In Conversation, Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, and Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid

By  //  May 23, 2023

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Yael Eckstein, President and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (also referred to as IFCJ or The Fellowship), oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the organization.

Prior to her present duties, Yael Eckstein served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio programs.

Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel on Capitol Hill in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. She was also featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and 2021, and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019. She was named a winner in the 10th Annual 2022 CEO World Awards®, and received The Jerusalem Post’s 2023 Humanitarian Award.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

In this special episode of Conversations with Yael, podcast host Yael Eckstein interviews Yair Lapid, the former Prime Minister of Israel and a proud Israeli. Yair Lapid shares a profound lesson he learned from the Holocaust, emphasizing the duty of every Israeli to ensure the existence of the Jewish state. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Yair Lapid’s father’s story of survival in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of having a place to call home. By sharing his father’s story, Yair Lapid believes he is sharing the story of the Jewish people.

As Israel prepares to observe Yom HaShoah, a day dedicated to remembering and honoring the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, this conversation between Yael Eckstein and Yair Lapid holds significant insights and importance for both Christians and Jews alike. Join Yael as she engages in this insightful and poignant discussion with Yair Lapid, exploring the enduring impact of the Holocaust on Israel and the Jewish people.

Yael Eckstein: I am so proud and honored to have on the podcast Yair Lapid who served as Israel’s 14th Prime Minister. An Israeli through and through, he was born and raised in Tel Aviv, the son of Israeli journalist and Holocaust survivor Tommy Lapid, and novelist Shulamit Lapid. 

A veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, he then followed his parents’ footsteps, working as a newspaper editor and columnist, as well as publishing many books. He even used his creative talents as a songwriter. Aside from his talent with words, he has also devoted his life to Israel in the public realm, serving in the Knesset as Finance Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and most recently, as Prime Minister of Israel. 

YE: In reading the book that you published in 2011, Memories After My Death, you didn’t write in your tone, but you wrote as if it was your father telling his story from being a Holocaust survivor to being part of the founders of Israel and building Israel to what we know today. How did you get the idea to write in your father’s voice?

YL: Well, I was going through a really long Shiva, which is the memorial day in Judaism. When I started writing the book, I thought I was writing the story of my father. It took me a while before I realized I’m actually writing the story of Jewish people in the 20th century … Because [my father] was this kid in Eastern Europe who grew up in a very bourgeois-like family who felt he lived in this very solid world, the old world, and then everything collapsed at the moment and he finds himself in the basement of the ghetto. His father was killed, was murdered in a concentration camp. And he survived miraculously because everybody who survived miraculously. 

And then he comes to this country. Then the country’s established, and he understands that his destiny was to be here. So it took me a while to understand that I’m writing the story of the Jewish people through my father. So I did it using his voice because it was running in my head in a way. It was my way of saying my farewells to him while discussing what this country should be.

Did you learn anything new about your father that you were researching for this book that you didn’t know when he was alive? 

YL: Well, he was a happy guy. I knew my father was somebody who talked and wrote about his experiences throughout his life. So I mean, there was no huge surprise, no skeletons, no black boxes. Still, we don’t get the chance, I suppose you feel the same with your late father, to look through the history of our parents as something that is organized. So in a way, I was privileged enough to understand my father’s life as a story. Many people said before me that the one thing that differentiated the human species from others is the fact that we are storytellers. We understand life as a story. And now, I understand his story, not only his story as my father but his story as a person, as a human being.

How has being a child of a Holocaust survivor in this modern era affected how you see your responsibility both as a father, as a husband, and as a leader?

YL: There is a story, it’s my family’s story. It’s my story, even though I wasn’t born when it happened. So it’s the terrible winter of 1944, ’45, and my father is a kid in this ghetto. In the basement in the ghetto, there are approximately 600 people in the basement. The Russians are approaching Budapest. The Germans are starting to take the Jews out to death camps, and they’re taking them to the Danube River and they’re shooting them into the water. The Danube was red. 

One very early Monday morning, they’re surrounding the building my father was in and they’re taking all the 600 and they’re walking. They know that they are walking towards their deaths. They understand this. At a certain point, an airplane lowered over this convoy. For two minutes, there was a tremor and people were yelling and shouting and shooting, and the Germans shooting the Schmeisser machine guns into the air. My grandmother saw a small, green public lavatory, and she pushed my father inside. My father was 13 at the time. And she said, “You have to pee now.” It’s difficult if you are 13, and it’s freezing and people are shouting and you’re going to die and you’re scared.

But he did. He was a good kid. So he was pretending to pee, and she walked behind and she closed the door. The convoy left without them. Six minutes later, from the 600 people, 598 were dead in the water, bodies floating in the water. And they were quiet and they left. They opened the door, and there was nothing there. And they realized that they are free, but they have nowhere to go. You think of it, the world was as vast as it is now. In the American Midwest, you can drive for six hours without meeting a soul. I flew once in Australia from Melbourne to Perth, five hours. I didn’t see a single soul from the airplane’s window. So they went back to the ghetto because they had no other place to go.

Many years later, the early ’80s, I went with my father to Budapest and he was happy to go back. He was a big eater, so he was happy with the restaurants, the music, and the people, and enjoyed the language. So we were just strolling down the street, and suddenly, he looks at something and he starts crying. I said, “Dad, what?” He says, “Look at this. Look at…” I said, “What? I see nothing.” He said, “Look at this. Look at this.” And I’m looking. There’s an empty street with a small public lavatory painted green. It is still there. 

How do you feel about Christian support for Israel?

YL: Well, I have a personal debt. I don’t know how much of this you know about the kind of relationship I’ve developed with your father around this subject. I have a daughter with special needs, and when she was, I don’t know, even 14, something like this, all of a sudden, I became aware for the first time in my life of the possibility that I will die one day, which is okay. I mean, everybody dies. But then I said to myself, “Okay, who’s going to take care of her?” Right now, I said to myself, “I’m not allowed to die.” So I was looking around to see if there are any what they call houses for life here in Israel. I realize there’s not a single one here in the vast Tel Aviv area. So I decided we’re going to build one. One of the first phone calls I made was to your father. We sat in a coffee place in Tel Aviv, and I said to him, “You have to explain to me this story of the foundation. How does this work?” He told me the story about this commitment of all these great, unbelievable Christian friends of Israel. And he said, “This is why we have created this foundation. This is why we are here.” He was the single most prominent figure in building this house. My daughter lives there now with 23 others. They’re not children anymore. They’re young people. It’s an unbelievable place. I don’t feel like dying, but I’m allowed to. 

Do you have one role model as you were growing up that you attribute, besides your father, of course, and your mother I know as well, to bring you to where you are today?

YL: I’m not sure you can have only one or two. I’m a constant reader of Edmond Burke and others… They’re not really… It’s the old-school liberals who are considered today conservative thinkers. But if somebody asks me, “Well, what is the book you really read most in your life?” So it’s the Bible, which I still fight with. I mean, I can go and have a fight three rounds with Jeremiah or lose by points to Joshua. But this is the book that I’m going back to as a way of life. I’m an autodidact, so I’m a devoted reader of philosophy and history. I was really close to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He was the only person I called my rabbi in my life.

What is it about the Bible that captivates you?

YL: The ability to teach through great storytelling and letting the conclusions evolve within you instead of just telling you. I mean, there is the part of telling me what is right and what is wrong. But if you look at this, I have dedicated most of my life to writing. You look at the 10 Commandments. Okay, so this is in the Hebrew version, which is the original, 176 words. It’s a paragraph. Okay. If you put it, it’s a small paragraph. These 176 words change the world more than all the jets, tanks, and cannons combined just by being able to approach so many souls at the same time.

The other thing I really love about the Bible, and this is being the secular that I am, is the fact that, unlike later writings, the Bible never tries to hide all the human flaws of those great characters we follow, the fear of Abraham, the doubt… I mean, Moses was a doubter. He’s somebody with doubts all his life. The anger of Samuel. I mean, this makes it real to me. And besides, I live here. I mean, I go to Jerusalem every day on 433 Road, which is the exact route where King Saul goes to look for his father’s donkeys. So it’s part of my life.

Do you have any world leaders that you feel that connection with or any really funny stories that you can share with us?

YL: The funny stories, we keep to ourselves. I have some world leaders who are friends. Emmanuel Macron of France, he’s a friend. Boris Johnson of England, who left the Premiership recently, who’s a funny guy. President Biden, we are friendly with. He was gracious enough to call my son when my son got married to bless him and then invited him to the White House. We were very proud of this. So when I became a politician, and I almost immediately became a finance minister, I realized now I can meet all the people I always read about and ask them the questions you usually don’t ask. 

I asked everyone I met the same question. I said, “Okay, which advice would you give your young self?” I got some great advice from so many people, but I think the best advice I got from John McCain, the late John McCain, who’s a great man. He said, “You know, in politics, people always tell you that you have to have some small compromise for the bigger cause, and then the bigger cause never comes and you are stuck with the bitterness of making the small compromise. Don’t make a small compromise, just do what you believe in. And if there were consequences, deal with them.” This was unbelievable advice from a very smart man.

Mr. Prime Minister, what advice would you give to your younger self?

YL: To listen to John McCain, I guess. I’m sticking to this one. Maybe I will add Laurent Fabius who was prime minister of France at the age of 38. When I met him, he was a foreign minister. Comes from a Jewish family and he said, “Make time for yourself.” And I said, “Sure.” He says, “No, no, no, no, you don’t understand. When you are going into these kinds of positions, there are so many people on your schedule and if you let them, you will work 24 hours a day and then you will never have a chance to think. And thinking is the most important part of our job, so make sure you make some time to think each and every day.” So I’m making some time to think each and every day. He was a brilliant man.

Who is a biblical character that you learn the most from and if there is a verse that you have in front of your eyes as you go about your important and world-changing daily business?

YL: I will have to go with Moses because he is the one extraordinary example of what leadership is. Leadership, unlike what people think, is not facing your enemy because everybody’s a hero… not everyone, most generals will be heroes facing them. Leadership usually is facing your own people, telling them the things they don’t want to hear, and making them take the path they didn’t want to take. His was the kind of leadership you look up to, facing them again and again and again. 

You know, I have my own theory that actually when God has decided not to let him into the country, to Israel, it wasn’t a punishment. I know it’s written as a punishment. I think he was His beloved son, and He was taking him for 40 years to this land of milk and honey. But we know what Israel is really like.

This is no land of milk and honey. This is a tough, tough place. So I think the Lord has decided in His grace to not disappoint him with the reality but to let him think that he’s just missed the world of milk and honey because of some bad he did here many years before.

But going back to your question, he’s the figure I’m looking up to, trying to figure out what leadership really is.