Kurtzer Links Past, Present In Unpacking Life Since Oct. 7

Yehuda Kurtzer has made hundreds of trips to Israel and spent about a quarter of his life living there. And in his three visits to Israel since Hamas attacked the country on Oct. 7, he has found a different country each time.

In a Sunday night Minneapolis Jewish Federation event titled ‘Unpacking Jewish Life Post 10/7,’ Kurtzer said that the country has moved from sitting shiva to resilience to one of fear and anger.

“I left each of those Israels not sure what would be there the next time I came around,” said Kurtzer, a scholar and the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. “And I’m here to tell you as someone who understands the past better than I understand the future that I don’t know which version of Israel we’re going to continue to see evolving.” 

Kurtzer’s 35-minute talk and ensuing question-and-answer session with Rhona Shwaid discussed a wide range of topics but wasn’t just about the past 150 days. Kurtzer used some of his time to link 150 years ago and the advent of Zionism to what has transpired in America and Israel in the past five months since the war started.

“I had a sense over the past 150 days, that these have been not just dramatic days in and of themselves, but maybe dramatic enough to call into question some truths that we have held in Jewish life, that really represents an evolution of the past 150 years,” he said, acknowledging that is a dramatic way of looking at the situation. “On a personal level, I’m allergic to crisis narratives, and that kind of dramatic thinking. My whole institute is built and premised on the belief that when the Jewish people spend all of our time in crisis, narrative and crisis response, we fail to actually build the Jewish future. We’re constantly obsessed with preventing threats, rather than creating new possibilities.”

Kurtzer was asked about his Oct. 17 article in the Forward, in which he argued that the war Israel was drawn into was just, about how to maintain solidarity with Israel but also humanity with what is happening in Gaza.

“I felt then and still believe now that Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 created the conditions for an Israeli response that constituted a just war. This is an easy smell test,” he said. 

The second part is harder. 

“There’s no version of hasbara (advocacy and public relations in defense of Israel) that can get away with saying that there aren’t failures taking place by Israel and fighting a just war in Gaza,” he said. “We know this because Israel has admitted to that. The question of ‘Are you fighting the war ethically?’ needs to be probed. It doesn’t undermine whether the war is fundamentally ethical.”

Kurtzer said that shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks took place, he and colleagues looked at seven examples of “crashes” of popular beliefs that they as liberal Zionists thought to be true before the attack the same as after. Among those was the idea that peace with the Palestinians was imminent. But he did go on to say that it was necessary.

“Even though they have very little patience right now for talking about a peace process with the Palestinians, Israeli Jews still know, at the end of the day, that the only way to guarantee the long-term safety and security for Jews who live between the river and the sea, is to figure out a way to guarantee the long term safety and security for the Palestinians who live between the river the and the sea,” he said.

Another crash was the idea from American Jews that “our allies here basically share our politics and our values.”

“I’ve heard from rabbis and executive directors around the country who can’t quite parse why their allies didn’t show up after October 7,” Kurtzer said. “And especially are having a hard time parsing why they did show up after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t show up after October 7. In other words: I don’t think antisemitism should exist here. But I’m kind of okay with it over there.”

Kurtzer said that American Jews have shown up philanthropically for Israel in a way that evokes the memories of 1948 and the campaign for Israel to gain statehood. Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Israel emergency campaign raised more than $11 million, believed to be the largest by a Federation of its size. Through the Jewish Federations of North America, more than three-quarters of a billion has been raised. 

“We evoked the memories of our ancestors because our people were vulnerable,” he said. “It also feels increasingly naive and increasingly silly to believe that the condition of American Jews is just going to be taken care of by America being the same country that it was one or two generations ago. It’s striking to notice that the safety and security of Israeli Jews and American Jews … were codependent all along.”