Intro. [Recording date: March 30, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 30th, 2023. And, my guest is Daniel Gordis, the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College here in Jerusalem. His Substack, which has essays and a podcast, which I highly recommend, is: Israel from the Inside. His latest book and the subject of today's conversation is Impossible Takes Longer: 75 Years After its Creation, Has Israel Fulfilled its Founders' Dreams? Danny, welcome to EconTalk.
Daniel Gordis: Thanks, Russ. Great to be here.
Russ Roberts: Your book asks a great question: whether Israel at 75 has met its promise. And it's also, at the same time, a fantastic introduction to what is distinctive, what is great, and what is not so great about Israel. And, I want to start with some of the history, which you do as well. First, how do you begin to judge--which is the framework of your book--whether Israel fulfilled its founders' promise?
Daniel Gordis: I think the way to begin to judge whether the country is successful is to ask: What was the country intended to accomplish in the first place? I think very often when people think about Israel, because of what appears in the press, we go immediately to issues like Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, which is obviously a hugely morally complicated issue that vexes everyone on all sides. For some American Jews, for example, Israel's rabbinates' rather disparaging view of non-Orthodox Judaism is understandably very problematic for them. So, people will jump to issues that are very much in the news now and say, 'Oh my God, those things aren't going well. The country seems to be failing.'
And, without in any way undermining or mitigating the importance of those issues--politically, morally, culturally, Jewishly--in any way, I think to ask whether Israel is a success, what one should do is say, 'Well, why did the Jews get into the business of state-making after 2,000 years of not being in the business of state-making?'
The idea that it's because of the Holocaust, of course, is patently false because Zionism as a movement was aloft long before, long before anybody had heard of the Third Reich or Hitler or anything of the sort. Zionism becomes a political movement. By that, I mean Jews stopped just praying and hoping to return to Zion, which they had done for 2,000 years and which they included in their liturgy every single day. They included it in their grace after meals. When they prayed, they prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. They fasted on days in which Jerusalem had been destroyed. In their liturgical lives and in their religious lives and in their spiritual lives, the yearning to return to Zion had been constant for almost 2,000 years.
But, something changed. Something changed and they stopped praying and they started doing. They stopped hoping and they started building. And, that was really the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, which fundamentally showed the Jews that whatever promise Europe had explicitly or implicitly made to the Jews about being normal, about being real Germans, about being real Frenchmen and Frenchwomen and so on and so forth, that was not going to happen.
The Jews would make their way up a certain kind of ladder, a political ladder, not as much as a professional ladder, a cultural ladder to a certain extent, but they were never really going to be considered Germans. They were never really going to be considered French.
And, in Eastern Europe, matters were much worse. Not only were you not going to be considered Austrian or Polish, you were going to be killed at whim, even in the late 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century.
So, the idea that we're going to simply sit here and hope and pray that God is going to one day bring us back to Zion, all of a sudden felt--it felt like abdicating the idea of a Jewish future.
And, the idea of Zionism really very simply was, 'Build a sovereign state, so we can take our destiny into our own hands. Let's stop hoping that they treat us nicely and let's start making sure that we actually have a grip on what's going to happen to us in the future,' or to put it just somewhat differently for one sec, 'Let's create a new Jew.' And, I think this idea of a new Jew is super-critical to understanding what Zionism was all about, because the diagnosticians of the Jew--in other words, the people that looked at the condition of the Jew--especially in Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, they said, 'Everything's wrong with the Jew.'
The Jew was a victim on call. There's a pogrom. The Jews are beaten up. The Jews are killed. Not much the Jews can do about it except hope it doesn't happen again very soon. The Jews are excluded from the professions. There's not really much you can do except switch professions. The Jews don't have a language of their own. The Jews don't have a land in their own. The Jews are guests everywhere. But, there's a difference between being a guest who has a home and being a guest who doesn't have a home. When you're a guest who doesn't have a home, you're more considered a parasite.
And, that was what the Jews were feeling; and everybody from people like Theodore Herzl, who is considered the father of modern political Zionism because his book, The Jewish State, came out in 1896 and then he founded a year later the Zionist Movement with the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897--he and many other names, which we may talk about over the course of our conversation. They were the ones that said, 'Enough prayer. It's time for politics. Enough hoping. It's time to move.' And, a movement started to actually move to Palestine and to begin to build a state.
Russ Roberts: And, the other part of that Old Jew, which the New Jew was meant to replace, is they were victims, they were scholarly, they were wizened and they were hunched over books to the extent that they had an identity, they were beaten up and killed and had no control over their own destiny. And, as you point out, this political movement that starts at the end of the 19th century tries to change that.
For non-Jewish listeners, it may surprise them to hear that the people who founded that movement and the people who relentlessly pushed it forward to the first half of the 20th century were not particularly religious Jews.
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, that's actually very ironic and it actually says a lot about some of the challenges that Israel faces now. They weren't all identical, these people, but if you want to actually say what's the prototypical Zionist activist in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, you would say that he--and unfortunately, it's mostly 'he'--there were, thankfully, some women like Golda Meir and others who were less well known, but it was an overwhelmingly male operation.--you would say that he was the product of a very traditional Jewish upbringing in Eastern Europe. He probably grew up in the shtetl, which were these small villages--which were not exclusively Jewish, but they were a third Jewish, half Jewish. Jews were a huge percentage of these small villages. Had a good religious upbringing, knew a tremendous amount, Jewish commitments, a sense of Judaism as their self, a commitment to the Jewish people--a knowledge of Jewish history coursed through their arteries and veins in the most natural way possible.
But, they felt, and people like Hayim Nahman Bialik who was the poet laureate of the Zionist Movement at that time argued that, 'Yes, that's all a beautiful tradition, but what it does is it turns you into this pathetic victim.' And so, these were people who had the tradition deeply embedded in them, but they broke with it.
Now, what Israel is going to eventually have to come to grips with--and I think part of what we're seeing in Israel now, and I know we'll come back to that later in our conversation--but part of what Israel's coming to grips with now is that those people had the advantage of having been brought up in those traditional homes, so their Jewish identity was very thick.
And, even if they stopped observing a lot of the practices that their parents might have taught them or even hoped that they would continue, they could stop the practices, but the sense of self, and the identity that those practices were meant to foster, that continued. Now, if you want to fast forward a hundred years, what we can say is that the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren of those secular Zionist founders don't know those texts, are not familiar with those rituals. They do know the language. They know some of the history, but the thickness of culture that emerged from a classic Jewish way of life, they don't have.
And, one of the many challenges that Israel faces is how do you restore a thick sense of Jewish belonging and belief--not theological belief, but belief in the importance of the Jewish story, the Jewish people wanting to be part of it, being willing to sacrifice for it--without people living that way? But, yes, they were secular founders ironically, who had been brought up in religious communities.
Russ Roberts: And, you call them as, as many have, revolutionaries. They saw themselves very much in the spirit of other revolutionary movements of the time--the Communist movement and others who wanted to transform the world they lived. And, in this case, they wanted to transform the Jewish experience.
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, they were kind of strange revolutionaries because they were revolting against different objects or entities or people depending on the time. The French Revolution was against the king. The Russian Revolution was against the czar. It was pretty clear. The Zionist revolution at the beginning is kind of against God. And I say that tongue in cheek a little bit, but it had been a formative premise of traditional Judaism, of Talmudic Judaism that there was really a deal--which the Talmud explicitly states--that God made a deal with the nations of the world: 'You, the nations of the world, will not oppress the Jews too much, and in exchange for that, the Jews will not try to hurry the hands of time and they will wait for me, God, to bring them back to Zion.'
And so, the classic idea of Talmudic Judaism was, 'We're going to go back to Zion, but we're going to go back when God brings us back. If we try to go back on our own, that's breaking the deal.' And, that's why for our listeners and watchers who may be wondering, 'Well, why did so many religious Jews start out so profoundly anti-Zionist?'--which they did, and which parts of the ultra-orthodox world to this very day are anti-Zionist. It's not because Israel's modern. It's because the idea of Israel is a fundamental sin as far as they're concerned because Israel was breaking that deal. Israel was the product of Jews saying to God, 'You didn't uphold your side of the deal. The nations of the world are not exactly taking it easy on us, so we're not beholden to our part of the deal. We're going to hurry the hands of time and we are going to go back on our own.'
Russ Roberts: And in 1897, when that first Zionist Congress met, one of the biggest debates over the course of the next decades was: There would be a Jewish homeland, but where would it be? We assume that, 'Oh, it'll be in Israel. Where else would it be?' but that was not actually decided for a while. Talk about that, and talk about, in 1897, Palestine was under what we call--what was then Palestine, the area at the easternmost edge of the Mediterranean Sea which is now Israel--was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was zero chance, in 1897, that there would be an Israel in its homeland from the 2,000 years earlier.
Daniel Gordis: Right. One of the things about Zionism that's strange is that people believed absolutely in the possibility of things that there was a zero chance. I mean, if Zionism had only banked on the things that there was some small chance, you and I would not be having this conversation. You and I would not be sitting in Jerusalem. We're just, Zionism is--a lot of people have said this, I think Goldin Mayer said it, and Ben-Gurian said it--but in the Zionist world, in order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles. And, I'm not making a theological claim. I'm just making a claim about audaciousness.
Now, it is true that over the course of Zionism, there was a period in which they deliberated where they should go, because, as you say, the Ottoman Empire was not particularly hospitable to the Jews. In fact, as Jews started to move to Palestine, the Ottomans clamped down and said that Jews were not going to be allowed in Palestine. They threw some Jews out of Palestine, and so on and so forth.
The real debate over whether or not to make the Jewish state in Palestine really comes in about 1903, 1904, right before Theodor Herzl dies, because it's getting bad. It's getting worse in Europe; and Herzl, who is an unbelievable diagnostician of the Jewish condition in Europe, says, 'We can't wait. We can't wait for the Ottomans.' And, he doesn't know about the British taking it over eventually after World War I, obviously. He said, 'We can't wait for anybody else.'
And the British actually say, 'We've got this place which everybody calls the Uganda Plan,' but it was actually in what's called, today, Sudan. It was part of the Ugandan Protectorate, but people today call it the Ugandan Plan. The British said, 'We'll give you a slice. There's nobody there,'--which may or may not have been true--but, 'There's nobody there. Why don't you guys go there?' And, Herzl said, 'You know what? That's actually not a bad idea, because what we need is a home. It doesn't really matter where it is. We need a home. And, if we can get out of Europe and go there, let's go there.'
Now it was a terrible idea, and it was probably the most egregious mistake that Herzl made in his whole life, because Herzl, unlike some of these other founders that we mentioned, did not grow up in a traditional home and did not have those traditional feelings and associations coursing through his veins.
He did not grow up saying to his parents, 'Which way is Jerusalem because I have to pray now?' He did not grow up mentioning Jerusalem in the grace after meals. He did not grow up fasting on the 9th of Av because the temple had been destroyed. He was really kind of a modern European political pragmatist, and therefore, he said, 'Okay, Sudan, Uganda, it's just as good or bad as Palestine.'
It was a terrible idea; and I'll just make two quick points about the Uganda plan. The first one was that it would never have worked because part of what makes being in Israel an unbelievably powerful experience is the continuity of that experience from what was here 2,000, 2,500 years ago.
In other words, if one of us is in a synagogue on a particular Saturday morning and we read somewhere in the reading of the Pentateuch, the Torah that the Jews moved from here to there, or you read it in the early prophets--the Book of Samuel, the Book of Judges, the Book of Kings--they moved from X to Y or Y to Z, those are places where we can get in our cars and drive up the highway called Number 6 and see those places literally on the exit signs. You have a sense that you've come home; and I think Herzl didn't really understand that.
And, had they tried to do the Uganda thing, we also would not have been having this conversation because it would've failed. Jews would not have gone there. Jews were not praying for thousands of years to have a home. Jews were praying for thousands of years to go home to Zion. And Herzl did not really fully understand that.
And, the last thing that I would say about that is that there's something really tragic about that and Herzl's life, because the last Zionist Congress that he attends is the Fourth Zionist Congress; and that's the one where they deliberate this thing called the Uganda Plan. And, it basically blows the conference apart.
It's a huge issue. If one wants to think about contemporary Israel and judicial reform pulling the country apart in every possible way to the point that people are worried about violence and all sorts of things--that's the analogy. There was no violence at the Zionist Congress, but people really thought the movement had been destroyed. And then Herzl dies. He dies very, very young, at 40, and he dies thinking that he killed his own movement.
And, of course, he had not. The movement rebounded. Eventually, his remains would actually be brought to Jerusalem, and the central cemetery of Jerusalem is called Mount Herzl, and his grave is prominently placed there.
So, at the end, he didn't destroy what he had built, but he thought that he had. And, to die thinking that you've destroyed what you created is for any of us--whether it's our family or our business or whatever it might be--is really a tragic human loss. But, it's a loss that he unfortunately experienced because he couldn't know that very quickly people were going to dump that Uganda idea and move on to what the original idea was, which was to come back to the place the Jews had always called home.
Russ Roberts: So, let's fast forward. The Ottoman Empire is destroyed by World War I. The British get control of the area called Palestine. The British are lobbied by and wheedled and demanded by Jews and Arabs about what to do with that area. And, we come to 1948 and the reason I'm skipping--if you want more of the history, you can read Danny's earlier book, Israel: Concise History, a fantastic read. I recommend it. But, in 1948, Israel's path is set and it comes with the UN [United Nations] and it starts with a war. And that path--tragically in my view and I know in yours--leaves the Arab future in this region a mess. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Actually, there was a plan that probably wouldn't have worked, but it was a plan that the Arabs rejected. So, talk about that briefly and then let's move on to the implications that has for the current state.
Daniel Gordis: So, the plan that you're referring to is called the United Nations Partition Plan, which is technically actually United Nations Resolution 181. And, Resolution 181 called for taking the area that was the British mandate of Palestine and dividing it into two countries: a Jewish country, an Arab country. Certain parts, especially Jerusalem, would be international. They wouldn't belong to either part.
Both sides hated it. The Arabs hated it. The Jews hated it. The Arabs hated it because they didn't want a Jewish state in the region. The Jews hated it because it was way too small as far as they were concerned. Their borders were indefensible. Fundamentally, they didn't get Jerusalem. And--this was particularly important--The Arabs' state would have been about 80 or 90% Arab and very minimally Jewish, whereas the Jewish state was only marginally more Jewish than Arab.
So that--you say it was never going to work. It was never going to work in one of two ways. Or, one of three ways. One way in which it might not have worked is everybody had said yes. Because if everybody had said yes, the likelihood is that the Arab state would have remained Arab and that, with massive population transfer, the Jewish state would have become Arab, too. And yet again, you would and I would not be sitting in Jerusalem having this conversation. So, if they had said yes, then we would probably be looking at a very different scenario.
But, they said no; the Jews said, 'Unhappily, yes.' Then the Arabs of course unleashed a war. On May 14th , it was five armies: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt all attacked. Iraq, don't forget, not even having a border contiguous with the new state, but joining in anyway. And they lost.
Israel managed to hold on and actually to substantially increase its borders beyond what had been allocated to it by the United Nations. And, the borders that it ends up with, people call the 1967 borders, basically because they don't change again until 1967. And, what that means, of course, is that the Arabs are left without a country. They are absorbed in Gaza. They're absorbed in Lebanon. They're absorbed in Syria. They're absorbed in Jordan. The Palestinian refugee problem is going to become much more pronounced in the 1960s. But, the beginning of the problem has its roots in the Arabs tragically saying no to the United Nations Partition Plan in 1948.
Russ Roberts: So, in the war, the big debate historically about this within Israel and of course by world historians: A number of Palestinians, when the war broke out--by Palestinians I mean people living within what are now the borders of Israel--when the war broke out, many of them left. Some were forced out, and others stayed, and happily or unhappily found themselves after the war was over, a citizen of a state that was no longer under Arab control or was no longer--a different kind of place. It wasn't a country before that, remember. It's hard for people to think about this.
So, Palestinian aspirations, which--we're both Jews, we both live here in Israel, but I think we're both very sensitive to Palestinian aspirations--whether they aspired to a homeland at the time is irrelevant. They had a place to live that was, quote, "their own" in the sense that, until the British came over, it was theirs in some dimension. It certainly had their rhythms, their patterns of life. And, they suddenly found themselves in a democratic state run by Jews, which they weren't very happy about. Talk about that, at least in that early period.
Daniel Gordis: The ironies here are so interwoven with painful memories that it's just so hard to peel this onion, but let's just try to point to a couple of the ironies.
So, number one, as you point out, there was no other entity here. This was part of the Ottoman Empire; then it was a British mandate; and then it was going to be these two countries that the United Nations called for; and then the Arab nation never came to be.
Now, you pointed to the fact that many of the Palestinians who were here ended up not here at the end of the war. And, why they ended up not here is one of the most controversial and unresolved historical questions that is still being battled out by Israeli historians, Palestinian historians, Arab historians, and so forth.
But, I think that moderate, academically highly recognized historians on both sides would say that the reason the overwhelming majority--probably about 70 or 80% of the Arabs who were here--ended up not here by the end of the war. There's probably three basic reasons. Some of them fled. They were very afraid of the fighting. And, like we see tragically now in Ukraine and Russia, some people flee because their towns were bombed, but some people flee long before because they're just afraid. And that's a totally understandable and normal human reaction. So, some of them fled, assuming that: The fighting will be over and then we'll come back home. There's no way that this fledging little country, which is four weeks old, is going to beat five standing armies. That's not going to happen. So, 'We'll go to Lebanon, we'll go to Syria, we'll go to Jordan, we'll go to Gaza. We'll go for wherever we go, and in a few weeks or in a few months, we'll come back.' So, some of them just left.
Some of them were forced out. It's a very painful part of the history for both Jews and Arabs. It's a part of the history that's very painful for many Jews who love Israel to accept, but some of them were forced out. They were militarily forced out for demographic purposes. Ben-Gurian understood you cannot have a country that is 55% Jewish and 45% Arab or even closer than that. Look at what happened to the former Yugoslavia. There's all kinds of countries all over Europe where you see that that balance just doesn't work. And, Ben-Gurian understood that. Now did he make the moral choice? Did he make the right choice? Don't forget we're talking 1948. It's three years after the end of the Holocaust. There is a sense of urgency for the Jewish homeland, 'We got to have a homeland no matter what,' and they had said no to Resolution 181. But, on the other hand, it was clearly a human catastrophe.
When the Palestinians refer to May 1948 as the Nakba--as the catastrophe--they're right. For their people, it is a catastrophe. Many people who care about Israel, support Israel, many Jews find the word 'Nakba' offensive. They find it offensive because I think they understand the word to mean 'the catastrophe because of which Israel is illegitimate,' and it's that part that they won't buy. But, somebody like me who lives here, who loves this country, who believes in the importance and the legitimacy of this country doesn't have any problem acknowledging that it was a horrible catastrophe for them. And, at a certain point, it doesn't even really matter whose fault it is. For the individual men and women who took their kids and left, that's a catastrophe.
And, I'm just going to mention one last irony about this. And this is going to sound hyperbolic: it's going to sound like, 'Imagine if,' but this is exactly what happened. There were a lot of Jews in Haifa. The mayor of Haifa pleaded with the Arabs to stay. Haifa had been known for its coexistence. And there were many other cities where this was true of, also.
Now imagine there's two brothers. They live down the street from each other--and again this is the actual situation, right? And, they all decide, 'We're going to flee. It's going to be bad here. Let's all flee. We'll cross over to Jordan. It's not that far. We'll wait it out. We'll come back.' One brother takes his family and puts his family in the car. The car starts and off they zip to Jordan. That family are now Palestinian refugees somewhere, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, wherever.
The other brother gets in the car, loads it up, puts his family and turns the key. The car won't start. This actually happened on dozens and dozens and dozens of cases. They're stuck. Now, at first of course, they're terrified because they're stuck in the fighting; but the war doesn't last all that long. The war is over by January 1949. Israel's independence is declared in May 1948. So, it's not a hugely long war. And, then they find themselves citizens of the state of Israel.
Now fast forward to 2023. The guy who was lucky, so to speak, and his car started, he's a Palestinian refugee with no national anything, living in any one of a number of possible refugee camps and relatively few of those Palestinians--some were--but relatively few were made citizens of the country to which they fled.
The guy who was unlucky because his car wouldn't start, his kids can go to Hebrew University. His kids got the COVID vaccine long before most Americans did because they were part of the Israeli health system. His kids live in a first world country.
And that creates, as you can imagine, a very complicated internal dynamic for Israel's Arabs, who feel very privileged in some way--privileged not in a bad way: just very, very fortunate to have all these advantages--but they know that, not their figurative brothers, not their figurative cousins, but their actual biological brothers and cousins don't have this and that's part of what creates the really complicated identity issues that Israeli Arabs have today.
Russ Roberts: And, before we move, come to the present--and this is, I hope, an interesting and useful thumbnail sketch of is Israel's history--it's not well known, I think, that when the war broke out in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Arab countries also either feared for their life or were forced out. They came here. They came to Israel. And of course--
Russ Roberts: whether it's good or bad, they were welcomed with open arms. It took a while for them to become integrated or their children to be integrated into what was a much more European power structure, but they came from Iraq and Yemen and Morocco and Lebanon, and they became the future of this country. And, the indigenous population that was here when the war broke out that was not Jewish, was not integrated into the countries that took them in--and they weren't taken in. They were put to UN refugee camps and--of squalor. And, the ones who ended up, say, in Gaza or the West Bank, they don't have a very easy life.
And, that's--for me, as a newcomer here--like you, I concede[?can see?] the tragedy of that situation. They don't have a good economic life. They don't have a good sense of identity. Their identity is that of a victim. And they live tragically also on often under a thugocracy if they're in Gaza, under Hamas; or they live in a non-democratic state somewhere else. There's no pleasant place to live nearby, unfortunately.
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, that's true. First of all, the first point you make is really critically important. About 700,000 Jews were forced out of North Africa, Yemen, and so on and so forth, as Israel went to war with the Arab world, where the Arab world attacked Israel. And, they came here and Israel made every single one of them a citizen. Welcomed with open arms.
Over the course of time, it's gotten better, but part of what we're witnessing in Israel, by the way, right now with the Supreme Court and all of that is in large measure about the European elites and the power that they have ostensibly kept for themselves all these years. So, that issue even reverberates today. But, they were made citizens, they were given healthcare, they were given housing, they were given food, they were given free education, they were taken care of to an extent.
And, then it took them a while to break into the professions and the leading roles in culture and government and all that, which now they've done completely. And, they are now the majority of Israeli Jews. The majority of Israeli Jews today are not of European extraction. They are of North African, Levant extraction.
Had the Palestinians received the same treatment at the hands of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Mid-East would look radically different today. Those countries are not as advanced as Israel even though they're older than Israel, but they're countries and they function and there wouldn't be stateless Palestinians.
Tragically, the leaders of those Arab countries were explicit, completely explicit: 'We're not going to give these people citizenship, so we can keep this conflict going. They are going to be the pawns in the chess game between us and the Jewish state and they're going to become more numerous and they are going to win over the sympathy of the world'--which they actually deserve in many ways--'and we're going to keep this going.'
And, it's really a horrible tragedy. They suffered because of the victory of the Israelis in 1948. They suffered because of the losses of the Arabs in 1948. They suffered because the Arabs very cynically wanted to keep them pawns at a long-term battle. And, yeah, it's a human tragedy of no small proportion.
Russ Roberts: And I'll just say one more thing and then we're going to move on to other issues. But, as someone who's now lived here in Israel for two years--and certainly, you've already mentioned it in your own case--in many ways, I feel like I've come home. This is a land that belongs to me. It certainly belonged--belonged in the past tense--belonged to me in the abstract. It was something--I was never an avid Zionist growing up, but there's something about being in a Jewish state that's different for a Jew, especially a religious Jew. And so, I got to come home, and certainly, the Iraqi and Yemenite and other Arab--Jewish immigrants from Arab countries--came home in the sense that this was also their home in some dimension. They did leave their home in Iraq. They did leave their home in Yemen. They did have cultural and profound connections to those physical places, but this was a consolation for them that was very, very powerful, eventually.
But, for the Palestinians, they don't get to go home. And, part of their enduring suffering is that their home is gone. Their houses that they abandoned or were forced from--either one--there are Jews living in them now. They can't come back.
Russ Roberts: And so, a lot of what is irreconcilable--and I just want to close this piece off with this issue, the irreconcilability of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict--is that it's a zero-sum game, right? If you want to come back to your home in Haifa or you want to come back to your home in Jerusalem and there's Jews in it, you've got to do something else than just go home. You've got to evict the current people. And, whether the Jews evicted them when we came in 1948 is kind of irrelevant for how they feel now. They feel homeless, and it's painful, as you say,
Daniel Gordis: It's very painful, but I think at a certain point, all peoples have to decide if they want to recover the past or build the future.
The Jews who were thrown out of Poland--don't forget, 90% of Polish Jewry: Poland was the crown jewel of the Jewish world before the Second World War. I mean, it was the place with the most culture, the most schools, the most everything; and there were about 3 million Jews in Poland. And, at the end of the war, there were 300,000. Ninety percent of them had been exterminated.
But, of those 300,000 who remained, there was nobody who said, 'Oh, I want my house back.' They knew somebody had moved into their house. They were just very grateful not to have died in the Holocaust. Then they came to Israel, they went to America, they went to Australia, they went to South America; they did whatever they did. Almost none of them went back to Poland. Some did, but a very few.
And, I think as much as one has to understand the painful memory and identity burden that Palestinians carry with them today--and we're not going to make any progress in this business unless Israelis and Jews can own how horrible that experience was for them--we still can make a distinction between the Jews who came to Palestine/Israel and said, 'We're not going back to Poland. We lost those houses. Those villages are not ours anymore. We can be very sad about what happened, but we're going to build a future.'
If the Palestinians adopted a similar take, which is: There were towns in which, now Israel, which were Arab towns and are now Jewish towns. Horrible things happened at the end of the Second World War. Millions of people were moved all over the world, and in the end, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Millions and millions of people were moved. It was a horrible outcome of a world war. So, people were moved all over the world. If the Palestinians had leadership that said, 'We want to honor the past, but build the future.' If they asked Israelis to say, 'Can you own your role in what's happened to us and then we're going to live side by side and build our own future without it coming at the expense of yours?' I think many, many Israelis are in a place where they could say, 'Yeah, I can embrace--not happily--but I can own the role that we played in that.'
Unfortunately, Palestinian leadership says--and they mean it: 'From the river,' by which they mean the Jordan River, 'to the sea,' by which they mean the Mediterranean Sea, 'Palestine will be free.' You hear that chant to this very day, 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.' Meaning, 'We're not going to be done until Israel is not here.' And, when Israelis hear that, whether they're 80 years old or eight years old, what they say is, 'Okay, there's nobody to talk to.'
And, that's the tragedy of the rut that we're stuck in.
Russ Roberts: And, again, we're not going to--I wish we had another time maybe we can talk about the nature of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, which is often tragic, horrific, brutal, cruel, other times extraordinarily compassionate, bringing Palestinians to--and Arabs--from countries that Israel is at war with to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment. It's a mixed picture, but there are many parts of it that you and I are deeply uncomfortable and ashamed of.
But, it's hard to figure out what might make that better. Other than leaving. We could leave. So, that's always an option.
But if you believe that there is a--should be--a Jewish state and it's legitimate that there be one, there is a zero-sum aspect of this which is unbelievably frustrating, tragic. And, most people would say at this point, 'There's no obvious way to move forward.'
Daniel Gordis: Right. Okay, I think that's right. I don't think that leaving is really an option. Not only because it's not so clear where 7 million Jews would go. Countries might take in a few here, a few there. It's hard to imagine a world in which somebody says, 'We'll take all 7 million Jews.'
But aside from that, my own view is that the Jewish state--the state of Israel--has given the Jewish people a new lease on life following the worst century it had known in at least 2,000 years--maybe ever, but certainly in 2000 years. The state has been built to great effect against all odds by people who gave up the supreme sacrifice and lost their lives or really lived in squalor or swamps or saw their kids lost to disease.
This is the country that has given the Jewish people a new lease on life.
And, I think that, for the Jewish people, it's unimaginable. But let's just say, in some sort of mind game, the Jewish people says, 'Yeah, it's getting very complicated here and it's never going to be easy and we don't want to be at war. We're going to leave.' I think what that does is, it pulls the plug on the Jewish renaissance that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen. Jewish life in the United States and Jewish life in Australia and Jewish life in South America, Jewish life throughout Europe--all of that begins to dim.
Because whether people love Israel's policies or don't love Israel's policies--whether they call themselves Zionists or don't call themselves Zionists--the pulse of life and renewed Jewishness--culturally, religiously, politically, demographically, ethnically--here has enriched Jewish life in every single corner.
If you pull that plug, yeah, there will be some Jewish life in places like Kiryas Joel, which is an ultra-Orthodox enclave; and the enclaves in New York and there's enclaves in New Jersey and so forth. There will be enclaves like that.
But, a rich, new-lease-on-life kind of Judaism that wants to be part of the political, economic, cultural, technical world, which is booming now in which Jews and Israel play a central role, that dies.
And so, therefore, even in a mind game--even in a sort of strategy game--if that decision were to ever get taken, it's not only the end of Israel, I think it's the end of the world of Jewry as we know it, at least.
Russ Roberts: The only thing I would add is that when I said there's no solution, I don't mean to suggest that nothing can be done. I think--as an outsider, it seems there are ways we could hear the story of the people who have suffered in a different way, acknowledge it more fully, improve economic interaction. These are things that historically have often helped resolve irreconcilable conflicts.
Having said that, I don't advocate for that very much publicly because I'm living in the Middle East. And, my understanding of what works and doesn't work is very American. And, I think Americans often forget--and this is not a comment about only the Middle East: it's relevant for the Russian-Ukrainian war; it's relevant for everything in American foreign policy--I think most Americans, even American leaders, often assume that the other people in the world are like them, but just living somewhere else, just speaking in different language. They have very limited appreciation of the extraordinary cultural differences.
I think of Madeleine Albright running down the road, holding her high-heeled shoes in her hand, chasing Arafat because--to try to get him to agree. Or people telling me that, 'Oh, Putin would never do that,' as if they have an understanding of Russian culture of a former KGB [Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti] person and how that person's worldview is.
So, you have almost no access to it, most of us, and you should really just be aware of that. So, I just want to say that because I think that's important.
Russ Roberts: Let's move to the present. One of the--obviously, Israel has fought many wars. They've survived them so far. They can't really afford to lose any of them, which is tragic and difficult. Israel has been a success--you talk about that in the book--it's been a success in terms of military security. In fact, one[?] could argue it's one of the best, if not the best army in the world, person for person. The Israeli economy is an extraordinary success. Let's talk about that for a little bit because I think some people are aware of that, but most people probably don't have any of how successful it is.
Daniel Gordis: In the 1950s, shortly after Israel was created, the Israeli standard of living was equivalent to the American standard of living in the middle of the 1800s. I mean, this country had nothing. Food was rationed at the beginning, in the early years. And, when I'm talking rationing, we're not saying that there was a limit on how much merlot or caviar you could buy, but I mean the basics: flour, sugar, eggs. Everything was rationed. There was simply not enough food to go around. There was no housing for the people that were pouring in here, both from Europe and from North Africa, as you pointed to before. And, the great irony: one of the things that enabled Israel to survive those early economic challenges was German reparations.
So, if in the middle of the 1940s or the early part of the 1940s, the Germans are busy exterminating the Jewish people, by the early part of the 1950s, the Germans are busy saving the Jewish state, which is meant to save the Jewish people. And they gave Israel, in what would be contemporary terms, $8 billion.
Russ Roberts: Accepting those reparations was extremely controversial, and you should explain why.
Daniel Gordis: Menachem Begin, who was Israel 's sixth prime minister--I wrote a book about him because I thought he's such a fascinating person--he was really the one who led the fight against it. And, what he said basically was: His father and his mother and his brother had all been killed by the Nazis. His wife's parents and sisters had been killed by the Nazis. And they were not unusual. They were not in Israel. Many of them [?who lived in?] in Israel were the only ones from their family. And, what Begin said was, 'How many Deutsche Marks are you getting from my father? How much money are you getting from my mother?' In other words, the idea that the Nazis could buy expiation was, to him, horrifying.
And, I'll share with you, I think, a really--I think it's fair to say this in public. I thought it was a beautiful story. I wrote this book about Begin, and everybody knows when you write about Begin, the Begin children--all three of whom are, thank God, still alive and with it and so forth--they don't get involved. Begin-the-father was their person. Begin-the-public-figure, they leave to whoever. But, I did reach out to them when I was writing the book and said, 'I'm writing the book. Could I interview you?' 'No, no, no.' Everybody told me that wasn't going to happen. That's what happened.
When the book came out, I sent the book to Benny Begin, who is the oldest. He's the son. He's the one that I'd been in touch with. And I said, 'Look, I know you didn't want to be part of the research of the book and that's totally fine, but here's the book and I hope that you will feel that I did your father the honor that I was trying to do him.'
He writes me back right away--I see his name appear on my phone--he says, 'We got to get together.' He comes in with a litany of things. You said, 'This was 200 yards. It's 300 yards.' And, then he had a whole set of things.
But, one thing I thought was really amazing, he said, 'In the chapter on reparations, you were very hard on Ben-Gurian.' And I was, like, 'What? Well, yeah</em. I was kind of taking your father's side.' And, then he said something that I'll never forget. He said, 'My father was the head of the opposition. My father didn't have to feed or put a roof over anybody. And Ben-Gurian did. And, what was he supposed to do?' In other words: My father was right about the principle that the Germans should not be able to buy expiation. He was right. And Ben-Gurian was right: 'There's no point these Jews having survived that, if they die of starvation here.'
And, I always thought that that was such an unbelievable example of a person seeing that two competing truths can both be true.
So, it was very controversial, but it did save Israel. Israel, with the money that it got from Germany, built the National Water Carrier, which made huge, previously arid parts of this country habitable. It started a shipping fleet. It started El Al Airlines. It bought cranes. There were no buildings here that were taller than three or four stories because you couldn't build them. And so, it really--the German reparations got us off the ground.
And, by the way, that's not the end of the economic hardships. When you get to the 1980s, the annual inflation rate is 445%. And, the prognostications were that it was going to become a thousand percent. And, it was only because of American support and a huge austerity program under Shimon Peres that we get that under control. So, there's been ups and downs financially all throughout.
And, I think it's worth pointing out just sort of how does the whole tech revolution in Israel start? It's very complicated. But, ironically, the tech revolution in Israel is also the product of a failure.
At a certain point, Israel decides, 'We're going to build a jet fighter. We don't want to be dependent on the French for Mirage jets. We don't want to be dependent on America for F-15s,' or whatever the American jets were back then. 'We're going to build our own jet called the Lavi. Build the Lavi jet fighter.'
Obviously, a jet is a pretty complicated thing to build, and there are many Russians who have come from the former Soviet Union who are engineers. This is all happening at the same time. And, thousands and thousands of people are employed in this hugely expensive and unbelievably complicated project to build the Lavi jet fighter. Very controversial project from the very beginning. People thought it was an albatross, it was never going to be built, it would never work, etc., etc.
At the end of the day, after years and lots of money, including a prototype or two, Israel drops it. Just cuts the program. And now you have thousands of unemployed engineers who have been on the very cutting edge of technology as they're trying to build this jet fighter. And, those people become the very, very beginning of Israel's tech boom, because this is exactly at the time when the tech world and the semiconductor world are really becoming the big thing.
And, if you fast forward, that's what leads you to what's called Startup Nation. That's what leads you to Israel having more companies registered on the Nasdaq than any other country in the world except for the United States.
That's what leads you to a situation where it kind of doesn't matter what kind of cellphone you have: there is Israeli technology in it. That's what leads you to a world in which huge swaths of med tech have something to do with Israeli firms, and so on and so forth.
It all has its origins, ironically, in a very, very--'tragic' is maybe too strong--but a very disappointing project called the Lavi fighter.
And, the only other thing that I'll mention is that Bibi Netanyahu, who is today a very controversial figure and I think he is rightly controversial, was a phenomenal Minister of Finance. Phenomenal. And when he was Minister of Finance decades ago, he began to privatize a tremendous number of companies that had been government companies--phone company, electric, water, El Al--all those kinds of things, because they were hugely wasteful. Like, think about Russian companies that are owned by the government.
And, in privatizing them, he turned them into much more efficient companies. I wouldn't say he turned them into cutting edge companies. Some of them yes, some of them no. But, Bibi had a tremendous amount with building the economy that is now Israel's economy.
So, whereas the world sees the economics go up and down, Israel's economy has chugged along quite nicely for decades already; and a lot of credit for that does go to Bibi Netanyahu.
Russ Roberts: We didn't talk about it when we were talking about the founding and the Zionist origins in the pre-state era, but the founders were all Socialists. And, the Kibbutz Movement was the natural outgrowth of that. We did an interview with Ran Abramitzky on that--we'll put a link up to it--how that movement flourished; and then basically died. There's a little bit of it left, but it's not an important part of the country as it was in its early day.
So, this Socialist state, very egalitarian--not just Socialist--a strong Stalinist origin for many of Israel's founders--founding people and living here and leaders in the late 1940s, early 1950s--somehow becomes the most entrepreneurial country in the world, really. I think you can certainly make that case. And, I want to segue out of this with three pieces of data.
The first is that, when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed--in the last month or so--it was estimated there were 500 Israeli companies with accounts there. We have 9 million people who live here--9 million, 10 million. Let's round it: 10 million people.
Somehow, that produced 500 companies with accounts at Silicon Valley Bank. As you point out, on the Nasdaq, way out of proportion to our per capita numbers. So, entrepreneurially, we're an extraordinarily vibrant place right now, and maybe to are detriment in the sense that it is--in many ways, the goal of all young Israelis is to enter that world, or many young Israelis, is to enter that world. And, there are things to be thoughtful about in that transition and making that the center of Israeli culture and life.
But, Tel Aviv, which is a very different city from Jerusalem, is alive and dynamic in an extraordinarily vibrant way because of that high-tech sector. So, the first is: way out of proportion per capita in terms of starting company. Second: a measure of that is the Silicon Valley Bank connection.
The third, though ,is a statistic that you give in the book, which is stunning, which is that per capita, we start more nonprofits than other places. And, as an economist, that's particularly strange to me because if you see the state as the answer to everything, you tend to not start nonprofits. You tend not to be charitable. Because, you say, 'Well, that's the state's job.' And yet, here on the ground, maybe because the state doesn't work so well at times, there's an immense amount of grassroots entrepreneurial activity to improve Jewish-Arab relationships, to improve relationships between religious and non-religious. So, talk about that so-called third sector, the nonprofit sector.
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, we have--as you pointed out--we have more nonprofits per capita than any other country in the world. And, a lot of it is directed at what happens here in Israel; and it could be Jewish-Arab, it could be Jewish-Jewish, it could be poverty: we have a national tragedy that an overwhelming majority of Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, which is a great mark of shame on the Jewish state. You also have a lot of nonprofits that are helping Jews around the world.
But here's the really critical thing: You have a lot of nonprofits that are helping people who have nothing to do with the Jewish state or the Jewish people. You have nonprofits working in Kathmandu, you have nonprofits working all over. You have an organization called IsraAID where, if there's an earthquake or there's a flood or there's this, they don't wait for the Israeli government to do anything. They get the stuff on the planes. They take the people. They have people stationed at any given time in dozens of countries all the way around, all started by grassroots Israelis.
And, this is I think part of several different phenomena that we see in Israel. Number one is a real sense of purpose. In other words, this country was built by a sense of, 'It's possible. It is possible. It may look impossible, but it's possible, and it's necessary, and we know what it's like to have nobody care for us.'
And, there's this real sense: you talk to people who run these nonprofits--and I interview them on my podcast all the time--and I say, 'Well, where did this come from?' And, they say, 'Well, I don't know, but my grandparents were Holocaust survivors and they fled and nobody took care of them, so I guess maybe that has something to do with my wanting to take care of somebody else. I guess maybe.' It had a huge part to do with who they became.
I think this is a country of: still, we're young enough, that there are a lot of people here who either are the people themselves or the children of people who had nowhere to go in the world. And, it has filtered and has created, I think, a tremendous sense of purpose.
Another interesting statistic--and this actually just came out earlier this week--an organization related to the United Nations actually rates the happiness of populations around the world. Israel was listed Number Four this year--the fourth happiest population. All of the other three was Scandinavian countries. I mean, way ahead of the United States, way ahead of Canada. What's that about? We're not rich; and life here is hard and people aren't always pleasant. How in the world would you get to be Number Four?
Because--and this by the way, has a lot to do with your fabulous book, Wild Problems--but it's a sense of purpose. But, what animates Israelis here is a sense that what makes life worthwhile is not just having this thing, or having that thing, or having an account sheet which is bigger than it was two years ago. There's a sense of purpose here that I think is really palpable; and you feel it at all different times. And that's what leads, for example, to all of these nonprofits.
And, I'll just say one thing about those high-tech people--and you said, 'You can look at it either way: that so many Israelis were involved in high tech.' And it's true. I think one of the things people said about high tech is, 'You know, they're the grandchildren of people that founded this state. They're the grandchildren of the people that drained the swamps. They're the grandchildren of the people that guarded the fire line at night. They're the grandchildren of the ones who with their bare hands built, etc.' And, 'Look at them now: They're sitting in these steel and glass towers and they're coding all day; and they're trying to go public, and they're trying to have an exit. And, then they take the elevator down, they get into their BMW [Bayerische Motoren Werke] or their Audi, and they drive home to Ramat Aviv Gimel to their fancy little house.'
'What the hell has happened to us?' people were saying.
Those are the people that ran the protests in Israel over the course of the last three months demanding that democracy not be cheapened. Saying that they cared about this country being both Jewish and democratic. The reservoirs of caring, even among these seemingly disconnected high-tech people, were unbelievably deep reservoirs.
And, I saw it with my kids, and I saw it with my kids' friends who are busy working in startups all day long, but at 3:00 in the morning are out in the streets holding flags, protesting.
And, my son--one of my kids who was in a Special Forces unit for eight years and has had, I think, a lot of powerful experiences in this country of all different sorts, said to us just a couple days ago that that night--I think it was Sunday night of this week--being out there at 3:00 o'clock in the morning, with his flag after having worked all day and knowing he was going to go home at 4:00 and start working again because he'd missed too much of the workday--he said it was the most powerful moment of his entire life.
And, I was struck by that. And I think it really speaks to, as much as Israel has become a very, very modern country seemingly so far removed from those early passionate debates between Herzl and his compadres in Basel in 1897 and other places around the world in the following years. Herzl planted the seeds of something that I think are much deeper than people gave it credit for: a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of responsibility for the future of the Jewish people.
And, just to go back to the very first question that you asked, 'How do you measure whether a country is a success?'--which is what I was trying to do in the book as we get to 75 years--these protests are a huge sign of success. Regardless of what one thinks about the judicial reform, and regardless of what one thinks about the government, and regardless of what one thinks about this particular coalition or a different one: that these hundreds of thousands of people so passionately care about what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents built, it's hard to think of an indicator that would point to greater success of this extraordinary little experiment called the Jewish State.
Russ Roberts: Well, I want to come back--we'll talk about the judicial reform issue in this current moment in a minute. But I want to just respond to the point about the high-tech sector. I was talking to a venture capitalist yesterday and he said that for the last four months, his sector is totally unproductive. And, I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'Well, no one's working,' and, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'Well, we're all protesting all the time. They're out in the streets.' And, I said, the first image that came to my mind was, 'It's like the World Cup in some countries,' but every day for four months where people just concede[?can see?] that, 'We're not going to really be working now because there's something more important to do.'
And, just two things that strike me as powerful, coming here from America: a sense of patriotism is what you're referring to. There's a love of country here. Some of it stems from military, the military culture that comes from a universal draft outside of the ultra-Orthodox community and outside of the Arab community. The Arab community, by the way, is, they're not drafted. They're free to serve. Some do, but mostly don't. And, the ultra-Orthodox, some do, but mostly don't. For the rest of the country, which is millions of people, they go through the army and whether that's the cauldron that does it or the general, whatever is in the air, they have a deep love for this place that is unusual.
When my air conditioning--our heat broke--in my first apartment here, the repairman came and he said, chit-chatting with me in broken English and my broken Hebrew and he said, 'Oh, where'd you come from?' I said, 'Washington, D.C. area.' He said, 'Why?' Meaning, 'Why would anyone give up a chance to live in Washington in ease and comfort to come to where--?' It's a--drinking from a fire hose here, every day something important happens, it's pretty intense.
And yet, when you tell people that you're an immigrant, unlike in America, they're so proud that you thought their country was worth joining. They're so welcoming. They don't say, 'Welcome.' They say, 'Congratulations and thank you,' which is--I used to say to immigrants when I lived in America, too, but I don't think it's universal. Whereas here, it is universal. It's the first thing. Tremendous amount of patriotism.
The second thing is it's an incredibly family-oriented country. And I don't think the two are--they're not two separate things. I think part of the reason that people care so much is that they care about the future here in a way that may be different than other places. Obviously, the ultra-Orthodox are famous for having large families, 10-plus children sometimes, but the non-Orthodox here--the secular population here or community--has large families; and it leads to a different world in all kinds of ways. Children here are not just tolerated. They're embraced.
One of my favorite stories is a friend of mine gets on a bus. Woman gets on a bus after him with a baby carriage. Baby's crying. The woman hands it to my friend--the baby--total stranger, goes and pays, comes back, takes the baby back. Not a word of conversation.
It's a big family and it's made up of individual families, and it makes living here quite, quite extraordinary. But, I think the sense of caring about the nature of the country and its purpose is palpable.
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, very true. When my daughter had to fly back from Israel to the States a couple months ago with all three of her kids--one of them was a newborn and one of them was three and one of them was seven. My wife said to her, 'Well, how are you going to manage with three kids on the plane?'--because her husband couldn't go with her, long story, 'How are you going to manage with three kids on the plane?'--And, my daughter said, 'It's El Al. I'm not going to have the kids. I'm just going to--.' And she said when she landed in Boston, she got to go to the bathroom, people just took the kid. It was just part of the natural thing.
There is a real sense of community. And, don't forget, we're forged out of fractured families. We're forged out of a population where people were the only one left.
By the way, even people like you and me, as privileged as we are to work in a great place, to live in great neighborhoods, to come reasonably comfortably, financially and all of that, we left our families behind. Your siblings aren't here, your mom's not here; my siblings aren't here.
And so, we become each other's quasi-family as we build friendships. And, I think that then leads over to: you go to the park, you see a kid crying, you pick the kid up. And I do it all the time. And, I can tell you that when I visit my kids in Cambridge--which is a lovely community--if I see a kid crying in a park there, I go over. I never touch the kid.
Russ Roberts: You can't touch him. No.
Daniel Gordis: I just don't want a scene. So, I'll say, 'Where's your mommy? Where's your daddy? Are you okay?' but won't lay a finger on the kid. Whereas here, I pick the kid up, I scoop him or her up, I look around, 'Where's the parent?' There's a very, very different dynamic here, and it comes from a sense of shared destiny.
Russ Roberts: So, that's all nice and I think it's true and it makes living here very, very powerful. But I want to talk for a minute about the divisions within the country; and that will lead us to the current moment of judicial law reform in the last few months of incredible chaos and tension.
I think there's a common belief, even among Jews, you're either religious or you're not. There's the religious people and then the nonreligious people. And, I think what's glorious about Israel is that it has the potential to have a richer view of Jewish life, and in many ways, it has that richer view. You talk about it quite a bit in the book. There are people who are traditional without keeping every jot and tittle of Jewish law. There are people who--observance spans a very wide spectrum. So, when we talk about the nonreligious, many of them will have a Friday night dinner. Even if as you write in the book, they might go to the beach the next morning in their car. They observe many of the things that make this country a Jewish country: traditions, the calendar, and many other--ideally the culture of compassion, caring for the other, and so on.
At the same time, there's a lot of tension. Some of it is self-inflicted by the religious community, which has used the state to subsidize its own activities, which I think is a horrible tragedy.
The question is: Is there a possibility going forward? We'll talk more about the current moment in a minute, but at least going forward, could you imagine a shared narrative about what is Jewish, about the Jewish State other than that Jews can live here safely? Horribly, tragically, we live in a time where being Jewish outside of Israel--and in Israel tragically, even more so perhaps, but certainly outside of Israel--antisemitism is on the rise. In a way, you could argue that there's never been a more important time that there be a haven, a sanctuary for Jews who are being reviled, shot at, killed in their houses of worship in America--unimaginable to me even 10, 20 years ago. It's extraordinarily sad.
So, this is a place that has succeeded as a home for the Jews. If, God forbid, there's another Holocaust or genocidal maniac, the Jews will not be sent back on the boats that bring them to our shores. But, is there anything else that's going to unite us as a people? Yes, the Arab-Palestinian issues--they're a separate problem. Just our own internal challenges: Do you imagine a future where we can live in this country and not just be Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, cosmopolitan/religious? And, of course, there are religious people in Tel Aviv, there's nonreligious people in Jerusalem; and there's that whole spectrum in between. But the last few months have really, to me, revealed the challenge that we have, which was under the surface, bubbling--the judicial reform was just a mechanism that brought it to the surface--that we don't necessarily share a narrative.
It's a similar problem in America. We've talked about it on the program quite a bit. How do you see that playing out, going forward?
Daniel Gordis: Well, it could go forward, obviously, in a lot of different kinds of ways, but I'll give you two radically different scenarios. One, that I pray to God does not happen, is that we say, 'No, there is no joint narrative.' You actually see all these op-eds in the Hebrew press--and I don't even think all of them are tongue-in-cheek--which is, 'Let's just split up.' You know, 'This marriage is not working. Let's split up.' And then people saying things that are just completely stupid, which is, 'Look, it works in America. You have all these 50 different states, but they somehow manage to defend themselves together.' That is so non-analogous to what would happen here that it's ridiculous.
But, there are people in the last few weeks who have been saying, 'This is not going to work. Let's split up.' That's the end of the game and I don't think it's going to happen, but it's a sentiment that I find very sad. I find it really heartbreaking, and a sentiment that, thank God, I don't think is going to have to get acted on.
I think we are at an inflection point here, and this is not over. This is going to be around for a long time. Even the judicial reform thing is not over. There's a little bit of a hiatus now before Passover and Independence Day and the Knesset in a very few days goes on recess until the middle of the summer.
So, it looks like the absolute urgency of this thing is on hold. But it's not over.
But, this is a huge opportunity for a stateswoman or statesman to rise to the fore, or multiple, to say, 'Let's have that conversation now that we did not have 75 years ago when we promised to write a Constitution and didn't.'
Now maybe you can't write a Constitution. You can certainly have the Constitutional Convention. You can have the conversation. And, I think that there is a way here, now in which one can say to people, 'Look, we came really close to the precipice.' I mean, let's look at the good news for a second, right? Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets; and as it went on week after week, it got more and more tense and the police brought out water cannons, and the police brought out horses, and people got angrier and angrier, but let's look at this: It was the Left and the Center who were holding the flags.
This was not about hating their country. This was about loving their country. You can count on exactly zero fingers the numbers of looted stores. Zero. This was not Portland. This was not Seattle. This was not anger at anything. This was love for something.
I was at protests in Jerusalem--not in Tel Aviv where people showed up with Likud flags, like, 'Likud is Bibi Netanyahu's party.' Now, it wasn't a Likud flag, like, 'I'm in your face, you centrists'--which I consider myself--or, leftists--and there were some there who were leftists also: 'You can protest, but I'm going to be with my flag.' No, it wasn't that. It was, 'I'm with you in this protest, even though I vote Likud.' And people would walk up to them and give them a big bear hug and say, 'Thank you for coming and thank you for bringing that flag.'
There were--Israeli Arabs stayed out of this for a whole array of reasons, but some did go to the protests. And I saw them there in Jerusalem and people would walk up to them and say to them, 'Thank you so much for being here.'
In other words, there is a way in which getting this close to the precipice could be the beginning of a horrible catastrophe; or, it could be the beginning of a national conversation. I don't mean some sort of national reconciliation where we are going to--we have radically different views of what this country should look like. We have radically different views of what Judaism in this country should look like. We have radically different views of the roles of the judiciary and the executive legislative. We have lots of disagreements here.
What we have not had so far is a national tradition of serious dialogue. We haven't had our Federalist Papers. And, we could. We are a very literate population. We are a highly expressive population. If the right women and men came to the fore now and said, 'We're not going to convince each other. We're not going to make each other into something that we're not, but we're going to have this conversation,' I think some people probably think when they hear me say this that I am just Pollyanna-ish and really just kind of way-over-the-edge optimistic; but I think people that know me well know that that's not my proclivity. I have never been accused of being overly optimistic. And, my kids right now hear me being so optimistic, I think they think that I'm really sick. Something must be really wrong and they're saying, 'Oh my God, what's wrong with abba [papa, father--Econlib Ed.]? He's, like, being so optimistic.'
But, I've been very moved by what I've seen. I've been very moved by all those flags; and I've been very moved that altogether millions of people over the course of the weeks were out on the streets. Basically, nobody got hurt. Basically, nobody got hurt.
Yeah, they blocked the highways because they were trying to make a point; and there were competing protests. And, this isn't over and bad things could still happen. But I have been overwhelmed by the sense of love for this country among its citizens.
And, even by the way, among the people who really can't stand Bibi and are really opposed to the reforms. Nobody hanged anybody in effigy. Nobody burned pictures of anybody. Nobody screamed, 'Lock him up.' They said, 'Democracy. Democracy. Democracy. We want to be like a democracy. We don't want to be Hungary. We want to be a democracy. We don't want to be Poland.'
Nobody shouted down Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu--Econlib Ed.]. Nobody shouted down anyone else. This was about love of something, not hate of something or someone. And, I think there is a way, if we get lucky and we're smart, this could--we could look back on this moment and say, 'Man, we came super-close to the precipice of blowing this thing to pieces, but it was the moment where we made the decisions and began the conversation that guaranteed our next 75 years.'
Russ Roberts: That's a lovely thought, and we don't have time to go into the nuts and bolts of the judicial reform issue, which is actually quite interesting from a political economy viewpoint. Maybe we'll have another episode on that another time if people are interested. But, I just want to put on the table for people who watch this from the outside--this is my thumbnail, Danny, and you know the history better than I do and you read the Hebrew press in a way I can't--but my thumbnail is that over the last 30 years, the Court, which is 15 people, and those 15 people are nominated--there's a committee of nine people that nominates them. To be nominated successfully, you need to get seven of those nine votes and three of the nominating committee are current Supreme Court justices.
So, we've got a system right now that is a little bit of an old-boys'--and sometimes old women's, [?] girls'--network, but it's very incestuous. It has had some issues of corruption. And it's not very accountable; and it's not very democratic ironically, given the protestors who were standing for the status quo. That court, the way it's nominated and over the last 30 years or so, has increasingly expanded what it has a voice on. And, that was what pushed for the judicial reform.
The tragedy, for me--as an outsider, a newcomer--is that that judicial reform was not the centerpiece of the last election. Which is weird: You come into office, a very narrow majority, and you put on the table a radical transformation of the balance of power in the country when it wasn't part of the electoral conversation. And, you basically suggest a set of reforms that neuters the court and puts the Knesset in total control--the Knesset, unlike America, a unicameral legislative body that is the same party as the Prime Minister--and basically says the court has no power.
So, the status quo, I view as not a very good system, at least long run. The reform is literally impossible. And so, my hope is that there will be--there purports to be now a conversation about how that might get resolved in a way that is more shared. So, how's that?
Daniel Gordis: Oh, I completely agree with that. The only small area in which I might pick a fine point is that I don't think the protestors were protesting in favor of the status quo. I think that the notion that there needs to be judicial reform in Israel--
Russ Roberts: Fair enough. Good point--
Daniel Gordis: is pretty widespread. I don't know what percentage of people on the streets that have really read the legislation--I don't really know. What percentage of people who were arguing that the court should not overturn Roe v. Wade, had ever read Roe v. Wade? I don't even know. Okay, but that's a whole other issue. But, I think most people on the street were protesting against the pace of the reform and the extent of the reform.
Russ Roberts: [inaudible 01:16:15].
Daniel Gordis: I think there is awareness among many Israelis that the court does need to be recalibrated and the way in which judges are chosen needs to be recalibrated. There's a whole array of issues that this judicial reform package was about. I don't think the protests were against reform. I think they were against the pace and the extent; and that's also, by the way, I think good thing there were huge signs people held up, which was [inaudible, in Hebrew 01:16:43], 'Let's talk.' Let's talk does not mean, 'I want you to shut down your legislative agenda.' Let's talk means let's talk.
And, my hope and prayer is that that's what we're going to see over the next few months. I think our President, who has maybe made some mistakes about timing and this and that, has really comported himself admirably and tried to position himself as a nonpolitical, above-the-fray person who is going to now, I think, be the person to shepherd this conversation. I think all of us left, right, religious, secular, men, women, natives, immigrants, whatever, we all have a vested interest in him being very successful.
Russ Roberts: That President is Herzog. The President in Israel is mainly a figurehead, but in this case, a figurehead who has a chance to do something that would be enduring and important.
I accept your critique of my thumbnail. I appreciate that. That's an excellent point. I should also add, in case you don't know as a listener: Israel is one of a handful of countries that doesn't have a constitution. You alluded to it briefly in passing, Danny. It was supposed to--it's in the Declaration of Independence that it will have one. It was agreed to as part of the UN Partition Plan, I think; but it never got around to it.
Russ Roberts: And instead, the country has relied for the last 75 years on a set of unwritten norms that I think have frayed. And, I think the opportunity for this conversation going forward is to--since those norms are no longer working so well, we need to figure out if we need some written rules.
There are plenty of countries that have constitutions that don't abide by them. I like to joke that, in America, there are only two Amendments that matter anymore, the First and the Second. The rest of the Constitution is kind of irrelevant in terms of constraining behavior. But that's something, by the way--it's not irrelevant. Okay, anyway, I just wanted to--
Daniel Gordis: I think I'd argue that the 13th, 14th, and 15th are pretty important, too; but okay.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah, fair enough. But, it's not--if we write a constitution here, and as you've pointed out in the book and in plenty of our personal conversations, there are a lot of conversation--people have written them. We've got something to choose from. We're not going to start--in America, in 1787 or whenever it was--they didn't have any. They had to start from scratch. It's one of the great human achievements, by the way--that America was able to create a Constitution and a set of rules that would allow it to change and it's survived for a few hundred years--is pretty impressive.
Israel at 75 is finally, I think, coming to grips with the fact that it didn't set the rules of the game clearly enough at its beginning and now is the time for that to happen.
So it's going to be, for students of political economy and public choice, this is an unbelievable case study and experiment that's about to happen. I hope. We'll see. I want to close--
Daniel Gordis: Yeah, I think that's a really great, great point. And, let's point out, by the way, that America wrote a Constitution after the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Turned out, the Constitution wasn't the first trial.
And so, Israel also tried, as you say, with a set of unwritten norms and some basic laws which are kind of rudimentary laws that are written that are the backbone of a constitution.
But yeah, America had to try something for awhile. It said, 'It doesn't work. Let's do the next thing,' and we are also at that stage. And, I would just say that we have to hope that what we're heading to is the Constitutional Convention, because at the age of 75, America was also gearing up for a Civil War--over the one big issue that had not been addressed in the Constitution, which is, of course, slavery.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, well said. Yeah.
Daniel Gordis: So, we have to hope and pray as Israelis that we're headed towards the Constitutional Convention option, and not, God forbid, the splitting-of-the-country option. I'm optimistic, but we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Russ Roberts: You moved to Israel 25 years ago, so, to my surprise, maybe to hear it, is I don't know if you think about it often, but you've been here for a third of the country's existence.
I think you've also pointed out that Israel is older than the median country. The average country--median country--in terms of age of the 200 or so countries in the world right now, Israel is actually on the older side. It's above the median. But 75 is still not very old.
And so, you've managed--in a very brave move in your life--in 1998 to come here. You wrote a beautiful book called If a Place Can Make You Cry that has been reissued as Home to Stay, but it was about your arrival. You came at a different, fraught time, different set of difficult things to deal with the antifada. And, it is an extraordinary book. I love that book.
But, you've been here for 25 years. And, has Israel lived up to your expectations? Has it fulfilled your purpose you came here for? Reflect on that.
Daniel Gordis: I feel unbelievably blessed to live here. In so many different ways. I mean, we talked the role of children in this society. When we moved here, our daughter, who is our eldest, was 12 years old. And she joined the youth group and we quickly figured out that these youth-group kids, they stayed out until all hours of the night and no sane parent wakes up for their kid. She was 12. I mean, she was a child; and she would go out, she'd come home at 2:00 in the morning, she'd be here, go in the bathroom and shower because they'd been around some campfire, get in her PJs [pajamas] and go to sleep.
Our kids have lived here with a tremendous sense of freedom when they were younger that I think was a great gift to them.
And then they went into the army, which is exactly the opposite of freedom, which is a tremendous sense of responsibility. And, it transformed them as human beings. Some had better experiences and some had worst experiences, but they all had transformative experiences.
I live in a country in which, unfortunately, in my family, we've had a series of health issues. Thank God everybody is now totally fine, but the last few years have not been simple and multiple hospitalizations and surgeries. Nobody took out a credit card. You just go. It's National Health. You just go.
I've been very buoyed by this sense of renewed patriotism that we've seen on the streets. It's been a life filled with purpose, and I think this will strike many people as odd, but I feel safer here than I do anywhere else in the world. I actually really do. I was just in LA [Los Angeles] last week, and I was going to go to see friends Friday night--which about a 20, 25-minute walk--for a Friday night dinner from where I was staying with other friends. And my wife said to me, 'No, I don't want you going. I don't want you walking there.' I said to her, 'That's where we'd live. That's our neighborhood.' She said, 'Yeah, but it was a quarter of a century ago and you read the same newspapers that I do. You cannot walk there at night anymore.' And I didn't go.
And, it was sad to me to recognize that the neighborhood that we had moved into, which was expensive and considered very desirable and all that, is now a place where Friday night, if you're dressed Jewishly, not such a great idea to be walking alone, which is what I would have been doing.
So, I feel personally very safe. I feel very much privileged to be part of a national project, which is about the future of the Jewish people. And, as you said yourself earlier in our conversation, I feel like I've come home. And one of the moments that I have--there's two moments, visual moments, that always bring this on to me.
First of all, I land--and unfortunately, like you--on far too many airplanes, and you look out the window and you look outside at Tel Aviv and you remember that a hundred, whatever, years ago, that was all sand. It wasn't a small little village. It was sand. And, you look at that skyline now and you say to yourself, 'Oh my God, what we've built here is just unbelievable.'
But, the other moment that speaks to me so powerfully sometimes is that in my Bar Mitzvah portion in what's called the haftorah, the prophetic reading that you read that Saturday morning there, it's in the Book of Samuel and there's a place called Gilgal. He says, 'Let's go to Gilgal,' a little verse that I happened to remember from when I was 13 years old.
When you drive up Highway 6, there's an exit to the left that says Gilgal. And, whenever I see that sign, I have to say I get a lump in my throat because that sign on a highway that has the same city that's mentioned in the Book of Samuel that I read as a little 13-year-old boy in the city of Baltimore, having no idea what Gilgal was--I see that sign and I say, 'We're the next book in the Bible'--and there's different versions of the orders of the books--but in the Hebrew Bible, it ends with Chronicles I and Chronicles II. Whatever that next book is, we're the next chapter of the story. And, to be privileged to be part of that story, for me feels like an extraordinary gift, and in that way, Israel has more than lived up to my expectations.
Russ Roberts: And I would just add, again, as the newcomer, that I'm grateful for the role you played and continue to play in building Shalem College, which we're both privileged to work at, which I hope we'll have much to say about that future conversation about what happens here as our graduates--we hope they become thoughtful leaders and lead and participate in that conversation about the future of our country. Danny, thanks.
Daniel Gordis: Well, you lead the college and I have no doubt that under your leadership we are going to produce exactly the kinds of people that need to have the conversation that we've been talking about.
Russ Roberts: Well--
Daniel Gordis: This place is unbelievably important to that and we couldn't have anybody better with the helm.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. Danny, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Daniel Gordis: Thanks for having me.