Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Children of Abraham vs. the Children of Joshua

In today's weekly Torah portion, we read how the patriarch Abraham bought the field of Ephron the Hittite, and the Cave of the Machpelah, in order to bury his wife, Sarah. Although he is recognized as a powerful chieftain, he refuses to receive the field and the cave as a gift. Instead, he pays the (perhaps exorbitant) sum of four hundred shekels, Ephron's asking price.

Now Abraham knows how to bargain – he bargained with the Lord in order to save the city of Sodom. So why doesn't he bargain here? Because he knows that, as a "stranger and a sojourner in the land", his peace and security depends upon his good relations with his neighbors. He does not want anything that doesn't belong to him, or that will compromise his values; he declines the spoils of war offered him from the King of Sodom. He has been assured that his descendants will inherit the land, but he does not act now on that knowledge, nor does he try to hasten that day. And his approach is imitated by his son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. It is part of Abraham's legacy to seek peace and accommodation – while retaining his own identity – with the peoples of Canaan.

Not so Joshua. In his book we read of warfare, of conquest, of wiping out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan (all of which is probably an invention of authors who lived centuries after the events; there is no archaeological record of any conquests during this period.) True, Joshua is guided by the Lord, and the Israelites are successful, in a way, in inheriting much of the Land, with blood and fire. But is it coincidental that the period of conquest is followed by the period of lawlessness and internal strife, where everyone did what he considered to be right in his own eyes?

When contemplating the return to an imagined homeland, the Zionists had in front of their eyes the model of Abraham and the model of Joshua. As is well-known, it was Joshua that won out. War, conquest, the elimination of Palestine from the map, which included the refusal to allow the native Palestinians to return to their homes, the destruction of three hundred villages, the expropriation of homes, and the settling of immigrants therein, was the order of the day. Many Zionists looked at Joshua as their forerunner. They spoke of kibbush ha-aretz in Biblical terms, and they were proud of their military prowess, like the ancient Hebrews of old.

Yet there were some Zionists who rejected the conquest-model, and Judah Magnes was the most prominent of them. Shortly after the massacre of the Jews in Hebron, when nationalistic feelings were at a fever pitch, he wrote, "Like All the Nations." Magnes is today remembered for his binationalism, but that was not the essential part of his thinking, and he abandoned binationalism in favor of federation when the Jewish state was a fait accompli. What was essential to his Magnes was his belief that any political solution had to be with the consent of the native Palestinian Arabs; otherwise, the Jews would enter into a state of perpetual war with them. His was the opposite thinking to the "Iron Wall" mentality of the statist-Zionists, left and right. He was the ultimate opponent of unilateralism.

Well, he lost, didn't he? And look how things have turned out….

Today, there are "Jewish" settlers who live in the vicinity of the Cave of the Machpelah, in Hebron and in Kiryat Arba. They may be Jewish, but they are not of the seed of Abraham; they are the children of Joshua, at best. The real children of Abraham are both those of the seed of Ishmael who have been banished from their houses, and those Israeli Jews who have devoted their lives to seeing justice done in Hebron.

It is best to close with the words of Magnes from "Like All the Nations":

Palestine is holy to the Jew in that his attitude toward this land is necessarily different from his attitude toward any other land. He may have to live in other lands upon the support of bayonets, but that may well be something which he, as a Jew, cannot help. But when he goes voluntarily as a Jew to re-people his own Jewish Homeland, it is by an act of will, of faith, of free choice, and he should not either will or believe in or want a Jewish Home that can be maintained in the long run only against the violent opposition of the Arab and Moslem peoples. The fact is that they are here in their overwhelming numbers in this part of the world, and whereas it may have been in accord with Israelite needs in the time of Joshua to conquer the land and maintain their position in it with the sword, that is not in accord with the desire of plain Jews or with the long ethical tradition of Judaism that has not ceased developing to this day.

Spoken like a true child of Abraham.


mapper said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. There's a reason why the ancient Jews turned overwhelmingly to Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel for the liturgical prophetic readings (the haftarot). Joshua was almost completely ignored.

shmuel said...

I think a major question is who changed? Was it the "Children of Israel" who forgot the heritage of Abraham,or was it God who changed at the exodus from Egypt became somewhat unexpectedly "the man of war"? When we are supposed to emulate God's middot should we emulate the "man of war" or the compassionate "merciful and grateful"? Unfortunately those who prefer war to peace find in our sources a God who can be emulated to justify their behaviour and are convinced that they are doing His will. Shame we can't emend our sources here and there...