My Exclusive Interview With Labor MK Yuli Tamir: A Portrait of Study and Deeds.

*Haaretz published a shortened version of my interview with Labor MK Yuli Tamir. Below is the full interview.

Yuli Tamir: A Portrait of Study and Deeds.

One of my favorite debates in the Talmud revolves around the question: “Which is greater—study or deeds?”

Rabbi Tarfon answered, ‘Deeds!’ Rabbi Akiva answered, ‘Study!’ The sages responded, ‘Study is greater since studying leads to deeds.’

The principle that intellect should not be divorced from practice would not be lost on Labor MK Yuli Tamir – Israel’s former Minister of Education (2006-2009) who began her professional career as a professor of political philosophy (protégée of Isaiah Berlin) and peace activist (one of the founders of Peace Now).

Dr. Tamir’s entry into politics took place in 1995, shortly after Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination. Feeling the urgency of the historic moment, Dr. Tamir joined the Labor party with the hopes of effecting change from within the political establishment.

In 1999, Dr. Tamir was appointed by Ehud Barak as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and in 2003 and 2006 was elected to the Knesset serving as Minister of Education as well as acting Minister of Science, Culture and Sport. Today, as a consequence of what she sees as misguided leadership, Dr. Tamir sits in opposition within the Labor party.

Dr. Tamir was recently invited by J Street to speak at the organization’s first national conference in Washington DC. After the conference, we sat down to discuss her work as a scholar, her vocation as a peace activist and her career as a politician.

Q: Dr. Tamir, lets start with your family history in Israel. Where did they come from? What were they like? Did any family member have a particular strong influence on the trajectory of your career?

Tamir: Well, I come from a very Israeli family; both my parents and grandparents were born in Israel. So we are one of the few families that has no actual roots elsewhere. In one of my early conversations with Palestinian leaders, they complained about the fact that the Palestinian People bear the price of Anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution in Europe and that Jews should go back to where they came from and fight for their acceptance there. And I said, “that’s nonsense, but anyhow I have no place to return to, you are stuck with me, so let’s talk.”

My mother’s family is a very political family. They are part of the Israeli “Mayflower”, founders of the labor movement. My grandparents were cousins of Moshe Sharet, the second Prime Minister of Israel, who he had a long and very turbulent relationship with the Labor party. But if there was one message coming from their generation to my generation, it was never get involved in politics and especially to never get involved in the politics of the Labor party. I broke the family rule, and got my share of Labor politics. It is the kind of thing one is tempted to do when one thinks that a place that is your only home is in a process of self-destruction.

Q: Growing up, how was Judaism expressed in your home? How would you characterize your own Jewish identity?

Tamir: I grew up in a very secular home, ideologically secular. The Jewish holidays were celebrated in a very Zionist and secular way, and there was absolutely no room for any religious belief. It was only when I spent some time in the US that I was introduced to a more pluralistic version of Judaism and was very attracted to it. I still regard myself as a secular person, but I have a strong Jewish-secular identity as my Judaism determines much of what I do and how I do it. Of course my Judaism is pluralist and humanistic.

Q: As a noted scholar, a professor of political philosophy, and former minister of education, you clearly have a passion for the life of the mind: Where did that come from?

Tamir: My own education started at home, both my parents were very well read, I do not want to claim they were intellectuals, but very well read, very involved in Israeli culture. My mother was a book editor, so language was an issue discussed at home. She had re-translated all the classical books for adolescents that were first translated into Hebrew in the 1920’s – usually not from the original language because of the lack of translators. So I read each book twice: once in the old version, and once in the new version, that probably was the best part of my education.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your formal education?

Tamir: My formal education was a sort of zigzag education. In my teens I read and was captivated by the biography of Madame Curie, so I decided I wanted to make some contribution to the field of science. I did a BA in biology and science and an MA in molecular genetics, which I actually did not finished. I finished my classes but I never submitted the thesis because at that time we created Peace Now (1978) and I started to get involved in something else which took over my attention. I left the sciences and did another MA in political economy. And then I went to Oxford to do a PhD in Political Philosophy.

Q: And whom did you study with at Oxford?

Tamir: I studied with Isaiah Berlin. It is actually a funny story. First I thought I’d write my thesis in political science because I did not do philosophy beforehand. As I was always interested in the more progressive type of Zionism I thought I will write on the history of Zionism emphasizing the emergence of liberal Zionism. And then I was asked to interview some Jewish intellectuals at Oxford, and I went to interview Isaiah Berlin. We had a lovely conversation. I told him I want to write about the development of progressive Zionism as a special variant of nationalism and yet nobody is interested in this. This was the time when nationalism was out of fashion and everybody thought it was over. Fukuyama type years. We had a very good conversation and that was it. Then, two weeks later I met him again in some lecture and he says to me: “You are not coming to tutorials? (Face-to-face classes you take with your teacher) I said, “I think you are a bit confused because I am not your student, I interviewed you.” He said: “Oh that’s too bad. You should become my student”. I said, “Well, If you are willing, I am certainly willing” [laughter]. So this is how I transferred to work with him.

Q: What was it like to work with such a renowned scholar?

Tamir: Wonderful, in the beginning everybody said to me: “Don’t work with him he is too well known, he won’t have any time for you, he is too occupied with other things,” but he was fabulous. For three years, every week, we had two to three hour of tutorials. I always felt guilty about taking his precious time but he used to say that only two women have a right to demand his attention: his wife and me. During the first meetings he said to me with astonishment: “You want to write about progressive Zionists? They were all simpletons, they had no ideological finesse.” Write about a theoretical issue.” So I did.

Q: As an academic, what have been some of your scholarly interests?

Tamir: My initial interest was overlap between liberal-democratic values and more national and communitarian ones. At the time there seemed to be this big disparity between these two set of values. I think that today it is no longer the case, but it was then something that people just started to talk about. Individualism and liberalism on the one side, and communitarism and collective ideology on the other. All along my work I was interested in the relationship between the individual rights and communities and the place of individuals within the community. Looking both at the dimension of rights and at issues of identity and belonging, also language and culture that are not properly captured by rights language. This took me also to issues of feminism and minorities – it is all the same cluster of ideologies.

Q: In your book, “Liberal Nationalism”, you argue that liberalism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Where does Zionism fit into this picture? And how do you view the argument that holds Zionism to be a form of nationalism that inherently privileges the interests and needs of a particular group of citizens?

Tamir: Every nationalism privileges a group. That’s the essence of nationalism. But Zionism was created by people with very liberal ideologies (Herzl and even Jabotinsky.) They were 19th century liberals. They read the classical literature of the 19th century and were talking in that language. They wanted to establish a state where Jews will be a majority and therefore will be able to democratically establish a public sphere that reflects their identity, language, and tradition. This was the spirit of national self-determination that motivates the formation of most Western democracies. This is still true of democratic states, but after World War II all democracies wanted to disguised their national character. However, even the most liberal democracies who think of themselves as free associations are not free associations but communities of fate that privileges those who are born into them and give preferences to members over non members.

Q: Can you describe your history in the Israeli peace movement?

Tamir: I was one of the founders of Peace Now; it was created quite by coincidence. In 1976 we became young students, most of us were soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, so we came to the campus very loaded with anti war sentiments: With the sense that we had a duty to do something to change Israel for the better and that we couldn’t really rely on the elderly politicians because they failed us in the war. So we created an overly intellectual movement called “Another Zionism.” It was a bit pompous, not to say boring endeavor that produced long documents – something young aspiring intellectual do when they try to combine their eagerness for change with too much revolution sentiments and literature. We would write long pamphlets about the essence of Zionism and the new Zionism. And then when Sadat was about to come to Israel, that was 1978, we said we should become more effective, do something more than just sit together and analyze Zionist thinkers.

So we decided to do something that for us was rather radical: approach the public, write letters to decision makers. We said we will go to different sectors and there will be letters from teachers, and there will be letters from mayors. And one of the ideas was to write a letter of reserve officers, who served in the Yom Kippur war that would say: “We served in the war, we are patriots, but we think that there should be peace with Egypt.” In the end, we decided that the first letter would be the reserve officers, since it would be the easiest to produce; everybody was connected to everybody from their army days. We wrote this letter and we were totally unaware of what it was going to create – it created a huge, unprecedented, wave of responses.

Within two days we had more responses than any other public movement in Israel and everybody said ok: do something with this support. What are you going to do now? I was 24; I think the oldest member was 28. We had no resources, we knew nothing about public life or politics, and we had no connections. So we said: ok, we will call for a demonstration in Tel-Aviv.

We got someone from the kibbutz movement to bring us a megaphone and a little stage and we had a very long pamphlet explaining why we were right and what should be done. But as we had no money to buy signs somebody told us that there was a group in Tel-Aviv who had tried to unsuccessfully to pull off a demonstration under the banner of “peace now.” We did not like the name but they had posters and we didn’t have money. We phoned David Tartakover who made the posters for this group. We said, “We want to do this demonstration, and we heard you have unused posters and pamphlets, can we used them?” And he said, “Yes, sure.” So he gave them to us and we placed them on the stage. This is how we got the name Peace Now, which stuck with us for thirty years. Afterwards there was a long discussion whether this was the right name for the movement and we never dared say it all started with leftovers.

Q: Peace Now, an organization that is based on the formula of land-for-peace, supported Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan. It even initiated the blue ribbon campaign in support of the disengagement (in contrast to a Yesha Council orange ribbon initiative against the disengagement.) In retrospect, given the destructive developments that took place in Gaza and the south of Israel following the disengagement, do you think such support was a mistake?

Tamir: To begin with Peace Now did not support the unilateral move. But there came a point that it was seen as the ultimate test for the ability to evacuate settlers, we believed that if at the end of the day there would be an evacuation of a whole region it will be a sign to both Palestinians and Israelis that it is possible to do it. I still think it is right. I am fully aware of what happened in Gaza after wards, and it certainly would have been much better to have done it in a coordinated process, rather than unilaterally. Doing so would have increased the likelihood that the PLO would have moved in and kept its position in Gaza. But Sharon broke once and for all the taboo that you do not evacuate; Sharon proved that, if you want to do it, you can do it. Obviously the failure to create a neighboring regime that can negotiate with Israel, is a huge failure.

Q: So in retrospect, you would do the same thing?

Tamir: We could not leave Sharon without public support, we were afraid he will be assassinated like Rabin. If that were to happen everybody could easily reach a conclusion that one should never be involve in an attempt to solve the conflict. This would have been a devastating moment.

Q: Where does the peace movement in Israel stand today? What is the significance of people like Olmert, Livni, and Netanyahu appropriating the language and logic (but not the ethics) of the peace movement?

It has been marginalized by its own success. This, by the way, happened to many liberal movements all around the world. Wining an ideological argument is a double-edged sword. Today the debates of the 70s and the 80s are sort of over. I don’t think that anyone speaks now about “the greater Israel.” Most people understand that there will be a two-state solution. I remember the debates I used to have with Ehud Olmert when we were both much younger – greater Israel versus a two states solution. It is over.

The irony is that while there is no longer an ideological debate, there is no process either. It is very difficult to motivate people to act when there is a sense of national consensus. People say “Oh well, you know, I heard Netanyahu three days ago saying, ‘We want peace, we want a two state solution’, seems now to be a debate about strategy, how to get there and not where to go, and it is not the kind of debate that steers a lot of enthusiasm.

People do not actually have an idea why nothing is happening. And then the general belief this government is promoting is that the other side does not want an agreement. And this is always easy to believe as no side wants to be seen as the one who is responsible for the dead end. So in a way we won the ideological fight but politically we are powerless.

Q: The historian J. Rufus Fears once noted that great leaders – from Pericles to Lincoln to Churchill – share four characteristics. They are anchored in principles, guided by a moral compass, posses a vision, and have the ability to build a consensus to achieve their vision. These are the qualities that distinguish them as statesmen, rather than mere politicians. Are there any statesperson in Israel today? Are there real leaders in Israel today?

Tamir: Probably the answer is no. Trying to be fair, I think that the problem is that in order to make a substantial move in Israel, you need different qualities than what you have mentioned. First of all you need to have a certain view of where Israel should go; but you also have to be ready to get into a civil war. Building a consensus is not going to work. There could be a vast agreement, but there will also be some bitter struggles. People know that doing the right thing is going to be very costly, both for them and for the Israeli society. Before Rabin every leader wanted to have his own contribution to a peace agreement so he can say “I did this, I did that”, now everybody wants just to go through their term peacefully and let somebody else deal with the peace agreement. So they are just playing on time. The peace movement warned, since the early eighties, that the longer Israel postpones the decision the higher the social and political price of such a decision will be. Now the price is indeed very high and people are unwilling to pay it.

Q: Do you think that under the present incarnation of the Netanyahu government there is a chance for peace?

Tamir: Netanyahu has an opportunity to pick up where the Olmert government left the negotiations and reach an agreement. In the Syrian front most of the problematic issues were already dealt with so Netanyahu could make a break-through and then make an attempt to continue in the Palestinian front.

Q: Even though he publicly vowed to never withdrawal from the Golan?

Tamir: Well, [Menachem] Begin vowed never to withdraw from the Sinai, [Ariel} Sharon vowed never to withdrawal from Gaza…

Q: So it is a good sign that he vowed?

Tamir: Yes, it is a good sign. Vowing is a very good sign [laughter]. I am sure he knows it is the right thing to do. Yes, I am absolutely sure he understands it. But whether he has the courage of his new conviction – whether he is ready to go into a struggle to achieve an agreement I really don’t know.

Q: Why are you sitting in opposition within your own party? What would it take for you to reconsider your opposition?

Tamir: The only reason for me to re-consider my position will be if Netanyahu will say: “We are going to make a move on the Syrian front and we need a stronger coalition”; if he says that, we are joining in without hesitations. The reason I am seating in opposition to my party is because I think that my party, because of personal, irrelevant, reasons, allowed Netanyahu to create a right-wing government that marginalized the power of the center-left in Israel. Rather than insist on creating a wide national government with Kadima, which would have been very different from the point of view of future negotiations, Barak worked with Netanyahu to achieve one goal – to undermine the power of Tzipi Livni. The guys didn’t want a girl in their court and they pushed her out.

After the last election, the best scenario, which was actually a good scenario, was to create a government with Labor, Likkud and Kadima. That would have been a very large government, not captured in the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox, free to do some substantial constitutional changes, and able to move ahead with the peace process. This would have been one of the largest and more stable governments Israel could have had.

Q: If there is no major and viable initiative for peace, and if Labor continues its “unholy” alliance with the present government, will you (and the other “Labor rebels”) remain in the party?

Tamir: I think this is the end of the Labor Party. Maybe Netanyahu and Barak will create together a new party and we will go our way.

Q: Turning to Israeli society, you have said that rather than security the greatest challenge for Israel today “is the ability of Israeli society to preserve itself as a unified society.” What did you mean by that statement? In what sense, for example, is Israel a unified society? And how is the country dealing with that challenge today?

Tamir: Israel is a fractured society, fractured to a deeper degree than most societies. In one of my papers entitled “Two Concepts of Multiculturalism”, I distinguish between thin and thick multiculturalism. Thin multiculturalism is basically what you get in the US where people do agree on some basic values and then have diverse ways of life. It is like cooking. You can enjoy a fusion: a bit from everything that is beautiful around the world. You can sustain a multicultural society where people speak different languages and have different cultural priorities. But there are limits to such disagreements. In Israel, we have a thick multiculturalism where the cultural debate overlaps a debate about the nature and the authority of the state, and this is something that is so deep that it can bring down the society. It is not only about who will have holidays on Yom Kippur, Eid ul fitr or Christmas. It is about what the state is like, and who is supporting the state, and for what reasons. So in this respect it is much more threatening to the ability of the state to survive. And it could break the society apart. It is not a theoretical issue. Haridim see the democratic nature as a threat to their own existence and the Arabs see the Jewish character of the state as a treat to their own existence.

Q: What concrete steps can Israel as a country take in order to better meet this challenge?

Tamir: This is a case where the state must decide to be less present, so that people will feel less oppressed. I do not delude myself that the Arabs will be positive to the Jewish nature of the state, or that the Hasidim will be positive to the democratic nature of the state. The least we can do is to create a feeling that the state is not against them – which is the worst type of feeling- and then maybe open up ways of a dialogue with the state that will allow them to recognize that the state protects them to.

Q: Do you think that the state should make its salient symbols more inclusive?

Tamir: No, I do not think Israel can do it, but we should acknowledge the fact that the symbols of the state are nationally and religiously biased. I understand why the Arabs do not sing the national anthem, they will never sing it. They are alienated from it, so they should find an additional song. You can find an additional official song that could be more inclusive. And we should try to be inclusive in more pragmatic things.

Q: As Minister of Education, a post you held from 2006-2009, what were your greatest challenges, accomplishments, and failures?

Tamir: Its’ interesting, the most important move is the one I did not do – I did not create a civic crisis. True to what I said earlier about my fears that the Israeli society will fall apart, I tried to leave enough space for members of all the different communities. For example, I allowed the Arab schools to teach about Nakba, and the Palestinian perspective of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People did not like it and I paid an enormous political price because it is very popular to fight with the Arabs. If you want to be a real popular politician in Israel, that’s what you do and your rating will be very high. But I always remembered that I am their minister as well. And that I should be very careful not to create more alienation. The same was true for my relationship with the Ultra orthodox: there was a lot of quite work and no public debate. Recently a report has been published stating that four times more ultra orthodox are engaged in higher education than before I came, this was possible because of the work done away from the public eye.

My most important decision was that I decided to make a comprehensive school reform- “new horizons” rather than just small-scale initiatives. There were three issues that I thought were extremely important: Raising teacher’s fees, especially for new teachers; improving the professional training of the teachers; and providing teachers with an opportunity to work with small groups of children because the classes are very crowded. What we did, as part of the school reform, is require teachers to add five hours of tutorials a week to work with children with exceptional abilities and children who are lagging behind, and as a consequence they got 40% raise in their salary. It is wonderful for these children, for the first time they get the personal attention of their teachers, and the teachers like it as well because they can teach in a much more effective way, attend to each child’s need.

The reform caused a huge debate (like the health care debate in the US) because it transformed the education system and demanded from teachers to work more hours, to be present in school for the whole school day (from 8am to 3pm), and to have a professional career path supervised by their School masters.

The reform cost five and half billion shekels. It was the biggest reform Israel did in terms of financial resources. This year there are about 1250 primary and middle schools out of 1700 schools in Israel that have adopted the reform. And next year all the primary schools will adopt it. This is the only school reform in Israel that survived a government change because it was signed as an agreement between the ministry of Finance and the Teacher’s Union.

Q: And your greatest failure?

My greatest failure is that I couldn’t complete the reform with the high school teachers. So now there is this crazy situation that the high school teachers earn less than the primary school or secondary school teachers.

The second failure was an ideological decision that was morally and professionally right but politically wrong. I choose to invest in the first and second grades; the results of such investments takes time to show. So in my term the results of the massive investments we made did not show in the international exams and I have paid a huge political price for that.

Anyhow, I am doubtful about the role the international examination play in modern education. I am not sure what they are measuring. You look at places like Singapore or even Finland (the dream of education) they are always on the top of the list. But if you check them on creativity, on initiatives, on culture, they are not doing as well as Israel.

Q: What is in-store for Yuli Tamir in the future?

Tamir: I do not know. I am working on a book on education and I do not know what it would be like yet. It is very difficult to write something interesting about education. Education is the field of platitudes. People write things that are terrible: either they write this high stuff which nobody can disagree with: i.e. we want an educated society. Or unrealistic ideas that cannot be implemented. So I am going to write something about understanding education from a down to earth, real life, point of view rather than just the ideological point of view.

Thank you.

* Special thanks to the lovely Gabriela Benincasa who helped record and transcribe the interview.


5 responses to “My Exclusive Interview With Labor MK Yuli Tamir: A Portrait of Study and Deeds.

  1. Fantastic interview, esp the section on liberal nationalism. this is an issue that needs to be thought through in greater detail. Wonder if a Habermasian reading could salvage the ideal of an inclusive democratic Israeli society?

  2. Herbert Greenhuh

    Thank you for the informative interview. I would thnk that the two state solution could be negotiated with whatever Jews who are in the settlements could remain there if they would agree to become Palestinian citizens, pay Palestinian taxes and be subject to Palestinian laws.(Most would choose to leave). No new settlements would be permitted and immigration would be subject to Palestinian laws. After all, that is basically the situation of Palestines now living in Israel under Israeli lawsl

  3. Thanks Herb. I think you will find this op-ed interesting:

  4. Great interview. I must say that I knew Yuli since 1979. I met her in camps in Cyprus and Greece. We were groups of Arabs and Israelis have the same ideology. It was led by Dutch people. I am from Egypt. I hope she is still remembering me. If so, pleasr email me back. I woul love to meet again after 30 some years.

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