A Pew poll released in 2016 poll suggested that most Israelis, Arabs and Jews alike, appeared to have lost hope in a two-state solution.
“Nearly half (48 percent) of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, where they (then) make up 19 percent of the population of 8.4 million,” Reuters reported. “While 54 to 71 percent of Jews who defined themselves as ultra-Orthodox, religious or ‘traditional’ supported such a step, only 36 percent of the secular community did. President Reuven Rivlin called the findings a ‘wake-up call for Israeli society.’”
Where does this idea, of expelling a population of people, come from? And, notwithstanding that polls are easily misinterpreted, why would a poll ask such a question? Imagine one of your five children tells you that they have taken a vote and agreed to expel one child from the family. You would obviously conclude that something was seriously wrong.
Yet, this exact idea seems to be what the Torah promotes in this week’s portion of Matos-Masei:
“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess” (Bamidbar 33:51-53).
It seems when we were commanded to conquer Israel, part of that conquest entailed expelling its inhabitants, along with destroying their religious icons. If this happened today, it would be extremely controversial, to say the least.
Rashi (ibid. v. 52) clearly suggests we are speaking of expulsion and not destruction, yet he also (ibid. v. 53) suggests that our right to remain in the land of Israel depends on our willingness to expel its inhabitants. Does this still apply today?
The Torah (Devarim 20:10-18) also tells us that when we waged war, we were meant to first offer the opportunity to make peace. Commentaries differ as to whether this applied to Canaanite cities (as the Ramban suggests) or only distant non-Canaanite cities, as Rashi says.
Fascinatingly, rabbinic tradition has it (Devarim Rabbah 5:14; Yerushalmi Shevi’it 6:1) that when Yehoshua conquered the land, he offered the inhabitants three choices: they could run, they could make peace (which meant accepting the seven Noachide laws) or they could fight. Indeed, the Talmud suggests that the Girgashite nation chose to flee and were not harmed.
In today’s terminology and cultural environment, this would seem very challenging, unless we take a closer look. It really isn’t so complicated.
The Jewish people were meant to create a society that would be a model for the world to see; we were meant to be a “light unto the nations” (Yeshaya 49:6). But you can’t create an ethical society in a morass of barbarity and depravity.
Moshe is speaking, in this week’s portion, to the second generation of the Jewish people, poised at last to re-enter the land. They are coming home to where it all began; where G-d, through the model of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, taught the world that it could be better. And in this place we would begin our mission of sharing a world where every human being is created in G-d’s image; where we are meant to love our fellow human being, and take special care of those less fortunate: the poor and unfortunate, and the widow and the orphan. We are meant to create an ethical society where one day we will no longer each other for the differences amongst us, but love and respect each other despite those differences.
But when Yehoshua and the Jewish people came home to this special place, the land of Israel was filled with pagan idolatry and all of the licentious behavior, including child sacrifice, and brazen violence, that it entailed. Ancient Canaanite culture was all about might makes right, and power reigned supreme. And you can’t build an ethical society if your neighbor is a murderer or an adulterer.
So the Canaanites were given a choice. They could choose to leave, and no one would harm them. Judaism was never about conquering the world; it was only about showing the world how life could be. If the Canaanites wanted to continue to practice idolatry in Africa, no one would stop them. Or they could stay and accept the seven Noachide laws, which means an understanding that murder, theft, idolatry and adultery would no longer be accepted.
And if they refused to leave, and refused to accept this, then they could fight.
In order to create a society of ethics and love, immorality and hatred must first be destroyed. And that is what the Torah is telling us here: you cannot build a just society if you tolerate injustice in your midst. You cannot create a place of love unless you first do away with hatred.
And that is precisely our problem today. Every human being, Arab and Jew alike, is created in the image of G-d, and Judaism challenges us to learn to live together in peace. But if our cousins refuse to accept the goal of creating a just society based on mutual love and respect, then we cannot build it with them. And if they teach their children to hate, then they don’t belong in a place that wants to create a society of love and understanding and mutual respect, and they need to go.
We will never be able to make peace with a Hamas that preaches violence, death, and hatred; not only because it isn’t practically possible, but also because it would undermine all that we are, and everything we are meant to accomplish. And so the Torah enjoins us to destroy that culture of violence and hatred in order to build a world of peace and morality.
And of course, this is equally true for us as individuals. In order to live a life filled with love and tolerance, patience and joy, we need to expel from within ourselves anger and hatred, arrogance and hatred.
An appropriate message to consider as we enter the month of Av, in which we mark the tragic destruction of both temples and our exile from the land of Israel.
Two thousand years ago, we lost everything, because we were reverting to the norms of the society we were pledged to destroy. Perhaps we are finally ready to build the role model we were always meant to be.