Author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi joins us to talk about the wisdom of the Israeli calendar in how Israel remembers the fallen on Yom HaZikaron, followed by celebrating its independence on Yom HaAtzma’ut the very next day. 

Then, we’re joined by Erica Mindel, AJC’s Assistant Director of Program Development for Project Interchange, who served in the IDF as an Armored Corps instructor and shares what this week means to her.

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Google Podcasts.

Episode Lineup: 

  • (00:40) Yossi Klein Halevi
  • (25:53) Erica Mindel
  • (27:45) Manya Brachear Pashman
  • (30:25) Seffi Kogen

Show Notes:



Episode Transcript

Seffi Kogen  (0:40)  
Famously, Israeli Memorial Day runs right into Israeli Independence Day, creating an intense 48-hour period of mourning, and reflection, and civic pride, and unbridled joy. It's potent and heavy. And to give our listeners a taste of the meaning behind all that we decided to turn this week to one of Israel's most brilliant public intellectuals and most stirring voices. It's my pleasure to welcome back to the podcast, Yossi Klein Halevi. Yossi, thank you so much for joining us.

Yossi Klein Halevi  (1:11)  
With an introduction like that I'll come on every week.

Seffi Kogen  (1:17)  
We're glad to have you. It's almost trite at this point, to talk about how little American Memorial Day and American Independence Day mean to - I don't want to say to every American that's certainly not true - but to many, maybe even most Americans. So for our listeners who fall into that camp, and who haven't had a chance to experience Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut in Israel, can you paint a picture for us of what those two days are like?

Yossi Klein Halevi  (1:46)  
So, one of the things that I learned when I moved to Israel in the early 1980s, was that the saddest day on the Israeli calendar was actually not Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. It was Yom HaZikaron. And Yom HaShoah has great solemnity, but Yom HaZikaron is an open and ongoing wound. And think of it this way, on Yom HaShoah, we mourn the consequences of powerlessness. And on Yom [HaZikaron], we mourn the consequences of our re-empowerment, and the price that we've paid for national sovereignty. And Yom HaZikaron is a collective day of mourning. 

Everyone knows someone, everyone knows a family, everyone knows a kid who didn't come back. And everyone has stories that we're all carrying. This is a nation of soldiers. It's a nation of parents of soldiers. And the ultimate Israeli nightmare is for a parent to bury a child. And so even if you personally have fortunately not experienced that, that's the deep fear that you've lived with. And so there really is a sense on Memorial Day, that it's not just someone else, it's all of us. And one of the really powerful ways in which Yom HaZikaron is played out, is that there's no patriotic or nationalist bombast. It's not a day for big slogans, for politicians to give fiery speeches. It's a very quiet day. It's an inward day, it's a day for the families. They take front and center. 

And the programs that we have on TV, they're really extraordinary. You'll have one short documentary after another, running for hours throughout the day and night, telling stories, who these kids were. And one of the really touching ways in which the society remembers its soldiers, is that we turn our fallen soldiers back into children. And we remember them as children. We remember them as high school students. The films speak about who they were before they went into the army, who they might have been had they survived the army. And so there really is this sense of grieving in the most intimate way possible on the one hand, and yet -- this is the great paradox, the beautiful paradox -- it's taking place within a collective framework.

Seffi Kogen  (4:35)  
One thing that I think about a lot, I think a lot about the Jewish calendar as a religious Jew, I'm thinking about kind of, what holiday is next and that kind of thing. And it occurs to me that 80 years ago, which is really just a heartbeat in the history of our people, the Jewish calendar between Pesach and Shavuot was basically empty. And now there's Yom HaShoah which you mentioned, there's Yom HaZikaron. There's Yom HaAtzma’ut. There's Yom Yerushalayim, which marks the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. The springtime has been totally remade around the events of the 20th century. How significant is that in the long sweep of Jewish history?

Yossi Klein Halevi  (5:15)  
Well, it's interesting, when you were speaking and talking about the stretch between Pesach and Shavuot, my instinctive response to that was as a son of Hungarian Jews. Because that period, literally, those two months, were the time of the deportation of the Jews of Transylvania, hundreds of thousands of Jews were transported to Auschwitz. So this is our period, you know, this is a very fraught period for those families who had that particular experience. 

But taking it in the broader view, as you're framing it. These are the holidays of what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg called the third era of Jewish history. The third era begins with the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, I would add the end of the exile, or the transformation of exile into diaspora, which is also a crucial component of the third era, the re-empowerment of the Jewish people. These are all the great achievements of the third era. And this is the time period, when we try, in various ways, secular ways, and those of us who are religious relate to this in a more, I'd say, traditionally religious lens. But this is really the period where we tried to make sense of the extraordinary transformation of Jewish life over the last 75 years. And if you think about it, any one of those transformations, any one of those events, would have been enough to change Jewish life for centuries to come. 

The Holocaust, the end of exile, and the emergence of Jewish sovereignty, the emergence of free and secure diasporas. Any one of these events would have been transformative. And they all happened, they converge, more or less the same time. And so what we try to do each year, is unpack it. And the wisdom of the Israeli calendar, is to entwine these events, and yet give each of these events their own space. And so I don't think we really know yet how we're going to be observing these events. We've taken the first steps in commemoration. 

But for example, the religious dimension of all three of these events are still very much in their infancy. And we are going to need, as a people for whom religion is so central to our identity, we're going to need a deeper religious component for expressing these transformations. But certainly what we have now and what we've been given through the secular state of Israel, is the infrastructure, the beginnings, the foundation, of what the spring days of the third era holidays. How they will be commemorated in the future really remains the delicate question.

Seffi Kogen  (8:27)  
Your most recent book, "Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor," in that book, you pointedly try to explain what you, an American-born Jew and more broadly, what the Jewish people are doing in Israel to the Palestinian who, you know, lives over the next hill from you. Since we're thinking about memorials, I wanted to ask, it came into my mind. What do you think of the joint memorials that some in the peace camp have kind of organized for years now, that are for both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict? Does it cross a line? Does it transgress something kind of sacrosanct about Yom HaZikaron? Is it even holier and more appropriate? I mean, what would you say about it?

Yossi Klein Halevi  (9:10)  
I'm actually friendly with the Palestinian who initiated that program, and I have a great deal of respect for him. I personally would not participate for several reasons. One is this day belongs to us. This is the day when the people of Israel communes with its losses. It's not a time for a political statement. And it's certainly not a time to, frankly, compare a fallen Israeli soldier to someone who may have killed him. I'm not ready. I'm not ready emotionally. We're still in this war. And I certainly can't expect a family that has experienced the worst to agree to turn the sacredness of this day, for them as a family, for us as a people, into that kind of a blurring of the line. It's premature at best. I don't know if we'll ever be able to do that. 

I think that there certainly is space for us all to come together to grieve for what this conflict has done to us, each side in a very different way. But to equate Israelis who fell in defense of the country with some of our worst enemies, people who have murdered children, you think of the massacres that terrorists have conducted over the years. It's unthinkable. And so I think that the joint memorial is well intentioned, and very poorly conceived.

Seffi Kogen  (10:51)  
While we're on the topic of Arabs whose future are bound up with that of Israel, I want to pivot a little bit to current events. There has been this very interesting kind of drama playing out in Israeli politics, where this one Arab party Ra'am, led by a man named Mansour Abbas is basically saying, we want to play ball, we are interested in being a part of the Israeli political scene, we don't want to sit kind of on the side as spectators anymore. We want to be a part of the wheeling and dealing and see what we can get for our people in the bargain. And there are still obstacles to that, you know, it's not this kind of smoothly functioning system. But you're someone who speaks so eloquently about kind of the different tribes that exist in Israel. And I'm wondering, do you see this as almost a new era of Israeli politics? Tell us more about that.

Yossi Klein Halevi  (11:43)  
It's a turning point. And the fact that it was Netanyahu, who only a few years ago, was actively delegitimizing Arab participation in the political system, who now for his own purely cynical reasons, shameless reasons, is reaching out not just to an Arab party, but to an Islamist party with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and that most of the right is going along. If it was a left wing government that would be initiating this process, the right would be out of the streets screaming treason. So the fact that it's cut through the right now gives this process legitimacy. It will no longer be especially controversial, when the center left hopefully gets a crack at forming a government one of these days, and that reaches out to Arab parties to try to create an Arab-Jewish coalition. The Arab political participation in the Israeli mainstream has now been legitimized by the least expected source. So I celebrate this moment, I think it is, by far the most significant development politically, of this very sorry two-year stretch of one deadlocked election after another. We are at the beginning of a very interesting, complicated, hopeful process.

Seffi Kogen  (13:12)  
There's another tribe or subset of a tribe, maybe that's kind of in the news, and not for the best reasons. Uncomfortably, it's one that I maybe kind of feel a part of, and maybe you feel a part of -- the religious Zionist, kind of --

Yossi Klein Halevi  (13:26)  
Oh, I thought you're going to talk about the Ultra-Orthodox.

Seffi Kogen  (13:29) 
Well, we've done a lot about the Ultra-Orthodox in recent weeks on this podcast, and I thought you might be an interesting person to talk to about religious Zionists, especially in light of the holidays coming up this week. Holiday, memorial. What do these days, these national days, mean to someone who is both a Jewish nationalist and sees the hand of God in Israel's history and present. And then, you know, also how does that add mix with some of these challenges that we talked about with with Arabs?

Yossi Klein Halevi  (14:01)  
Well, I'll speak personally, I'm religious, I'm a Zionist. I don't call myself a religious Zionist, because that's a very specific identity that now has a lot of political baggage and cultural baggage. It places you within a certain box in Israeli society. And I remember having a conversation once with a neighbor of mine. It was before an election and he said, Well, you have an easy time of it, you know who you're voting for. I said, Really, who am I voting for? He said, Well, you vote for the national religious camp, because I wear a knitted kippah, which is the emblem of the national religious. But I wear a knitted kipah because I wear a kipah and I happen to like a knitted kipah. It has no political or cultural significance. It has a great deal of religious significance for me personally, but it is not my membership card in the religious Zionist world. 

I have a hard critique of the religious Zionist camp, and that critique if anything, has gotten harder and tougher in the last while. Especially with the way in which the national religious camp, or part of the national religious camp has allowed itself to be the means through which the far right and racist Kahanist faction has entered the Knesset. That is an historic scandal for the religious Zionist camp. But to get back to your question, now that you've let me vent --

Seffi Kogen  (15:36)  
It's cathartic for me as well, believe me. I feel a lot of the same feelings that you just put out there.

Yossi Klein Halevi  (15:42)  
This for me is, this is a very complicated religious topic. Let's start with the Holocaust, if we want to really make life difficult for ourselves as religious Jews. What do you do with that? What do you do with the Holocaust? Now, for me, it's a very long conversation, I've actually writing a book about it now. But if I could sum up really in one or two lines, I see in the Holocaust, certainly in the Holocaust coupled with the re-empowerment of the Jewish people, the restoration of sovereignty, the gathering. I see these two events as mirror images of each other. 

I'm very wary of linking the Holocaust with the creation of Israel politically, because that has all kinds of undesirable consequences, where we undermine our legitimate historical claim, and put the existence of Israel, tie the existence of Israel, only to the need for refuge and safety. And I think that we are back at this land, not primarily because we needed safety, but because we're home. Nevertheless, I think that religiously, these two events are in some way paired. And it's not that the State of Israel compensates for the Holocaust, that the State of Israel proves the existence of God in a way that the Holocaust disproves the existence of God. I think it's a much more complicated dynamic. 

But what the existence of Israel told many Jews, certainly for my father. After the war, my father really left religion completely. And part of his return to religion was the re-empowerment of the Jewish people. And again, it's not that it answered all the questions, the questions of the Holocaust remain those questions. But the way that I put it for myself, is that the State of Israel makes it possible, again, for Jews to consider the possibility that the traditional Jewish self-understanding of who we are as a people, and the presence of God in our story might be true. And Israel allows us to consider the possibility of faith after the Holocaust. If you frame it in that more delicate and tentative way, it doesn't have that kind of nationalist bombast, which you often hear in certain religious Zionist circles. 

I mean, I've heard for example, people say that the Holocaust happened because the Jews in Europe didn't respond to the call of Zionism and move here. Now, that may be technically why the Holocaust happened to the extent that it did. But to say that God was punishing the Jews of Europe because they didn't become Zionist, that's just the flip side of the anti-Zionist Satmar or Neturei-Karta kind of theology. Which said that God was punishing the Jews of Europe because they did become Zionists. So I think we need to, what we're dealing with the modern Jewish story, this very complicated move from Churban, from destruction, to renewal, the more tentative we are, the more religious authenticity I think that the approach has.

Seffi Kogen  (19:12)  
A lot of Americans may not realize that Israel has a president. When we're teaching maybe Hebrew school, we talk about how, oh, Israel has a prime minister, not a president. 

Yossi Klein Halevi  (19:20)  
Well we also don't really have a prime minister these days, so . . .

Seffi Kogen  (19:26)  
I'm not sure how deep they're going on that in Hebrew school, but who knows. So, in the same way that in the UK, there's a prime minister, and then there's the Queen, who's the head of state, of course, there is a president, who is the head of state. I was wondering if you could tell us, I guess the reason why we're talking about this now is because President Reuven Rivlin's term is just about up. He will need to be replaced I think in the next couple of months. And the way that that happens is the 120 members of the Knesset vote to appoint a new president. I'm wondering if you can tell us just briefly what has President Rivlin meant for Israel and if you have any kind of idea about what lens we should look at the presidential election through.

Yossi Klein Halevi  (20:05)  
There's an ongoing argument which I'm ambivalent about, about whether Rivlin could have done more to help us navigate these last two years of political instability. Now, it's true that the presidency in Israel is a largely symbolic position, but it does carry a certain amount of moral weight. Rivlin has used that moral weight to raise the issues of schism in Israeli society. He famously identified, he mapped out four basic tribes, as we call them here and reached out to these tribes to try to figure out ways in which we can create a more cohesive Israeli identity. So socially, I think Rivlin has been a healer, has been a very positive force, especially toward the Arab-Israeli community. And the fact that Rivlin comes from the Likud, and is quite hawkish politically, and yet placed the integration of Arabs into Israeli society, at the top of his mandate, was significant for Israeli society. 

The question of whether he should have been taking a more active role in, for example, raising the question of whether a politician who is on trial for three acts on three charges of corruption, should be prime minister at all. I would have liked to have heard a moral voice coming from the president's house on that issue in particular. He obviously felt constrained by the symbolic limitations of the position. There's a question there of whether Rivlin could have done more to morally redefine that role.

Seffi Kogen  (21:53)  
And just because I know you're always thinking about these kinds of things, I want to end on a fun one. What's the most important story from Israeli history that Americans don't know?

Yossi Klein Halevi  (22:03)  
I'm going to take it back to the pre-state. And I mentioned earlier that I'm working on a book. The book's about the meaning of Jewish survival. And it begins in the displaced persons camps of Germany and Austria in 1945-46. And it is a nearly completely forgotten period of Jewish history, of Zionist history. Not only for American Jews, by the way, I think for Israelis as well. Israelis will remember the DP camps in Cyprus, where the Holocaust survivors who were running the British blockade were sent to when their ships were intercepted by the British Navy. 

But the reason that I'm mentioning the DP camps in Germany is because something extraordinary happened there. And I've been reading books that are mostly written by academics, which is another way of saying nobody reads these books, except specialists. And they're fantastic. The stories that they tell of the rebirth of organized Jewish life. The DP camps were the first post-Holocaust societies. This is where the Holocaust was first integrated into Jewish identity in a public, communal way. And what is so extraordinary about the DP camps is the way that Zionism became the prevailing culture. 

Now, bear in mind that Zionism in Eastern Europe was not the majority ideology before the Holocaust. But in the DP camps Zionism became more or less the uncontested ideology, it was the consensus. And you read these stories of how these young people came to life again, how they rediscovered their vitality, through involvement with Zionism, through the dream of returning to Israel, even if many of them ended up going to other places. My father ended up in America, but Zionism was the transformative experience in his transition back to normal life. 

And you see it in the DP camps. And it is one of the most powerful and inspiring Jewish stories, I think, in our 4000 years. The kinds of communities that we created in Germany, can you imagine living in Bergen-Belsen after the war and creating a living, thriving, creative Jewish community. And so this is a period of Jewish history that I'm very keen on helping us rediscover. Because I think in a way, it's a missing link that explains how we got from the lowest point in our history, which is Yom HaShoah that we observed last week, to how we reach the peak point in our history, which we're going to be observing this week, on Yom HaAtzma’ut.

Seffi Kogen  (25:06)  
Personally, I can't wait to purchase that book. If our listeners are interested in finding any of your books, including the award winning "Like Dreamers" and the aforementioned "Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor," they can do so wherever books are sold. Yossi, thank you so much again for joining us, and enjoy this meaningful week.

Yossi Klein Halevi  (25:23)  
Thanks so much for having me, Seffi. It's always great talking with you.

Seffi Kogen  (25:38)  
Now it's time for our closing segment, Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is Erica Mindel, Assistant Director of Program Development for AJC Project Interchange. Erica, when you're talking with your family and friends at your Shabbat table this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?

Erica Mindel  (25:53)  
Thanks Seffi, and thank you Manya. As you know, we celebrated Yom HaZikaron and HaAtzma’ut this week in Israel, Israeli Memorial and Independence Day, which fall one right after the other. And after graduating from college, I made Aliyah and enlisted in the IDF where I served as a Madrichat Shiryon, an instructor in the Armored Corps, for two years. This weekend around my Shabbat table I'll be reflecting on these two days, and my service. 

Unfortunately, Yom HaZikaron on holds a meaning for me that I never expected it to and one that I wish it never had. About four months before I was released from the army, a friend and teammate of mine who I was serving with at the time, Gilad, passed away. Gilad, zichrono livracha, was the team member who always lifted our spirits, made us laugh, and put things into perspective, even in the most stressful of times. He would walk around the commander's quarters with his guitar singing songs written by The Kooks and The Arctic Monkeys, Post Malone, or even made up lyrics in English, which he convinced everyone were real songs. Gilad died on erev Rosh Hashana 2018, just five months before he was due to be released from the army. 

Now, every year on the anniversary of his death, and on Yom HaZikaron, my friends and I make the trek up to Har Herzl to meet his friends and family. Together, we remember Gilad's smile, sharp wit, incredible sense of humor, and the devotion he had to his friends, family, teammates, and his service. The transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzma’ut is never easy. The quick turn from grieving beside a friend's grave to partying in the streets of Tel Aviv is sudden, and often feels wrong. But celebrating Yom HaAtzma’ut on the same evening that we commemorate Yom HaZikaron is truly the best reminder that Gilad's death was not for nothing. That because of him and so many others, we can dance in the streets of Tel Aviv, and we get to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. And so while it is painful and difficult, we do it year after a year, all while keeping Gilad and the others close in our hearts. 

Manya Brachear Pashman  (27:46)  
Thank you, Erica. While the quick turn from Memorial to Independence Day in Israel is poignant, it is undoubtedly painful for many, as dozens of soldiers like Gilad die each year while serving their country. 

At our Shabbat table we will be talking about women who have embraced their right to pray, and to sing. The very first interview I did on this podcast was with Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt, who had written a column about the string of attacks against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. As an Orthodox Jewish journalist Avital recognizes fascinating stories that others may see, but not appreciate. Her latest piece in Glamour Magazine is a prime example. Avital profiles several Orthodox Jewish female singers and songwriters who have found an outlet for their voices and lyrics on Instagram and YouTube. 

These women have all the talent of Taylor Swift, but are constrained by the traditional laws of modesty that forbid men from hearing female singing, or kol isha, which translates to "the voice of a woman." But these women have found creative workarounds. Some, like Devorah Schwartz, have curated online communities of nearly 20,000 fans. Others have adopted aliases for their YouTube channels so they can rattle off lyrics like, "If you think you can stop me just start picking your fights/because you can't shoot somebody wearing bulletproof tights [beatboxing sound]."Alright, that beatboxing was mine. Of course, these women face criticism and harassment because well, bold women are never immune from that. 

But here's someone who does enjoy immunity. Gilad Kariv, the first Reform Rabbi in the Israeli Knesset. This week, Kariv took advantage of his parliamentary immunity to bring a Torah scroll to the Western Wall , where he handed it over to 30 women during a monthly prayer service. You see, the Western Wall only allows its own Torah scrolls to be used there. But curiously none is made available to the women's section. Kariv made one available, and in doing so infuriated Ultra-Orthodox worshipers and lawmakers. One called him "a well-known brat, always was and always will be.” Another likened his stunt to sneaking cell phones to prisoners, a curious choice of words. 

The other day, in honor of Israel 73rd birthday, my colleagues asked each other where they'd go first when they next visit Israel. Having never been, I was at a loss and said, all of Jerusalem. But after some thought, I narrowed it down. In my mind, pilgrims and worshipers at the Western Wall should reflect the many faces of Israel and Judaism. Ashkenazi, Sephardim, Mizrahi, Reform, Orthodox, and secular, all of them have an equal right to be there, and to pray and to sing. I would like to be a part of that picture, someday, in Jerusalem.

Seffi Kogen  (30:25)  
I was buoyed this week, not only because of the wonderful Yom HaAtzma’ut celebrations I took part in, but also by the first flashes of news that Israel will reopen to the world this summer. Now, I was in Israel just before the pandemic, flying out of Ben Gurion on March 8, 2020. So it hasn't been that long since I was there. But over my six and a half years at AJC, I've grown accustomed to having business in Israel or traveling there on vacation multiple times each year. So it's been a shock to the system to spend so much time away. And I've been thinking about that a lot over the past 14 months or so. 

This week could have been cause for an extra acute sense of longing, with the days of national memorial and celebration. Instead, Israel announced this week that it would be reopening to non-citizens this summer, first via organized tour groups and presumably shortly thereafter to individual tourists. I simply cannot wait to get back there. If, like me, you've been missing Israel this year, I wanted to offer you some of my favorite tastes of Israeli culture to help tide you over until you too can get back to Israel. 

For television, my personal favorite medium, check out Baker and the Beauty on Amazon Prime, for the delightful story of the poor Mizrachi boy who lives with his parents and works in their bakery, and falls in love with the rich Ashkenazi model and actress. The story of their blossoming romance is that in turns joyous, achingly sad, and hysterical. And everyone in the show is beautiful. For movies, you can't go wrong with the dark comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, also on Amazon. A young, down on his luck Palestinian man, Salaam, ends up writing for a Palestinian soap opera and gets tangled up between an Israeli soldier and the Palestinian nationalist backers of the show, each of whom are determined to see it conclude a different way. 

The Israeli music scene is exploding right now. And it's hard to go wrong with the diverse eclectic bands constantly putting out new music and reinventing old songs. It happens that just this morning, one of my friends texted me to say quote, "Awa slaps," which is a compliment about the beat and funk of Awa, a band made up of a trio of Yemenite Moroccan Ukrainian Jewish sisters who perform in Arabic and whose song Habib Galbi was an absolute smash some years ago. Or, prepare for next month's Eurovision competition by listening to Eden Alene, the Ethiopian-Israeli singer who was supposed to perform Feker Libi at the 2020 contest, but will instead sing Set Me Free at the 2021 version. Now, that all barely scratches the surface on TV, movies, and music. And I'm all out of time to talk about books, and the highest form of art, podcasts. Let me know what you think of my suggestions, and send me your own. Chag HaAtzma’ut Sameach, and Shabbat shalom. 

Manya Brachear Pashman  (33:16)  
Shabbat shalom. 

Erica Mindel  (33:17)  
Shabbat Shalom