The spiritual challenge of centrism


The following is an excerpt from the new preface to Yossi Klein Halevi’s recently reissued book “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: The Story of a Transformation” (Little, Brown and Co.). 

I moved to Jerusalem in 1982 and have now lived in Israel longer than I’ve lived outside it. Over the last three decades I have experienced a four-year terror war of exploding buses and cafes, two wars in Lebanon, a month-long assault on our cities by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles and endless rocket attacks from Gaza. I have been a soldier and the father of a soldier. I have lived through the murder of an Israeli prime minister by a fellow Jew, seen the uprooting of settlements in Gaza only to be followed by even more missile attacks from Hamas across Israel’s international boundary. I have joined the agonizing debate among Israelis about occupation and security and morality, about what Jewish history expects of us now that we are back home.

[MORE: Q&A with Yossi Klein Halevi]

I have also rerooted myself in the resurrected Hebrew language, avidly followed the evolution of Hebrew music from carrier of the secular Zionist ethos to harbinger of a new Jewish spirituality. I have immersed in the great Israeli experiment of transforming disparate communities back into a people, the maddening and exhilarating pluralism of Israeli life in which Jews from a hundred diasporas jostle over competing visions of the return to Zion. Most of all I have raised, together with my wife and life companion, Sarah, three strong-willed, independent, generous Israeli children, who have taught me the meaning of home.

Most of my days are lived as daily life anywhere. Still, every so often I remember that the mundane details of my life as a Jew in a sovereign Jewish state formed the most extravagant dreams of my ancestors. At those moments I am grateful to be sharing in the greatest Jewish adventure of our time and perhaps of any other time, grateful to be among those carrying this story. Quite simply, I live in Israel because it is possible.

Yet living in Israel has taught me the need for humility in our political and religious judgments, reinforced the need to embrace complexity, the very opposite of the extremist sensibility. Like a majority of Israelis, I have come to identify myself as a centrist. On the Palestinian issue, that means accepting insights from both the Israeli left and right.

As a centrist, I regard the creation of a Palestinian state as an existential necessity for Israel — saving us from the impossible choice between the two non-negotiable elements of our identity as a Jewish and a democratic state, from the moral burden of occupying another people, from growing pariah status. But as a centrist I also regard a Palestinian state as an existential threat to Israel — risking rocket attacks from the West Bank highlands overlooking the coastal plain, where most Israelis live. I fear the unraveling of Israel’s ability to defend itself.

The great Jewish debate of our time isn’t happening out there in Israeli society between two warring ideological camps but within me. There are mornings when I wake up and it is a leftwing day. Just get out of the West Bank, I tell myself, immediately, regardless of the security threats. And there are mornings when I wake up and it is a
rightwing day. Look around at the Middle East, I tell myself, are you mad? How can we possibly give up control over Israel’s most sensitive border as neighboring countries implode and terror entities form around us?

I have two nightmares about Israel’s future. The first is that there won’t be a Palestinian state. The second is that there will be a Palestinian state.

In the midst of these impossible pressures and dilemmas, the Jewish people struggles to develop a healthy relationship to its recovered power. The angst of finding ourselves occupiers and the awareness that occupation is a long-term existential threat to Israel leads some Jews to downplay other, more immediate physical dangers; while the outrage of finding ourselves, even after the Holocaust, still facing genocidal enemies leads other Jews to despair of a just world in which we are bound by ethical constraints.

What, then, does Jewish history expect of our generation? The Torah imposes two commandments of memory. The first is to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message is: Don’t be brutal. The second is to remember that we were attacked without provocation, on our way out of Egypt, by the tribe of Amalek, archetypal enemy of the Jewish people, and the message is: Don’t be naïve. 

No brutality, no naivete: That is the authentic commanding voice of Jewish history for the generations after the Holocaust. 

It is hardly surprising that Jews today are so disoriented by the renewal of Jewish power and national responsibility, by the conflict between morality and security. The abrupt transition from the lowest point of our vulnerability to the point of our greatest power may be unprecedented in any people’s history. Less than a generation separates Auschwitz from the Six-Day War; from the perspective of Jewish history, that transition is virtually instantaneous. The conditions under which the Jewish people reclaimed power — endless siege, war, terror, delegitimization — has reinforced the fear among many Jews that their empowerment is transient, a momentary deviance in a history of vulnerability. 

Sometimes I feel an old rage return, a descent back into emotional patterns I thought I had escaped. That has been especially true since the second intifada, the four-year terror war of the early 2000s. What was so bitter about those years was not just the terrorism itself but the fact that the worst wave of terror in Israel’s history followed Israel’s offers to create a Palestinian state and redivide Jerusalem. Yet for the most part, that sequence was ignored by the international community, which continued to blame Israel for the ongoing occupation, as if the Palestinian leadership had little to answer for in its rejection of a two-state solution. Like most Israelis I believe that the conflict is ultimately about the refusal of the Arab world to accept the indigenousness of the Jewish people in its land — to accept the very notion that the Jews are a legitimate people. When the international community places the entire blame for the conflict on Israel and treats the Jewish state with singular contempt, Israelis reciprocate the contempt and harden their positions.

For me, being a centrist is not just as a political commitment but a spiritual challenge. It demands a constant struggle to expand one’s capacity for empathy, for searching for truth wherever it exists, outside the limitations of ideology.

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