January 18, 2019

Q&A with Yossi Klein Halevi: Jewish extremists endanger Israel’s control of Jerusalem

In 1972, when Yossi Klein Halevi began writing a book that 23 years later would become his “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, he was just 19 and allied with the extremist right wing of the Free Soviet Jewry movement. 

As a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane (assassinated in 1990) and a member of Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (JDL), Halevi used his journalistic ability to clarify world events on behalf of the JDL. At the time, he still lived in his native New York City, so his role was to filter news about Israel and Jews through a prism largely shaped by the fear of another Holocaust, in which Jews and Israelis felt themselves unwelcome neighbors in a hostile gentile world.

The young Halevi likely never could have imagined that one day he would write a rebuke of Jewish extremism, saying it preaches ideas that are anathema to Judaism. 

Halevi’s memoir was first published in 1995, almost to the day of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir. “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist” chronicles Halevi’s evolution from his teens into his late 20s. His other books, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden” and, most recently, the National Jewish Book award-winning “Like Dreamers,” have become known not for extremism, but rather for thoughtful moderation steeped in the author’s love for Judaism and Israel.

The re-release of “Memoirs” in October could not have come at a more appropriate time, as a new brand of Palestinian terrorism of cars and knives shakes Israel, and vandalism, assaults and the murder of an Arab teen by three Jewish extremists all have made Jerusalem feel in recent months like a city waiting to explode into a war of neighbor versus neighbor. 

On Nov. 29, extremist Jews lit a Jerusalem bilingual Jewish-Arab school on fire and spray-painted inciteful anti-Arab messages, including one that read, “Kahane was right.”

In a Nov. 19 interview with the Jewish Journal, one day after a brutal terrorist attack at a Har Nof synagogue just outside Jerusalem, where four Jews were murdered during morning prayers, Halevi described the feeling among Israelis as, “Anything can happen at any moment.”

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview: 

Jewish Journal: There are some calls now to cede Arab parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians so as to separate Jews and Muslims. Would that help ease tensions in the city?

Yossi Klein Halevi: It’s a very understandable reaction and a very dangerous one. There is no vacuum in Jerusalem [that wouldn’t] be filled by Hamas. As traumatic as the status quo is, there’s no alternative. The status quo needs to be improved. We need to make sure that, first of all, serious security efforts are being imposed on the ground, and at the same time, we need to start listening to the grievances of mainstream Palestinians in Jerusalem who don’t want the city to be torn apart  — and, in my experience, that’s a majority of Palestinians in the city. 

This latest round of rioting and violence and terror happened for two reasons: One, because of the burning of the 16-year-old Palestinian boy [Mohammed Abu Khdeir] this summer — that triggered the initial wave of violence and that was an act committed by Jewish extremists. And then feeding on that momentum was the return of the Palestinian lie that Israel intends to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. This is a lie that has persisted since 1929, when hundreds of Jews were massacred because Palestinian leaders spread a false rumor that Jews were intending to take over the Temple Mount. There’s no chance that this government will change the status quo on the Temple Mount. The danger comes from provocative acts by small groups of Jews, by far-right Knesset members who feed the big lie about an Israeli intention to change the status quo — Moshe Feiglin in particular, but he’s not the only one.


JJ: What’s the end game for Jerusalem if Jewish extremists grow in number and in impact?

YKH: I’m speaking as someone who believes we have no alternative but to maintain Israeli control of united Jerusalem. Of course, most of the terrorism being committed these days in Jerusalem is by Arabs against Jews. But Jewish street violence against Arabs is growing, too. It’s hard to talk about this, given the pathological nature of the Palestinian attacks against us in recent weeks. But I have a deep concern for our ability to continue holding Jerusalem. The more attacks there are against Arabs, the more expressions of Jewish extremism, the greater the international pressure will be on Israel to leave parts of Jerusalem. 


JJ: What are some examples you’ve encountered in recent months of Jewish extremism in Jerusalem?

YKH: Outbursts against Arabs; physical attacks on the streets. It’s not only Jews now who are afraid to go into Arab neighborhoods. Arabs are afraid to go into Jewish neighborhoods. I was in downtown Jerusalem the day after Abu Khdeir was murdered, and there was a demonstration by Jews to protest the murder of the three kidnapped Jewish boys, and they arranged memorial candles on the pavement to spell out “Death to Arabs.” As if that burned body wasn’t enough.


JJ: What is the mindset, the worldview, of the Jewish extremist?

YKH: In the ’60s and ’70s in New York, we were mainly concerned with saving Soviet Jewry and opposing the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust was our primary emotional motive. But what we do share in common — the Israeli extremist of today and my generation of American-Jewish extremists — is the sense of the radical aloneness of the Jewish people. And this is something that Israel’s critics need to internalize: that by pushing Israel into a corner, by isolating Israel and boycotting us and turning us into the world’s criminals, they are reinforcing the argument of the radical right in Israel. The radical right is the greatest beneficiary of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], because it just reinforces everything that they’re saying: “The world hates us; we have no friends.” And if you have no friends, you might as well just do what you need to do and not be squeamish about it.


JJ: So are you saying there’s a feedback effect between Israel’s isolation and the rise in Jewish extremism? Does one lead to the other?

YKH: Absolutely; there’s a cycle. What I’m really worried about right now as a citizen of Jerusalem is, God forbid, some Jewish lunatic attacking a mosque. We’ve had a fair number of arson attacks and desecration of mosques in the last few years in the West Bank, and if that happens in Jerusalem — well, I’ll just leave it at that.


JJ: Are today’s Jewish extremists yesterday’s Yossi Klein Halevis?

YKH: I think there are levels of extremism, and I was prepared as a teenager to go pretty far, but not that far [murder]. I don’t know anyone from those years who would’ve been capable of burning alive a 16-year-old boy. There’s been a loosening of constraints, and the result is that, on the far fringes of the Jewish people, we have Jews who are apparently capable of doing absolutely anything. To my mind, this is new. 

I understand Jewish rage, but there’s a line that has been crossed that I don’t believe was possible, was conceivable in the past, and that worries me. It worries me because of its effect on us, its effect politically but also spiritually. It weakens our spiritual resistance to evil, it compromises us fundamentally, and it divides us. It opens up a counter-reaction from the far left, and then you have this pathology of far left and far right feeding off of each other, pointing at each other as validations for their own distorted positions. What makes me a centrist is a deep belief that the center is the place to hold the conflicting truths of Jewish history that we are struggling with now, the conflicting voices, commanding voices of Jewish history to our generation. The voice of the command to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt — don’t be brutal. The command to remember what Amalek did to us when we were leaving Egypt, another biblical commandment, and that message is, don’t be naïve. We’re struggling between these two imperatives. The extremists of right and left can’t hear both of those. For them, it’s either/or.


JJ: What prompted your transformation?

YKH: My father raised me with the idea that the Jews have no friends. That was his lesson from the Shoah, and he was trying to prepare me — as a Jew in a hostile world — for survival. My father’s great fear was that his American-born children would not have the savvy to survive another Holocaust, that Americans were too naïve, too soft, and he was trying to raise his children with a sense of alertness. As my father put it, “Nobody likes the Jews. When Christians speak of love, they mean [for] everybody but the Jews.” The problem with that teaching was that my father was saved by a non-Jew [in the Holocaust]. My father survived the war in a hole, in a forest with two friends. What I began to realize as I grew older was that my father wanted me to know that his black-and-white view of the non-Jewish world was inadequate, and so he repeatedly told me the story of this non-Jew who saved him, who used to bring food to him during the Holocaust.


JJ: In “Like Dreamers,” are there any heroes that stake out the center ground?

YKH: For me, the heroes of the book are those who ended up in the center. Yoel Bin Nun, first of all, was one of the founders of the settlement movement. From the left, his friend Avital Geva, who was a fellow paratrooper and one of the founders of the anti-settlement Peace Now movement, realized that there was a naiveté in his camp, that we really don’t have a credible partner [for peace] on the other side. I would also put Arik Achmon in that camp. He grew up on a kibbutz and became the first privatizer of an Israeli company. I would divide the heroes of “Like Dreamers” into two camps, and it’s not left and right. There are those who are in the camp who evolve as the book tells their story, and there are those who stay the same. For me, the heroes of “Like Dreamers” were those who struggled with the limitations of their youthful ideas and were able to grow.


JJ: How can today’s Jewish extremists be changed? Or can they only be contained?

YKH: Anyone can be changed, and the question of human change, of evolution, of growth is in some sense my life’s work as a writer. That’s the story that I’ve been trying to tell in my books, and it’s a story that I tried to tell in “Like Dreamers” — the evolution of the Israeli story through the evolution of several leading figures in Israel. I am an optimist, to some extent, about human nature. I think we are here in this world to grow, to evolve — I’m speaking now as a believing person. We are here in order to help our souls grow. Evolution is at the heart of the divine unfolding of this world. That’s an insight I learned from Rav Kook, the great 20th- century mystic. 


JJ: Do you believe the mindsets and motivations of all extremists are similar, whether they are Muslim or Jewish?

YKH: In my generation, the motivation for Jewish extremism was much less religious. Today’s Jewish extremists are coming from a complicated mix of nationalism, historic grievance and rage, along with some poisonous ideological ideas of Jewish superiority, which are floating around the fringes of the Orthodox world in Israel. And that mix of historical grievance and notions of religious superiority make them the Jewish equivalent of Islamist extremists. So, today’s Jewish extremists are much closer to the model of Islamist extremists than my generation was. When you bring in the element of religion, you’re adding a very potent level of explosive to the mix.


JJ: How can someone be prevented from becoming an extremist?

YKH: I don’t know how to stop someone else. I know how the process happened for me, and I wrote this book in part because I’m hoping that young people of any religion or nationality or inclination who are tempted by their own extremist direction will have an example of someone who healed himself, who pulled back from the abyss. My story involves discovering that the non-Jewish world wasn’t a monolithic world of anti-Semites. I fell in love with a non-Jewish young woman who converted to Judaism and has been my wife and partner for the last 30 years. For me, the defining transition from extremist to someone able to hear more complicated ideas about the world is empathy. Are you able to have empathy for people who are outside of your closed circle? Are you able to have empathy for those whose ideas you find deeply problematic? That’s true for extremists on the left as well as on the right. This is not only a right-wing problem; this is an extremist problem. 

Right-wingers are not the only extremists. Look at Jewish Voice for Peace, whose members marched in pro-Hamas rallies this summer. Look where extremism can lead people. Extremists are in danger of losing their Jewish soul, either by turning too far left or too far right. One way leads to betrayal, the other to brutality. That, for me, is really the warning to our generation of “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.”

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the author of, most recently, the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” With this article, he joins the Journal as columnist and contributing editor.