Israel at War – There is No Justification. But…?

Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi discuss the nuances of context and justification, morality and war, and how language can engage or isolate allies.

Machloket L'shem Shemayim - the power of constructive conflict

Machloket L'shem Shemayim - the power of constructive conflict

Shalom Hartman institute

The Shalom Hartman Institute is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and North America. Our mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.

October 26, 2023

Yossi Klein Halevi - Człowiek Pojednania 2019

Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi discuss

On October 24th, United Nations Secretary-General Guterres delivered remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas. While he condemned the terror attacks, demanded immediate release of all hostages, and called for a ceasefire, he also contextualized the war within the broader history of the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This prompted Israel’s ambassador to call on Guterres to resign and signaled to many the all-too-familiar waning embrace of global support for Israel. Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi discuss the nuances of context and justification, morality and war, and how language can engage or isolate allies.


Thoughtful debate elevates us all. Donniel Hartman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Elana Stein Hain revive the Jewish art of constructive discussion on topics related to political and social trends in Israel, Israel-Diaspora relations, and the collective consciousness of being Jewish.

The podcast draws its name from the concept ofmachloket l’shem shemayim, “disagreeing for the sake of heaven” and is part of the Institute’s iEngage Project.

Major funding for For Heaven’s Sake is provided by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation of Los Angeles.

What is Machloket l’Shem Shamayim?

The text in this lesson is the source of the term “Machloket l’Shem Shamayim” which can be loosely translated as “conflict for the sake of Heaven”.
Source: Pardes

L’Shem Shamayim

When you act l’shem shamayim, you have no ulterior motive, no ego involved.
Source: Jewish Chronicle

L’shem shamayim literally means “in the name of heaven”. When you act l’shem shamayim, you have no ulterior motive, no ego involved. The sages praise debates that are l’shem shamayim and say that they are destined to endure, which they see as a good thing. The most famous exemplars of machloket (argument) l’shem shamayim are Hillel and Shammai. Indeed, records of their disagreements are vibrant sources for study until this day.

Rabbi Yossi gives us three pieces of advice (Ethics 2:17): that our friend’s money should be as dear to us as our own; we should prepare ourselves for Torah study, as it is not an automatic inheritance; and that all of our deeds should be l’shem shamayim.

Another phrase, which we have discussed here before, yirat shamayim, fear of heaven, also uses shamayim as a metonymic reference to God. The sky or heavens are omnipresent. Just as you cannot hide from the sky, so too God knows your motives and thoughts, no matter how well you try to conceal them. The vast distance between us and the shamayim symbolises the difficulty of knowing for certain that we have acted l’shem shamayim.

Machloket l'Shem Shamayim

Source: Sefaria

Eruvin 13b:11
וְכִי מֵאַחַר שֶׁאֵלּוּ וָאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים, מִפְּנֵי מָה זָכוּ בֵּית הִלֵּל לִקְבּוֹעַ הֲלָכָה כְּמוֹתָן? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁנּוֹחִין וַעֲלוּבִין הָיוּ, וְשׁוֹנִין דִּבְרֵיהֶן וְדִבְרֵי בֵּית שַׁמַּאי, וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁמַּקְדִּימִין דִּבְרֵי בֵּית שַׁמַּאי לְדִבְרֵיהֶן.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements…

Pirkei Avot 5:17
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Israel at War – There is No Justification. But…?

The Shalom Hartman Institute, October 26, 2023

The Shalom Hartman Institute
The Shalom Hartman Institute is a leading center of Jewish thought and education, serving Israel and North America. Our mission is to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; to enhance the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and to ensure that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.

Our work focuses on:

  • Judaism and Modernity: Developing compelling Jewish ideas capable of competing in the modern marketplace of identities and thought
  • Jewish and Democratic Israel: Ensuring Israel’s foundations as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, committed to equal rights and religious freedom for all
  • Jewish Peoplehood: Forming a strong mutual commitment between world Jewry and Israelis as equal partners in the future of Jewish life
  • Jewish Ethics and the Public Sphere: Engaging with national civic life by bringing Jewish ethical teachings to bear on contemporary social challenges

The Institute comprises five independent but interrelated centers:

  • The Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought, our think tank, generates ideas and research on contemporary issues of central importance to Jewish life in Israel and around the world.
  • The David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence cultivates the next generation of thought leaders for the Jewish community.
  • The Center for Israeli and Jewish Identity, houses an array of programs that bring about a transformation in the secular and religious Israeli educational system.
  • The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America guides, oversees, and implements Hartman research, educational programming, and curricula to the North American Jewish community.
  • Two Hartman Institute model high schools in Jerusalem, the Midrashiya High School for Girls and the Charles E. Smith High School for Boys

Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi discuss

The following is a transcript of Episode 88 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi, this is Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi from Jerusalem here at the Hartman Institute. And this is the Institute’s podcast, For Heaven’s Sake, the special edition, Israel at War. And today is day 19. Before we get into our topic for today, how are you, Yoss? How are you feeling?

Yossi: Well, when I, I have tools to rely on, you know, meditation, breathing, exercise, an occasional sleeping pill. And okay, okay, how about yourself?

Donniel: I just came to this podcast from the Institute’s sports field. Today, we’re hosting 200 children from a kibbutz in near Aza and 70 mothers. All the fathers are either in the army or are protecting the kibbutz. And they’ve been in a hotel for two weeks. And, you know, you think about it, oh, you’re in a hotel, you know, and therefore, you know what a hotel is? It’s like they have no place to go.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

And one of the principals of our school, vice principal of our school, knew somebody from this kibbutz and invited them. And Yossi, I’m walking around, people are thanking me and I’m crying. They’re saying, our children haven’t had a chance to run. And we put on, I don’t know what they call it, when you blow up machines where they jump and there was this nail painting thing and chocolate and soccer. And then there was this animal person and there was coffee and for three hours, they felt normal.

Yossi: Wow, wow, it’s beautiful, you know.

Donniel: And so like, I’m coming to this, I told people like every day now, I said, Hartman Institute, we have space, every single day, I want people to be here, and I, you know, you feel you’re, you know, I’m a teacher, we’re all, I’m seeing Yisrael Chai here, you know, and there’s no left wing and right wing, and it was really, you know we had to put on, it was a very right-wing, quasi ultra-Orthodox Zionist group, so we had to put on music of the types of music that they’re comfortable with.

It was just, you know, Am Yisrael’s here and we’re taking care of each other. And it’s what should be and it’s our power. So it’s like I had, I’m coming with all of these experiences, you know. Last night we let somebody, who’s supposed to get married next week. He’s a senior officer in the army. Next week he’s supposed to get married and they’re going to be in Aza. So his wife came to us and says, could I use the campus? Could I have a wedding here? Last night, they gave him four hours off to get married.

So it’s like, you know, you see these things and so it’s a really hard time, Yossi. But at the same time there’s a humanity that is very powerful and to participate in that humanity in the midst of all the horror balances it. There’s still humanity here.

Yossi: Well, I’m glad you asked me how I am because you had a much better answer.

Donniel: I’m feeling, you know, listen, it’s a tough time, but it’s also a very meaningful, profound time. And Am Yisrael Chai has a lot of meanings at different times. Part of that, at this time, this is one of those meanings. And I was privileged.

Yossi: You know, it’s so interesting, Donniel, in ordinary times, we would never go around speaking about Am Yisrael Chai. It’s a cliché, it’s kitsch, but in times of emergency, it’s all there for the taking and for fortifying us. And it’s amazing to see Israeli kids invoking these clichés.

And you see it on the front, we have these, these resources that in ordinary times we, we kind of roll our eyes about, but, but they’re, they’re very powerful.

Donniel: Yeah, I never use that term. You’re right. It’s not, but it’s just, that’s just what I’m feeling. You know, we talk on this podcast and it’s what I’m feeling. So today on day 19, both of us identified a core issue that’s permeating and engulfing Israeli society, and maybe it’s part of the fact that we’re in this waiting period between amassing the troops and moving in. And day 19, we’re still there. I don’t know what will be on day 20. But today’s podcast is entitled, there’s no absolutely no justification, period, but, question mark.

Immediately after the massacre on October 7th, Israelis felt embraced by a world in an unprecedented manner. There were a couple of demonstrations of people who celebrated and felt, I just read of this professor who uses the words, he felt invigorated by the Hamas massacre. You know, there were those people. I don’t want to talk about them. They were there.

But the vast majority of the world embraced us. And Israelis don’t usually feel embraced. Where, you know, to quote the prophet, Bil’am, in the Bible, hen am levadad yishkon, you know, we are a people that dwells apart. Loneliness is a big part of the Israeli experience. Loneliness in the neighborhood, loneliness in the world of feeling that you don’t really understand this.

But at this moment of supreme victimhood, we felt seen and understood. And it was very powerful and meaningful. But as the time, the days are passing, the cycles or the circles of those who we feel don’t understand us are growing. Growing beyond radical Islam and anti-Semitic and extreme, extreme left, who from the beginning blamed us. There are more and more questions. People are talking about Gaza, about civilians in Gaza, about other casualties, about who Israel’s conducting the war, about what the consequences might be of a ground campaign.

You hear the conversation and part of what’s happening in Israel is you feel this simmering anger. It’s like simmering. What? There’s another side? What’s going on here? I don’t want to hear. All I want to hear is that you sympathize with my pain. Period. That’s it. And now there’s more conversation. And Israelis are creating loyalty tests, loyalty tests in Israel. What you’re allowed to say, what you’re not allowed to say.

And in many ways, Guterres’, the Secretary General of the United Nations’ statement yesterday, which we’ll get into, was almost like the paradigm of, or the epitome of the breaking of the love and the camaraderie and the sympathy that we feel we need. And there’s no justification for what Hamas did. But the minute the word but comes in, something flips for Israelis. How do you understand it?

Yossi: So I think that my role in this conversation, Donniel, is going to be to uphold the Israeli every person, the Israeli person on the street, because I feel that same rage. And first of all, I don’t think, at least my perception was that even in those first days, we were not engulfed by an overwhelming embrace. We were certainly understood in a way that we haven’t been for years by large parts of the world.

And I think that from the beginning, there were significant parts of even the mainstream left that said, well, you know, it’s the occupation, it’s apartheid, it’s the whole litany. And that was there from day one. And now those voices have become more emboldened and more mainstream. And in the early days of, the days immediately after the massacre, I appreciated the outpouring of sympathy, but I was also very wary of it because I knew that this was going to flip in a moment. And as soon as the terrible scenes started accumulating from Gaza, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, I think that there’s something very deep here, Donniel, that comes out of our experience with antisemitism for thousands of years. And I think that Israelis, whether consciously or not, are reacting to the but. And that is, that whatever happened to us, whatever was done to us, was somehow our fault. We provoked the attacks against us. We deserved it. That’s built into the history of antisemitism. And so when we hear now, after the worst massacre in Israel’s history, that well, yes, but look what you’ve done. And that brings us right back to a very old pattern.

So, and I know that it touched off exactly, it pressed that button for me. And there’s something, you know, on the one hand, we’ve never been more savagely attacked than we were on October 7th. And at the same time, I rarely recall such raw hatred against Israel as we’re experiencing now. And so those, so that’s an extreme.

But you’ve got a vast middle of people who somehow, in a softer way, a gentler way, the both sides are at fault. Both sides, this is not a time for both sides. This is a time for unequivocal identification of Hamas as a genocidal organization.

And just one last point, Donniel, which is that there is this assumption, you know, when Israel’s critics say, well, it’s the occupations, Palestinian frustration, they’re ignoring the fact that Hamas is not about creating a two-state solution. That’s not Hamas’ goal at all. Hamas’ goal is to stop a two-state solution. It’s to create a one state from the river to the sea without Jews. It’s a genocidal organization. This was Hamas’ ideology in practice. And so to say, well, I’m going to explain this, don’t explain this. There are other things that we can explain. There’s lots of room in this conflict for both sides, as I’m not at this moment.

Donniel: I find myself with you and not with you. And as I’m listening to you, I’m resonating. And at some point I feel separated and I’d be okay being quiet if I didn’t think that we were hurting ourselves. If we weren’t hurting ourselves, it’s okay for a mourner to just demand that everybody be quiet and just identify. It’s okay. It’s okay for us to feel that.

And I appreciate you’ve studied this and I haven’t, the larger association with anti-Semitic history and, and you wrote a great article. It’s in the Times of Israel, precisely on this, which I want to recommend to everybody. Really, really important article.

But I’m worried, I’m talking as an Israeli for Israelis, not who you described. I want to prescribe for a moment. I agree. There is no room for an identification with Hamas. If the explanations are mediating their moral depravity, not interested. If there’s both sides guilty here, there is no both sides to the murder and to the pogrom of October 7th.

But, there is something happening after October 7th that we make a profound error. If we think October 7th makes that transparent, that October 7th is almost, not only is it a moral get out of jail card, it’s a discourse get out of, it’s like a silencing card. There’s a distinction of what type of but you’re giving here.

Yossi: Great. It’s a great, great point. It’s exactly right. Look, I’m not saying that any criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism of how we’re responding in Gaza, is illegitimate in light of October 7th. Not at all. I’m speaking very specifically about how too many people, including many in the media, are speaking about October 7th itself. You need to understand October 7th because of the occupation. It’s a response. October 7th is not a response to the occupation. It is a response to Hamas’ genocidal vision. That’s what it was. Okay.

Donniel: See, let’s go to that. That is correct, I accept. I’m with you. I’m with you. Yossi, I’m with you, but where I think we have to talk is I think that we are gonna create litmus tests of loyalty, and we’re gonna find ourselves increasingly isolated and lonely. And there are lots of friends of ours out there who have a but. Like there was a, could I say, like what am I allowed to say? Could I mention in the same sentence, the pogrom of the 7th, and say, and I also mourn the consequences of that to the civilians of Gaza. Not creating, now in Israel you’re not allowed to say that. It’s almost as if we are now, we’re alone.

Like, could you humor me a second? I wanna read for all of us, Guterres’ statement. And I saw the Israeli response, we’re for firing him, kicking out, as if we could, like as, you know, this is some great horrific moment, like, as if we could, which is interesting, but it’s like, we’re talking to ourselves. I’m always worried when we get overly self-righteous, because again, it doesn’t bother me by itself, but what are the consequences of alienating friends and sloppy thinking?

Because October 7th creates the imperative of self-defense, it doesn’t create, like the Minister of Defense said, all limits on the army are removed, as if he has the ability to do that, as if our soldiers would act. Like, what are you talking about? So let’s analyze just for a moment for our audience, because we’re talking as Israelis here, but it also applies to our audience around the world. Who, who, like what, how do we talk to people? Look what he said.

In fact, I’m quoting, he says, “I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring, and kidnapping of civilians or the launching of rockets against civilian targets.” And then he goes on, “All hostages must be treated humanely and released immediately without conditions. It is important,” then he adds, “to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence. Their economy stifled, their people displaced, and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

And then he adds, this is his but, the second but, “The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling acts by Hamas. And those appalling acts also cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

Is this an act of betrayal against the Jewish people and our suffering on October 7th? Is it? Can we, because I have to tell you, we’re gonna have to, I don’t want to, but we’re gonna have to talk about the consequences of what’s happening in the war. To speak about that something doesn’t happen a vacuum? Every criminal has a context. Now people have a free choice. If you’re abused, your tendency will be that you’re going to abuse. It’s true. I would not want to be a citizen of Gaza. I would not want to be in that reality. That in no way justifies, people could choose.

But for us to ignore, not in order to justify and legitimize, but in order for us to ask, okay, what do we need to do now? Or, is October 7th going to exhaust the parameters of our moral discourse? And I know I’m going to I’m aggravating now so much of our audience. And I know that, but it’s okay, that’s our job. But I don’t mean to aggravate and I don’t want to aggravate anybody. I’m just I’m just watching this isolationist language.

I’ve seen it, by the way, being applied to Israeli Arabs, all we want you to do is to stand with us. Don’t talk about your anything else. Don’t talk about your feelings towards Palestinians. I think we’re putting ourselves in a bad place and a place that’s gonna have moral consequences and political consequences. And I don’t think, I think there could be some nuances of that we could find.

Yossi: Ah, so let’s talk about the nuances. Let’s study his statement for a moment, okay? He starts off by saying nothing can justify this. And then he, even after he then cites the occupation, he then reinforces, nothing can justify.

Donniel: The context can’t justify.

Yossi: So he’s not justifying in light of the, he’s not using the occupation to justify October 7th, but what he is doing is using the occupation to help explain October 7th. Now that’s a very fine line. And as soon as you start bringing in the occupation into the context of a mini-pre-enactment of Hamas’ genocidal vision, you are quasi-justifying.

In the case of October 7, in the case of what Hamas does, it’s not about the last 56 years, it’s about the last 75 years. Hamas referred to the Jewish communities that it attacked as settlements.

Now these were communities within Israel’s international borders. But for Hamas, occupation means 75 years. And so when the UN Secretary General brings in the occupation to explain this, and the motive is not 56 years, I think that what he’s doing is creating a morally, he’s on morally precarious grounds. And he is implicitly, implicitly laying the stage for others who might be a little less careful than him.

Now there’s one more point here, Donniel, because there are two things he’s talking about. He’s talking about, well, three things: October 7th, the occupation, and then what happens after October 7th. To refer in any way to explain the context of October 7th, for me, is outrageous. To speak about the consequences of October 7th, that’s obviously legitimate. It’s a necessary moral conversation. But here again the question is will there be moral equivalence between October 7th and Israel’s response to October 7th.

Donniel: I would, let’s just look at the terms. But. Is but used to justify? Is but used to explain? Is but used to recognize other challenges? Is but used to make sure that Israelis realize that they have moral responsibilities? There’s a lot of buts.

And I think we as Israelis and I think Jews around the world, I think we have to refine our buts. I think we have to be careful not to categorize all of them in the same place. And a lot of friends are going to say but. Be careful that in your desire to strengthen us, you’re not weakening us.

This is For Heaven’s Sake, Israel at War, Day 19.

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