transcendent and the possibility of the miraculous remains as alive for me as ever.
MS. TIPPETT: Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to The New Republic. His books include Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist and At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
Listen to this conversation again or my unedited interview in Jerusalem with Yossi Klein Halevi. That’s on our website at OnBeing.org. There you can also discover our first program from Israel with Mohammad Darawshe. And as Israeli-Palestinian developments move again to the forefront of world news, we’re following other journalism that echoes some of the human insights we gained on the ground. On our blog, we’ve posted a piece from The Guardian newspaper that notes a disconnect between burgeoning Palestinian civic energies and the relatively narrow media and diplomatic focus on high-level political solutions. We’re also featuring a piece right now on Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust remembrance day that just passed. Find all of this at OnBeing.org or at facebook.com/onbeing, where we are discovering new possibilities for substantive human interaction online.
MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Special thanks this week to Fouad Abu-Ghosh.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.