How pivotal events in Israel resonate within American Jewish communities, shaping identity and geopolitics.
On October 7, a pivotal event in Israel resonated globally, with profound implications particularly for Jewish communities in America.
In American cities, streets filled with protests, reflecting not just the broad divisions within global society. but also reflecting deep currents within American Jewish life. These events brought to the forefront the complex interplay of geopolitics and history, shaping narratives about Israel, Judaism, and antisemitism in a manner deeply personal to Jewish Americans.
These local responses in the US are not just reflections of global dynamics; they are indicative of the evolving identity and politics of American Jews. Daniel Sokatch, a significant voice in this narrative, has been at the forefront of navigating and interpreting these changes.
He has been the CEO of the New Israel Fund since 2009, an organization dedicated to fostering an equitable, inclusive, and just Israeli society, one that embraces diversity; promotes civil, human, and minority rights; and places a strong emphasis on democratic expression and societal peace. He is also founder of what is now Bend the Arc, a movement uniting progressive Jews across America.
Daniel Sokatch has been a pivotal influencer and thought leader for American Jewish communities, and his book — Can We Talk About Israel: A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted (2021) — further positions him as a key commentator on these issues. We welcome Sokatch to this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast to delve into these critical discussions.
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(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: In the early hours of October 7th, a series of events unfolded in Israel that would ripple across the world, touching lives beyond its borders. For the people of Israel, the impact was deeply personal and immediate, reverberating through neighborhoods and communities. Friends and families felt the horror in the most intimate of ways, marking the day undeniably local in its immediacy. Yet as if by a chain reaction, the influence of that day’s events began to stretch outwards, reaching distant shores and global power centers.
From the shipping lanes of the Red Sea to the hushed corridors of power in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing, the repercussions were felt, altering the course of international politics and discourse. Back in the United States, the echoes of that distant October day were no less significant. In cities and campuses in Los Angeles and San Francisco, streets have come alive with protesters reflecting the deep polarization and a diverse spectrum of opinions and emotions. These gatherings were not just about a distant land; they were also a mirror reflecting our own societal divides and concerns. The unfolding of these events offered not just a lesson in contemporary geopolitics but also a rich tapestry of historical significance.
It’s often said that history is written by the victors, and in this case, the interpretation of this history could very well shape the future narrative, not just for Israel, but for Judaism and the discourse around anti-Semitism. The global narrative found a resident echo here in California. Here, local politics and issues seemed to reflect in microcosm the larger global dynamics at play. The events of October 7th in Israel, while rooted in a specific locale, became a lens through which we could view the interconnectedness of our own world. A single day’s events thousands of miles away can influence thoughts, policies, and actions right here at home.
We’re going to talk about all this today with my guest, Daniel Sokach. Daniel has been the CEO of New Israel Fund since 2009, advocating for justice, democracy, and equality in Israel. His prior roles included being the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco and the founding executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He has been recognized for his influence and has been featured multiple times as a key Jewish decision-maker and opinion shaper. He is also a respected author and commentator and a contributor to major publications, as well as his book, Can We Talk About Israel? It is my pleasure to welcome Daniel Sokach. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us.
Daniel Sokach: Thanks so much for having me, Jeff. I’m happy to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it is a delight to have you here. Thank you so much for your time. You were in Israel, recently. Talk a little bit first about how much concern there is in Israel about how it’s being seen by the rest of the world and in the US, and how that’s reshaping opinion about Israel.
Daniel Sokach: Well, first of all, being in Israel last week was, in many ways, like being in a house of mourning. And in all my years of working on these issues, I’ve never experienced Israel in quite the mood of… I would say the combination of darkness, despair, conviction, and uncertainty was striking and unsettling. One of the topics that people were concerned with… Well, let me take a step back. The overwhelming concern of most of the Israelis one encounters right now is the fate of the hostages who are still held in Gaza. Then there is anguish over the military losses of Israeli soldiers in the fight with Hamas. There is disgust with the Israeli government.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ultra-right-wing government are blamed by an overwhelming majority of Israelis for the condition in which the country found itself, the state of total unpreparedness that it found itself on October 7th as well as the lack of effective and powerful response in the immediate days after those attacks. So Israelis feel frightened at the future. They are terribly worried and in anguish about the hostages. They’re in mourning for those who have died. They’re in anguish and mourning for the soldiers who are fighting and the ones who fall in Gaza.
And they feel leaderless in many cases, an exception being Joe Biden, to whom almost everyone that you meet gives all kinds of respect and credit, often saying, “The only leader we have is Joe Biden.” And as you suggested in your question, they’re deeply concerned with the way Israel is being perceived in the world around them. I’m going to add something that you didn’t ask, and we can go back if you want. One thing that is not particularly prominent on the Israeli radar screen is what’s happening just in many cases a few kilometers or scores of kilometers away in Gaza.
And so, as I sometimes think of it, for Israelis, it is still October 7th. That is to say, every day, every unfolding horror, every news of someone who was thought to be captured who was found to have been murdered on the 7th, the news of the death of hostages, especially the horrific death of hostages at the hands of the IDF the other day, the constant worry about soldiers in Gaza and the fallen; every day is still October 7th for Israelis. But Israeli media, for the most part, and certainly the official government pronouncements in Israel, don’t spend very much time, if any time at all, in detailing and chronicling what’s happening in Gaza.
And so you have an outside world that now, almost, well, 10 weeks on, as the world often does, focuses on what’s right in front of it. And what’s right in front of it is the misery and horror of human suffering in Gaza as a result of the war. And already, the horrors of October 7th, which remain foremost in the minds of Israelis, have sort of taken a back seat in the international… And here, I’m not talking about people who don’t like Israel or anti-Semites, just the normal business of the international community; time moves on and so does attention. And so that disconnect, that is something that’s very, very striking.
You’ll talk to Israelis who can talk to you in detail about the testimony of the three university presidents a few weeks ago in Washington but who couldn’t tell you very much about Palestinian suffering in Gaza, just as there are many people in the Arab world who are getting their news from sources that deny the events of October 7th and say that those atrocities were all Israeli propaganda. So this era of misinformation, disinformation, and selective information, which we were all plunged into sometime around 2016, we all realized it very much characterizes the discourse and the awareness of events in Israel today.
Jeff Schechtman: Does that disconnect lead to potentially pretty serious outcomes that the whole world is looking at what’s taking place in Gaza, the whole world is protesting and looking at Israel in terms of what’s happening with Gaza, and the Israelis themselves are focused on, as you say, the events of October 7th: something disconnected from that? It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem that will lead to a good outcome.
Daniel Sokach: Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, Jeff. And what’s striking is that, of course, Israelis are foremost concerned with the horrific suffering and the ongoing suffering that their fellow countrypeople have undergone, that they have undergone these last 10 weeks. And of course, at the bottom line, Israelis are now asking themselves: “How can we continue to live with an implacable enemy that has stated, even during the last two months, that given the opportunity, they will do an October 7th again and again and again?”
How can they continue to live like that? There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been displaced from their homes near Gaza but also in the north, near the border with Lebanon. There are over 300,000 reservists called up. How long can the Israeli economy go on with this state that Israel is in right now? And of course, outside of Israel as we both pointed out, people are not focusing on those things. They’re focusing on the misery and suffering of Gaza, and that’s also understandable.
I think the people trying to bridge that difference right now have a huge task cut out for them. And I guess I should say, “us” because I think that the NIF family of organizations is trying to say that awareness of and response to Israeli suffering must not obviate awareness of and response to Palestinian suffering. And the only way out of the morass in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves, to our mind, is some kind of return to a diplomatic, political solution to this conflict. More violence is simply not the answer.
I do think that the Biden administration is trying in many ways to bridge that divide as well. Their message to the Israelis has moved from one of total support to one of support but also increasing insistence that Israel change its approach to the war and ultimately understand that what happens after the war in Gaza cannot be a return to the status quo. This is a herculean task for everyone involved.
Jeff Schechtman: When we see the protests that are taking place in the US, to what extent is that seen by the Israelis, and do they understand what’s behind that in terms of the horror that’s taking place in Gaza?
Daniel Sokach: Look, Israelis are often, just to generalize for a moment, can be very sensitive to how they are perceived outside of Israel. I’m not always certain that many Israelis are all that curious as to why that is. Often, the answer that they’ll give is: well, it’s anti-Semitism. And what we’ve seen over the last two months is that there is something to that allegation.
And many of us have been shocked at the way in which American Jews and, frankly, Jews around the world are being blamed for what the government of Israel does in a way that it’s almost unthinkable that would happen to any other people given the actions of another country that perhaps they came from or with which they shared an ethnic or religious background. So there is something to that, and sometimes, that’s done, I think, out of ignorance, and sometimes, it’s done deliberately, this conflation of Jews in Israel. I have kids on a college campus, and they told me that during the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah this year, an outdoor lighting, people screamed at them: “Free Palestine.”
Now, I personally think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone saying, “Free Palestine.” It’s reasonable to say to that person: “What exactly do you mean for me, Daniel, for New Israel Fund as proponents of a two-state solution and a shared future?” I’m curious what they mean by that, but it’s not in and of itself something that is necessarily anti-Semitic to say. But to say it to kids on a college campus in California lighting a menorah is an act of anti-Semitism, even if the person or people who are shouting that don’t understand what it is that they’re doing.Blaming California college students for the actions or alleged actions of a country thousands of miles away, if just because those kids are Jewish, is anti-Semitic. And so the Israelis see that aspect of it, and they’re not wrong. Where I think they are not always as aware, and part of our job, I think, as a New Israel Fund is to be that bridge between the communities, is that for many, many decades, the only narrative that was really heard out there in any serious way was essentially the Israeli narrative about this conflict. And now that has changed, and I don’t mean the events of October 7th and the events after them.
I mean long before that, things were shifting, and so that a lot of Americans, including American Jews, were beginning to wake up to the fact that Israel has been engaged for a lot of complex reasons but nonetheless been engaged in a 56-year settlement enterprise in the West Bank, where it’s now moved about 700,000 Israeli-Jewish civilians into territory it conquered after 1967. And that is by the read of almost everyone in the world, except for Israel and some of its defenders, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions: prohibition on moving your civilian population into territory that you have conquered and are occupying after a war.And interestingly, the legal adviser of the Knesset in 1967, right after the war in which Israel conquered that territory, the Six-Day War, said to the parliament and to the government: “We cannot build civilian settlements in this territory.” So, it’s only recently that this has begun to break through in mainstream American discourse. This question of what Israel’s policy there has been over the last 56 years and, in particular, over the last 15 years or so of the ultra-right-wing Netanyahu governments. So you have a complicated situation. You have people who are protesting Israel and chanting anti-Israel slogans that they don’t understand necessarily the meaning of because it’s on vogue in college campuses.
You have people who are genuinely protesting years of Israeli policy, and that is violative of American policy and many of us, including myself, believe violative of Israel’s best interests. That’s a very legitimate and reasonable critique and one that I think it’s important that is heard. Many Israeli Jews feel that way about the settlements. But then you have people who are, in this moment, crossing that line between reasonable and legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
And it’s difficult to be able to discern that line for a lot of people. And frankly, there are folks on both sides of the line who do everything they can to obscure that distinction, claiming that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, on the one hand — we get that from some of the right-wing in the Jewish community — and on the other hand, saying any criticism of Jews is legitimate because many Jews support Israel, which we see on the other side of the aisle, which is equally an equally ridiculous assertion.
Jeff Schechtman: And this is where there’s this sense of everybody talking past each other. We talked a little while ago about the disconnect between the way the world is looking at this and the way Israelis are looking at it. But as you just outlined, we also have situations where Jews are being conflated with Israel essentially, automatically, and anti-Israeli government attitudes are being conflated with anti-Semitism. And nobody seems to be looking at the picture the same way.
Daniel Sokach: Yes, and I suppose that’s not unique to this conflict. There are lots of places where we no longer have any common ground to essentially ground the discourse about an issue, however controversial it is. We accept our own realities. We get our news from reinforcing news sites and sources. And so we’re living in different realities, or how did that Trump administration person put it? We are living in a post fact or alternative facts. To paraphrase your comment from earlier, Jeff, that is not good for the future of this conflict or really the resolution of any of the issues that we face right now that we can’t even agree on what the actual facts and the actual history of the situation is.
This is precisely why I wrote the book that I wrote a couple of years ago. It was to try to establish some shared understandings of what happened and how we got here so that then people can make informed decisions about how they feel about these issues today. And when new issues arise, how they can understand them and contextualize them in what is essentially a very, very long story, not a story that began on October 7th, 2023, or in June 1967 or even in May of 1948, when Israel was established.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the history because there has rarely been a time when more people are aware of Israeli history, and yet so many get it wrong.
Daniel Sokach: Yes. I often think to myself: “Can we think of other subjects on which people feel so strongly and have such a deeply emotionally charged set of sensibilities and beliefs but about which they actually have a relatively limited amount of knowledge?” And I’m put in mind of the fable of the blind men and the elephant, which, if you remember right, that a group of blind men are wandering through a jungle, and they come across an elephant. And each one puts his hands on a different part of the elephant, and they think that they then understand what an elephant is.
So the first one says, “Well, an elephant is a tree trunk-like leg with toenails.”
And the second one says, “No, no, an elephant is a big floppy ear.” And the third one says, “No, it’s a long sinuous, trunk-like appendage.” And, of course, what we can see, and they literally can’t see, is that the elephant is the sum of a bunch of different parts. What’s poignant about the fable to me is that it’s not that what the blind men are experiencing is wrong; it’s just that it’s incomplete. In Israel, the question and the story of Israel and Israel-Palestine often reminds me of this story.
People inherit their views about Israel from their parents, their teachers, their clergy, or they learn it in the news sources or the novels that they’ve read when they were kids or the movies that they’ve seen or what their peers think. They often do have a leg or an ear or a trunk of the elephant. But what they don’t have is the ability to see the whole element, the ability to see as the Israeli historian Benny Morris put it in the title to one of his books that both Palestinians and Israelis are righteous victims, that both of them are righteous in that they have been victimized by the world, by each other, by themselves, and they are also self-righteous in their understanding of their victimization.
That’s something that is missing from the discourse: the understanding and, of course, ultimately compassion and empathy for both sides, or I should say all sides, to the story. When we divide tribally, and in the aftermath of October 7th, it’s natural and not surprising that we are dividing tribally, but we end up obscuring for ourselves the other part of the story: the other part of the elephant. If we can’t see it, we’re never really going to understand the entire story.
Jeff Schechtman: The other frame for this is the timing of it all and the sense of global intersectionality that exists out there and more and more people seeing the world because of internal politics initially, and it’s spilling over into this conflict between the oppressed and/or the oppressor.
Daniel Sokach: Yes. I think that’s right. I think there are a couple of things that are going on that color the way these events are unfolding and being understood. And one of them is what you said, which is that, right, so on this side of the ocean, a lot of people who are in the let’s call it the anti-Israel or the pro-Palestine camp or the people who are criticizing Israel in the current moment understand the situation to be one… Their situation is informed by, as you say, this idea of intersectionality, so that if black lives matter in the United States, how too, can people of color — Palestinians — how can their lives not matter in Israel?
And if the system and the police are complacent in the challenges and the oppression of people here, mustn’t the same be true there? And, of course, there is something to that. But as one of my former board members once said, “Imperfect historical analogies are problematic. And it’s usually better just to look at the things as they are, no matter how bad they are.” So I understand that instinct, and I understand the desire for solidarity, but it’s an imperfect analog.
It’s a frame that you’re going to have to force events and history into in a way that doesn’t reflect the reality of those events or that history. In my opinion, better to try to look at this issue for what it is. The other issue that’s out there that is beyond the Israelis and the Palestinians is what I would call this rising tide, or maybe it’s already risen: this pushback against liberal democracy out there. And the reason I think that’s important is because Israel was in the state of unpreparedness that it found itself in in October 7th for a number of reasons.
But in my opinion, a leading reason was the divisive nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ultra-right-wing extremist government in the months leading up to October 7th, where from the beginning of this year, they have undertaken what the Israeli press has described as a judicial coup: an attempt to really eviscerate some of the last remaining guard posts of liberal democracy in Israel, namely the independence of the judiciary and the power of the Supreme Court.
And that attack divided Israelis. It divided the Israeli army. It shook confidence of regular Israelis in their government. It turned them against their government. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis had been marching against their government in the streets up to October 6th. But it shook the confidence of the global economic markets in Israel. Israel’s credit ratings were downgraded. It shook the confidence of Israel’s liberal, democratic allies.
So the more that Netanyahu sounded like Putin and Orbán and Erdogan of Russia, Hungary, and Turkey and less and less like Western democratic leaders, or I should just say the leaders of liberal democracy, the more Israel as a society was divided. And so when October 7th happened, that was the state of affairs in Israel. Now, the country came together very quickly, and many of the protesters immediately joined the effort to provide relief to people in the south of the country who were under attack from Hamas. But a lot of damage to the democratic fiber of Israel and the idea of Israel and the idea of Israel in the minds of millions of Israelis has been done.
And so you’ve got, on the one hand, the intersectional moment where protesters are pushing the square peg of Israel-Palestine into the round hole of what our situation is here. And you’ve got this other vector that is fueling the challenge here, which is the way Israel has been divided by this global ideological battle between liberal democracy and illiberalism and neoauthoritarianism. And all of this contributed to the state of the discourse around Israel and this conflict now.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the role of — if there’s a role for Jewish organizations here in the US, organizations like NIF, like Federation that you used to run, and synagogues around the country or in major cities where there’s influence. What is the role, if any, for these organizations?
Daniel Sokach: Well, I don’t think there’s anything; there’s no such thing as a monolithic Jewish communal position on anything. You know the joke: “Two Jews, three opinions.”
Jeff Schechtman: Right [chuckles].
Daniel Sokach: And that’s true of Israel. And it’s been true for many, many, many years. If you look at the polls done about American Jewish opinion and American Jewish connections to Israel, we see a lot of things. We see a long — over the course of the last couple of decades — a sense of drift and disaffiliation that characterizes, especially younger American Jews, when it comes to Israel. An Israel that seems more right-wing politically is alienating to a very, very liberal American Jewish community.
And we see some of the institutions that you named a moment ago doing everything they can to try to, in my opinion, pretend that that dynamic is not happening — that drift and disaffiliation — and pretend that everything’s okay. But more and more, there are American Jews who say, “I love and believe in and support the idea of an Israel that is in accordance with its own founding Declaration of Independence: a homeland for the beleaguered Jewish people who as recently as living memory faced genocide and total annihilation but which is also an open, equal country for all of its residents, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or it does, in fact, say gender in the 1948 Declaration of Independence or national origin.
And that is a very compelling vision for many liberal American Jews. But over the last 56 years of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and increasing settlement enterprise there, many feel that Israel has drifted further and further away from those liberal and democratic moorings. So you had, as of October 6th, a divided American Jewish community when it came to Israel, where most American Jews acknowledge a sense of connection and affection towards Israel, but increasingly, they felt politically alienated from the direction Israel was moving. Now, what the change is after October 7th? It’s really too soon to say.
Many organizations have come together in defense of Israel and against rising tides of anti-Semitism, and I think that’s understandable. Other organizations have come out and said, “No, we are disassociating ourselves with Israel, and we’re going to champion the rights of the Palestinians” — the people who, in their perception, Israel has been oppressing for decades and decades. So I think that what October 7th did in many ways was it revealed splits that were already occurring. Now, there, of course, is a third way, and that is the way of the New Israel Fund and other organizations. And that is to say, “We want to support those Israelis who are working to realize that beautiful founding vision.”
And that means being critical of Israel when we think Israel is acting in a way that is moving it further and further away from those founding ideals. And we’re going to support those Israelis who are standing up and pushing back against that. And so New Israel Fund took a leading role in supporting those Israelis who were pushing back against the government’s attempt to eviscerate democracy in Israel over the last several years, and especially over the last year up until October 6th. Now, [chuckles] since October 7th, I think, I can only speak for New Israel Fund, but we see our role as essentially severalfold right now. First, we felt it was critically important for NIF’s portion of civil society in Israel.
And look, New Israel Fund is the largest supporter of progressive civil society organizations in Israel. So human rights and civil rights groups, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights groups, groups that are working to empower Bedouin and Arab citizens of Israel, groups that are working with folks who are on the margins of Israeli society or minorities in Israeli society, that’s what we do. That’s who we are.
And we felt that in response to October 7th, one of the things we needed to do was to provide humanitarian relief to some of the folks who were most impacted by the horror of that day, including residents who lived on the Kibbutzim, the collective farms near the Gaza border, people who tend to be very, very liberal and on the political left and proponents of peace with the Palestinians in one of the horrific ironies of that day. Those were some of the people who were impacted the worst as were many Bedouin citizens of Israel, Arab citizens of Israel who live in unrecognized by the Israeli government villages and communities close on the Gaza border.
So those communities were hit very hard, and we responded by providing humanitarian relief for them, helping them when they were evacuated to other communities in Israel. Sometimes, they would get to a place, and there wasn’t food or shelter or medical care available, and New Israel Fund provided that. We have given a lot of support to the families of the hostages to advocate on behalf of their return and to raise that cause internationally.
But the other parts of our response were, I suppose, more typical to the traditional NIF work, which was to ensure through our investments in civil society organizations that relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel were not destroyed by the horror of what’s happening right now in Israel and in Gaza and that despite the stress and the strains on those relationships that there isn’t a repeat of the intercommunal violence that we saw back in May of 2021, the last time Hamas and the IDF fought with each other. And so far, thank goodness, those efforts have been successful and there has not been that repeat of intercommunal violence — Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs attacking each other.
We’ve also worked to make sure that human and civil rights organizations who do a very unpopular task in Israel right now in a community, in a country, a society that is very much in the grip of a war fever that is very much traumatized by the events of the 7th of October — those organizations are challenging people who are fired from their jobs or kicked out of their schools because of things that they posted on social media that have been sympathy or empathy for people in Gaza or that protest or question Israel’s military campaign.
And in the West Bank, under the fog of war, Israeli settlers, sometimes aided and abetted by the army, have been harassing and even forcing Palestinian villagers out of their communities and out of their homes. There’s been a spike in settler violence over the last 10 weeks. And we support the Israeli human rights organizations who are trying at a very difficult and unpopular time to shine a light on what’s happening in the West Bank. And then finally, we’re supporting those brilliant, amazing Israelis and Palestinians who are even now trying to think their way to a new horizon for the day after.
People who understand these are policymakers and people who are working on political ideas and on ways to message these ideas in an attempt to create a horizon of hope for people that ultimately urges both sides to recognize that neither side will have a military victory over the other that will end this conflict so that there has to be a return to a genuine search for some kind of political, diplomatic solution. And again, some of your listeners may not like to hear me say this, that has been something that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his successive governments have made very clear that they are not interested in.
As Netanyahu has said many times: “No two-state solution on my watch.” Now, this may seem far-fetched: the idea of a two-state solution. When you look at a Hamas, that is an avowed, genocidal organization that would like to eradicate Israel and kill as many Jews and Israelis as they can in the process of doing so and an Israeli government that has stated that it is not interested in the two-state solution, that it will not allow on its watch the emergence of a Palestinian state and that it is devoted ultimately to settling and annexing the West Bank.
And if you don’t believe me, check the coalition agreement of the current ruling coalition. Nonetheless, these Israeli thinkers — Palestinian, Jewish, Israeli, Arab thinkers — understand that that is a dead end that will lead only to more horror and bloodshed and violence. So we are supporting their efforts to try to build a new horizon of hope for the region.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that seems to get left out of the conversation is the economic underpinnings of all of this: Israel is a country with a thriving economy. There’s tremendous technological development, links to so many people and companies that we know in Silicon Valley. To what extent has the business community and the economic community been concerned about this and taken a whip hand in trying to deal with this?
Daniel Sokach: Well, right now, the economy in Israel is a big question mark. As I noted earlier, there are hundreds of thousands of reservists who tend to be Israelis in the prime of their life, in the middle of their careers, who have been called up, some of them for over 70 days now. They’ve been away from their jobs and their families. And that does not seem like a sustainable situation to many Israelis and many observers. But again, I’m going to draw our attention back to the days before the 7th of October, when the anti-democratic agenda of the Netanyahu extremist government had already one of the main engines of the protest movement — there were several. One were, in fact, army reservists who said, “We are not going to take orders from an authoritarian government. We do what we do as people who serve in the army up to our 50s because we believe in the democratically elected government of Israel. If this country ceases to be a democracy, then we don’t know if we can continue to serve.” Now, again, all these people immediately went back to their army units or went to help in the south after the attack by Hamas on the 7th.
But before that, they were giving clear warning to the government that they were not willing to obey the orders of an ultra-right-wing authoritarian government if it eradicated the independence of Israel’s judiciary, thus ending the period of I will call it struggling democracy in Israel. Israel, like America, is often thought of as a partial democracy. And we can go into that in another conversation, but certainly, there were many Israelis who were going to protest the further erosion of their democratic institutions.
But in addition to those reservists, there were also people in Israel’s vaunted tech industry, and many of them indicated that if things continued, they would relocate: many of them right here to the Silicon Valley and elsewhere. They said things like: “Look, we don’t need to be in Israel if Israel ceases to be a democracy.” And of course, international credit agencies and economic forecasters began to downgrade Israel’s economic status.
Thus, in another one of the many ironies in the story of this last year, one of Netanyahu’s claims to fame, he would always say, is that he was the one who brought about Israel’s economic miracle. Now, right or wrong, he was now seen as the person who was presiding over its potential end because of his policies. Similarly, he was Mr. Security — the guy who said, “Only I can keep you safe.” And he ended up presiding over the worst day in the history of the state of Israel and the worst day in the history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
So Israel’s economic miracle of the last few decades is something that is very much in question, I think, not only because of the events of the last couple of months, but because of, perhaps even more to the point, the events of the previous year, where lots of economic indicators out there were suggesting to Israel that if you are going to trade in your identity as a democratic country or a country that strives to be ever more democratic to become something more like Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, then the world economy will follow suit, and there will be other places for us to invest and other places for Israeli entrepreneurs to go make their fortunes, and do their work.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, Daniel: best case, worst case. What’s the best that can come of this, and what is the worst, as you see it?
Daniel Sokach: I’ll start with the worst case, if that’s okay, so I can leave us on hopefully a somewhat more optimistic note. To my mind, the worst-case scenario is as follows. If the events of October 7th finally revealed the concept that Benjamin Netanyahu has promoted for the decade and a half of his premiership that you can manage the conflict with the Palestinians by allowing Hamas to remain in control of Gaza based on the faulty assumption, as it turns out. But that’s really what they want. They want to control Gaza.
By allowing support to go to Hamas from Qatar and other countries, you can actually serve as a counterbalance to the more moderate, albeit old and corrupt and creaky, Palestinian authority in the West Bank, which Netanyahu and his government really saw as the big threat because they were, at least in theory, in favor of a two-state solution, which is not what the government wanted. And that you could do this while increasing settlements in the West Bank and continuing to integrate into the region. Well, the events of the last two months have convinced a lot of Israelis that that was a fantasy, and that was a strategic, if not moral, dead end for Israel to go down.
So if that’s no longer the case, and if the utopian fantasy that some of my friends in America believe in, which is lovely but not realistic, that somehow Palestinians and Jews despite the last 120 years are going to throw down their weapons in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza and decide to live side by side in one democratic country, which again, sounds very nice to a lot of us, but is not realistic. It’s not what the majority or even close to a majority of Palestinians or Israelis say they want. If that’s not realistic, then it seems to me you have only two ways forward. And one of them is your worst-case scenario, Jeff, and one of them is the best.
And the worst is the continued descent into the nightmare that we’ve seen over the last 10 weeks, coupled with what we fear and what we saw a couple of years ago, when Israelis, Jewish and Arab, were at each other’s throats and different kinds of Israeli Jews were at each other’s throats. A scenario in which Israel descends into something that looks more like Beirut or Bosnia than it does the Israel that we know today.
And so endless war and a spiral downward into an endless conflict that reeks misery for decades on the lives of everyone in the region is the worst-case scenario, in my opinion. And the best-case scenario is what I detailed before, so I won’t go into any length in describing it since I know we’re short on time. And that is that Israelis and Palestinians recognize that the way their leaders have led, that the place where they have ended up is a dead end and intolerable. And that there is only one future for everyone in the region, and that is some kind of shared future.
And that right now, some kind of partition, whether that is a literal physical separation or more creative ideas that people are thinking about now — models of federation and confederation or an updated version of the old two-state solution. That these are the only ways forward. And that Israelis and Palestinians must have leaders who understand that and who will lead bravely toward that end.
And that this will not happen without the support of the international community, in particular, the United States, and that that is the only hope for the way forward. And my hope is that the disaster of the last few months will ultimately result in people recognizing that there has to be another way out and that the only way out is a resumed serious search for a diplomatic political solution. The main obstacle to which, by the way, in all these years, people talk about the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords.
Well, the Oslo Peace Accords were murdered when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist, and Hamas terrorists blew up pizza parlors and buses in the streets of Israeli cities. And subsequent Israeli governments doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on building settlements in the West Bank. These things brought us further and further and further away from the promised land of some kind of resolution. But the big obstacle is not a lack of political imagination; it’s a lack of political will, and we need to find the will.
Jeff Schechtman: Daniel Sokatch, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Daniel Sokach: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me on, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you and thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.