Hesh Kestin

Intelligence of Imagination

Air Date: April 8, 2017

Author Hesh Kestin talks about U.S.-Israel relations and his conversion from foreign correspondent to novelist.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Distinguished foreign correspondent, novelist, and veteran of the Israel defense forces, a binational US/Israeli citizen who nearly fell victim to a terrorist attack when he missed a British Airways flight in December, 1986, Hesh Kestin joins me today. Author of novels, “The Iron Will of Shoe-Shine Cats,” and, “The Lie.” At the spiritual. psychological, and historical intersection of Jewish life in America and Israel, Kestin is now releasing ‘The Siege of Tel Aviv,’ which you can download, pre-publication on his website. This latest book portends the Nation of Israel on a sudden death spiral, reminiscent of the Holocaust, a modern day genocide targeting Israel and Jews. Considering the rise of anti-Semitism at home, and the prospect for either ethnic conflagration or accord abroad, this is timely, and most fertile territory to explore with Hesh. In preparing for this program, he imparted Israeli military lore that resonated. “The trouble with intelligence is that it’s practiced by analysts who work from what can be seen,” this a general once said, “Perhaps we should include a few novelists who see what has not been seen,” and so today, we imagine, with Hesh, and welcome you to our studio.

KESTIN: Thank you. I’m honored to be here.

HEFFNER: What can the novel help us imagine?

KESTIN: I think the novel has always helped us imagine, and helped us clarify what’s going on around us, and what may well happen in the next years or decades. Um, novelists work not from what is. But they’re kind of holy vessels, if you’ll excuse the expression of the, the zeitgeist, the, the feeling of the time. So, if done right, and very few novelists do it and have done it right, I would love to be included in that, but, nobody knows until it’s all over. If a novelist, if a novelist does it right, he’s kind of sucking in everything in the civilization and the culture around him, refining it, and bringing it forward as a kind of uh, crystallization of what is. If he does it right, he is appreciated by the same culture and civilization. So, in this loop, he actually provides something that no one else can do. You know, when I went straight and I became a novelist after 30 years as a journalist, where I was finally able to tell the truth by making up stories, I was relieved. Now, one thing about being a novelist, is, you’re sitting in a room for ten hours a day, and that’s not fun. You’d rather be flying business class to some hell-hole…


KESTIN: And um, and feeling very good about yourself and having a big head. But the fact is that, when I sit down to write, I know nothing. I allow whatever must come into my head to enter it. Sometimes I end up typing so fast, as fast as I can, just to keep up with these characters that I’ve never met. So, when I say, a holy vessel, what I mean is, we don’t know. We don’t know what’s going on. There are novelists who plot, who create stories, who know exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter. They’re really not novelists. They’re kind of journalists who write about characters with aliases. A true novelist shouldn’t know how his story begins, how his story ends, and certainly not what the middle is. So, when it comes to what the late uh, General Ahron Yariv, uh, uh told me in, in Israel all the way back, he understood that those who see what is, are valuable, but perhaps those who see what might be, are even more valuable.

HEFFNER: And that sounds like RFK now…


HEFFNER: The, the, I find it so interesting, you say you were relieved because we’re at this moment in our history where we want to be relieved of misinformation and disinformation, what some have called fake news, or what some have now hijacked…

KESTIN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: As a moniker of fake news uh, to exploit a political agenda. But, why don’t you tell our viewers about this conversion, and how you did becoming relieved?

KESTIN: Well I’ll tell you something. My, my, between relief and relief, uh, my, my belief is that all news is fake. You know, they call journalism the first draft of, of history, and you may know as a writer, I certainly know as a writer, that the first draft is a bloody mess.


KESTIN: You have to spend a lot of time cleaning it up, to try to get something that is, number one, readable, and number two, as close to the truth, as possible. Uh, you brought up the, the story of, uh, my uh, the little incident in Vienna in 1986. Let me just tell you about it. Uh, I was doing a story for Forbes, left from my home in London at an ungodly hour in the morning for an interview in Paris, flew from Paris to Zurich for another interview, and then flew to Vienna for a dinner meeting with uh, three sources. At the meeting, it was Christmas, at the meeting they said, well, we’re having a party tonight. Would you like to come. So I was totally exhausted, but of course when you’re a foreign correspondent, you have a certain obligation to live up to your image. So I said, sure. Uh, got back to the hotel at 5 o’clock. At 6, I got a wake up call from the desk, uh, saying, Herr Kestin, it is time, went downstairs, I was informed that there was no taxi because it was Christmas, and I was told to walk across ah, town, five blocks, past uh, uh, St. Stephens Cathedral, to the Hilton where a bus would take me to uh, uh, to the airport, and my return flight on British Air, to London.

When I woke up, I was both still drunk, and hungover, not a great combination. Walking across town in this wonderful, early morning in Vienna, crystal in air, freezing air, I happened to pass a café with one small metal table and one small chair. And it was open. So I thought, maybe if I have a beer, I’ll feel better…


KESTIN: So, I did, sitting out there in the cold, and it made me feel so much better that I decided, I’ll miss the plane and have another beer. When I finally got to the airport, they were just about finishing cleaning up the broken glass and blood from a PLO attack on the airport. I was actually an attack on EL AL [counter. The British Air counter was right next door, as close as I am to you. Uh, 32 people were killed in simultaneous attacks, coordinated attacks, in Vienna and in Rome. Uh, uh, for sure I would have been one of them. If there had not been this kind of generalized terrorism that I know of, there was an attack on the, on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in ’72. But that was directed at Israel. It could have been just as well a bomb in the street in Tel Aviv. Here, they were going for generalized terrorism. It was the door, creaking open on our modern era.

And what was more interesting to me, is was when I got back to London, to my office, the next day, a couple of very nice young fellows from MI-5 came to visit, and they said they happened to notice that I was on the manifest for the flight but was not on the flight. Could I explain it? So I did. I explained about all the flying…

HEFFNER: And the beers…

KESTIN: And the beers, and they said, uh, no, we don’t, we don’t buy that. Thank you, can you tell us the truth, and I said, that’s all I got. From that day, whenever I flew, and I flew a lot, I was strip-searched, everywhere in Europe. My briefcase was taken away from me. At that time we were still using paper, you know, so I couldn’t travel with my notes and my research, uh, on the computer. I was carrying paper, sometimes pounds of it. It was all taken away and photographed, and I began to understand that we had moved into a new era. It is the era of terrorism. And during that, I think two years later, I did an article on the P, PNL, of the PLO, because I was very interested in how terrorism actually works, still am, and my most recent book, “The Lie” tells that story.

HEFFNER: Well why don’t you expound on that personal and literary journey. How, how did you go from the truth teller, I know, the first draft of history and the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, to the story in “The Lie”? did this incident propel you in your mindset as much as it did, uh, affect your travel habits, going forward?

KESTIN: [LAUGHTER] Well I, I don’t know. My uh, uh, my working, my working practice as, as a novelist, is to put down a few words, and see where they lead. I had no idea, this is a very closely plotted story with, perhaps, seven or eight, or maybe even more, characters, independent characters, not ancillary characters, uh, characters important to the story. It’s told in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Sinai, Beirut and, and Nicosia Cyprus, all places I’ve been. But I had no idea who the characters were. I had no idea what the story was. That’s far different from journalism, where essentially you are either covering a, covering a venue or field that you know, such as foreign policy or the Pentagon or the automotive industry, or you’re being parachuted into a place that you don’t know, but, where you’re taking notes about what is. As a novelist, you can’t take notes. You can only take cues from society, from culture, from what you may have seen on television today, or what you may know, have been through, many years before.

HEFFNER: So how does that fear of terrorism, and those life and death scenarios, how do they manifest in ‘The Lie,’ for our viewers who are just watching this now.

KESTIN: Gee, I’d have to tell you about the lie.

HEFFNER: Tell us.

KESTIN: Well [LAUGHTER] then, then I couldn’t sell any books.


KESTIN: No I will, uh, I will. ‘The Lie’ is about, well, let me give you a little background. Israel is a peculiar culture. It’s a small country. I think now, it’s six million Jews and a couple million Arabs within Israel proper. Those six million Jews know all the other six million Jews, OK? They know their neighbors, and they know their neighbors’ neighbors. So when we talk here about six degrees of separation, in Israel it’s two degrees of separation. I can tell you that within two, certainly within three degrees, I knew everybody in the country, or I could find anybody in the country. Uh, there’s a, a great story from the ‘50’s, about the CIA training a new resident, that is to say the new, uh, country chief, uh, for the CIA in Tel Aviv, and they spent a year on this, infusing him with Israeli culture and language, and finally he’s ready, they, he’s called in and his boss says, your contact is a guy names Goldberg. This is his address. Your code, in order to introduce yourself is, “the sun shines at midnight.” Guy gets on a plane, gets in the cab, gives the address of the apartment building in Tel Aviv, and like most apartment buildings in Tel Aviv, it’s four stories, uh, looks at the, on the mailboxes for, on the bells for the fellow’s name, and there’s two Goldbergs. So he says, OK, the second floor. So he presses that one, goes up, knocks on the door, the man answers.

And the new CIA guy says, “the sun shines at midnight.” And the man behind the door says… you want Goldberg the spy, fourth floor. [LAUGHTER] Everybody knows everybody. OK. In this particular case, this book, everybody really does know everybody. It’s a story about uh, a problem that the government of Israel has in dealing with terrorism, and there are echoes of this problem today. We uh, it, it’s, it was all over the campaign. What do you do in handling terrorists and how do you handle, how do you deal with them, how do you get information from them.

HEFFNER: And being a, one of the protagonists, uh, a lawyer with dueling loyalties.

KESTIN: Right, this is a lawyer who defends Palestinian terrorists. OK, certainly defends Palestinian suspected terrorists. She is chosen by the government of Israel to be the arbiter of when extraordinary means must be used on a terror suspect, and very clearly that means torture. Uh, their understanding is that this person, this person is the least likely to use uh, harsh means or torture, causelessly. As it happens, her son becomes a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon. So we follow her on a journey from the left to the unwilling right. Ah, and along the way, we should come to understand the mindset of those who have taken her son, and those who have been suffering from what used to be known in Israel and still may be, as a mental fatigue. It’s hard to be under siege for, you could say fifty years, but it might be sixty years, but it might just as well be a hundred years, of, of Jewish settlement, uh, resettlement in Israel.

KESTIN: That mental fatigue by the way, seems not to be present or not to be as noticeable as it was, largely because, I think most Israelis have given up on the idea of a deal. We have a guy in the White House now who talks about the deal all the time. Israel has been trying to deal with this for a very long time. And because of the special circumstances in the Middle East now, uh, Syria with its millions of refugees, Egypt with a, a difficult political situation, uh you could go right down the list. And because the US itself is just tired of it, because no solution has been found, uh, most people have just turned their backs on it, and said, we cannot deal with this any longer. Let us live our lives. Let us produce software. Let us produce chess masters. Let us enjoy ourselves a bit. So, in a way, ‘The Lie’ is about the world, up to now, because I think, right now, we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t be seeing that kind of tension, because you can’t go on like this, under pressure for so long.

HEFFNER: The fear of course, in the President’s quest for Middle East peace is that, the folks advising him are info-war, they’re coming up with a fiction, a fiction that is not representative of the reality…

KESTIN: I hope you’re not going to use fiction in a bad way here.

HEFFNER: No it’s…

KESTIN: I’m joking, [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Good, fake news, right?


HEFFNER: Not, not fiction, although, I do think, separately, that the question of free speech is viewed more ahistorically now than ever before. That is to say, there is a place for creativity, and there’s a place for imagining what public policy can be, but there’s also a place for grounding it in the reality. So I, I hope you can convey to our audience, some of whom, from a younger generation, may not understand necessarily the scale of what solution is necessary here. When we talk about a solution, what are we really talking about?

KESTIN: I hesitate even to use the word, solution, uh…

HEFFNER: Or an easing of tensions, a kind of revival of the Abrahamic faith as a, as a uniform idea, and not a, a, a dueling of religious factions.

KESTIN: Well in, in a world where the Arabs cannot get along with each other…

HEFFNER: Right, and the Jews are not always getting along with each other now. If you look at American Jews, and Israeli Jews, they’re…

KESTIN: Right, but we’re not yet shooting each other.




KESTIN: Uh, there are not yet, uh Jewish refugees, uh, fleeing into uh, uh, into Turkey and uh, and uh…

HEFFNER: Or Mexico and Canada…

KESTIN: And Germany.


KESTIN: What’s really interesting to me, here is that, as you bring up the American Jews and the Israeli Jews…

KESTIN: The numbers are pretty much the same. I think the numbers of American Jews are…

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KESTIN: Ten million?

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KESTIN: And there are six million, uh, uh, Jews in Israel, plus an additional three or four million around the world, particularly in Western Europe who identify much more closely with Israel as a place of refuge, because they’re seeing growing anti-semitism, especially in France and, and uh, in England. Uh, so, if they are so, uh, allied, or aligned with Israel that it has affected the price of Tel Aviv real-estate, every spare apartment in Tel Aviv has been gobbled up by French citizens who want to make sure they have a place to go, and that’s why it costs a lot of money [LAUGHTER] now to buy…

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KESTIN: And certainly to rent a uh, a place in Tel Aviv. Uh, so, American Jewry has spent its time in America, and I would say, we’re talking about, Jews started out in the, at the beginning in the, in the US, before it was the US of course, but in the last hundred years, there’s been this great uh, Jewish immigration to America. They have spent their time, effort, and will in becoming Americans. That is to say, divesting themselves of that element of Judaism, that is the national element. Judaism, or Jews, uh, are made up of two of the sometimes dueling, uh, elements. One is the religious, and one is the national. Uh, it used to be called racial. OK. Now, because the Jews have been, in America especially, they’ve been admitted to the white race, which was not the case sixty years ago, eighty years ago.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

KESTIN: Um, so, all American Jews have this feeling of sympathy for Israel, not all of them, OK, and a, um, a, an either close or distant relation to their religion. Jews in Israel have spent their lives and their children’s lives taking, removing from themselves the old nationalism, because half the country came from Arab countries. Uh, and ah, probably a quarter from the various Russian Republics or Soviet Republics. They have attempted to become Israeli, and they have succeeded. So, on the one hand, you have the same Jewish genes, one becoming American and one becoming Israeli. I doubt very much that American Jews can understand what it’s like to lose children, fathers, mothers, sometimes infant children, because Jews by and large in America have joined, not only the middle class, but the upper middle class, and higher, OK. Now, where I live in the Hamptons, I can think of only one individual who has served in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The upper middle class in America does not contribute its fair share or any share to, to the military.

HEFFNER: Those who do sacrifice so much here, exist and are economically terrorized by circumstances that are not of their choosing.

KESTIN: Well it’s always been, it’s always been a, a practice in the States, that the poor are canon fire. Um, in the Civil War, if you had enough money, you could buy your way out and uh, that’s pretty much, that was pretty much the case with Vietnam. And right now, we have a volunteer army, and that’s what’s happening now. So we have, we have people who have, not only Jews, we have an entire segment of the population that knows not war, and another segment that does…


KESTIN: That suffers for it.

HEFFNER: I enjoyed this conversation very much,

KESTIN: Me too.

HEFFNER: Appreciate you being here.

KESTIN: Thank you very much Alexander.

HEFFNER: Thank you, and thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on twitter and Facebook @openmindtv, for updates on future programing.