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What Daniel Ellsberg can teach American Jews about moral courage


Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time: Noon EDT.

Our guests will be Sami Adwan, a professor of education and member of the Board of Trustees at Al-Quds Open University, and Daniel Bar-Tal, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education and author of Sinking into the Honey Trap: The Case of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsk,y and Bret Stephens.


Sources Cited in this Video

The New York Times obituary for Daniel Ellsberg.

A 2013 study showing that one-third of American rabbis fear publicly expressing their real views about Israel.

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In Jewish Currents (subscribe!), Raffi Magarik asks whether the Reform Movement’s early anti-Zionism was really anti-nationalist.

Is Itamar Ben-Gvir moving to reimpose military law over Israel’s Palestinian citizens?

Avi Shlaim’s incendiary claims about the Zionist movement’s role in the departure of Iraq’s Jews.   

Why Republicans aren’t bothered by Trump’s legal troubles

See you on Friday,



Our call this Friday will be at our normal time at Friday ET on the east coast. And we’ll have two guests. Our guests will be Daniel Bar-Tal, who’s a professor emeritus of education at Tel Aviv University, and Sami Adwan, who’s a Palestinian professor of education who’s now on the board of trustees of Al-Quds Open University. Sami and Daniel have done I think the most in-depth studies of Palestinian and Israeli textbooks. And since these questions of indoctrination, antisemitism, etc., especially as regards to the Palestinian textbooks—people tend to talk a lot more about them that you may notice than about the Israeli textbooks. But I thought it would be interesting to have them talk about what we actually know from research about the kind of materials that are in the curriculums taught to students, both Israeli and Palestinian students. Also, Daniel Bar-Tal has written a new book entitled, Sinking into the Honey Trap: The Case of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. So, we’ll talk about his new book as well. Again, that’s for paid subscribers. And paid subscribers also get access to all our previous calls with folks like Ilhan Omar, Bret Stephens, Noam Chomsky, and many others.

I wanted to say something about the question of moral courage. And the reason I was thinking about it was that I was reading some of the obituaries of Daniel Ellsberg. You know, someone who’s very probably very familiar to people who lived through the Vietnam War, but much less familiar to Americans who came of age after it. And so, for those who may not be so familiar with Ellsberg, just a brief kind of summary of the key moments that made him the historical figure that he that he was. Ellsberg was on his way to a glittering career in the American foreign policy establishment. He had gone to Harvard. He was working at RAND, which is a think tank very closely connected to the Pentagon. And indeed, he was working under Robert McNamara, the kind of famous whiz kid Secretary of Defense, and was sent to go and be part of a team to inspect US operations in Vietnam, and then became part of this effort to do an entire kind of survey of the US involvement in Vietnam going back to the 1940s.

And when Ellsberg first went to Vietnam—he had been a marine himself, Ellsberg, so he had some military training—to go see what things were like on the ground, what he found profoundly disturbed him. This is the way the Times describes it. He says he saw ‘a mounting toll of civilian casualties, tortured prisoners, and burned villages, a litany of brutality entered in military field reports as clear and hold operations.’ So, he started to see that the brutality he was experiencing on the ground was being sanitized and it was being described for people in Washington. And yet he continued to do his work, be part of this foreign policy establishment that was pushing America deeper and deeper into Vietnam. But he had these deep, profound, nagging doubts based on what he had seen on the ground.

And finally, something broke inside him. And this is how the Times describes that moment. It says, ‘in August 1969, he’—Ellsburg—'went to a War Resisters League meeting at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and heard a speaker, Randy Keller, proudly announce that he was soon going to join his friends in prison for refusing the draft.’ So, Ellsberg saw somebody else who was really willing to sacrifice something, sacrifice even his own liberty to oppose the war. And this had a profound impact on Ellsberg. The Times writes, ‘profoundly moved, Mr. Ellsberg had reached his breaking point, as he was quoted, saying’—in a book—‘I left the auditorium and found a deserted men’s room. I sat on the floor and cried for over an hour, just sobbing. The only time in my life I’ve reacted to something like that.’

So, Ellsberg had known that something was profoundly wrong in what America was doing in Vietnam, and in his role in it. And then somehow when he saw someone who was willing to sacrifice themselves for this cause, it broke him inside and he did something extraordinarily dangerous and courageous. Which is he reached out to The New York Times’ Vietnam correspondent, Neil Sheehan, and he said that he would give Sheehan this huge report that he had helped play a role in compiling, which showed that the US had been systematically lying to the American public about what was actually happening in Vietnam. He did this even though he knew that he faced a very significant chance that he would go to jail as a result. And indeed, the Nixon administration charged him with crimes that would carry 115 years in prison. And Ellsberg actually went into hiding for a while after what were called the Pentagon Papers, which were these documents, these secret government documents about the war, were published in The New York Times and then in The Washington Post. Ellsberg was fortunate ultimately that the government case against him fell apart and he did not go to jail. But he very well could have.

You know, listening to this story and his progression really made me think—you probably won’t be surprised—to think about the conversations among American Jewish leaders about Israel-Palestine. Because, in my experience—again, I can’t say this scientifically, but just anecdotally—when you talk to people, including, you know, prominent American Jewish leaders, rabbis, communal professionals, the people who essentially are the building blocks, the foundations of the pro-Israel establishment that wield so much influence in the United States, when they do go to see events on the ground in the West Bank and spend any significant time with Palestinians, ordinary Palestinians, not just kind of going to Ramallah to meet in an air conditioned building with Mahmoud Abbas or something like that, but to see the realities of Palestinians, ordinary Palestinians, on the ground, it is a shocking and often kind of shattering experience. Not so unlike the experience that Ellsberg had when he went to Vietnam.

But then some of them come back and do something with that knowledge, and many of them don’t. Or they have not yet at least. They haven’t reached that breaking point. There’s a study that suggests that—this is from 10 years ago, it might be higher now—that perhaps a third of American rabbis acknowledge that they will not speak honestly about their real beliefs about Israel-Palestine because people fear losing their jobs, people fear kind of social ostracism. Again, I don’t want to suggest that there are not people who have deep, deep convictions in support of the Israeli government and in support of America giving Israel unconditional support for that government. Of course, there are. And I don’t want to suggest that there are no people on the left who have careerist motivations either. This is, of course, a human tendency that exists across all ideological divides.

My point is a little bit narrower. It is that among American Jewish leaders who have actually had some exposure to Palestinian life on the ground, among those, in my experience, it’s very, very difficult to truly believe that Israel is essentially a benign actor or that you can chalk up everything Israel’s doing to Palestinian recalcitrance and, you know, and necessary security concerns. That stuff just tends to collapse when you’re actually on the ground there for any significant time. And the key question I think, and this I think is going to be a key question in the American Jewish community for years to come is: do a critical mass of those people who have seen those things, who I think at the back of their minds are thinking some of the same things that Daniel Ellsberg was thinking, thinking things like, is it moral for me to be doing the work that I’m doing, taking the public positions that I’m taking given what I have seen? Will those people continue to do that or is it possible that you have people who influence other people to then be willing to take the kinds of risks that Ellsberg was taking. You know, he saw someone else in an active bravery, and then he acted himself. And I think that that’s what I hope will happen among American Jewish leaders. I do think that what appears often like a kind of monolithic impregnable establishment Jewish support for Israel, right or wrong, actually conceals a great many people who privately have profound doubts about the morality, not just of what Israel’s doing, but of their own work.

Just two examples from my own life. Years ago, I was ushered into a meeting after I wrote my book in 2012, into a meeting with a very prominent New York American Jewish leader. And he said to me something along the lines of—I’m just paraphrasing—but something along the lines of, ‘Peter, you know, I’m much luckier than you.’ And I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘well, I won’t be alive to see what’s become of Israel if it continues on its current trajectory in 30 years. I’ll be dead.’ That was how profound his pessimism was about the path that Israel was on. And this was in the days before Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. Another American Jewish leader I talked to once who worked as part of an organization that fights against boycotting Israel. And this person told me that they, in their private life, do not buy settlement products. So, they were actually doing a form of boycotting of Israel even though they were working for an organization that spends a lot of its time fighting boycotts against Israel. This is just a sense of the discrepancy that I’ve just seen in my own experience between people’s public views and people’s private views.

So, to me, one of the big questions is: in this case, as in any I think case of grave moral injustice and a community that is actively complicit in that active injustice, what does it take to produce a critical mass of conscience so that you have not just one, two, three, many figures like Daniel Ellsberg, and a kind of a dam can break. I have no idea how close or far we are to that, but I think the Ellsberg story is a reminder that these things are possible and that ultimately it comes down to every individual person to make that kind of choice about how they want to live. Our guests again on Friday will be Sami Adwan and Daniel Bar-Tal to talk about the question of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks and also Daniel’s new book. And I hope many of you will join us then. Take care.

The Beinart Notebook
The Beinart Notebook
Peter Beinart