Author Halevi on Israel: “Now we defend our country”

Yossi Klein Halevi sees Israel weakened by the current government. Positive signals are coming from the protest movement there.

Police officers carry the coffin of Dan Granot, a victim of the October 7 Hamas attack Photo: Amit Elkayam/NYT/Redux/laif

wochentaz: Mr. Klein Halevi, how did you experience the moment when you found out about the Hamas terrorist attacks?

Yossi Klein Halevi: In several shock waves. I asked myself: How did they get through so easily? The high-tech border with Gaza is supposed to be the best protected border in the world? As the day progressed, the next shock came: where was the army, and why isn’t it showing up at this moment? Overall, we faced our own military failure. In the Middle East, one of the most dangerous regions in the world, the collapse of Israel’s military defense capability is an absolute catastrophe.

was born in New York in 1953. After studying Judaic studies and journalism, he migrated to Israel in 1982. He is the author of the bestseller “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” and publishes in Israeli and US magazines. At the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he leads the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which seeks to deepen connections between North American Muslims and Jews. He recently took part in the protests against the planned judicial reform.

Do you have an explanation for how the terrorist infiltration could have happened?

There were very few soldiers at the border because almost the entire division had been moved to the West Bank. Behind this was the false assumption that Hamas had become more pragmatic and – in contrast to Hezbollah on the northern border and Iran with its bases in Syria – was no longer a real threat. On October 7th we found ourselves in a kind of time warp. Exactly 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, we were once again surprised by an unexpected attack by a completely underestimated deadly enemy.

What consequences does this have for Israeli society?

On October 7th, the Israeli ethos of self-defense was lost to some extent. Israel was supposed to be the safe haven of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews were slaughtered unconscious with their hands tied behind their backs is a violation of Zionism. Israel exists because such things shouldn’t happen – and certainly not here. It is no longer just about power and powerlessness and the loss of Israeli self-confidence in its own military deterrence. But also the question of whether this country has a future, whether it is safe enough to start a family here. When Israelis begin asking themselves these questions, it will be the beginning of the end for Zionism, the beginning of the end of the promise of a national homeland for the Jewish people. Similar questions have been asked by tens of thousands of Israelis over the past ten months as they fight against judicial reform.

As an author, journalist and citizen, you have clearly positioned yourself. How is the protest movement acting now, after the terrorist attacks and in the midst of the war?

At the moment when all of us are threatened from outside, we have changed our organizational structure. There is no contradiction for us in taking part in the war effort, as we have clearly taken to the streets as patriots from the very beginning. We were denigrated as “traitors” and “anarchists.” Now we defend our country in a different way and against a different enemy.

How exactly is this currently happening?

For example, the protest movement has built the infrastructure to support survivors of the Hamas massacre. Similar to Hungary, the Israeli government had replaced civil servants and staff in the ministries with incompetent political cronies. In the moment of a catastrophe, no one knows what to do. We, on the other hand, have tens of thousands of committed people in our WhatsApp groups and can mobilize immediately and effortlessly.

Are there any other examples?

Let’s take the reservists. In protest against the judicial reform, many refused to take part in the regular military exercises. But now the reservists have reported independently and independently of the official call-up. This is Israel at its best. Jewish history teaches us civic responsibility.

What will happen to the protest movement once the war is over?

Then the protests will flare up again with a level of violence unknown to Israeli politics. Because the anger that so many of us feel against Netanyahu personally and his entire government of right-wing extremists, religious fundamentalists and corrupt politicians has been amplified by the failures that led to the October 7 attacks. We had been warning for months that this would all lead to catastrophe. Now the worst security catastrophe in Israel’s history has occurred. It is the responsibility of the current government.

Almost 20 percent Arabs live in Israel. How did this part of the population react to Hamas’ terrorist attacks?

Mostly with genuine horror. According to surveys, that is 80 percent. There are also feelings of shame. A small minority, however, reacts with joy and pride. A number of Arab Israelis are currently under investigation for calling for further attacks. Added to this is the fear and uncertainty about how the Jews will react to their Arab neighbors. I mean “neighbors” quite literally here, because half Jews and half Arabs live here in my house in Jerusalem. Almost everyone is currently staying at home. But if we happen to meet again at some point in everyday life, our encounters are likely to be partly characterized by mistrust. Questions will run through our minds like: What is the other person really thinking now? Would my Arab neighbor perhaps support terror?

To what extent are Arabs participating on the Israeli home front in the current war?

Arab Israelis are definitely present here too. An example that illustrates the extremes: In the Arab-Israeli city of Taibe, the owner of a bicycle shop 50 bicycles donated to Hamas massacre survivors. Fanatics then burned down his shop. So there is total identification with Israel, but also the viewing of this identification as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Most of Israel’s Arab citizens are likely to position themselves somewhere in between. Because of the anger of the Jews and the fear of the Israeli Arabs, we are currently in a very delicate situation. Also because we have elements in the government who want to incite Jews against Arab citizens of Israel.

You are referring to the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who a few days ago announced the purchase of 10,000 assault rifles for civilian security teams?

Yes. This is classic right-wing extremist demagoguery. And it has nothing to do with national security and only leads to chaos. Ben-Gvir calls his party “Jewish Power,” but he does not understand how Israeli power and sovereignty really works. It is based on the voluntary association of Israeli citizens in a citizen army. Even though we may be strong critics of Israeli policies, we come together because we all believe in the fundamental justice of Israel. But Ben-Gvir is a radical splitter and is therefore part of the existential threat to Israel.

For her New York Times-Bestseller “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” you wrote ten long letters to an imaginary Palestinian contemporary. They have encouraged Palestinians worldwide to respond and published a series of letters in response as an epilogue.

With my letters I wanted to explain the Israeli experience and Jewish history to my neighbors because they know very little about who we are and why we are here. Furthermore, I wanted the book to stimulate a new kind of conversation about mutual legitimacy. We are two indigenous peoples who refuse to recognize each other’s right to national self-determination. So I looked for partners on the Palestinian side who would engage in this type of conversation.

What’s next for your project after the experience of October 7th?

I am very glad that I wrote this book. But at the moment I wouldn’t be able to do something like that. I’m too overwhelmed and too scared. And I’m too angry. When this is over, I hope to return to my project. I want to continue to help create a previously unusual conversation between Israelis and Palestinians: a conversation in which we will never agree because our respective narratives are incompatible, but we can respectfully argue with each other. It’s about getting to a point where each of us said: You know, if I were you, I would feel the same way. That would be the breakthrough. On the Palestinian side, I have found partners in this dialogue of disagreement and human empathy that I greatly value. But right now I don’t have the emotional strength to overcome all the other feelings I’m feeling.

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