We sat down with visiting professor Yossi Klein Halevi to discuss his teaching, his work at JTS, and his new book, Like Dreamers.
The Jewish Theological Seminary: Tell our readers how you came to be a visiting professor at JTS.
Yossi Klein Halevi: Professor Alan Mintz invited me to speak at JTS about two years ago. I addressed students and faculty over lunch about the emergence of the Israeli center, and then lectured to a group of students in Hebrew, at Alan's request, about the book I was working on at the time (and which has just been published, called Like Dreamers). After that experience, which was very positive for me, Alan invited me to come teach for a semester. I was initially supposed to come last spring, but then requested a postponement to the fall, to allow me to be in the States when my book was published. The administration was extraordinarily gracious in changing the schedule to accommodate my request.
JTS: Tell us about your courses. What are you most looking forward to during your time as part of the JTS community? How will your classes connect to your new book, Like Dreamers?
YKH: I'm teaching two courses: one, in Hebrew, about the ideologies of Zionism and how they have [influenced] Israel, and a second, in English, on Israeli society and the varieties of Israeli "tribes" and identities.
It's a wonderful experience teaching JTS students-from rabbinical students to students from the joint JTS-Columbia/Barnard programs-because I'm teaching young people who deeply want to understand Israel. The conversations in class are passionate; students feel they have a personal stake in the outcome of the argument. In both classes we have a weekly debate, in which students argue positions either from classical Zionism or contemporary Israel. I try to get students to assume the position they don't agree with-not always easy among mostly liberal students. I consider it a great success when students are able to argue articulately (and in Hebrew!) about positions with which they don't naturally agree. My goal is to expand students' understanding of the complexity of the issues. What I ask is that whatever your position on Israel's various dilemmas, you come to your conclusion from a place of struggle, rather than an instinctive social/cultural identity.
As for how this connects with Like Dreamers: The book tells the story, through the lives of seven paratroopers, of Israel's political, cultural, and economic evolution from May 1967 until more or less today. My class on Israeli society overlaps with at least some of that material, especially the transformation of religious Zionism and the emergence of the settlement movement. It's very moving to me to be teaching students about the book, even as I do the book tour. Being at JTS is an opportunity to take that material to a deeper level.
JTS: Your book has been released just in time for the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Each of your characters has a different vision for Israel's future. What is your vision?
YKH: In a way, my vision is an amalgam of these seven men. A combination of the humanism of the left and the realism of the right. That describes the politics of most Israelis today-hawks who want to be doves.
Along with the hope that this political center will strengthen and find an effective political framework, I hope for a parallel strengthening of an emerging cultural center. The new cultural center-and in some form it was probably there all along-wants more Judaism in Israeli society, and less Judaism in government. It seeks new forms of Judaism that would reflect the experience of being a sovereign people in its land, rather than importing the Judaism of the ghetto, which the secular founders of the state allowed to take root (in part because they didn't care much about Judaism). There are many expressions of this emerging indigenous Israeli Judaism-from the egalitarian prayer groups forming around the country to the growing centrality of Judaism and spirituality in Israeli rock music. I hope for a growing convergence between Israelis who are post-secular and Israelis who are post-Orthodox-which is how I identify myself. And I'm not alone.
JTS: Who has had the greatest influence on your writing?
YKH: I was profoundly influenced as a journalism student by the "new journalists"-the name given to a group of writers who emerged in the 1960s and adapted literary novelistic techniques to non-fiction. They included Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Armies of the Night-the great non-fiction chronicles of the rise and fall of the '60s. I was also deeply envious-and a writer grows in part through envy-of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which tells the story of Indians born with Indian independence, and of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which tells the story of the birth of the 20th century. Like Dreamers was very much influenced by those two novels in particular.
JTS: Your father was a Holocaust survivor, which you explore in the documentary film Kaddish. How do you feel about Holocaust education today? How has this aspect of your identity influenced your writing?
YKH: I grew up as a Holocaust obsessive. It was the way I saw the world around me-non-Jews, my own Jewish identity, Jewish history, Judaism, God, almost everything. (Thank God I grew up in the '60s, which gave me a slender opening into an alternative universe.) By the time I moved to Israel in 1982, I thought I was cured of my Holocaust obsession. I'd come to realize that I was vicariously living my father's reality, not mine-and that the distance between my reality, as an American-born Jew growing up with a sovereign Jewish state, should have been measured from my father's reality not by mere decades but centuries.
I ended my first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, with an account of visiting my father's town in Transylvania, just after the fall of communism in 1990. The last line of the book was, "For me, the war was over." Or so I thought.
In recent years, though, since the Second Intifada-the impact of which on the Israeli psyche many liberal American Jews never understood-I've experienced a certain relapse of Holocaust consciousness, which I need to fight against.
I think that, as a people, we're moving fitfully to a more balanced relationship with the Shoah-frankly confronting its enormity while trying not to let it define our Jewishness. That argument, I think, has been largely resolved. At least I hope so.
JTS: What are you working on now? What do you want to be writing? What's next?
YKH: Having just resurfaced from a decadelong book project, my first impulse is to flee from the question. Whatever I do next, I intend it to be brief.
NOVEMBER 18, 8:00 P.M.
The Gerson D. Cohen Memorial Lecture
"ISRAEL'S SAFETY, ISRAEL'S SOUL:
HOPES AND FEARS IN CONTEMPORARY ISRAEL"
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI
Acclaimed political journalist, author, and visiting professor of Israel Studies, JTS.
DR. DAVID SENESH
Expert in tauma, resilience, and conflict resolution; and adjunct assistant professor of Pastoral Care, JTS.