I honestly do not feel much like writing a politically charged piece this week.
After all, I have spent this week in an idyllic New Hampshire setting, teaching and exploring biblical Psalms with a group ranging in age from octogenarians to twenty-somethings, amid a retreat full of families and friends, veteran attendees and newcomers, full of song and amity, inclusiveness and wholesome sensibilities, and what could be wrong with the world?
I don’t feel like writing a politically charged piece. But, on the one hand, here comes this week’s double barrel Torah-reading, with vengeance and extirpation, instructions for conquest and dispossession:
In the first of this week’s readings, it is not enough for Moses and for God that the Israelites slay every adult male Midianite in retribution for that nation’s hostility and take the women and children of the Midianites captive (Numbers 31:9), but Moses rebukes the people for sparing the women and children and commands them to “slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man” (Numbers 31:17), one of the most horrifying moments in our ancient narrative. And in the second of the week’s paired portions, the Israelites, still wandering toward Canaan, are warned about the people they will find inhabiting their ancestral, promised country, “If you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live, so that it will come to pass that I [God] do to you what I set out to do to them” (Numbers 33:55).
On the one hand there is that, and it comes just as we start the Hebrew month in which we commemorate the ancient destructions, twice over, of Jerusalem, by Babylonia and by Rome. And on the other hand there is a headline and a story that has irked me all week long, as it has popped up again and again in various digital news-feeds, from the realm of movies and popular culture:
“Social Justice Warriors Loved ‘Wonder Woman’ Star, Until They Learned This About Her” goes one version – ‘This’ being that Gal Gadot is an Israeli who has served in her country’s military. “Superstar in the making Gal Gadot has now come under fire,” says one news outlet among many fanning up the flames, “after she revealed that not only is she Israeli, she’s proud of that fact.”
What I detest in the tweets and posts behind these stories is the effort to criminalize the Israeli movie star’s nationality itself. This is an aim especially salient in a week when the Palestinian Authority, reportedly, is gearing up to mount a lawsuit against the United Kingdom over the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration, to remember, was a British policy paper that opened the way toward the creation of the modern State of Israel, and toward a two state Arab and Jewish paradigm for the geographical area that, before being a Mandate of the United Kingdom, had been a Sanjak of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, a district of the Umayyad and Abassid Caliphates, a province of the Byzantine Empire, a territory under direct administration of the Roman Senate, a Jewish dominion in revolt against Rome, a vassal Tetrarchy ruled by Herod the Great and his successors, a kingdom of Levitical Priest-Monarchs, a bone of contention between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic heirs to Alexander’s empire, a satrapy of the Persian Empire in which Jews were allowed to rebuild their ancient Temple of Solomon, which had been destroyed in that place by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, long after Assyria had overrun Israel’s northern tribes – and that’s grossly to simplify the timeline.
Most distasteful is the apparent conceit of purity with which Gadot is vilified for being Israeli by Anglos living in, for example, my own home city of Toronto (an Iroquois name for a place where that nation displaced the Wyandot people and were run out by the Mississauga, in turn to be overrun by Europeans) and the place where I live now, Massachusetts (Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pocomtuc, Mahican, and Massachusett).
I am not saying that one history of displacement renders another unproblematic. I am also not excusing far right wing factions in Israel for invoking biblical chapters like Numbers 31 and 33 as some kind of divine carte blanche for holding the entire modern state, with all its pluralistic promise, hostage to an apocalyptic vision of totally restoring King David’s ancient realm.
What I am saying is that peacemaking is done among the peoples who are in a place when the resolve to make peace rises – usually after a long history of multiple narrative threads. I have admired heroic peacemaking endeavors in our times. And it is difficult to imagine that a more widespread and true willingness among her neighbors to countenance the existence of an Israel would not have made it very hard, if not impossible, long since, for zero sum extremists to prevail over pluralists, as perennially and increasingly is a hazard in Israel’s and the region’s politics.
For those who treasure ancient heritage, there is more than enough grist to keep the mills of ages-old tribal blood feud running ad infinitum. But we must do better than that, our neighbors and we all – we must learn to treasure and transcend, strengthening pride and integrity in who we are with faith that ancient heritage is meant to inspire and impel us forward, to do even better than we have managed and envisioned before.