5 questions with author Daniel Sokatch on his latest book “Can We Talk About Israel?”

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Dan Buffa, Special For The Jewish Light

When fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas in early May 2021, passions on both sides of the ongoing conflict raged all across electronic and print media, television screens, and of course social media. Both sides claimed the justification of their positions while condemning the other.

Understanding what was happening through the virtual noise above it all became the goal of one author, who is often asked “Can’t you just explain the Israel situation to me? In, like, 10 minutes or less?”

Enter Daniel Sokatch

In a review of Daniel Sokatch’s latest book, “Can We Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted,”  The Times of Israel, called it “a toolbox for U.S. Jews to discuss Israel-Palestine.” The book takes an extensive look at the complete history of Israel — from biblical beginnings to the current state of the government, leading to last summer.

Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund, whose goal is to help Israel live up to its “founders’ vision of a society that ensures complete equality to all its inhabitants.”

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But, can we talk about Israel… in St. Louis?

An in-depth discussion will extend to St. Louis readers starting January 5th at 7:30 p.m. Hosted by Congregation Shaare Emeth and hosted by Rabbi James Bennett via Zoom.  as “Can We Talk About Israel? A Four-Part Series” launches part 1, an exploration of the background of the conflict.  Additional discussion will be held on Feb. 2 and March 2. On April 7, there will be a live in-person and live-streamed presentation to wrap up the series.

5 Questions With The Author

When was the first time you absolutely knew this book had to be written, and when did you know you had to write it? 

I’ve felt for some time that there was a need for a book that could serve as a toolkit and guide for people trying to figure out how to navigate the complexities – emotional, political, communal, religious, familial, personal, etc. – of Israel and the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, especially the Palestinians.

A book that would do for people today what books like Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, David Grossman’s “The Yellow Wind” and “Sleeping on a Wire,” and (most of all) Amos Oz’s “In the Land of Israel” did for me decades ago: provide a way in to understanding and wrestling with this issue, and tools to figure out why it’s so emotional and complicated for so many people.

I think I knew I had to write it when I saw, during the Trump-Netanyahu era, the widening of the gap and the acceleration of the division between liberal Americans (including but not limited to liberal American Jews) and Israel.

I read another interview where you said the original title of the book was much longer with more adult language. How painstaking is the process of coming up with a book title?

It sounds about as difficult as a headline in an article. Ha! Yes. My wife (who is a real author) and some of our friends had been encouraging me to write a book like this for years. I would always respond, “if I’m going to write a book about Israel it will be called “Israel, WTF? Why One Small Mediterranean Country Drives So Many Sane People Bonkers.” So when I finally sat down to write the book proposal, I called in “Israel WTF?” as an inside joke with myself.

I had to convince the publisher that there was no WAY I was really going to call the book that! Coming up with the final title was actually pretty difficult and took a long time. It was much easier (and more fun) to come up with the subtitle (“A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted”). Honestly, I always thought coming up with the title would be a lot easier than it actually was!

What age group are you really seeking to reach with the messages in this book?

I thought about the question of who the audience for the book was a lot. In the end, I really do intend it for the types described in that subtitle: people who are curious, confused, and conflicted.

I didn’t specifically set out to write for young people or any particular age group, but I DID want the book to be useful to people trying to figure this stuff out, and that certainly includes younger folks. In order to do that, I wanted the book to be accessible. In fact, “accessible” and “evenhanded” (in that, even though I come from the particular perspective of a progressive American Jew who cares a lot about Israel.

I wanted the book to hold up, honor, and try to understand what I believe to be the legitimate histories, traumas, connections, and claims to the land of both Israelis and Palestinians) were kind of my watchwords as I thought about and wrote the book.

How did the event with the Congregation of Shaare Emeth come together?

The short answer is, I visited St. Louis a few years ago and had a great time speaking at Shaare Emeth and was happy to receive this invitation. The longer answer is, Shaare Emeth’s Rabbi Jim Bennett was my unit head at my URJ camp in Zionsville, IN when I was a kid, and he’s always been something of a hero to me. When he asks me to do something, I say yes!

What are you looking forward to most about your April 7 visit in St. Louis?
Aside from hanging out with Rabbi Bennett, I’m looking forward to spending some intensive, in-depth time talking about the issues raised in the book and learning with the Shaare Emeth community, who in my experience are exceptionally curious, compassionate, interested, and interesting group of people. I’m honored they’ve asked me to come out and spend some time with them.