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Can Zionists Speak about the Nakba?

The following is a transcript of Episode 74 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: My name is Daniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast on the Hartman Institute’s iEngage project. Major support for For Heaven’s Sake comes from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. Our theme for today is the Nakba. The minute I say that word I feel the tension and the complexity.

Now our theme, and we’ve chosen this theme, is to try to deal with the core subject of can Zionists speak about the Nakba? And I want to speak on behalf of Josie and Ilana and to all of our audience. I know how fraught and complicated this is. And we ourselves are very ambivalent. 

But as I’m going to outline in a moment, because we can’t use the word, it doesn’t mean a reality is going away. It’s something that we have to talk about, whether we talk about it to deny it or not, but we have to talk about it. And so a warning, a trigger warning to our audience, a trigger warning for ourselves, we’re going to try to figure this out together, and to try to find a language or not. 

But as we always do in For Heaven’s Sake, our job is to try to deal with what we believe are the important subjects and the critical subjects, and hopefully to advance some understanding on them. 

Now, in each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem and myself, discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. Not always as complex and difficult as this one, but we try to take on the most serious issues that we face. And then, Elana Stein Hain, head of the Beit Midrash at SHI North America and senior fellow, explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. And good luck to all of us. 

Let’s begin. This year, for the first time, the United Nations held a formal commemoration mourning what Palestinians call the Nakba, which literally means and is translated as the catastrophe, denoting the uprooting of some 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 war, for us, our war of independence. 

Now Israel, for its part, denounced the session as an act of historical distortion, noting that there would not have been a Nakba if the Arab world did not try to destroy the Jewish state at birth. and instead embraced the UN partition plan. Each side, alternate narratives. 

Now understandably, given the ways in which the Palestinian tragedy has been used to undermine the very legitimacy of Israel, most Zionists are even reluctant to use the term Nakba. It’s almost the minute you say the word, you’re painting yourself. The minute you use the word, you’re alienating people. 

Now, if we need any further foundation for our reticence, to use the term, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in his Nakba Day speech to the UN provided it for us. What did he say? His speech denies any Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount. Really? Denounced what he called Israel’s propaganda of reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Really? Declared his intention to reclaim his native birth city, Tzfat, for a Palestinian state, something that he had explicitly stated in the past, that he was ready to give up Tzfat for the sake of peace. 

So look what happened to him, what did Nakba conversation do to him? Did it reveal the secret Abbas that he’s hiding? Or did it himself move him in a direction that he knows, or part of him knows, that he can’t go there, but just the conversation of Nakba creates this either-or story in an either-or world. And in that story, we find ourselves very often delegitimized. 

Now the Nakba and Israel’s legitimacy are juxtaposed, a zero-sum game discourse. Now in this context, it’s understandable that many Jews are on the defensive. We even find it difficult talking about Palestinian refugee crisis. Everything seems too toxic and fraught. Yet, as the UN session indicated, Nakba, the language, the memory, isn’t fading away. Those of us who live in Israel regularly encounter fellow Israeli citizens for whom the Nakba is a central part of their identity.

Now, is there room for a cautious Zionist confrontation with the Palestinian narrative of Nakba? Even if we remain alert to the abuses of history for political ends, can we acknowledge Palestinian suffering, especially in relationship to Palestinians who are citizens of Israel? Can we hear their stories without endorsing their political conclusions? If we hear their stories, are we giving credence to a language and to categories and to meaning of terms that we ourselves don’t control? 

Welcome to For Heaven’s Sake, Podcast 73, my friends. Let’s begin. Yossi, you and I, we’ve talked, we’re talking, so many years. And I know you yourself are trying to find a way to hear. Like I look at you and I have such love and respect for you because I see you trying to expand constantly your capacity to listen. To listen to those who in the past you couldn’t listen to. In the past people who you declared as outside or you used much worse terms that I don’t even want to use. But it’s a big part of you. Letter to your Palestinian neighbors. I guess, you want to be somebody who is open. 

When the word Nakba hits you, does it shut you down?

Yossi: It hits me all right. It really hits me. Right in the gut. And I so much want to go where you’re pointing to, Donniel. I so much want to meet that challenge. But before I even begin to try to get there, I have to reassure myself that my truth, my historical truth is not going to be sacrificed in the process of empathizing with the other. And for me, that’s the prerequisite for an authentic encounter with the counter-narrative, with the Palestinian narrative, an affirmation, first of all of my story, standing strongly in my story and from that place reaching out. I can’t do it otherwise. 

And so when you ask me, you know, where does the word nakba hit me? My instinctive reaction is the very word catastrophe means the catastrophe of the Arab world’s failure to destroy Israel. That’s the real catastrophe that they’re mourning. And there’s actually historic evidence for that. If you go back and see how the word nakba was first used by the first Arab journalists responding to 1948, it was the catastrophe of the Arab world’s defeat, their military defeat, even before they even spoke about the refugee issue. 

So the first place this hits me in my Jewish gut is, you’re asking me to atone for the fact that I didn’t allow myself to be destroyed? You’re asking me to atone for the fact that I exist? I’m not going there. I can’t go there. And if that’s the premise for a conversation on Nakba, I’m out of here. So that’s on the emotional level. 

There’s another level here, which is Nakba frightens me. It frightens me as someone who wants a two-state solution. And the fear here is that what Nakba is telling us is really what Mahmoud Abbas told us in his UN speech, which is it’s not about 1967. It’s not about redressing the grievances of 1967. It’s not about a two-state solution. It’s about 1948 and redressing the grievance of Israel’s existence, which means it’s about an endless insoluble grievance. 

And that’s what Israeli society discovered frankly, in the year 2000. And we’re still living in the shadow of the Second Intifada and the failure of Oslo, which was really the failure to assert 1967 over 1948. Let’s solve 1967 and we’ll leave 1948 alone. That was the premise of the Oslo process. We’ll give you 1967, you give us 1948. And it failed. And Abbas reasserted that at the UN. 

So that’s my starting point. It’s not my end point, Donniel, but it’s my starting point. 

Donniel: But let’s stop, there, I appreciate it. Let’s bring in, Elana, what’s your starting point?

Elana: So my starting point is who is on my mind as we’re recording. And it’s so funny because over the hours, the list has gotten longer. So I’m gonna give you a list right now and I’m sure that it’s gonna grow as we talk. 

So I’ve got in my mind my Jewish family and friends who live all over Israel, and I mean all over Israel, beyond the Green Line. I have in my mind the Muslim American leaders who I’ve been engaging with for 10 years through the Muslim Leadership Initiative. I have in my mind Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian non-citizens, some Palestinian citizens of Israel who are colleagues at Hartman in Israel. I have in my mind American Jews, who have a really hard time with Jewish particularism. And I have in my mind Jews who are overly particularist. 

So what I would say is, I think that in this moment, what we’re really asking is, what’s the best way to be a Zionist, a decent person, someone who cares about the future of the region? That’s my starting point. 

And yes, I would say that the words that are coming out of your mouth are definitely very triggering. I’m not going to lie. So I’ll just put it right there.

Donniel: So where does it get, now, you gave me a list. Now tell me, Elana. Forget about others. Just you yourself. When you hear the word, what’s your first,

Elana: Here’s what I wanna know. Here’s what I want to know. I want to know, are we having a conversation in order to build trust? Are we having a conversation in order to think about our own morals? Are we having a conversation to do public statements? 

And I’m wondering, you know, when someone spits at you, don’t say, oh, it’s raining, let me get an umbrella. And so my question really is, what’s the purpose of having this conversation? 

I think there are contexts in which the purpose of having the conversation is to build trust, and I’m very pro that. I think that the idea that the purpose of the conversation is to make public statements and to be able to show that we’re, you know, I don’t know, self-flagellating. I’m very uncomfortable with that. So I’m looking at a spectrum.

Donniel: So that’s the way you see. You see it as a choice, which is interesting, between a moral conversation or self-flagellation. I’m wondering whether, again, each one of us lives in different communities. When I come to this conversation, my community is first and foremost myself. Which is, I know that’s bizarre. Welcome to my strange life. 

But that’s like, I have a wonderful community. I have a minyan. It’s me, me. It’s now me, myself. I could add all these pronouns now and I have a whole, I could have a whole,

Yossi: Donniel, I think one of the reasons you and I get along so well together is that each of us is a community of one.

Donniel: No, I’m claiming a minyan. I have a whole bunch of them. But when I come to think about this, and this is a real weakness, and I accept that it is a weakness, and maybe it comes from the fact that I work in an institute where my name is on the wall, and I feel like so at home. I feel like I never want to do politics. If I never had to do politics, I would be joyful. Politics in the sense of worrying about, like when you said the statement, Elana, it just, it got me a little bit, but I didn’t, like, oh, are people doing it for the sake of this or that? 

It’s like everybody, we change the conversation by asking people what is their motives and like that. I just look at the issue itself. And the issue itself, in my own little community of one, starts from a few places. 

The first, it starts, as I’ve mentioned a few times in this podcast, from a profound sense of power and victory. I’m not frightened about Israel. I’m willing to fight for it, but I don’t live with a sense of fear. Again, that’s a weakness of mine. I don’t feel it vis-a-vis anti-Semitism. And I don’t feel it vis-a-vis the anti-Zionist universe. 

And it’s not that I’m belittling the discourse outside, but when I’m in my community, it’s like, I feel, I feel victorious. I feel powerful. I even feel safe. And the second part is, and this has nothing to do with Nakba or not Nakba, it has to do with my whole approach to, my whole Jewish life. I never let other people define my categories. 

Now as long as you’re not working in the political realm, you can do that. I’m not doing, I’m talking substance, but in general. I just don’t let anybody define me, define what God means, mitzvah, Judaism, nothing. It’s like, I was raised in this way, that to be a Jew is to engage your tradition with your own mind, your own soul, your own moral universe, and to own it. 

And so when I come and look at this term, I know how Palestinians use the term. And I know how people who are using it as some, in some politically destructive manner, or again, you know, various people wanting to show, look, I’m fine, they don’t even know what the term means. I’m aware of, but it just doesn’t matter to me. 

The fundamental question that I ask myself, can I as a lover of Israel, can I as somebody who embraces the right of the Jewish people to be a sovereign people and as somebody who experiences the victory of the Jewish people, can I look to my fellow citizens in Israel, and I know I’m making a particular focus here, can I recognize that I’m walking in the midst of people who my coming home was not their independence day? That my coming home was not something that they yearned for for 2,000 years. It wasn’t their tikvah. It wasn’t. 

And that many of them, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or inflicted by us. Again, I appreciate that what happened is important, but for me, it just doesn’t matter anymore. Could I accept that I’m living in the midst of people for whom something has been broken. A tragedy occurred that they are carrying and then in many ways they’re carrying alone, alone, in a country that’s celebrating its victory, that’s marching on and who feel that there’s something that they experienced that has no place. 

And so when I come to this issue, this is where I start and I know fully well that I can’t do that. And that’s what we have to talk about today. I know that I can’t ignore, I can’t live in a vacuum. And I know when I use certain terms, they’re gonna be used by people. And they’re gonna be misused. And I don’t wanna harm Israel, but at the same time, my first instinct is to lay claim to who it is that I wanna be and who it is that I believe Israel ought to be.

Yossi: So my first instinct, Donniel, is to protect us. And I live in two realms. I live in the Hartman Institute where I’m fully a part of our conversation of who we need to be and living in the pain of the disparity between who we need to be and who we are. And in the Hartman Institute, I’m fully with this conversation. I want to mourn with my fellow citizens who are Arab. I want to weep for what’s happened to their people. And yes, our homecoming inadvertently, and I emphasize the word inadvertently, unintentionally, it was not the intention of the Zionist movement to uproot Palestinians, but that was the consequence of our return home and of the Arab world’s attempt to thwart our return home. 

And I want to embrace our fellow citizens. Look, we’re now we’re becoming an institute of Jewish citizens of Israel and Arab citizens. It’s one of the most beautiful things that’s happened to Hartman. And I realize that if we’re going to have a deeper conversation, we can’t leave Nakba outside the room. I understand that. But Donniel, I don’t feel safe. 

And part of me lives in the victory of Zionism, and part of me lives with the ongoing vulnerability of that victory, the tenuousness of the victory. And that’s the paradox, the emotional paradox that I live with. And when I approach Nakba, That’s exactly what I’m laying onto this. It’s that sense of we won, we need to reach out, we’re still vulnerable, we have to protect ourselves. 

And the last point here is that the way that Nakba is being used is to implicate Israel, the existence of Israel, in a crime. Zionism itself is a crime. We were founded in an original sin. And I can’t go there. I won’t go there. Every part of my being rebels against that definition of who we are.

Donniel: You know, Yossi, me too. When the notion that there is an original sin connected to Zionism, that Zionism at its core was a colonial enterprise intending on disenfranchising Palestinians of their rights, is something alien to what I know about my people and to what I know firsthand through family, et cetera, as to what was the impetus? 

The impetus wasn’t an anti-Palestinian. There was a desire of a people to live and to come home and to finally be safe and normal and to build an exemplary society. And any attempt to disparage the original intent of Zionism is also something that, the truth is, Yossi, I don’t even engage in the conversation. I live by, and I have the luxury, and I appreciate listeners who don’t have that luxury. I have the luxury to follow the rabbinic commandment, just as it is a mitzvah to say that which will be heard, so is it a mitzvah not to say that which will won’t be heard. I don’t debate anti-semites, I don’t debate people who have a distorted notion of myself. 

Like it’s precisely that either-or zero-sum conversation, that I just, I don’t engage in. I just leave the room. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who say I have to stay in the room. To what extent they’re helpful or not is a separate conversation. But let’s assume that politics of some form has value. 

You know, and in fact, what was it, 30 or something, what was it, 36 countries didn’t go to the Nakba commemorative event as a result of Israel’s political activism. And they were able to think that this was going to be an either-or, and in fact, Abbas did that. 

But there’s another side, and you said you were in defense mode. I’ve discovered, but maybe it’s also the people who I meet. And I’m very selective on the people who I meet. That it is precisely when you represent a position that’s willing to be reflective, that’s willing to hear and to grow, you actually defend Israel far more. When we were in a moment where you could say, did it happen? Did it not happen? Was Zionist a colonial enterprise intentionally or was it not? Then there’s one level of a conversation. 

The reality now is, is that Nakba is part of the language. And when you make no room for it in your defense, when you do a zero-sum game, we actually lose.

Yossi: Right, you’re right. 

Donniel: Because everybody knows that there was a Palestinian catastrophe.

Yossi: Yes.

Donniel: Everybody knows there was one. Okay, we could debate whether it was, you know, as you said, you categorically reject the notion that this was the intent of Zionism from its moment of inception. And I like that’s where anti-Zionism starts becoming anti-Semitic. I don’t want to go there either. 

But we know, we know that some Palestinians left and some Palestinians were forced to leave. We know, and I’m quoting you, you were very clear, you were very precise, that it was a consequence, a catastrophe. Everybody knows! Everybody knows that this wasn’t a land without a people. Everybody knows that there’s now, just even in Israel, there’s two million citizens. Everybody knows that we’re now looking at the Palestinian people. 

By the way, everybody also knows now, except for a few people who claim that it was Jews who claimed that it was only their grandfather, like Smotrich, who was the true Palestinian, and other than that there’s no Palestinian, everybody knows there’s a Palestinian, like, you know, come off of that.

Yossi: Not only, there’s no Palestinian people, there’s no occupation, there’s no nothing.

Donniel: There’s nothing. And they think that they’re defending Israel. Like that’s a defense. Really? To whom? What you’re doing is you’re defending Israel to those who are irrelevant. 

The vast majority of people want to be decent people. And I think we can make a claim to that decency. The vast majority of people want a decent moral conversation. And I find that when we are willing to recognize that in the midst of our victory, there were consequences, people are willing to see you in a different light. 

It’s when you deny it and get into such defense mode and you allow the abusers of the language of Nakba to control you, then we end up losing. And I have had instance after instance after instance. In some of the groups, Elana, that you mentioned who came to the Institute. And when I was willing to use what in their words was the N-word, this Nakba word, that, whoa, could a Jew use that word? And I made the clear distinction, if my recognizing a Nakba requires me to dismantle the state of Israel, then I’m out. But I could admit that there’s something happened for which I not only wanna take responsibility, I also wanna hear you. And in doing so, enable Palestinians to feel more a part of Israel. I find that that’s the best defense, Yossi.

Yossi: No, I agree with you. And the process that I’ve gone through in recent years, both through being involved with the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which Elana mentioned, and the experience of writing Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor and then getting responses from Palestinians and then meeting them and deeply engaging with them, was forcing myself to emotionally acknowledge, leaving politics aside, emotionally acknowledging the Palestinian tragedy, which was a multiple shattering of a people. 

And if you think about where the Palestinians are today, one part lives under occupation. One part are uneasy citizens in a Jewish state. Another part are in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. Yet another part are scattered in a diaspora around the world. This is a historic tragedy that we do have to come to terms with emotionally. 

Now, what I hear you saying, Donniel, is a very interesting distinction. And I want to make it explicit. You are emphasizing the need for us to have a conversation about the Nakba with our fellow citizens who are Palestinian. Now, what I don’t hear you saying, and I think that that’s what you spoke earlier about not saying certain things, I think this is one of the things that is best not to say at this point, is the need to come to terms with the Palestinian national movement about the Nakba. 

And the reason that I say that for me, that’s a dead end at this point, it’s because of the speech we heard from Mahmoud Abbas, because the Palestinian national movement is not yet prepared to accept our legitimacy. And I can’t grant them that victory, that historic acknowledgement, which I know they’ll just use against me. 

But you’re saying something different. And I want to push this a little bit. In our conversation with our fellow citizens who live in a Jewish state, they live under our sovereignty. And every year we celebrate our Independence Day. And what happens, that, these are people who I live literally in the same building with. And I’ve said this on previous podcasts. Half my building in French Hill are Palestinian citizens of Israel. We put out the flag on Independence Day. We have a barbecue and they’re quiet. They’re respectful. They certainly don’t interfere. 

But I’ve become acutely aware, since Arab families have begun moving into my building, of the awkwardness, the pain of my neighbors. I’m celebrating, and they’re on some level in mourning. Now, that raises all kinds of very complicated questions about, how do we create even a minimal shared civic Israeli identity when we can’t even emotionally celebrate the existence of this country together? That’s a very real issue. But maybe the way to begin creating a civic identity is at least to acknowledge that emotional gap. And that’s a starting point. Maybe even before we start going into, I’m so sorry about, let’s at least put it on the table. It’s there.

Donniel: That’s right. And I’m not even into, I don’t even know, I’m not into the, I’m so sorry for your, I’m with you on that. 

It is, you’re right, my primary impetus, and I’m feeling it more and more, is that I feel that the real test of Zionism. is not going to be on resolving what happens in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, the occupation, even though I believe that ultimately like you it needs to be resolved and that the Palestinian people have a right to independence, but until in which time that can be achieved while maintaining Israel’s security, there’s really nothing to talk about. 

So unfortunately that is the huge elephant in the room that I personally believe is on hold, which is itself a problematic thing, because an elephant takes up a lot of room and our and but it is on hold. It’s like it’s coming. You can’t really put an elephant in the room on hold, but that’s what we’re doing. 

But for me, it is, I feel that the real test now is to make sure that Israel, and I’m going to use a term that in Israel is politically complicated, even though for me it’s, Israel has to be like every state, a state of all of its citizens. And that the homeland of the Jewish people is a homeland where Arabs are treated, yes, equally. That there is justice and equality for all of Israel’s citizens. And that that’s motivated by my desire to have a Jewish state, by my commitment to a Jewish state. And part of that begins by seeing people. 

You know, what’s hateful unto you, do not do unto others. That’s the whole Torah. We were like the transparent people. I wanna start by seeing. I wanna start by hearing. And that is, you know, in the political debate, when it’s Nakba or the zero-sum game, you know, I’m with you. You know, when it’s the zero-sum game, that’s a different conversation. But my primary audience is to enable Zionism to fulfill its moral vision. 

Now, also there’s one other audience, which as Elana said, has grown out of some of the work at the Hartman Institute, in which we reach out to people, non-Jewish communities, multiple ethnic and national identities, who are interested in hearing and engaging and are ambivalent. And for many of them who feel that they are minorities who aren’t seen, they are minorities who are transparentized, our discourse of our minority becomes a critical part of their ability to embrace Zionism. 

And it is precisely by lovers of Israel being willing to use the term Nakba in our way, in those contexts, that it actually has, it’s a necessary tool, not just for the healing of Israel, but for the expanding of the audience who is willing to engage Zionism, not in an Abbas and not in certain political movements where progressive equals moral equals reject Zionism. That’s another conversation. 

But we have a lot of friends out there. And I think we’ve done tremendous disservice to Zionism and to our cause by not embracing certain terms that, whether we like it or not, they’re there. And they’re not going to go away. 

Last word, Yossi, before we take a break. And then we’ll invite Elana into the conversation again.

Yossi: Yeah, you know, it’s, my Nakba challenge is how to live in the two worlds that I inhabit. I inhabit the Hartman moral universe in which this conversation not only makes sense, but is essential. And I also inhabit the political world of defending Israel. And so my Nakba challenge and our Nakba challenge is how to develop both languages simultaneously.

Donniel: Thank you, Yoss. Let’s take a short break and then Elana will join us.

Elana, take us further.

Elana: Alright, alright, alright, alright. So a few things, a few things to say. 

First thing, I’m listening to your conversation, and here’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about the question of whether Zionists, people who support the state of Israel, do they think that the path forward for a stable, safe Jewish state is the zero-sum route? Which is, we Jews, we have to protect ourselves, we have to have a somewhat exclusivist ethics because there are dangers on many levels. Or do we think that the only way the future is actually stable and enduring is together? At the very least, together with Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

And I think that in the American Jewish Zionist community, this is a major, major line, a major argument. That’s one thing I wanna say. And I’ll get to the Torah in a minute. 

Second thing I wanna say is I wanna talk about language and code-switching. I was talking to Rav Yaakov and again, a couple of weeks ago, on this reclaiming religious Zionism series that we did. And he said to me, I can essentially make the same points in a right-wing yeshiva as I can while I’m talking to members of the Palestinian Authority. How? I talk about it in different ways. I use different language. I use different words. 

And I think that’s really important in this conversation because there are certain terms that turn the most decent and wonderful people off from being able to think about anybody else’s experience. And Nakba is one of those words. And I think that if we’re talking about an ethic of thinking about what shared society means for Israel, we need to think about differentiated ways of discussing it without self-righteousness and without judgment for moral actors who want to think about these things. So those are the two things I want to say before I get to the Torah.

Now there’s one more thing I want to say, which is data and interpretation. I want to know, like, what does this conversation look like? What data is in there? We talk about the British Mandate, we talk about the Arab League, do we talk about what’s going on right now in terms of decision-making by the Israeli government? And then how are we interpreting all of this different data. Right? There’s a lot here. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot here. And what are the morals of zero sum, the realities of politics, Jewish particularism? It’s a lot here. Right? We’ve opened the Pandora’s box. We knew we were opening the Pandora’s box. 

And now onto the Torah, which will not solve everything, but will at least give us a grounding in some aspirationalism. I want to talk about what it means to be a chassid or a chassidah, to be pious, to be God-fearing. 

Now, the Talmud and the Mishnah talk about this in lots of different ways. You know, and I’m choosing because I want to put us on a spectrum, right? I’m always choosing. So I’m going to start with this. The Talmud in Bava Kamma, 30a, Babylonian Talmud, says the following. Rav Yehuda says, someone who wants to be a chassidah, someone who wants to be pious, should observe the matters of what’s called nezikin, damages. When you want to be pious, learn all the laws of damages, how not to cause damage to someone else, what the compensation structure is, right, so that you avoid causing damage to other people. 

Rava says, no, no, you want to be pious? You should really observe the matters of what we call avot, what I like to call ethics of the ancestors. People like to call it ethics of the fathers, right? It’s about being a good person, it’s about being moral. 

And some say, if you want to be pious, you should observe the matters of rahot, of benedictions, right, which clearly has a between God and human beings kind of way. 

So I want to say the baseline of trying to be a pious person, trying to be a God-fearing person is you gotta care about when you cause damage to others. Whether on purpose, whether by mistake, whether out of self-protection, you’ve gotta care. 

But I also, I must, must, must, must, must, must, must, must also talk about how the possibility of being so caring for others as to forget your own. It’s so real. And it’s not that the rabbis, they’re not expressing this particular problem, but they give us a category. A person who’s so pious that they’re not pious anymore, they’re kind of foolish in their piousness. 

So we have the Mishnah in Sota. He, Rabbi Yehoshua, used to say, a chassid shoteh, a pious fool, a conniving wicked person, and an abstinent woman, we’ll talk about that another time, and those who injure themselves out of false abstinence. All these people erode the world. A pious fool. 

What is a pious fool? This is a category that I know, it’s at the boundaries of this, but it needs to be said, I need to say it, okay? I wanna be pious, I don’t wanna be a pious fool. The Jerusalem Talmud, and of course, as usual, there’s something in the Babylonian Talmud, but here in the Jerusalem Talmud, it’s a little bit, does something, somebody was talking to me recently and they said, let me do an imitation of you. I found something in the Jerusalem Talmud. There’s something in the Babylonian Talmud, but the Jerusalem Talmud says it better. I was like, wow, you really listened to the podcast. 

So Jerusalem Talmud, Sota, okay, on that Mishnah that we just read, who is a pious fool? Someone who sees a baby, God forbid, drowning in a river. And that person says, you know, I got my phylacteries on. I can’t jump in to save the kid. When I take them off, then I’ll go in and save the kid. You know what happens, by the time this person takes them off, the child is gone.

Someone who sees a ripe fig and says, you know, the first person I see this to, I’m gonna give it to them. What does he see? He sees a woman being chased by a man who’s trying to attack her. And he runs after the woman and says, can I give you this fig? I wanna give you this. And you’re like, come on, pious fool. I said the first person I see, I would give it to! You’re missing the story. 

Now, I wanna be pious, I don’t wanna be a pious fool. And the question that I have is, in this conversation about Palestinian narrative, Palestinian experience, what does it look like to be pious? What does it look like to care? What does it look like to build trust? And what does it look like to be a pious fool? Where I am so busy with my moral purity that my baby is drowning and I’m not helping my baby. 

But I’ll tell you, you know me. I gotta do the other side also. What does it look like to be pious in protecting your own? And what does it look like to be a pious fool in protecting your own? Where there’s urgency around something and you’re so busy with your other something that you can’t see it and you miss it.

Donniel: I wanna push you, Elana.

Elana: Of course, always, always!

Donniel: I don’t want you, because you’re, it’s safe.

Elana: Of course it’s safe.

Donniel: I want, it’s safe. I want to be pious and I don’t want to be a pious fool. I hear them. On the Nakba, you said like, I’m with you. I know what it means to be a pious fool. I, we got that. We’ve heard it. We know what that is. We know to be a pious fool is to be so moral that you’re delegitimizing your own right to exist and all of the above. 

And you even added an interesting dimension at the beginning that also maybe foolish piousness is not taking into account some of the difficulties that your people have with language, that that’s also, great. 

But now, is there any obligations of piety when it comes to the Nakba? Anything. You get to define, it’s just piety. What does piety obligate you to?

Elana: Yes. Okay. Great. So let’s say two things.

Donniel: And you can say nothing. And that’s okay too. But then there’s no distinction in this case between piety and a pious fool.

Elana: So I think there’s two things, and my opinions are evolving and yet this is going to go out to thousands of people. Right? So it’s like, oh good, your opinions are evolving

Donniel: No, it’s just between us. 

Elana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Donniel: This’ll just be between me and you. Just you and I. Cause we’re doing a chavruta. 

Elana: Yeah, yeah, totally. 

So here’s what I would say. When I teach my children about the narrative of Zionism, I teach them about Palestinian narratives.

Donniel: Okay, good. Great. That’s a big one. MLI.

Elana: In my, wait, so I want to say something. That’s not where the conversation ends. The conversation then continues to ask, well, do politics always have to be zero-sum? What if there are times when they have to be zero-sum? Then what? 

That is an essential part of this conversation, and that is part of piety too, in my opinion, that’s one. 

Donniel: So is zero-sum depending on the audience? When an audience, does it,

Elana: No!

Donniel: No, and that’s legitimate by the way, when an audience is a zero-sum, then there’s no room for piety.

Elana: No, I’m not saying that. I think that the piety is to recognize that your perspective on what’s happened and what’s redounded positively for you and your people is not the only story. And to be able to hear someone else’s story and care about them and build relationships with them. 

But I think that all too often, especially in an American context, it’s not in context of building relationship and trust. It’s in context of deciding who’s blameworthy and who’s gonna win.

Donniel: Fair enough. 

Elana: And so in MLI, there’s plenty of piety. I’m telling my story, they’re telling their stories, and we have the burden of knowing each other’s stories and caring about each other’s stories, right?

But I’m very wary that a conversation of, well, do we talk about this? That’s the beginning of the conversation. It’s, okay, so now what? Do we say politics can never be zero-sum? That’s a joke. Of course politics has to be zero-sum sometimes. You’re talking about a Jewish state, where everyone should be able to live in the Jewish state. 

You’re making assumptions there that plenty of people would say, well, once you’re talking about this, are you sure? Those are the assumptions you wanna make, right? So I’m not comfortable talking about piety without talking about foolish piety. I’m just not comfortable.

Donniel: Fair enough. Fair enough. I appreciate that very much. And it’s an important distinction. 

I want to just end with the category, Yossi, that you had raised. And there’s a classic distinction between debating 1967 and debating 1948, where Zionists are much more comfortable, or some are more comfortable debating 1967. While if you want to debate the existence of Israel 1948, that’s outside the realm. And that becomes foolish piety. 

I think we’re coming to a time where it’s the opposite. I think 67, as long as there isn’t a possibility for Israel and a future Palestinian state to live side by side in mutual peace and security, the truth is you can’t debate 1967. It’s like, I actually think that there’s an increasing conversation about 1948, which is endangering us, but we have a possibility to significantly enhance our standing and our security, as well as our own internal Jewish identity by reshaping the 1948 discourse. 

There are some who want to talk about whether Israel has a right to be. Forget that. When people debate whether Israel has a right to be, Nakba, puts you as a chassid shoteh. But there are people who are really open to having a relationship with Israel, but want to have an accounting, an accounting of what happened. Want to know how you Israeli Jews think about it. And with our fellow citizens, especially in Israel, want to know whether they have a place. 

And so actually, I think we don’t have to be as frightened of all 1948 discourse. Some, yes, but not all. And when we open ourselves to that, maybe that’s the line between chassid and chassid shoteh, or Yossi, your line between being moral and at the same time defending ourselves. Maybe it’s the nature of the people who we’re talking to. 

But this is not just a conversation about a word. I think how Zionism not is portrayed understands itself is going to have to have some form of an accounting about this category. 

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman with support from Michal Taylor. It was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. And our music was provided by Socalled. 

Major funding for For Heaven’s Sake is provided by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation of Los Angeles because of our shared commitment to strengthen the connection between Jews in North America and Israel. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at 

We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show. You can also write to us at [email protected]. Subscribe to our show everywhere else where podcasts are available. See you in two weeks. 

Thank you for listening and Yossi and Elana, thank you for being here and for engaging in such a thoughtful way in one of the hard issues of our time.

Yossi: Well, thank you both.

Elana: Thank you.

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