Redeeming the instruction to displace and destroy

by Richard on July 22, 2012

Velveteen Rabbi has been pondering the following Torah passage

God spoke to Moshe on the plains of Moab near the Jordan, and said: speak to the children of Israel and tell them: when you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you will displace all who dwell in the land… and if you do not, they will be as thorns in your eyes, they will wound your sides…and I will drive you out of the land instead of them. –Numbers 33:55-56

and comments

There are those who hold that this week’s Torah portion is justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over “Greater Israel.” Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?

The whole post is well worth reading, but I was particularly taken with her expansive reading of the passage:

If you choose to dispossess the inhabitants of the land, then you’d better kill or displace all of them — otherwise you’re in for a world of reciprocal suffering, a spiral of violence which will enmesh generation after generation in hatred and bloodshed. But maybe someday, when humanity has evolved beyond this kind of tribalism, you’ll reach the possibility of treating one another as fellow human beings despite your religious and cultural differences. That’s the path to wholeness and peace, and if you don’t seek it, you’ll be driven out of the land yourselves.

That makes a lot of sense to me — reading the passage as a description of how things are, not how they are meant to be. That won’t satisfy everyone, of course. She adds

Rabbi Arthur Segal notes in a d’var Torah on Matot-Masei that this week’s portion contains instructions about the “cities of refuge” to which accidental murderers could flee in order to prevent the vicious cycle of blood feuds. He points out that we can come away from this week’s Torah portion either “remembering to do genocide to our enemies,” or choosing to relinquish vengeance. I believe I know which option I would rather pursue.

Amen to that.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1

geoffff 07.22.12 at 11:56 pm

What we have here is an example of the “straw man fallacy”. There probably are those who find some religious inspiration for “Greater Israel” in the Torah but I’ve never met one and certainly they are not blowing up buses in Bulgaria. Mind you I tend to stay away from religious zealots of all stripes.

The point is surely that in Israel’s secular democracy, and for that matter elsewhere in the West, these insane voices are on the fringe. They are not core to the dominant ideology — such as in Gaza, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon …

2

Richard 07.23.12 at 12:20 am

Thank you, geofff. I’ve said all along (for two years or more) that we’re talking about Israel, the modern nation-state which is a secular democracy — which is why criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians should never be interpreted as an attack on Jews.

As to whether this is a ’straw man’ — remember that what I’ve quoted is only a fragment. In any case, the original post comes from a rabbi, someone who I believe might well be qualified to comment on Torah.

3

Ric 07.23.12 at 12:55 am

Any Orthodox Rabbi (which our charming Velveteen colleague is not) will tell you that the Tanach is sealed. That is to say, the historical elements of it are time-bound: they were right for then, but should not be taken as instructions for conduct here and now.

4

steve 07.23.12 at 4:09 am

geoffff, do you really hate Syria?
Syria is about as close as you can come any more to a ’secular democracy’ among Muslim states. But the U.S. and it’s military-industrial complex along with the radical Muslim fundamentalists NATO trains and supplies are very, very busy trying to bring about another Libya-type disaster, a country divided into easily controlled and dominated warring factions of opportunists and Muslim extremists. Christians in Syria, who mostly supported Assad due to the religious tolerance he encouraged, are already being targeted and are in danger of being ‘ethnically cleansed’ from Syria, as they were in Iraq.
Thank God for the Russians and Chinese, who hopefully will continue to block NATO’s new colonialism.
Let us note also that Israel is preparing to invade Syria, once it’s beat down enough for them to do so safely.

5

geoffff 07.23.12 at 9:00 am

And you expect an argument from me?

Gentlemen, please, you will just have to accept that for me at least this is not about religion. I’m not about to argue with a Rabbi about what some belligerent passage in the Torah means and not just because I’m not insane. It’s because I don’t care.

“Belligerence” in religious text and dogma is not my area. Not interested beyond saying it would be a much better world if all clerics reflected on “belligerence” in their own texts and dogma with the same detailed introspection as Velveteen Rabbi and, with respect, especially if they are Christian. Or is that too late?

We get it. Religion can be dangerous. Look at the world. You will get no argument from me.

That’s the thing. In a liberal secular society this sort of thing is more or less under control. For instance, if there was an over exuberant rabbi urging that an explosive device be tactically put at an extraordinarily strategic moment in time and place then it is also on record he was brushed aside by the bemused secular military. Naturally.

Israel is free secular liberal democratic and above all Jewish! Religion is respected and free. You know this. Freedom from religion too. That’s important. You can opt in or out and shop around. It’s very important. It keeps religion in its place.

That’s why they hate it so much.

6

geoffff 07.23.12 at 9:49 am

Steve, I don’t hate Syria and I don’t buy at all that this horrible mess is due to the US and the West. The notion that Israel is preparing to invade Syria is really just the most appalling nonsense.

This civil war will likely get more brutal as all civil wars do. This is not the West’s fault and there is not much the West can do.

Just like every other civil war in history there are outside powers tugging in all directions but you must the West is the least of it and Israel not at all. These are Turkey Iran China and above all Russia.

Syria has been cursed by a vicious fascist style regime that under no circumstances could be described as democratic for longer than I have been alive. It is a hideous cruel regime that should repel you.. The demise of Assad can not come too soon.

Likely that will depend on China and Russia. What happens then? Who knows. Massacres of Alawites. Fragmentation and enclaves. Foreign incursions. Probably. I do not know but one thing is for certain. . Russia will look after it’s military base.

7

Kim 07.23.12 at 10:51 am

In a liberal secular society this sort of thing is more or less under control.

Ah, the just-so-story of the the modern secular nation-state bringing peace out of religious violence, herald of the coming common good. More and more historians are abandoning this self-serving liberal narrrative. You need to get up to speed with your readiing, geoffff.

8

geoffff 07.23.12 at 8:54 pm

I’m not quite sure what you are pushing here Kim but let me clear about what I am not. I have no time at all for the “modern secular nation-state bringing peace out of religious violence, herald of the coming common good.”

None at all. I reckon my reading is up to date for what it’s worth. Is yours?

9

Kim 07.23.12 at 11:39 pm

Glad to hear you’re not pushing the bollocks that the italics in #7 suggested to me you might be, geoffff. Indeed — my God! — I think we have an understanding, mate!

10

geoffff 07.24.12 at 12:49 pm

You sound surprised, mate!

11

geoffff 07.24.12 at 2:07 pm

“Thank you, geofff. I’ve said all along (for two years or more) that we’re talking about Israel, the modern nation-state which is a secular democracy — which is why criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians should never be interpreted as an attack on Jews.”

Actually Richard this is another example of a straw man fallacy. Indeed this is the mother of all straw men fallacies.

This is a version of the pre-emptive offensive denial with an interesting twist.. Criticism of Israeli policy towards Palestinians is not antisemitism. Even Israel defines herself as something other than “the Jews”. Ergo, criticism of Israel ipso facto is not criticism of Jews.

Of course it is not. The notion is absurd. If it were Israel would be full of antisemites. What? Political parties of antisemites are formed with the purpose of gaining elected office in the Jewish state? Israel is after all a vibrant and outspoken democracy. That is why enemies of Israel are able to get much of their material from the Israeli media.

No one serious has ever seriously suggested it and yet we constantly hear people denying they are antisemites “just because they are critics of Israel”. Why? What is it that drives so many people to so incessantly and strenuously deny an allegation that nobody has ever made?

It is however beyond any question that much of the “criticism” of Israel is inspired, driven or informed by antisemitism often of the crudest and most vile kinds and it is getting worse. This cannot be honestly denied. There can be issues of definition but most people know it when they see it and right now it is everywhere.

At that point It is irrelevant that Israel is a secular democracy. It is irrelevant what Israel is. It is only what is in the mind of the antisemite that is relevant. It is the antisemite who defines the “Jew”. The “Jews” have no say in it.

12

Richard 07.25.12 at 11:57 am

I’ll reply to this comment and this one at the same time if you don’t mind - the point is essentially the same.

>> What is it that drives so many people to so incessantly and strenuously deny an allegation that nobody has ever made?

You’re quite wrong, geoffff. I realise that you’re a relatively recent commenter at connexions so you’ve missed a lot of conversation over the last few years, but the allegation that criticism of Israel is inseperable from anti-semitism has been made on numerous occasions. Bizarrely, you come very close to that allegation yourself, even as you deny it is being made (“It is however beyond any question that much of the “criticism” of Israel is inspired, driven or informed by antisemitism”)

Of course, I’m not denying that some critics of Israel are motivated by antisemitism, but here your last comment is helpful: “It is only what is in the mind of the antisemite that is relevant” Exactly. And on the subject of what is in my mind, or indeed the collective mind of the Methodist Church, on the treatment of Palestinians by Israel, I can speak with a measure of authority: there is no antisemitism here.

13

geoffff 07.25.12 at 11:41 pm

Actually Richard I did pay you the courtesy of scanning some old threads before I made these comments. I have to say I have not seen any evidence of the “allegation” that “criticism of Israel is inseperable from anti-semitism” . Plenty of denials but no allegation.

I have however seen a classic example of antisemitism that I intend to write about on my blog when next I tackle the problem of creeping clerical antizionism in some Christian denominations.

14

Richard 07.26.12 at 8:02 am

So what you’re suggesting is that the accusation that I am antisemitic because I’ve criticized Israeli policy towards the Palestinians has never been made, that I’m imagining it because deep down I know it’s true? In other words, you accuse me of antisemitism again, but without actually saying so.

15

geoffff 07.26.12 at 3:00 pm

I have accused you of nothing Richard. With respect, you need to cool down.

I am suggesting that a little self reflection of the type you and Kim are urging on others might well be of some benefit to you and him as well.

16

Richard 07.26.12 at 4:08 pm

If you say so, geoffff. But I’ve been part of this conversation across several blows over more than 2 years. And i can tell you that the accusation of antisemitism has been as persistent as it is unreasonable.

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