Sabra and Shatila: What Happened And Why It Matters


The story of Sabra and Shatila is a horrifying one. A paramilitary Lebanese group massacres between 800 and 2,000 refugees, many in horrifying ways. And oddly…Israel is blamed for this awful, awful crime? This week, Noam will break down the confusing and upsetting story of Sabra and Shatila, and in doing so, will ask, how does a nation deal with power and responsibility?

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Episode Transcript

When I was in high school and Google was barely a thing, I remember sitting in a Hebrew language class when someone first said Sabra and Shatila. There was no Wikipedia for me to leech off of and feign intelligence, so I relied on my teacher. Morah, what happened at Sabra and Shatila? I innocently asked.

Her response, “Nu, dai kvar. Shum davar lo kara. Yalla.” Which, if you’re not a native Hebrew speaker, roughly translates to, “Shut up, move on, and let’s sweep it under the rug.” Well, you don’t need to be a clinical psychologist – though my parents are – to know that a response like that will only pique a 16-year-old’s curiosity.

I don’t remember how I satisfied that curiosity. I loved my high school experience, but I wish learning about Sabra and Shatila had been mediated by someone who could or frankly would explain it honestly. Someone who could have given me a space to think it through, ask tough questions, and arrive at my own conclusions. So I became an educator.

And the more I learn and teach about Israeli history, the more I think about…the Stanford Prison Experiment. How’s that for a non-sequitur? But hear me out, cause I promise I’m getting somewhere with this.

In 1971, a Stanford psychology professor named Philip Zimbardo led a study to investigate the psychological effects of power. The study took student volunteers and assigned them arbitrarily to be either “prisoners” or “guards.” 

Now, the results of the study have been questioned a lot, and rightfully so. Its methodology was highly flawed and its ethics were murky at best.

Ethical and methodological qualms aside, the Stanford Prison Experiment is regularly trotted out as “proof” of the old adage that “power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These college students were probably pretty decent, normal people. But the second the “guards” had a taste of power, they flipped. The study lasted less than a week. But in that time, guards began enforcing humiliating punishments on their charges. They took their roles so seriously that they began sneaking into prisoners’ cells at night just to abuse them.

The study disturbed a lot of people, because it suggested that there’s something fundamentally dark about human nature. That given the smallest taste of power — even fake, made-up power — even the most “normal,” decent people will end up committing some kind of atrocity.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. See, the Jews spent 2,000 years stateless. Powerless. Our exile became a part of our liturgy, our very consciousness. Our identities — from the professions we were allowed to pursue to the clothes we were allowed to wear — were predicated on being guests in other people’s lands. And we remained — and remain — acutely conscious of the fact that our welcome could run out at any time.

Which means that for two thousand years, we never had to grapple with what it means to have real power.

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik — a generational Talmudic mind and the preeminent leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the 20th century — put it neatly:

“We never had a state. We never had political province. Each individual for himself, a private person cannot commit — a private person, a weak person, a persecuted person, a person who did not have anything to say — could not commit the injustices of each, for instance, France, Germany, or feudal England committed, I mean in the Middle Ages of course.”

But all that changed after 1948, and again after 1967. After 2,000 years of exile, wandering, and prayer, we had a state. Which meant that, quite aside from quotidian challenges like how do you clear a swamp? and how are we going to feed all these immigrants?, Israeli leadership had to contend with ontological questions like, what the heck are we going to do with the Arabs in our borders? And, even more uncomfortably, what is our responsibility to people with less power than us? What is our responsibility as the majority?

That is the story we’re going to tell today. It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s absolutely necessary if we want to understand Israeli and modern Jewish history. It’s a story I wish I had been told when I was a 16-year-old in Hebrew class, innocently asking, without realizing it, “what does it mean to have power?”

Our story starts in 1964. Israel is eighteen years old, a veteran of two wars and countless attacks and incursions. The Six Day War that would triple Israeli landmass is still three years away, which means that the tiny country has far less power than it does today.

And it’s about to get hit with another wave of terror courtesy of the newly-formed PLO, or Palestine Liberation Organization, whose charter reads: “We, the Palestinian Arab people, who believe in its Arabism and in its right to regain its homeland… to amass its forces and mobilize its efforts and capabilities in order to continue its struggle and to move forward on the path of holy war (al-jihad) until complete and final victory has been attained…”

Just in case that wasn’t clear, the PLO laid out their position as follows:

Article 17: “The partitioning of Palestine…and the establishment of Israel are illegal and null and void.”

Article 18: “The claims of historic and spiritual ties between Jews and Palestine are not in agreement with the facts of history or with the true basis of sound statehood.” 

Article 19: “Zionism is a colonialist movement in its inception, aggressive and expansionist in its goal, racist in its configurations, and fascist in its means and aims. Israel… is a permanent source of tension and turmoil in the Middle East, in particular, and to the international community in general.”

In other words, complete victory means no more Israel. It’s like the anti-Semitic trifecta: deny Israel’s right to exist; deny Jews’ historical and spiritual ties to their homeland; and paint Israel as the world’s permanent problem. Gosh.

So it’s not super surprising that the people who drafted this charter had absolutely no problem adopting terrorist tactics, which escalated when Yasser Arafat took over as chairman in 1969. Because nothing “frees Palestine” like murdering 11 Olympic athletes in Germany. (If you’re interested in hearing more about that story, check out our episode on the 1972 Munich Olympics.)

But the PLO wasn’t just a major thorn in Israel’s side. Aside from openly flouting Jordan’s laws, they also tried to kill King Hussein of Jordan — twice! When the Hashemite king kicked the PLO out of Jordan for good, they moved their base of operations to southern Lebanon, where they destabilized the Lebanese government and paid frequent, violent house calls to their Israeli neighbors in the south.

By 1978 — after a particularly grisly incident in which the PLO killed a tourist, hijacked a bus, and murdered nearly 40 hostages — Israel had had enough. The IDF invaded southern Lebanon, pushing the PLO deeper into Lebanon and away from the Israeli border. When the Israelis left two months later, it was with the UN’s assurance that its peacekeeping force would prevent more Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians.

As the kids used to say in my long-ago youth… LOL. UNIFIL, or the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, did nothing, and PLO attacks — on both Israel and the Christians and Shiites of Lebanon — continued. Perhaps the most traumatic and horrifying episode of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis came the next year. If you’re squeamish, you may want to skip forward by about a minute, because this is rough.

In 1979, the Palestine Liberation Front, or PLF, wasn’t pleased about Israel’s recently-signed peace treaty with Egypt. So the PLF leadership sent a few infiltrators, including a 16-year-old Lebanese Druze named Samir Kuntar, into Israel, with instructions to kill a police officer and abduct at least three civilians to take back to Lebanon. 

After murdering officer Eliyahu Shachar, Kuntar and his accomplices broke into an apartment building in Nahariya. They kidnapped Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat, forcing them to the beach. Kuntar made Einat watch as he shot and then drowned her father. Then he smashed her head against a rock with the butt of his pistol. Meanwhile, Smadar Haran cowered in a crawl space in her own home, her two-year-old daughter Yael in her arms. In an effort to keep the baby quiet, Smadar accidentally suffocated her.

It’s a story that could have come from Poland in 1942. In fact, Smadar’s mother was a Holocaust survivor, and Smadar — the sole survivor of the attack that ripped away her young family — recounts thinking of her mother as she hid in her own home, trembling with fear.

Israelis were outraged and horrified. Power? What power? And the attacks kept coming. In 1982, a Palestinian splinter group called Abu Nidal — which had broken away from the PLO in 1974 — ambushed Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to England, sending him into a three-month coma and disabling him for life.

For Prime Minister Begin — and his hawkish defense minister, Ariel Sharon — the attack on Argov was the straw that broke the camel’s back. IDF tanks rolled into southern Lebanon less than 72 hours later, with the goal of ending these attacks.

But they were rolling into a mess. Like Israel, Lebanon is complicated. And in 1982, it was buckling under seven years of internecine war.

Almost 60% of Lebanese are Muslim, roughly split between Sunnis and Shia, with a sprinkling of minorities like Alawaites and Ismailis. Nearly 40% of Lebanese are Christians of various stripes. Druze, Baha’i, Buddhists, Hindus, and even some Jews round out Lebanon’s religious minorities. By the way, I have to add another nerd corner for this wild fact: some Lebanese actually reject being called Arab, claiming a much earlier Pheonecian identity. Google it – it’s a fascinating internet rabbithole.

Anyway, after Lebanon achieved its independence from the French in 1946, the country more or less functioned. For a while, Beirut even enjoyed a reputation as “the Paris of the Middle East.” Sadly, the stability was short-lived.

The state was largely run by Maronite Christians, who had held power and influence since the days of the French. But leftists, pan-Arabists, and ardently religious Muslims were not exactly enamored of the Maronites’ pro-Western government. The Palestinian refugees who streamed into the country in 1948 and 1967 further inflamed these tensions. By 1975, the country found itself embroiled in a bloody civil war. Meanwhile, the Syrians, sensing a power vacuum they could exploit, began their own incursion, eventually turning Lebanon into a Syrian puppet.

So, to recap: it’s June 1982. Begin is sick of constant PLO incursions from southern Lebanon. Defense Minister Sharon is chomping at the bit to go after the terrorists. And many Lebanese — Christian and Muslim alike — are also pretty sick of the PLO, who had been gleefully wreaking havoc on Lebanon since they moved in in 1971.

What’s that they say about the enemy of my enemy? It seems insane to us now, but according to Yossi Klein Halevi in his book Like Dreamers, when Israel rolled into Lebanon, “Shiites as well as Christians threw rice and candies, welcoming the IDF as liberators from the hated PLO, which had terrorized southern Lebanon.”

But it wasn’t just terrorized villagers who welcomed the Israelis. The president-elect of Lebanon himself had reason to want their superior military capabilities in his corner. Bashir Gemayel was a Christian who had long had issues with his Muslim neighbors, both Palestinian and Lebanese. And Israel was drawn to the potential of a rosy future, in which Lebanon’s Christian president might broker peace with his southern neighbor.

Realists understood that these were dim hopes to pin on Gemayel, a controversial figure hated by 60% of his country. But they were outnumbered in Begin’s cabinet, which approved the invasion. The thinking went that even if the incursion didn’t result in a forever-peace with Lebanon, it would at least bring an end to terror attacks from the North. Or, as Begin put it — with characteristic flair — “When an imperative arises to protect our people from being bled, how can any one of us doubt what we have to do?”

At first, “what we have to do” was simply establish a 25-mile buffer zone between PLO bases in South Lebanon and the northern border of Israel. The IDF hit that target quickly. But soon, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon agitated to expand the war. The PLO is still there!, he argued. Let’s march on Beirut and end them now!

And Begin — elderly, frail, dependent on Sharon, who he admired mightily — acquiesced.

But for the first time in Israeli history, something strange began to happen. As Israeli forces pushed deeper into Lebanon, more and more Israelis massed outside of Begin’s window in protest. A bereaved father even wrote Begin a searing letter, with this unforgettable line: “My beloved son is dead because of YOUR war.”

Not “our war.” Your war.

This was a first for Israel. Remember, Israel is tiny, and has historically been surrounded by neighbors intent on flattening it. And it’s full of people who fled from unfriendly countries, including some of these neighbors. Not to mention that the vast majority of Israeli citizens serve in the army. Public support tends to be high in times of wartime. The public had never protested an active war before, but they were increasingly unconvinced that the incursion into Lebanon was really an act of self-defense — an act of the powerless against the powerful. 

And so, many Israelis withdrew their support quickly. “We don’t want to die in Beirut,” read the posters at the protests outside of Begin’s window. More pressingly, and poignantly, the public also didn’t want to kill in Beirut. No longer a fight between two armies, the war had devolved into guerilla tactics, ever-shifting targets, and a boatload of civilian casualties.

Israel’s efforts in Lebanon were a type of “asymmetric warfare” — a particularly difficult kind of war to fight. It’s not just an issue of strong versus weak, powerful against powerless. Andrew Mack, the scholar who coined the term, explains: “There is also the question of the morality of the war. When the survival of the nation is not directly threatened, and when the obvious asymmetry in conventional military power bestows an underdog status on the insurgent side, the morality of the war is more easily questioned.”

These “questions” were about to turn into a full-throated condemnation.

Because President Gemayel — the leader who Israel had hoped would usher in a new era of peace and diplomacy — was assassinated on September 14th, 1982, in the third attempt on his life. Habib Shartouni, a fellow Maronite and a Syrian nationalist, confessed almost immediately to assassinating Gemayel because “he sold the country to Israel.” Gemayel’s death destroyed the Israeli hope of peace with its southern neighbor — not least because of the revenge that Gemayel’s political party was about to wreak on the country’s Palestinians. (Never mind that he had been killed by a Syrian, not a Palestinian!)

Now, a little background about that. Gamayel headed a Christian political party known as the Phalangist, or Kataeb, party. The Phalangists were founded in 1936 as a paramilitary youth organization whose main activities were resisting the French, the pan-Arabists, and anyone else they saw as meddling in Lebanese politics or culture. Though they evolved into a more traditional political party after Lebanese independence, more concerned with elections and voting than with violence, the Phalangists never lost their paramilitary arm. 

And that paramilitary arm got quite a workout during the bloody years of Lebanon’s civil war. It was the Phalangists who opened fire on a bus carrying 22 Palestinians in 1975. According to a New York Times article from the next day: “…The bus carrying the Palestinians was coming from a rally organized by a guerilla group to celebrate the first anniversary of the guerilla attack on the Israeli border town of Qiryat Shemona.”

But if the Phalangists wanted a Lebanon scrubbed of foreign intervention, why would they ally with Israel, the region’s pariah? According to a 1975 article by Frank Stoakes in the journal Middle Eastern Studies, conservative Phalangists believed that “the prime and direct menace is from radical Arab states and the Palestinian Resistance.” 

The enemy of my enemy, etc., etc.

So. We have a political party with a military wing and a history of violence. It is allied with Israel. It really hates the PLO, seeing them — rightfully — as a foreign group trying to intervene in Lebanon’s already-fraught politics. And its leader has just been assassinated by a Syrian — another group whose influence the Phalangists sought to resist.

In short, we’ve assembled all of the ingredients for a massive fashla — the Israeli term, borrowed from the Arabic, for a disaster.

The day after Gemayel’s assassination, the Israelis rolled into West Beirut. Begin insisted that the incursion into Beirut was “to keep the peace… Otherwise, there could be pogroms.” Israel’s Prime Minister proved prescient. But unfortunately, not prescient enough. Because the Israeli presence in West Beirut did not deter the two-day pogrom that followed Gemayel’s assassination. 

You see, the West Beirut neighborhoods of Sabra, and the adjacent Shatila refugee camp, were full of Palestinian civilians and refugees — though the Phalangists and the IDF believed that the PLO was also using the camps as a base of operations. So the Israelis surrounded Sabra and Shatila, sending in roughly 150 Phalangists to “mop up” the terrorist PLO forces.

But they went a lot further than mopping up. And they didn’t stop with PLO operatives. If you’re squeamish, skip ahead by thirty seconds. This is horrible to hear, and horrible to say.

The Phalangists spent the next two days murdering, raping, and torturing anywhere between 800 and 2,000 refugees, many in horrifying ways. Eyewitnesses reported atrocities like mutilation, castration, scalping, the disemboweling of pregnant women, and the carving of crosses onto people’s bodies. 

According to a 2020 Times of Israel article, by Avraham Rabinovich, who had covered the massacre for the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli soldier who had been stationed outside the camps told him: “the Christians had used knives so that the Israelis would not be alerted by the sound of gunfire.”

As it got dark, the Phalangists asked the IDF for flares so they could see what they were doing. The Israelis — seemingly believing them to be hunting terrorists — complied, their flares illuminating horrifying atrocities. However, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a Palestinian advocacy organization, contends that “Israeli forces fired flares into the night sky to illuminate the darkness for the Phalangists, allowed reinforcements to enter the area on the second day of the massacre, and provided bulldozers that were used to dispose of the bodies of many of the victims.”

But Rabinovich tells a different story. He recounts a conversation with the Israeli soldiers who encircled the camps:

“One said a Phalangist had returned to the intersection during the night to request a stretcher. They had already killed 250 ‘terrorists,’ the militiaman said. The Israelis thought this absurd.

‘We know how much firepower we have to use before we kill a handful and here they’re claiming to have killed 250 and there had been almost no shooting.’ The Israeli soldiers had not been thinking about knives and bulldozers. ‘We laughed among ourselves when he left until someone said ‘They must be counting civilians.’ Then we stopped laughing.’”

This quote suggests that the Israelis truly didn’t know what was going on. Indeed, Rabinovich recounts that “the Israelis themselves had come under RPG and small arms fire at the beginning of the operation… No one imagined that a massacre was going on.”

Whether this is true was bitterly contested — by everyone, including the Israeli public itself. As soon as news of the massacre broke, hundreds of thousands of Israelis flooded the streets. Some estimates say that 10% of Israel’s population came out to demonstrate against the war and the massacre, which the people blamed on Israeli leadership and military. They held painfully evocative signs: “If I Forget Sabra and Shatila, May I Forget Jerusalem.”

Sadly and appropriately enough, the massacre also happened right before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and the public reckoning rocked Israel. Rav Yehuda Amital, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, opined that though Jews may not have perpetuated the massacre, on religious grounds, they were still ultimately responsible for it. condemned it as “a sin not even Yom Kippur can cleanse.” Rav Amital was not alone in his condemnation. Dr. Yosef Burg, the head of the National Religious Party, had opposed the invasion from the first. It’s even been reported that Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, whose voice you heard at the top of the episode, said in private conversation: “we need to add another al Chet to the [Yom Kippur] liturgy,” demanding an inquiry into exactly what happened that day in September of 1982.

The Israeli public agreed with these religious leaders. The government formed the Kahan Commission in February of 1983 to investigate what the heck happened. It’s worth noting that though it was clear that Israel didn’t directly perpetuate the massacre, only Israel established a commission dedicated to uncovering the truth of the massacre. Different Lebanese groups — including the Phalangists, who had perpetrated the violence  — were perhaps too caught up in the bloody devolution of their homeland to establish any kind of official inquiry. Or, more likely, they just didn’t care to investigate the atrocity they had committed.

And perhaps, in establishing the Commission, Israel was drawing on Biblical tradition. Ruth Wisse’s 2007 book, Jews and Power, notes that the Hebrew prophets “linked a nation’s potency to its moral strength, putting the Jews on perpetual trial for their political actions before a supreme judge.”  Certainly, this was the mood among the protestors who massed nightly outside of Begin’s window. 

Now, let’s be clear. 1982 Israel was not a theocracy. Its politicians were not prophets and the Kahan Commission was not a supreme judge. But the people demanded justice, understandably squeamish about the fact that hundreds or thousands of defenseless refugees had been butchered by Israeli allies under Israeli noses. The fact that not a single Israeli soldier had entered the camps was immaterial. Their army had surrounded Sabra and Shatila. Their army had power. The Kahan Commission was their attempt to investigate that power.

The Kahan Report found Ariel Sharon “indirectly responsible” for what happened at Sabra and Shatila. It admits that the IDF entered West Beirut without Cabinet approval. But it also reminds the reader of the IDF’s marching orders: “The refugee camps are not to be entered. Searching and mopping up the camps will be done by the Phalangists-Lebanese army.”

And because no Israelis had entered the camps, it was plausible that soldiers couldn’t see what was going on. The Kahan report reads: “From the roof of the forward command post it was possible to see the area of the camps but — as all the witnesses who visited the roof of the command post stated, and these were a good number of witnesses whose word we consider reliable — it was impossible to see what was happening within the alleys in the camp from the roof of the command post, not even with the aid of 20 x 120 binoculars that were on the command post roof.”

In short, the Kahan reports found that the Israelis let the Phalangists into the camp. It denies that they saw what was happening — though some contested that claim. And, it found that key players failed to stop the massacre once they learned it was happening.

Begin, for his part, was unimpressed by the results of the inquiry. He summarized the massacre thus: “goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews!” The Prime Minister was already old and sickly, exhausted from the pressures of the war and the recent death of his wife Aliza. He resigned from office in 1983, saying “aini yachol od,” or “I can’t take it anymore” — a sad statement for which he would be mocked by left-leaning Israeli satirists. For me, Menachem Begin — who dedicated his life to ensuring that Jews would never be powerless again — is a hero amongst heroes, even with this black eye in his career.

Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, as per the Kahan Commission’s report, was already due to retire in April of 1983. Thus, though the report “arrived at grave conclusions with regard to the acts and omissions of the Chief of Staff, Lt-Gen. Rafael Eitan…  we have resolved that it is sufficient to determine responsibility without making any further recommendation.” So Eitan finished out his tenure as Chief of Staff.

As for Sharon, who the report found to “bear personal responsibility,” he resigned his position as Defense Minister. But he remained in the Knesset as a minister without portfolio, and went on to become the Prime Minister less than 20 years later. (And yet — despite his hawkish tendencies and his hatred of the PLO, he ended his career pushing for unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. A complicated man. See our episode about the disengagement for more about that.)

But perhaps the lesson all three men — as well as Israeli society as a whole — took away from this incident is that asymmetric wars are unwinnable.

Wars that draw protestors to the PM’s window are worse. 

And power? Well, it should be wielded wisely. 

Hindsight’s 20/20, isn’t it? It’s so tempting to shout from 2021: Create a buffer zone, yes, but don’t roll into West Beirut! 

Ally with the Phalangists, but don’t let them into refugee camps full of people they hate. 

Or even: Don’t go into Lebanon at all! Build a wall instead! 

It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the key players had followed any of this advice. Or if Gemayel had not been assassinated. Or if, at the very least, the massacre hadn’t happened. It’s tempting to play with counterfactuals. But I’m not a novelist interested in dabbling in what might have been. I’m a Jewish educator, and all I have are the facts that actually took place, and the lessons we ought to wring from them.

So, that’s the story of Sabra and Shatila. Here are your five fast facts:

  1. The PLO was formed in 1964, and its charter was clear: destroy Israel. However, Israel isn’t the only country the PLO didn’t get along with. They also destabilized and terrorized Jordan and Lebanon, and were eventually kicked out of both countries, setting up their base of operations in Tunis.
  2. By 1978, Israel had had enough of the PLO. They invaded southern Lebanon, pushing the PLO further back. However, the attacks on civilians in Northern Israel kept coming, and by 1982, Israel went back in with the initial goal of establishing a 25-mile buffer zone to protect the north of the country.
  3. The incursion was a mess, and the Israeli public turned against the leadership, doubting that this quagmire was really a defensive war.
  4. After Israeli ally Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, Israelis entered West Beirut. They gave the Phalangist militia free rein to “mop up” the PLO fighters operating in the neighborhood of Sabra and the refugee camp of Shatila, both of which were full of Palestinian civilians and refugees. The Phalangists responded by massacring hundreds or even thousands of civilians.
  5. Israeli citizens were outraged and the government established the Kahan Commission to investigate the massacre, which found that Israel was indirectly responsible for the devastating events of those two days.

So, those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. 

As an educator, I think back to this tiny story, of my teenage self in Hebrew class, innocently asking my morah about an event that she clearly didn’t want to confront. 

And the truth is, I think she underestimated me and my classmates. Because I believe that our young people have the fortitude, intelligence, and intellectual curiosity to explore the toughest questions.

And questions of power may be the toughest ones of all.

I am a passionate Zionist. I have dedicated my life to teaching others about the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and Jewish identity. But hagiography isn’t education. And love doesn’t mean idolizing our heroes.

I truly believe that pretending that people are perfect, actually, paradoxically, minimizes them. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a German rabbi from the 1800s, makes this point about religious heroes in the Bible, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mimics his words. People are complex, Rabbi Sacks writes. No one in the Torah is portrayed as perfect. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are all punished for their sins. So is King David. Solomon, wisest of men, ends his life as a deeply compromised leader. The Torah is far from hagiography, idealization, and hero worship.

This goes double — triple — for the leaders of the Israeli state. Because, unlike so many in the Bible, they have power. They aren’t Abraham, forced to curry favor with foreign kings. They aren’t Jacob, fleeing famine at home to settle in a foreign land. They aren’t Moses, wandering for forty years without ever stepping foot in the promised land.

No, our modern leaders are a lot more similar to Joshua. To David. To Solomon. People who lived in a state of their own, who sometimes signed treaties with foreign leaders, and sometimes fought wars against their neighbors. Who commanded armies and held the responsibility for casualties. Who were motivated, usually, by the need to protect their people and their heritage. Who were often deeply flawed.

You don’t need to be religious to look to the Bible for a lesson in how to wield power — or how not to wield it. Jewish tradition gives us the tools we need to interpret modern Israeli history. To teach our young people to grapple with it and come to their own conclusions.

We no longer need to say, “Nu dai kvar. Shum davar lo kara. Yalla.”

Because mashehu ken kara. Something did happen. No, it is not “Weak kneed” self-flagellation to confront our story, rather, confronting our history and choices is the actualization of emerging from an ethical and religious tradition that specifically commands us to confront ourselves honestly. As the Kahan commission demonstrated, the Jewish people now have power. With power comes the responsibility to introspect, and that’s what the Jewish people and the Jewish state have been doing since the sui generis moment of the re-establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.


Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight a letter from a listener named Ari – and I like this letter because it really made me think. Ari wrote:

Hi Noam, 

I really enjoyed the latest episode on Operation Thunderbolt. My wife and I watch the 1979 film every Tisha B’Av. Despite watching it every year, it never gets old and it’s more uplifting than a Holocaust movie. What resonates with me year after the year is the message that the Jewish people have to look out for themselves because no one else will. That’s been true throughout our history “ad hayom hazeh”. It’s how we survived for thousands of years when much mightier empires (Egyptians, Romans, etc..) have not. We’ve always looked out for and took care of ourselves. As Yoni said in the movie “we are taking on this mission because the hostages are Jews, and if we don’t, no one else will.” Keep up the great work.

Ari, I’m so glad you liked our show, and this episode. But I have to admit that your letter made me kind of sad. I’m not saying you’re wrong, exactly, but this idea, of being set off, not because Judaism stands for something critical in the world, not because we are particularly moral, elevating the world in some way, but more simply, because the other nations of the world, well, they make sure we’re alone. Well, that made me kind of sad, and I’ve been thinking about it since receiving your letter. I would love to hear more about what you think, and if other people have thoughts about what Ari wrote, please be in touch as well! If you also have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be like Ari! Send us a message at

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at – your email might even get on the show.

This episode was produced by Rivky Stern. Our team for this episode includes Adi Elbaz, Baruch Goldberg, and Rob Pera. I’m your host, Noam Weissman. Thanks for listening, see you next week!

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