Complete our annual survey—and win a prize? | Join us for more 18Forty in your WhatsApp or right in your email

Jonathan Gribetz: What’s Next: Teaching the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Listen_Apple_ButtonListen_Spotify_ButtonListen_Google_Button

SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Jonathan Gribetz, a Princeton professor and scholar of Near Eastern and Judaic studies, about the history of Israel and Palestine.

At a time in which we can feel as if we’re all at war, it may be helpful to take a step back and look at the full history between Arabs and Israelis, to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges we face in 2024. Jonathan Gribetz helps us do this. In this episode we discuss:

  • What was discourse between Jews and Arabs like during the infancy of Zionism?
  • When and how did this discussion begin to deteriorate and become often counterproductive?
  • What can a current Ivy League professor teach us about discussing Israel today?

Tune in to hear a conversation about how we might seek out the seeds of a reconciliation between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.

Interview begins at 4:50.

Jonathan Marc Gribetz is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Judaic Studies at Princeton University, where he teaches about the history of Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel, and Jewish and Arab nationalisms. He is the author of Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter.

References:
Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter by Jonathan Marc Gribetz

David Bashevkin: 

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where each month we explore different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re continuing our exploration of the war in Israel, and we are asking what’s next? This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas, so be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s one eight F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Especially over the last few months, it seems that the Jewish and Palestinian struggle, we are literally talking quite past each other. The animus has rosen towards the point where you hear things that are simply have no basis in history. Accusations are leveled that the Jewish people are not really a people. We are usurpers of a land that never belong to us people and media outlets sometimes questioning our very connection to the Har HaBayit, to the Temple Mount, or the Beit HaMikdash the Temple built by David HaMelech once stood. 

And honestly, in some ways it does go both ways. Often I hear in Jewish circles questioning that there’s no such thing as Palestinians. They’re not a real people. What is their connection to the land of Israel? And very often, and these are sometimes the absolute hardest questions, a more sophisticated and historically grounded approach seems to evaporate as we escalate in the way that we attack one another and the way that we justify each of our positions that we’re no longer able to even see one another. And that is why our guest today, I think is so important and so necessary for this moment. Professor Jonathan Gribetz does not often come on podcasts. It’s not what he does. He’s really a scholar of the highest order who loves his material and hates polemicism and we’re not talking today about polemics. Today we’re talking really squarely about the absolutely jaw droppingly fascinating area of expertise that he has spent his entire academic career on. 

Professor Jonathan Gribetz is the associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and in the program of Judaic studies at Princeton University, where he teaches many courses revolving around the Zionist Arab encounter. His first book Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter is absolutely jaw dropping. And he comes at this from multiple perspectives. His first book is about the first encounters between the Zionist dream and the Arabic population who lived in Israel. His forthcoming book on which he’s published several articles, many of which I’ve referenced before, talk about the early conception of the PLO, of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and how they understood Jewish peoplehood and Judaism itself. When I say his scholarship is jaw-dropping, I am not using hyperbole. As you’ll hear in this interview, he studies an area of that encounter from different periods in the last century or so, a little bit more that is simply so understudied and so underappreciated and really explains why so often when we are speaking to one another about this conflict, we’re talking straight past each other. 

And he really grounds this dialogue almost once upon a time when these two populations saw each other, eye to eye, face-to-face and understood each other better. And then a second period of which we will also discuss when the conversation may be escalated to a certain degree and went in a different direction. And finally, the perspective that I think is so important that he offers is what is it like teaching about the Israeli conflict in this moment in an Ivy League university? He’s been teaching in Princeton for many years and his work is simply jaw dropping. Most of all, why I’m so confident, why he is a voice that we need, we, our community needs right now is, as you will hear, he speaks with a great deal of humility, kindness, and graciousness. And I think he has that comforting, stabilizing voice that helps you understand how things got to where they are today, which is why it is really and truly a privilege to introduce our conversation with Professor Jonathan Gribetz. 

I am so excited to speak with you today, and I wanted to start with almost once upon a time. Once upon a time, I want to go back to really the crux of your first book, which is called Defining Neighbors, which I read a few weeks ago. It is a phenomenal book, and I want you to take us back to a time before the state. This is late 19th century, early 20th century. I was wondering if you could outline for me what was the tenor of conversation between the leadership within the Palestinian world and the emerging Zionist leaders who were beginning to see the glimmers of the idea of a state in Israel. 

Because the way that you discuss this in your book is really fascinating, and it does take us back to, I don’t think the right word is a utopian time, but maybe a less fractious and divisive time, A time where many, though I’m sure not all within the Palestinian world and the Jewish Zionist world, were speaking to each other with maybe more honesty and vulnerability. What do you think characterizes the conversations that you have highlighted in this period that make it so important and unique? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Thank you for the question. Look, the beginning of the contact between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine took place as Zionists began to immigrate to Palestine in the late 19th century. They were a tiny community at first. Even as late as World War I, there were only about 60,000 Jews in Palestine as opposed to about 600,000 Palestinian Christians and Muslims, mainly Muslims, but also about 10% Christians. So we’re talking about a very small community, a community that is arriving in Palestine during the Ottoman period, the Ottoman Empire controlled Palestine from 1517 until what we know in retrospect was until 1917 when the British conquered. And so this community of Jews, mainly from Europe, but also from the Middle East, was arriving in Palestine, joining other Jewish communities that had already been in Palestine in the Ottoman period, also very small communities. And some of them were arriving within ideology called Zionism, which saw the Jews as a nation that was returning to its ancient historic homeland in Palestine. 

There to ultimately create some sort of state, whether it be a fully independent sovereign state or something else within an imperial structure that many different Zionists were thinking about at the time. They arrived and met the people who were living in Palestine, mainly Muslims and Christians, Arabic speakers. And they had to figure out who are these people? And similarly, the Arabs of Palestine had to try to figure out who are these people coming off the boat? And what I wrote about in Defining Neighbors, is that early encounter, that encounter between Jews who were coming to Palestine, who thought of this as their homeland, and there met all of these other people who were already living there and thought of it as their homeland. And on the other side how Arabs of Palestine who had been living there for centuries or whose families had been living there for centuries, what they thought of these people coming off the boat and saying, “Hey, this is our homeland.” 

And so I guess one way to think about it, or one way that I tried to investigate this was to look at the ways in which these people wrote about one another. I mean, we don’t have their voices anymore, didn’t record themselves on podcasts, but what we do have is their writing, some of it, and of course, only elites were writing. So what I’m talking about here is really only on the elite level. 

David Bashevkin: 

That’s an important distinction. Your scholarship really reflects the views of the leadership. It focuses much less on what was the common Arabic Palestinian at the time or common, just everyday Zionists at the time. I assume it’s because we don’t really have that much correspondence from people whose correspondence wasn’t preserved by the historical record. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

That’s right. I mean, we have writings about common people, but those are writings by definition, by people who were literate and who were writing, who had the time and the means and the education to write. And so the work that I do focuses, especially in my first book, focuses on sort of intellectuals, not necessarily political leaders, though sometimes it’s political leaders, but intellectuals and elites, people who have the time, the means, and the education to sit and write. I’ll give you maybe a few examples of the ways in which this encounter took place. Sometimes it was a face-to-face encounter. Sometimes what we have is not necessarily a record of face-to-face encounters, but what I would think of textual encounters, encounters where people are writing about one another and sometimes even reading what the other people are writing about them and responding. 

I’ll give you an example of maybe some early Palestinian writing about Zionism and about Zionists and then some Zionist writing about Palestinian Arabs. One interesting source from this period is a letter that Yousef Diya al-Khalidi wrote to Zadoc Kahn, who was the chief rabbi of France, meant to pass this letter on to Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist Congress. This was a letter written by Yousef Diya, a Jerusalemite Palestinian Muslim intellectual and political leader, had been the mayor of Jerusalem in which he writes in 1899 to Zadoc Kahn. 

David Bashevkin: 

Zadoc Kahn I believe was a really fascinating figure who also corresponded with Sigmund Freud. I think the one letter that we have where Sigmund Freud finally confesses his deep Jewish identity was in response to a birthday message he got from Rabbi Zadoc Kahn. So just a little vignette in there. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Very interesting. Of course, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism is a fascinating book in terms of his thinking about the Bible. I would say about this letter that in it Yousef Diya al-Khalidi says that the idea of Zionism, the idea of Jews returning to their homeland is beautiful, it’s just. And he cites the Hebrew prophets saying that, “Isn’t it the case that we all have one father?” He contends that Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims are deeply connected to one another. So he both embraces an idea of Jews and Arabs being related, related as people, related religiously, and also expresses in theory, a sympathy toward the idea of Jews returning to their homeland. But then he says that the idea is really nice, but the reality is different. The reality is that, there are many non-Jews living in Palestine now who do not want their homeland to become a Jewish state. 

And he also warns that if Jews begin to come to Palestine and ultimately do take over, this would be an immense danger for the Jews of the Ottoman lands that people, their neighbors elsewhere in the Ottoman lands would feel that Jews were harming their fellow Ottoman Muslims. And that, that could be a real danger for the future of the Jews living in the Arab world then in the Ottoman Empire. So what I find interesting about this letter is of course, Yousef Diya al-Khalidi was not a Zionist. He was not arguing that the Jews should return to Palestine and create their Jewish state, but he accepted the long history of the Jews and their connection to Palestine, the desire that they had to return to Palestine and didn’t see them as these complete foreigners either to him or to the land. 

David Bashevkin: 

Exactly. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

And that I think is interesting, because as we see in retrospect and in later periods, people did come to see the Jews as foreigners, as disconnected from the land, as disconnected from the people there. And so what’s interesting for me in looking at this letter is, well, no, actually it didn’t start out that way. So that’s an interesting source to think about when we look at this early period. 

David Bashevkin: 

I think another thing that it really challenges is, in the current dialogue, and we will get to how it changed and when it changed. And the current dialogue is much more a zero some game where we’re challenging one another’s legitimacy as a people, as a nation, as any connection to the land. And this is a time where it is recognized. One of the common tropes that were set in kind of maybe more simplistic Zionist education is that, we have a people without a land for a land without a people. And what I think your scholarship really highlights in a very thoughtful, substantive way is that there was a time when not only did the Palestinian people understand the Jewish connection to the land, but it also highlights that many of the Jewish Zionist leaders understood that this isn’t quite a land without a people. 

And maybe you could tell me some of the thinkers who really highlighted the stakes of like, we do want to establish a state here or some type of serenity or allow more Jewish agency, but who kind of highlighted or kind of saw the writing on the wall, so to speak, that we’re going to have to figure it out, because this isn’t quite a land without a people, as we may have heard or as acutely discussed or described in early contemporary Zionist education. I don’t know who’s the first person to come up with that statement, “A people without a land for a land without a people.” But tell me a little bit about the Jewish Zionist conception of, “What are we going to do now? We’ve entered this land and it’s not quite as uninhabited as we once thought.” 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yeah, Zionists from the very beginning were aware that Palestine was not empty. Ahad Ha’am had written about the presence of Palestinian Arabs and the impact of that presence on Zionism. And interestingly, a figure named Yitzhak Epstein, who was an educator, a Hebrew educator in Palestine who gave a speech in 1905 and then published that speech in 1907 called The Hidden Question in which he says that we Zionists have been thinking about all of the different tricky questions with regards to settling Palestine. But the one thing we haven’t been thinking about enough is the question of the Palestinian Arab natives. And he argued there in a fascinating speech and then essay that has been translated into English, but it was originally published in Hashiloach in 1907. 

David Bashevkin: 

Where could you find the translation? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

The translation was written by or prepared by Alan Doughty, a scholar of the Arab Israeli conflict. And it was published maybe in Israel Studies, the journal, I can’t remember for sure, but I can find it now if you would want me to. 

David Bashevkin: 

No, no, no, that’s okay. Our listeners are very agile. I’m sure they’ll figure it out. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Okay, so Yitzhak Epstein argued that the Zionists in Palestine need to think very carefully about the ways in which they’re going about settling Palestine. Now to be clear, he was a Zionist, he himself was settling Palestine and he wasn’t arguing against that settlement, but he said that the Zionists need to take into consideration the sentiments of the Arabs of Palestine, the fact that they are deeply connected to the land that they see their ancestors as having lived there and having been buried there, that Zionists can’t assume that these are people who have no particular connection to the lands in which they live, and they could just be moved from one place to another as though it wouldn’t matter to them. And he says that the Zionists are making a big mistake by not taking that into consideration. Now, to be clear, I think that Zionists were aware of this problem, of this challenge to the Zionist effort, and it was sort of every few years someone would say, I’ve discovered this problem that no one had seen before, but in fact it had been seen. 

But again, what’s interesting for me about Yitzhak Epstein, not that he discovered a problem that no one saw, but that he as a Zionist recognized and was willing to accept and to take into deep consideration the ways in which the people among whom he was settling were also deeply connected to that same land. And he didn’t say, “These aren’t a real people. These aren’t a nation. These aren’t people who are deeply connected to—” No, he accepted that. And again, just as you said, this is not something that we should take for granted or that always continued to be the case among Zionists. 

David Bashevkin: 

There is a final correspondence that I just want to highlight before we kind of jump to the next period of your scholarship, which I think is even more jaw droppingly fascinating. It’s occupied my attention for over a year. Because I find it so earth-shattering. But before we get there, there’s one other correspondence, it’s a relative of the first Palestinian scholar you mentioned al-Haredi. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

al-Khalidi. 

David Bashevkin: 

I call him al-Haredi. So that’s my own mistake that I am projecting my Yeshiva background. You know what? I’m not going to attempt to pronounce any of these names anymore. I actually listened to you before we spoke, not because I needed to review. I’ve heard this your presentations many times, but to get the pronunciations right and clearly it’s a running joke on this podcast, all the help in the world is not going to get me to pronounce any of these names correctly, but there is a correspondence that I would almost describe as an early a Yossi Klein Halevi Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. When Yossi Klein Halevi wrote that book, it was like groundbreaking that we have somebody reaching out and forming this correspondence and making the case for Zionism for what we want between the Palestinian and Jewish Zionist world. 

I think you highlight in incidents, I don’t mean to compare it specifically to Yossi Klein Halevi’s work, but it did invoke kind of that effort to me. And it is a dialogue, I don’t know if you call it a dialogue or a meeting that was later discussed between somebody extraordinarily significant who I’m sure our listeners know of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and I think the nephew of al-Khalidi. Inject a little humor every time I pronounce one of these names. But tell me if I mischaracterized this meeting of these two people who are fairly significant in this story. These are not nobodies either in the Palestinian story or in the Jewish Zionist story. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Okay, so you’re right. Yusuf Dia al-Khalidi had a nephew named Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi. The Khalidi family was one of the most important Palestinian Muslim families in Jerusalem during the Ottoman period. They had a home and a library and property in the Old City of Jerusalem just outside the al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary or the Temple Mount. It still exists today, their library does, the Khalidi library. Their family still has a home right there just outside of the Mount. And Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi was elected to be one of the Jerusalem region of Palestine’s representatives in the Ottoman Parliament. The Ottomans had a parliament in 1870s. It was quickly disbanded, and then there was a revolution in the Ottoman Empire called the Young Turk Revolution, which reinstated the parliament and there were elections.

And one of the winners of the election, one from the Jerusalem region was named Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi. Khalidi is a fascinating figure and I’m happy to talk about him a little bit more afterwards. But he wrote a book that wasn’t published in his lifetime, but has been published in our lifetime called Zionism or the Zionist Question, a manuscript of some hundred 20 pages about Zionism in Arabic. 

David Bashevkin: 

What year is this? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Well, he didn’t publish it, but he died in 1913. He appears to have been working on it until close to his death, and al-Khalidi was about to head off to a session of Parliament when he was invited for an interview with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a Lithuanian Jew, grew up in a lobovich community and had moved first to Paris and then eventually to Palestine around 1881. He, as your listeners surely know, is credited for being one of the important figures in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. He was also a journalist and a linguist. Your listeners might know his dictionary. 

David Bashevkin: 

Did he speak Arabic? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

He knew Arabic to be able to use Arabic in his dictionary. You’ll often see citations of Arabic words in his dictionary in terms of explaining the etymology or the origins of Hebrew words or connections to Hebrew words. The interview that I’m about to describe most likely took place in French. 

David Bashevkin: 

Okay, that I was wondering. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Because he had studied in Paris and so too had al-Khalidi. So Eliezer Ben-Yehuda immigrated to Palestine to Jerusalem in 1881, and he was initially working for Hebrew newspapers that were already there and then founded his own newspaper. It was usually called HaZvi, but sometimes he changed the name. I think at times it was called Ha-Or, and I forget that there were one or two other names. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda invited al-Khalidi for this interview. Not only al-Khalidi, also the other representatives of Jerusalem, but we have records or the report that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda gives to his readers in his newspaper about this interview. And the interview is fascinating. They start off by talking about some of their common interests. This is in 1909, I should say. So al-Khalidi is asked by Ben-Yehuda, what are your thoughts about one issue of interest to the readers of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s newspaper, which is an issue that was referred to as the red paper or the red slip, which was a policy of the Ottomans. 

It was kind of a visitor’s visa that was given to people who were coming to Palestine, allowed them to come to stay for up to three months, and then they would have to leave. And it was selectively enforced, and Zionists immigrants found ways of getting around it. But al-Khalidi suggested that he himself was opposed to the policy. He didn’t like the idea of limiting the types of people who were able to come and the amount of time that they were able to come to Palestine. At the same time, al-Khalidi made it clear to Ben-Yehuda when Ben-Yehuda pushed him on the question of Zionism, that the idea of Jews moving to Palestine or to the Ottoman Empire was acceptable, right? Why not? But al-Khalidi said that it was important for those who were moving to Palestine to integrate into Palestinian society. He cited two examples of other communities that had started to immigrate to Palestine and that had, in his view, come close. 

That was the language that at least Eliezer Ben-Yehuda offers us to come close to the native community of Palestine. He says that the Germans there, I think he’s referring to the Templars, had begun to integrate. I think he also refers to the Americans maybe referring to the American colony as a community that had begun to integrate into Palestinian society. But he says that the Jews, and especially the Ashkenazi Jews, he points to them in particular. He says “They have made no effort to approach us to come close to us, to integrate or to acculturate among us.” He says, that is a problem. It’s important for us Arab, Palestinian Muslims, that for people who come to Palestine that they should integrate into our society. 

But Eliezer Ben-Yehuda pushes further and he says, “Okay, but what about the idea of Zionism of Jews returning to Palestine?” And al-Khalidi says, “We, Arabs of Palestine, we don’t owe the Jews anything because after all, when we came here,” so I assume he’s referring there to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, “You weren’t here, the Jews weren’t here, or at least weren’t ruling here,” he says the Byzantine were. 

As a result of that, he says, we don’t owe the Jews the right to return to Palestine. This is a really interesting encounter to my mind because again, this is a Palestinian Arab leader who is certainly not expressing a support for Zionism, clearly not. But in what he’s saying, he’s acknowledging the history of Jews in Palestine. “The Jews weren’t here when we arrived, but they were here before. But they need to go to whoever conquered the place from them, the Babylonians, the Romans. Maybe the Babylonians or the Romans owe them something, but we the Arabs of Palestine don’t.” So this is a case for me in which there is a clear acknowledgement of the history of the Jews in Palestine. And this brings me to the manuscript that I mentioned that al-Khalidi had written until his death in 1913, in which he goes into great detail about the deep attachments of the Jews to Palestine. In fact, and here he’s citing Jewish sources. 

David Bashevkin: 

Mostly Tanakh, I assume. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Mostly Tanakh, but also modern sources. I mean, he’s looking at the Jewish encyclopedia. He is interested in the figure of Moses Mendelssohn, I mean, he has actually a lot of interesting sources. But he says, if you look at the Hebrew Bible, he says, the Jews don’t have a concept of an afterlife for the Jews reward and punishment happens in this world, and it happens in the land of Israel. The Jews are good, they get to be in the land of Israel. The Jews are bad, they’re kicked out of the land of Israel. And for him, he says, that’s a reason why we, Palestinian Arabs and we ottomans need to take Zionism seriously. Not because we need to support it, but because this didn’t just come out of nowhere. This is deeply entrenched in Jewish ideas, Jewish thought, Jewish religion and practice, Jewish prayers and hopes. 

And again, he accepts that. He says, “Because of that, we need to take it seriously because of that, this isn’t some pipe dream, this is serious. We need to engage with it and oppose it, but we need to take it seriously.” He has a fascinating theory in which he argues that the Jews were a nation and they had this deep connection to the land of Israel. But they gave it up. They gave it up in the modern period. And he says they did so by embracing what he calls Mendelssohn’s theory, Mendelssohn’s theory, that Judaism is a religion but not a nation. And he says that the Jews engaged in a consensus. And in the modern period, they broadly accepted Mendelssohn’s theory. And as a result, any change to that is a violation of that consensus and a problem for Jewish religious law. And so he actually comes to suggest that Zionism is a violation of Jewish law because it is a violation of the consensus on Mendelssohn’s theory. 

David Bashevkin: 

It’s so fascinating this period where you’re seeing the Palestinian conception of Judaism and Zionism isn’t always correct. Many Jews believe, and for sure in the normative Jewish theology believes in an afterlife. And I didn’t grow up knowing of any Mendelssohn theory, as you surely know. But what really moves me is that there was really an honest attempt, meaning they are really trying to understand one another. They see the enormity of the conflict that could emerge if we don’t really try to understand one another really based on first principles. And there’s a lot of honesty in the conversations that you surface and you center, and not just honesty, but vulnerability because it takes a great deal of vulnerability for the Palestinians to acknowledge that there is a historic connection to the land of Israel. And it takes a great deal of vulnerability for Zionist leaders to understand or to appreciate the fact that this is a people who have lived here not for 100 years, but for many, many centuries. And we need to figure out how we can coexist, so to speak together. It takes honesty and vulnerability. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, to be clear, none of the people here were engaging in their writing and their thinking in a political vacuum. And so yes, I think that they were being honest in the sense that they were trying to understand the other, but they also had political interests. And for that reason, the things that they were learning about the other, some parts of those things that they were learning were more appealing to them and were worth highlighting more than others. So I want to be honest about that and to say, I don’t mean to paint a picture of people who were just learning lishma and didn’t care at all about what the political implications were of what they were saying. And especially because of that, the things that they say that do seem to challenge the political views that they would have, and they say them anyway, that’s really interesting. 

David Bashevkin: 

Yes. I want to go to a second period because the world of discourse that we know today looks nothing like the period and the correspondence that we’ve been talking about. Things have deteriorated to the point where you hear all sorts of outlandish theories about Ashkenazi aren’t even real Jews and the Palestinians, were never a real people. It has deteriorated to a point where a lot of the conversations you talk about are simply unrecognizable. And I want to stop in a middle period and talk a little bit about a second approach to Palestinian self understanding and more importantly Palestinian understanding of the Jewish people. And I want to begin that with what I think is one of the most fascinating articles you’ve ever written. I think it’s the focus of your forthcoming book, and that is the Palestinian publication of the Talmud. Why on earth would we have a book written in Arabic by a Palestinian about the Jewish Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, to be precise? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Okay. Just for precision, the book about the Talmud that you have in mind was actually written not by a Palestinian, but by a man named Assaad Razzouk who grew up in the area of Marjaayoun in Lebanon. But I’ll return to your question. So I’m currently writing a book called Reading Herzl in Beirut. It will be out this coming summer. And it is a book about the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Research Center in Beirut. The PLO itself was founded in 1964 in Jerusalem in Jordanian ruled Jordanian Annex Jerusalem. And when the PLO was founded, they had two different sort of founding texts. One was something that’s probably fairly well known to your listeners, known as the charter or the covenant, but there was also a constitution of the PLO. And the constitution of the PLO called for the creation of a research center. And the PLO leader, the founding director of the PLO, the founding chairman of the PLO, named Ahmad Shukeiri set off after the founding of the PLO to do a lot of things, including to found a PLO Research center. 

And ultimately, he created one in Beirut among Palestinian and other Arab intellectuals in Beirut. And it was called the PLO Research Center. It was founded in 1965, and it existed in Beirut until 1983. The PLO Research Center is a fascinating entity for me for a lot of reasons, but I encountered the PLO Research Center, I should say, when I encountered a book called al-Fikra al-Sahyuniyya in a library in Toronto. Al-Fikra al-Sahyuniyya is Arabic for The Zionist Idea. Some of your listeners might be familiar with a book called The Zionist Idea in English. It’s a compendium of classic Zionist sources. 

David Bashevkin: 

Is that Arthur Hertzberg? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

That’s Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea, a compendium of classic Zionist primary sources. And when I saw this book in Arabic with the same name, I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s funny. There’s an Arabic book also called The Zionist Idea.” And then I took it off the shelf and started flipping through it and realized that it wasn’t just a book with the same title, it was basically Arthur Hertzberg’s book, but in Arabic. 

I was like, wow, that’s funny. I didn’t know that Rabbi Dr. Hertzberg had his book translated into Arabic who did this? And so I looked at the cover of the book or the title page and couldn’t find Hertzberg’s name on it, but instead found several other names, Arab names, and at the bottom, the words the PLO Research Center, Beirut. So this was my entree into this topic that is this arm of the PLO that somehow found it worthwhile in, this was a book published in 1970, to translate into Arabic the writings of Rav Alkalai and Rav Kalischer and Moses Hess and Shmuel Mohilever, of course, other better known Zionists like Ben-Gurion and Hertzl, Pinsker. I was like, who was doing this? Why was the PLO interested in translating into Arabic, these writings of Zionists that by 1970 most Zionists had never heard of? And that led me to see, okay, well what else was this institution doing? 

And I realized as I began to investigate the publications of the PLO Research Center, that the PLO Research Center had a few important roles, but one of them was to learn and to teach about Zionism, Judaism, Israel. That is to say, to learn and to teach, to publish about the enemy. And I began looking for all of the stuff that they had written and published about Jews, Judaism, Zionism in Israel. And one of those books is a book by Assaad Razzouk, the one that you referred to called The Talmud and Zionism. So you asked why was someone writing in Arabic about the Talmud? 

David Bashevkin: 

Exactly. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yes. And it’s a great question, and the answer is even more surprising than the fact that he was writing about it. The answer is that he, Assaad Razzouk was interested in understanding the relationship between the Talmud and Zionism because many Arabs had been writing about the Talmud, arguing that the Talmud is not only the source of Zionism, but the source of the protocols of the elders of Zion. It is, they argued an evil document, a conspiratorial document, a document that explains the Jews plans to control the world. And these Arab writers weren’t themselves making up these theories. Of course they were, as Assaad Razzouk would say, they were just parroting antisemitic writings about the Talmud from European Christian writers from the 19th century. So Razzouk said, “Okay, let me actually read the Talmud to see if they’re right.” 

And he just so happened to have a set of the Soncino edition of the Talmud with him in Beirut, and he opened it up and just started reading tractate by tractate of the Talmud. I don’t know if he was doing a proper Daf Yomi or if it was done in a different method, but he read certainly the introductions of each tractate in the Soncino, but also was clearly just based on the citations within the book. 

He was also reading parts of the tractate themselves and said, “Hey, we’ve got this wrong here. The Talmud is a really complex document. There are aspects of it that seem to support Zionism. There are aspects of it that seem to go against Zionism. There’s lots of it that has nothing to do with Zionism.” And he said ultimately, and he wrote this in his introduction, and also the person who wrote the forward to this book, who was then the director of the research center, he said, “We are doing ourselves, we, the Arabs supporters of the Palestinians are doing ourselves no favor by embracing antisemitism, by parroting lies about the Talmud and about the Jews.” They said, “Our cause is just,” that is the Palestinian cause is just, and there’s no reason to pollute it by bringing in an unjust cause of antisemitism. 

And so this book published by the Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, first of all, it’s three parts. The first part is a vicious attack against previous Arabic writing about the Talmud saying that these people had never opened the Talmud. They don’t know what they’re talking about. 

David Bashevkin: 

And it’s like embarrassing, meaning they’re trying to distance themselves from the more vitriolic antisemitism. Again, I think it’s important to mention, especially because of some of the images that we’re seeing now, they were almost aware of Mein Kampf and the Holocaust at Hitler in the shadow. They wanted to distance themselves from being seen as oppressors in that way, knowing that there’s no way Palestinians would get any sympathy if we are seen in the same lens as the Nazi movement. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yeah, I mean, Assaad Razzouk had earned a PhD in Germany, post Holocaust, Germany. He knew well that it would only harm the Palestinian caused by associating it with Nazicism. He knew well, the way in which Europeans in post Holocaust Europe looked upon Nazism, antisemitism and the Holocaust. And he said, “No, this is not something that we should have anything to do with. We need to argue against it.” And not that we need to be Zionists. He wasn’t a Zionist, but he said, “We have to be honest and we have to be moral.” And for him, honesty and morality meant going against antisemitism. Fighting against antisemitism. The second part of the book is a tractate-by-tractate summary of the Babylonian Talmud. And the third part of the book is an argument, pretty nuanced argument about the way in which the Talmud actually relates to Zionism. 

And again, this is an important document for me in trying to understand the way in which at least some, affiliated with part of the Palestine Liberation Organization were trying to understand Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish texts, and learning about them from the sources themselves. I mean, he wasn’t reading it in the Aramaic, but he was reading a good English translation. 

David Bashevkin: 

The Soncino is- 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

The best of the day, and trying to make an honest argument about it. And also to appeal to fellow Arabs and supporters of the Palestinians that they ought to stay far away from antisemitism. 

David Bashevkin: 

Some of the selection bias that we mentioned earlier, meaning when I spoke about honesty and vulnerability, there’s no question that the political motivation sometimes color the pool of texts or personalities that Palestinians, and again, we’re talking about Palestinians now and Jews are willing to draw upon. But I want to highlight specifically one personality that the Palestinian self-conception, more importantly Palestinian conception of Jews drew upon. And that is a very curious and extraordinarily controversial rabbi. You have an article where you talk about the PLOs Rabbi. Most people, if they were to close their eyes and think about the rabbis of the PLO, their mind immediately would go to Neturei Karta, which looked like Satmar. But there was a time where the Palestinian movement was not quite as from, they didn’t go to Neturei Karta. They actually went to a non-Orthodox, to a reform rabbi who built a relationship. Explain to me why did the PLO have a rabbi? Who was this rabbi? And what exactly did he contribute to the Palestinian conception of the Jewish people? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Rabbi Elmer Berger was an American rabbi born in Cleveland, Ohio, born in 1908, who studied at the Hebrew Union College, HUC, that’s the flagship Reform seminary, and became a rabbi in Michigan. The Reform movement has a really interesting history with regard to Jewish nationalism. In 1840s in the German lands, Of course, there were reform movement was born in the German lands. 

David Bashevkin: 

I’m obligated whenever I hear somebody mention 1840 to give a Hey o, but I’m sorry, you could continue. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Okay. I said 1840s. 

David Bashevkin: 

It applies across the board. I mean, we are literally named after that year for much of the reason you’re about to describe, we’re called 1840 because a lot of these questions that we’re still grappling with now emerged in the 1840s. So I always appreciate in 1840 or 1840s, shout out. I’m sorry for interrupting. Please continue. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

The reform movement, as I mentioned, began in the German lands, and in the 1840s had a number of meetings, conferences of like-minded rabbis reform-minded rabbis who were trying to figure out what should Judaism look like in this new moment, this moment of emancipation, this moment of enlightenment, of Haskalah. And they had a variety of views, and we have some of the records of those rabbinical conferences from Frankfurt and from Brunswick. And one of the issues that they dealt with there was the issue of messianism, of the idea of a return to the land of Israel. And they, in one of these conferences decided, well, we are going to continue to pray for a messianic redemption, but we are not going to see that in the same sort of political sense that it might have been seen as an actual return to statehood in the land of Israel as it had been viewed perhaps previously. 

When the Reform movements, the Reform movement of course, continued in the German lands. But many Reform Jews, German Jews, moved to this country, to the United States in the mid 19th century and brought their Reform Judaism with them, such that by the 1880s, this movement, the Reform movement had a new conference in Pittsburgh and there, tried to also, they had done in the 1840s in the German lands, decide what is it that we actually believe? To come up with a sort of list of Ani Ma’amins for the Reform movement. And one of the things that they said in what ultimately becomes known as the Pittsburgh Platform is that the Jews are no longer a nation. They or we, they said are a religious community. We no longer hope to rebuild the temple, to reinstitute the priestly practices. 

David Bashevkin: 

Korbanos, sacrifices. Yeah. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Exactly. And we are simply a religious community, we are no longer a nation. And that was the position, the official position of the reform movement for many decades. 

David Bashevkin: 

It was fairly controversial just to say what had happened. Although the leaders came out with what’s known, known as the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, many kind of common reform Jews in the United States, I don’t know if I want to use the word horrified, but not all Jews, reform Jews, I’m saying accepted to say, this is great. This is what I view. There was a great deal of backpedaling, even in the immediate aftermath of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yes. And not just sort of regular reform, it was also some reform leaders were very much opposed to this in the years that followed. By 1937, the reform movement officially changed its position on this matter. And in Columbus, Ohio issued a new platform known as the Columbus Platform in which the reform movement supported the idea of the upbuilding of the Jewish community in Palestine. It didn’t go on to fully embrace Zionism, but it was headed in that direction. And of course, these were very different moments. 1840s in the German lands, here, I said it again. The 1880s in the United States versus the 1930s with still in the United States, but with the rise of Nazicism in Europe. And so there were political reasons just as there were political reasons that led reformed Jews to say that they weren’t a nation, but a religious community, in the 19th century, there were different political reasons that at least in part informed the change of perspective in the 1930s. 

Just like as you said, not all reformed Jews agreed with a Pittsburgh Platform, not all reformed Jews agreed with the 1937 Columbus Platform. One of those Jews who very much opposed the Columbus platform, was a rabbi named Elmer Berger. Elmer Berger’s position basically throughout his life, in the years that followed was “No, no, when we said in Pittsburgh,” of course, he wasn’t alive, but when there were reform movements said in Pittsburgh that, “We are a religious community, not a nation, that was it. We meant it and there’s no going back on that, that’s simply the way it is.” And he argued prolifically, endlessly, persistently that the Jews are not a nation, they are a religious community and should be citizens of the states in which they live, but should not try to create a nation state somewhere else. As you might imagine, that position was one that Palestinian nationalists appreciated. And so Elmer Berger writes in his memoirs titled Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew

David Bashevkin: 

Yeah. He was always very honest in who he was and had very blunt formulation of his memoir. Yes. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Indeed. In that memoir, he writes that in the early 1950s, he received a note from an Arab in Washington D.C. wishing to meet with him. And it turns out that, that Arab was none other than Fayez Sayigh, who was the founding director general of the PLO Research Center. And from that time forward, he and Sayigh had a close relationship, he describes a relationship of mutual respect and friendship. And what I have argued is that the PLO perspective that is articulated in its 1964 charter, written by Ahmad al-Shukeiri, the founder of the PLO, the claim that the Jews are not a nation, but a religious community, and they should be citizens of the states in which they live. That that position is in no small measure something that these PLO intellectuals learned from Elmer Berger. 

They learned about the Pittsburgh platform and about the idea that Jews had, that they were a religion and not a nation from Elmer Berger, who himself and some of his colleagues in an organization that he for many years led called the American Council for Judaism. He and his colleagues were very frequently cited in the footnotes of the writings of the PLO Research Center. And here, as you say, this was a case in which Palestinian intellectuals found an idea articulated by a Jewish intellectual to be useful for them. And I don’t mean to say that they only embraced it because it was useful, they may have found it to be intellectually compelling as well, but they certainly found it to be useful. 

David Bashevkin: 

It’s interesting because again, I don’t know if you have specific feelings on this, but I feel like this second period that we’re talking about, things begin to deteriorate, as I understand it, through really your articles. I don’t read any of the original Arabic that it feels like we have the goal in mind, and we’re really working backwards to find the people and ideas who can help support and bolster the ultimate endpoint that we have. And some of that distinction may be the time period that they’re living in. Our first conversation was pre-State, early 1900s, and there is a different sense of urgency within that early Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, to really figure out what are the ideas that could bolster our claims to the land when we actually have a blossoming and burgeoning Jewish state right now. So the tactics and the level of, I don’t want to say honesty or bias, begin to shift because maybe the urgency or the position of the Palestinian people begin to deteriorate. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

I think it’s fair to say that the political situation is radically different from the late Ottoman period in which the sovereign power was a Muslim power, and the vast majority of the population was Muslim, and the Zionists were this small group of people who could be not taken so seriously. From that period to the period of the 1960s, 1970s, early 1980s, as you say, in which there already is a state, a state that was founded in 1948. There is a state not only that was founded in 1948, but that through its founding, led to the expulsion and flight of some 700,000 Palestinians such that there is an enormous Palestinian refugee population. And then after 1967, a situation in which not only does Israel have control over a significant portion, the majority of British mandate Palestine, but in fact over all of it, plus the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. 

So yes, this is a very different moment, and the stakes are different. And that’s important, I think, to recognize that it’s perhaps easier to be more open-minded and more self-critical, even in moments in which you feel like you’re in power or you feel like the wins are in your direction. And it’s harder to do that when you are weaker and when you don’t feel like things are going in your direction. I think that that is an absolutely important point, and we should see that on both sides of this conflict, I should say. So at the same time, I wouldn’t say that the PLO Research Center was just there to serve propagandistic or polemical aims. And not to say that the PLO was above propaganda, no one was above propaganda or polemics, it’s just that they had a different center, a different institution within the PLO that was aimed more toward that kind of work, that sort of outreach and communications work, propaganda work, what we might say. The PLO Research Center was meant to be the place where serious intellectual work was done. 

And it’s fair to ask, well, so what does it mean to do serious intellectual work within the confines of a nationalist organization? And that’s a question that the PLO Research Center itself, its founder Fayez Sayigh and its leaders, were always struggling with, “In what way are we serving the interests of the Liberation Organization? And in what way are we advancing knowledge?” And they were constantly walking that kind of tightrope, which is not unique to them. I mean, that’s a tightrope that many walk, maybe everyone walks, but a tightrope of having political interests and also seeking to be intellectually honest. And what they tried to do then was to be intellectually honest, but to serve their interests in the things that they wrote about. And I think that that’s an interesting aspect of this story as well. 

David Bashevkin: 

Obviously, there’s so much to cover, and we’ve taken so much of your time, and we’ve definitely to use the Seinfeld colloquialism, yada, yada, yada, over big periods and important periods. But we can’t cover everything. But I do want to jump to the final destination of our conversation, which is, I think in many ways the most important part of our conversation, which is aside from being a scholar, you are also an educator. You teach in a classroom in Princeton, and you teach on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and you’re teaching in this very moment. And there’s something that from the first time I heard you speak, and I first read your works, and then we only spoke after I really found a measuredness, a calmness that is more than just the cadence of your voice. So you can certainly hear it in your voice, but it’s an evenness that I hear in the way that you go about describing this. 

And I was wondering if you could for a moment, talk about some of the lessons of your own educational methodology. What are the points in this conflict that you think that you’ve learned from running a classroom specifically in this moment? I haven’t gotten any film from your classroom of fights or things breaking out. Thank God. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Please don’t give anyone any ideas. 

David Bashevkin: 

Yeah, no, no, no. God forbid. What are the points that you think are important for our community of listeners that you have gleaned from being an educator on this subject? What do you think are the questions, ideas, and sensitivities that you wish our listeners as somebody who is studying this, not only studying, writing about it, but most importantly teaching about it specifically in this moment, in so to speak, one of the Ivy League’s elite universities, where we see so much of the rhetoric and the polemics deteriorating to the point beyond even recognition. What do you think you have learned that could be valuable for our listeners in the way that you approach this subject? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

The university is a unique space in our society. It’s a place where people from vastly different backgrounds come together to live together and to learn together. And before one goes to university and after one graduates, that sort of opportunity is very rare, very, very rare to have to live with and learn with people who come from radically different places, different parts of the world, different ideologies, different religions, different ideas, and have no choice but to sit next to them, maybe even to live with them in the same dorm room and to figure things out. I find the university, because of that to be an amazing opportunity that I deeply believe in for people to learn new things in ways that they wouldn’t be able to do either before or afterwards. So you’re right. I teach a course about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s not the only course that I teach right now. 

I’m teaching a course about Zionism as well. I teach about the history of Jerusalem from Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives. I teach graduate courses on Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, on religion and nationalism. I teach about methods in the study of the Middle East. But you’re right that the course about the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most fraught topic, of course, even more so now in the moment in which we’re living. And because of that, it’s actually in my mind, even more important to be doing this kind of work. But even before October 7th and the current war, anytime I begin the class on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I tell the students a few things. One, I say, “This is a class about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This class is not actually the Arab-Israeli conflict and so we don’t need to act as though we are engaged in the Arab-Israeli conflict here. We are here to learn about it. And because this isn’t actually the Arab-Israeli conflict, we can lower the temperature and take down our guard a bit and not necessarily feel like we are here in order to represent a particular community or a particular state or a particular ideology. We can draw upon and we should draw upon our backgrounds and our knowledge and our experiences and our sensitivities. But we’re all here just to learn.” 

And I tell the students that I’m also there just to learn. I’m not there to try to persuade them that there’s a good guy and a bad guy here, and this is the good guy, and that’s the bad guy. No, this is a complicated story that I, and they should try to learn about together. And there are parts of the story that are going to be really hard for some people in the class. And there are other parts of the story that are going to be really hard for other people in the class to learn about. And there’s something really beautiful, really inspiring about having those different groups of people sitting together and learning together about all of those things, about the things that they grew up hearing about and believing in, and the things that no one told them about or were wrong or something else. And together, all of the students sort of struggling together to make sense of this story. 

And the Arab-Israeli conflict is maybe an extreme case of people coming into university classrooms with very, very different views. But it’s not the only story. And I tell the students, if we can do this here, if we can lower our guard, if we can learn together, if we can be open to discovering new things, even some things that might be challenging to us, if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere. And so use this as an opportunity to learn how to do it, to learn how to become more honest, self-critical, people with integrity, thinking carefully about the things that we think we know and learning new things about them and so on. So that I think is important to say. I tell you that, I don’t know that everyone who teaches the Arab-Israeli conflict views it this way, but that’s how I view it. That’s something that I think really can’t be done in almost any other setting that I can imagine, other than in a university. 

I do it, by the way, not alone. So in my courses that I teach on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I always have teaching assistants or what we call in Princeton assistance and instruction. And I’ve had wonderful ones over the years that I’ve been teaching. And I have TAs who are American Jews, American Palestinians, Israeli Palestinians, Israeli Jews, Turks, Iranians, American Christians, all sorts of people from very different backgrounds, different methodologies, different disciplines. And I and the students all benefit greatly from having people in the classroom who are there when I’m lecturing, who give their own lectures, who lead discussion sections from different backgrounds from my own, such that I’m able to learn from them, and the students are able to learn. 

And also to see the model of people from very different backgrounds, learning from one another. The students see me learning from my TAs and my TAs sitting and learning from me and engaging with one another, talking to one another. So that I think is important as well. So first, the university as the unique space as an important space that we have to bolster in this particular way. And that, again, I don’t do it alone. I taught my last lecture on the Arab Israeli conflict this past Wednesday. And I told the students all, they asked if we could have an additional session to talk about what’s going on right now. So on Monday, I’ll be going back into Princeton to offer that additional lecture and then discussion about the contemporary events. But, so my closing message to the students, I said something similar to what I say at the beginning of the course, but it had a different resonance. 

Now, I taught the beginning of the course before October 7th, and I’m now teaching deep into this war. I said that when Palestinians and Israelis are at war, at each other’s necks in their homelands after the massacre by Hamas, and now with this war in Gaza and with rockets into Israel, we who care about those people, we who are invested in them and in their future, we ourselves don’t need to be at war with one another here at Princeton. And I think it’s important because there is this sense that I think you refer to when you talk about things going on campuses that, if they’re at war, we’re at war and it’s not necessarily the case. It doesn’t have to be that way. We could say, “We understand that they’re at war. We understand that those people have so many legitimate reasons to be angry at one another, to hate one another, even. To be angry at themselves and at their leaders.” 

They have lots of reason for all of that, and we can understand that and accept it, but we don’t need to do that. We’re not there fighting. We can be here doing something else. And that thing that I think we can be doing that could actually be helpful to the people there rather than just to fan flames, is to learn about what’s going on there, to more deeply understand it and to be in a position that when the dust settles, not to have ourselves have to have the dust settle here, but to be in a better position to be able to help them figure out how to get out of the mess that they’re in. And that’s something that I think is an important message for universities, for students, for professors that just because they’re at war, we don’t need to be at war with one another here. There are more productive things that we can be doing that could actually be helpful for the people we claim to care about other than just chanting slogans and doing our best to offend one another. 

David Bashevkin: 

I cannot thank you enough, and really your scholarship has a conciliatory energy to it. I think it is because of the graciousness with which you approach texts, ideas and people, and I really do take it as an absolute privilege to speak with you. I don’t know if you have the bandwidth or energy, but I usually close my interviews with more rapid fire questions. This is really the easy part for most, at least in this conversation, this is definitely be the easy part. Something went terribly wrong if this is the hard part. My first question is, aside from your own books and articles that we’ve mentioned, is there a particular book that you think is understudied specifically in relationship to the Arab-Israel conflict that you think our listeners should take a second look at? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Yes. Understudied, I’m not sure. I’m thinking of some new books that maybe your listeners would be interested in. Derek Penslar recently published a book called Zionism: An Emotional State, which is a fascinating new read on Zionism through thinking about sentiment and emotions. That’s a really wonderful book that I strongly recommend to your listeners. Any book written by Hillel Cohen will be thought-provoking for your listeners. He writes in Hebrew, but the books are then translated pretty soon into English. His most recent translated book into English is a book called 1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. But he recently published a book about Arabs and Mizrahim and also Ashkenazim in parentheses. His work is always excellent. 

And there’s a book that I use in my teaching in the course of the Arab Israeli conflict called Arabs and Israelis. It’s a textbook, it’s not a page turner novel, but it’s an excellent textbook written by an Israeli, a Palestinian, and an Egyptian scholar together that tells the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict and also efforts at peacemaking from the 1880s or so until the 2020s. I think the most recent version came out in 2021, which I think is really excellent. It both tells the story of the conflict and peacemaking, but also each chapter ends with a section on how the different communities view this period. So like a Palestinian perspective, an Israeli perspective, an Egyptian or an Arab perspective and so on, which I think is really important and useful. 

David Bashevkin: 

I cannot thank you enough that my next question is, somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical for as long as you needed to go back to school and get a PhD in a totally different area, what do you think the subject and title of that dissertation would be? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

A totally different area? 

David Bashevkin: 

Totally different area. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

I would be interested in studying climate science. And here, I guess I can give a shout-out to a different podcast. I hope you won’t mind, but it’s a podcast called Clima Twins. It is a podcast that was created by two 13 year olds, I think at the time now 14 year olds named Sophie and Daniela who have been interviewing people about climate science and climate activism. And your listeners might be interested in looking that one up as well. 

David Bashevkin: 

Are they your kids? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

They’re my daughters. 

David Bashevkin: 

I love it. That’s really, really wonderful. And if you’ll allow me, can I give a shout-out to your wife? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

You may. 

David Bashevkin: 

Your wife, it happens to be, is the first person who I interacted with, her first name’s Sarit Kattan Gribetz. I’m looking directly at the book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, which is one of the subjects that I love. If I got a great deal of money, I might go back and study that subject, but really her book, which is published by Princeton, is absolutely outstanding and I really love it and we should give her book and her scholarship a shout-out as well. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s sleep schedules, especially yours. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning? 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

During the semester, I try to go to sleep not later than 10:30 PM because I wake up at 5:00 AM in order to beat the traffic from the Bronx to Princeton. So I leave at about 5:45 in the morning to get to Princeton by about 7:15, and I am often very tired. I spend a lot of time in the car during the semesters, but when I’m in the car, I tend to listen to Hebrew and Arabic radio, and so that’s at least something that I get to enjoy as I make this long commute every day. 

David Bashevkin: 

That is really incredible. It’s remarkable, your fluency specifically in Arabic and being able to bring so many of these texts to the public, to the English-speaking audience, professor Jonathan Gribetz, this has been an absolute privilege and pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Jonathan Gribetz: 

Thank you so much for having me. 

David Bashevkin: 

Throughout the first book of the Torah, Genesis, which is really where in many ways, both literally and conceptually, the conflict that we see before our eyes is rooted. We’re given a principle called Maaseh Avos Siman L’banim, that the actions, the narratives of our patriarchs and matriarchs of our ancestors, our biblical ancestors, is a template of sorts for their children, for the Burnum, for the generations that we see before us today. And our unique ancestor, Avraham from which we all descend, both the Jewish people and the Arabic world, the Islamic world descend from Avraham. He is given a promise where if you look in the 15th chapter of Genesis, of Bereishis, in the 15th verse, Abraham is promised that Avraham is going to be buried in peace. And Rashi cites on the spot if you look up over there, that Avraham is being given this promise that Yishmael, one day his child, Yishmael, is going to do teshuva in his lifetime. 

Yishmael is present for the burial of Abraham. And if you look at the Meshech Chochma, the incredible commentary of Rav Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk, who was born in 1843, one of our favorite decades and died in 1926. In his commentary Rav Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk, in his commentary Meshech Chochma, on that verse, he says something in line with this idea that the actions of our ancestors are a template, are a sign for their children. That just as we see that Yishmael and Abraham are reconciled, that the end of Abraham’s life, says that we too in our day will see a reconciliation between the Jewish people and the descendants of Yishmael and the Islamic world. And in many ways, you look, this may be an outgrowth of Avraham’s own prayers where Avraham just a few chapters later in the Torah in the 17th chapter in the 18th verse, Avraham, davens to God, prays to God, “If only Yishmael will live before you.” 

And Rashi writes on the spot again that Avraham is davening for the sense of awe and divinity, that it should be apparent and revealed in his child Yishmael’s life. That he’s davening that there can be a reconciliation of sorts and that both can live in the divine presence before God. And it’s maybe those prayers as distant as it seems in this current moment, that understanding the history and going back to that once upon a time that seems like so long ago, but it was really just a little more than a century ago that the confrontation between the dreams of the Jewish people in resettling and building a homeland in Eretz Yisroel the Zionist dream and the Palestinian people can also have a reconciliation. And it’s that idea that Professor Gribetz ends his book Defining Neighbors With. It is almost a Breslovian idea like Rebbe Nachman says, this such a beautiful idea, “If you believe that things can deteriorate and can be broken, then also believe that you have the capacity to fix and to construct and to rebuild and to reconcile.” 

And it’s with this idea that Professor Gribetz closes his book Defining Neighbors With. And if you appreciated his words before I read that concluding paragraph, then I would urge our listeners to go back, find his scholarship. He has jaw-dropping articles, they’re not hard to find, they’re not hard to access about how we became so distant and how we stopped seeing each other, that perhaps listening to him can reinforce that hope however, unrealistic it may seem in this moment. That there still is a possibility for that promise and prayer that Avraham and his descendants at the very end will have that peace, and that Avraham’s prayer that his child Yishmael should also be able to have that dignity of divinity in his life as well. 

I want to end today’s episode with that final paragraph from Professor Gribetz’s book, and this is what he writes. “I close with a statement of hope that emerges from this research. The ways in which people perceive and understand one another are not fixed or immutable. Given later events, I was surprised by much of what I discovered in this study. Zionists and Arabs imagined one another in very different terms in the late Ottoman period from the ways their descendants look at one another today. The perceptions have changed if generally, not for the better, just as perceptions can worsen however it stands to reason that they can improve as well.” So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend Denah Emerson. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. 

You could also donate at 18forty.org. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You could also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions, and we hope we’re going to get to that episode extraordinarily soon that we may play in a future episode. That number is 516-519-3308. Once again, that number is 516-519-3308. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number one eight, followed by the word 40 F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious, my friends.