On The Israeli-Arab Conflict: A Biblical Perspective

by Nathan Lopez Cardozo [1] For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People

Impartial observers of the Middle East will realize that these are extraordinary times. Tens of thousands of Jews from many different countries are returning to their national and historic homeland after thousands of years. Arab states are beginning to reconsider their attitude towards Israel now that they realize that after more than fifty years, the Jewish state is here to stay.

Many gentiles throughout the world are showing a new and keen interest in the Bible, proclaiming fulfillment of the old biblical prophecies. The continuous conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs, especially the Palestinian Arabs, is a constant focus of world attention, allotted more broadcast hours and newspaper column space than any other conflict. It is the most discussed issue at the United Nations and the perceived root of international tension. It is believed to have the potential to cause a large-scale conflict in the Middle East and even a global confrontation.

However, the truth is more prosaic. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is something of a local affair. Looking on the world map, many larger hotbeds can be identified, with even greater issues at stake. For the religious mind all this presents a great challenge. What is the spiritual secret behind the conflict?

From a religious perspective, it seems that another, more profound point is being made. History is not made up of social, political, or economic factors alone, but also of spiritual forces that have far-reaching moral implications. As always, religious people will turn to the Torah and Jewish tradition, the blueprint of all history and reality, to seek deeper insight. It is the author’s hope that this essay might serve such a purpose.

The Israeli-Arab Conflict

The Torah relates a remarkable sequence of events toward the end of the life of Avraham, the patriarch and founder of monotheism. “Avraham grew old, and God blessed Avraham with everything” (Bereshit 24:1).

After the death of his wife, Sarah, only one dream remained to be fulfilled: to find a wife for his son, Yitzchak, in order to fulfill God’s promises of continuity. With that accomplished, Avraham would finally be able to close his eyes and be “gathered to his fathers.”

And so we read that Avraham sent his faithful servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Yitzchak. After a long, eventful story, Yitzchak marries Rivka.

The servant related to Yitzchak all the things he had done. Yitzchak brought her to the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he married Rivka. She became his wife, and he loved her, and only then was Yitzchak comforted for the loss of his mother” (Bereshit 24:66–67).

Now, finally, Avraham can die peacefully. His life’s work is accomplished. His great mission – to introduce monotheism and justice into the world – has been achieved, and the future of that mission has been guaranteed through the establishment of Yitzchak’s family. We now anticipate the moment when the Torah will inform us of the patriarch’s death. However instead of Avraham dying, we read:

Then Avraham took a wife whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Yishbok and Shuach (Bereshit 25:1–2).

Does this not surprise us a little? We may be justified in asking why Avraham, a tired, old man, should think about getting married again, not to mention fathering another six children.

If this is not perplexing enough, the Midrash identifies Avraham’s new wife: “Who is Keturah? Hagar!”[2]

It will be recalled that years before, Hagar had been Avraham’s second wife after Sarah (Bereshit 16). But after Hagar bore Yishmael, God forced Avraham to send Hagar and her son away(Bereshit 21). This occurred after many episodes of friction between Sarah and Hagar (Bereshit 16) and after Yishmael threatened to kill Yitzchak.[3]

At this point we are right to be puzzled. Why, after a long time of separation, would Avraham remarry Hagar, the very woman who had been the cause of so much trouble in the past? Hagar represents a tragic and somber moment in Avraham’s life, a tremendous setback accompanied by intense feelings of failure. What could be worse for any man, let alone one who epitomizes benevolence and justice, than having to send away his wife and child? It might be argued further that in remarrying the very woman he had exiled many years earlier, Avraham was only courting disaster and conflict anew.

In its perplexity, the Midrash asks: Who suggested this match? To our surprise, we are told that it was Yitzchak. Commenting on Bereshit 24:62, the Midrash Rabbah observes that Yitzchak had been searching for Hagar and brought her to Avraham for possible re-marriage.[4] Why would Yitzchak make such a suggestion? What was his motive in raking up the past? After all, he had suffered bitterly from the whole episode with Hagar.

The Birth of Yitzchak

In order to gain an understanding of these complex questions, we need to examine the history of the relationship between Avraham, Sarah and Hagar, and between these protagonists and Yishmael. We read much earlier in the narrative:

Sarai, Avram’s wife, bore him no children; and she had an Egyptian handmaid whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Avram, “See now, God has kept me from bearing. Please go to my maid; perhaps I shall be built through her.” And Avram heeded Sarai’s voice (Bereshit 16:1–2).

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, the great fifteenth-century Spanish commentator, is perplexed by Sarai’s suggestion. “Why did Sarai not ask for children as Rivka did (later on)? If she recognized that it was He who denied them to her, than it would only be logical to turn to Him.” In other words, did Sarai not have enough trust in God that she would become pregnant and bear Avram a child? Was it not obvious that all the promises God made to Avram that he would have a child and become the progenitor of a nation meant that Sarai would be the mother? “I will make you a great nation; and I will make your seed as the dust of the earth” (Bereshit 15:5).

At the time of this promise, Sarai was Avram’s sole wife. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assert that only she would be the mother of Avram’s child and future generations. So why did she ask Avram to marry Hagar?

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama argues that Sarai had sound reasons for not invoking divine mercy. In referring to the verse (Bereshit 18:11), “It had ceased with Sarai to be after the manner of women,” he argues that it would have been a mistake for Sarai to ask God to allow her to become pregnant since this would have involved the violation of the laws of nature. Sarai’s postmenopausal condition made it impossible for her to have children unless an open miracle was performed. Based on the principle that “ha-olam be-minhago holech” (the world runs its course in a natural way; the laws of nature are created as a fixed reality), Sarai reasoned that asking God for pregnancy would be out of order. Miracles occur only when there is no alternative, but in Sarai’s mind there was a ready alternative in Hagar. Moreover, Hagar had been raised and educated by Sarai and therefore was, in many ways, her adopted child and pupil. This, reasoned Sarai, was enough to allow Avram to marry Hagar. The child born of this union would be Sarai’s child for all practical purposes and would be educated to continue Avram’s great mission. (The very fact that Sarai was prepared to agree to such a compromise shows her greatness and profound faith. She was prepared to give up on her own motherhood for the sake of a higher divine value.)

On a deeper level, it may be suggested that Sarai argued that for the Jewish people to be effective in the world, they had to be born within the boundaries of the laws of this world. The child had to be born in a natural way, without any surprising or unprecedented occurrences.

Avram, however, looked beyond. He had been informed that his progeny will have to represent the “beyond.” It will have to present the divine truth, and that truth is not entirely of this world.

He [God] took him outside and said, “Look towards the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be” (Bereshit 15:5).

On this the Midrash comments:

Did He then lead him forth to the outside of the world?… But He showed him the streets of heaven, He lifted him above the vault of heaven; hence He tells him, “Habet” – Look now towards heaven; “Habet,” signifying to look down from above (Midrash Rabbah).

This Midrash clearly implies the metaphysical aspect of the nation to be born: its root is above the normal and logical.

Only from a heavenly perspective can one understand the Jewish people’s essence, mission, and remarkable capacity of survival. “Look towards heaven” implies the understanding that there is no end to heaven. The world “beyond” is the root where the foundation of Israel may be discovered. Avram is asked to elevate himself above the finite world.

For this reason, Avram cannot agree with Sarai. He waits for the unprecedented, the unusual, and because of all this, he is convinced that Sarai may still become pregnant. More than that, because the nation of Israel must hold the potential to become a meta-historical people, it has to be born from the supernatural and the unprecedented. Therefore, from this perspective, Sarai was the most obvious mother-to-be!

If so, why did Avram not refuse Sarai’s request to marry Hagar? The answer given by Ramban, who posed this question, is that he agreed to Sarai’s request only in order to give her the satisfaction of fulfilling her maternal feelings. Nevertheless, Avram did not believe for one moment that Hagar would give birth to the child he had been promised.[5]

Avram heeded Sarai; and Sarai, Avram’s wife, took Hagar, the Egyptian, her maid…. She gave her to Avram, her husband, to be his wife. (Bereshit 16:3).

Then something happened that caused unexpected complications: “When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress lost value in her eyes” (Bereshit 16:4). In describing her characteristics, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the name Hagar connotes being bound in, restrained. Hagar is therefore a limited woman with little insight into the spiritual and metaphysical world of Avram. She believes that her immediate pregnancy is a sign of personal divine favor and therefore she, and not Sarai, is the truly righteous woman.

Hagar’s philosophy is simple. She does not understand that only through trial and hardship does one become a righteous and great personality. An easy life does not produce people of significance. This is the reason why many women in the Torah suffer from infertility. Only after great effort and spiritual struggles do they give birth to children.

Since Hagar is solely of this world, rooted in the natural order of things, she misreads her own story and that of Sarai. We may add that Hagar is a descendant of Cham, the second son of Noach and the father of Canaan. The Torah tells us that after emerging from the ark, Noach planted a vineyard and became intoxicated, and uncovered himself in his tent. Cham saw his father’s nakedness and reported the incident to his brothers, Shem and Yaphet (Bereshit 9:20–29). One can see in this incident a most important and illuminating fact. Cham, the “heated” one, sees the world from an intoxicated position. He cannot see the deeper meaning of this life. He does not understand that human beings’ physical appearances are only external and that the real human being is within.

In many ways, Hagar is a descendant of Cham. Since she sees the world through Cham’s prism, she does not grasp Sarai’s trial and concomitant greatness. She identifies material success with divine approval, displaying little appreciation for the higher, heavenly world. Due to this misperception, she looks down on Sarai.

Sarai’s Mistake

Aware of the deep-rooted conflict, Avram gives Sarai carte blanche in her treatment of Hagar:

Sarai said to Avram, “… I gave my maid unto your bosom and now that she has conceived, I have lost value in her eyes.”… Then Avram said to Sarai: “See, your maid is in your hand. Do to her that which is good in your eyes.” Then Sarai afflicted her and she [Hagar] fled from her (Bereshit 16:5–6).

In his careful reading of the text, the Ramban makes a most remarkable and disturbing observation. Instead of trying to justify Sarai’s behavior, he condemns her for having mistreated Hagar:

Sarai, our mother, sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid, and so did Avram by allowing her to do so. [Therefore] God saw her affliction and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person who would bring suffering on the seed of Avram and Sarai with all kinds of afflictions.[6]

According to the Ramban, Sarai not only violated the principles of general morality but also profoundly misunderstood the situation that she herself had created. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:

What she [Sarai] had forgotten is that she had wished an impossible thing… that a woman who had become wife to Avram and mother to his child could not, on the other hand, be a slave. Avram’s proximity and Avram’s spirit would break the feelings of slavery, awaken the feeling of the equality of all human beings, arouse the urge for freedom and break all chains.[7]

Taking this argument one step further, we may suggest that Sarai not only misunderstood Hagar’s personality, but also failed to realize that the child born from Avram’s union with Hagar could only be a highly complex personality.

Many of this child’s qualities were rooted in Avram’s spiritual world. Yet at the same time, he would also inherit many of Hagar’s characteristics – in other words, of Cham, the “heated one.” This created a complex situation with a great deal of tension and contradictions. The child would be pained by his inability to identify totally with either Avram’s world or Hagar’s, always on the run, never at peace with himself. Sarai did not realize that Yishmael would taste from the wellsprings of Avram’s world but would never be completely included in it because of the Chamite mentality that he had inherited. Sarai was playing with fire.

What would have happened if Sarai had allowed herself to care for Yishmael properly and to nurture him? It is likely that his personality would have developed differently and that he would have had the strength to overcome the inherent tensions within his being. Rabbi Hirsch postulates that the Arab nation would have become a great asset for the cause of the monotheistic and religious-ethical life and would have worked hand in hand with the people of Israel.

The nation descended from Avraham and Hagar is half-Jewish. God has given us, the Jewish nation, a mission, which has a dual aspect: 1) emunah, theoretical truth that we must accept and that our minds must develop; and 2) the Law, the commandments, which in harmonious agreement with these truths shape our whole lives in accordance with the dictates of the divine Will. On the one aspect, the theoretical, the Arabic nation holds a high place in the ranks of mankind. It has developed the Arabic thoughts of God with such fine acuteness that the thoughts of the unity of God in the works of Jewish theological philosophers, as far as they are developed philosophically, rest predominantly on the works of Arabian writers. These have the emunah but not the mitzvot. It is not sufficient to have spiritual thoughts of the unity of God, [but it must include] that practical submission of all forces and efforts [to daily life] and for that it is not sufficient only to be begotten and brought up by Avraham; for that one must be born from Sara. The specific people of Avraham is not given the mission to be the theological philosophical herald of the Unity of God, but “lishmor derech Hashem la’asot tzedaka u-mishpat,” “to preserve the way of God and do righteousness and justice.” This requires the submission of all one’s forces, and above all, all one’s sensuous forces, urges and impulses, that demand the dedication of the body. One only begins to be Jewish with the dedication of the body.[8]

Had Sarai cared for Yishmael, then the great Arab nation would have had an easier task in fulfilling itself, and history would have unfolded much differently.

Sarai’s treatment of Hagar left a permanent rift between the two women even after Hagar returned home and gave birth to Yishmael (Bereshit 16). This sense of hurt and bitterness undoubtedly became imprinted in the mind of the child Yishmael who, thereafter, could only have felt a stranger in the home of Sarai. He nurtured his hard feelings against Sarai over the many long years of his difficult life until, as Ramban seems to suggest, they became indelibly marked on the souls of his descendants and developed into implacable hatred for the children of Avraham and Sarai.

However, the Ramban’s observation has its problems. How does he reconcile his claim that Sarai was wrong to afflict Hagar and send her away when we read later (Bereshit 21:12) that God agreed with Sarai, telling Avraham to send Hagar and Yishmael away?

After Yitzchak’s birth, tensions intensify between Yishmael and his younger half-brother, eventually reaching such a point that Sarai tells Avraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son” (Bereshit 21:9). Avraham is greatly distressed “for it concerned a son of his.” Clearly, Avraham does not want a second tragedy. No father willingly spurns his own son, however wayward he may be. He has learned from the past. Therefore he refuses to act on Sarai’s wish until God surprisingly indicates His own agreement: “Whatever Sarai tells you, heed what she says” (Bereshit 21:9).

So it appears that Sarai is right after all. The act of sending Hagar away has God’s blessing. Yet if Sarai is correct in this instance, then what was wrong in driving out Hagar earlier by afflicting her? Did God not afflict Hagar further by making Avraham send her and her son away?

The answer to this question is clear. God tells Avraham that the first expulsion was wrong. It has wrought terrible damage, evoking in Hagar and Yishmael an eternal hatred. But one cannot turn back the clock. To keep Yishmael in the home of Avraham and Sarah after all that has happened will only lead to further complications. Now it is too late. Avraham must learn that there is no way back.

Avraham’s Repentance

Now we may begin to arrive at an understanding of our earlier dilemma – namely, why Avraham married Hagar at the end of his life. Avraham now realized the enormity of the injustice that had been inflicted on Hagar. Her earlier sufferings and her expulsion together with Yishmael continued to torment Avraham. In setting his affairs in order before his death, he wonders how he – the embodiment of kindness – could have permitted such a thing to happen. How can he meet his Maker without having resolved this problem of his own making? How can he make amends?

Yitzchak sees his father’s anguish and understands that this matter has the potential to become Avraham’s downfall. All that he had lived for – his devotion to acts of kindness, his piety and all his acts of righteousness – are of little consequence as long as this one matter remains unsettled. Yitzchak’s suggestion that his father remarry Hagar is therefore understandable. By giving her a happy family life and security, Avraham may be able to make amends, look himself in the face, and meet his Maker with equanimity.

Therefore, it is not surprising that on several occasions, Avraham sought out his son Yishmael and advised him whom to marry. However wayward and unruly he may have been, Yishmael was still Avraham’s son and entitled to his support.[9]

Pere Adam

While Hagar is in the desert after fleeing from Sarai the first time, God appears to her and reveals to her the qualities of her unborn child: “He will be like a pere adam” (Bereshit 16:12). The rabbis struggle with the exact meaning of these last words. The classic rendering is “a wild ass,” a disturbing translation.

Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish debated this. Rabbi Yochanan said: It means that while all people are bred in civilized surroundings, he would be reared in the wilderness. Resh Lakish said: It means a savage among men in its literal sense, for as all people plunder wealth, he plunders lives. (Bereshit Rabbah 35:9)

Rabbi Hirsch adds: “He will not be merely an adam pere, a free man, but he will be pere adam, the pere among mankind… such a race of men who do not bow their necks to the yoke of other men.”[10] God continues:

His hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him, and in the face of all his brothers will he dwell. (Bereshit 16:12)

This could mean that he will stand up against his own brothers and cause instability in the Arab world. It may also refer to his constant struggles with the nations of the world. Da’at Sofrim on Bereshit 16:12 explains the prophecy further: “Although he will be a man with great potential, intellect and emotions, his hand will be against everybody, and everybody’s against him. Nevertheless, in the face of all his brothers he will dwell – he will be honored by all nations.” Ramban expands the argument: “The subject pertains to his children, who will increase, and they will have wars with all the nations.”

Such prophecies and interpretations do not imply that Yishmael must become as they describe, nor do the earlier observations justify the Arab animosity toward Jews in our days or at any other time. The injustice of Sarah toward Yishmael cannot be used as a precedent for ongoing hatred toward the children of Avraham and Sarah.

These observations and visions draw attention to the roots from which these feelings stem. They indicate that these prophecies will come true if Yishmael yields to this disposition instead of fighting it. The chief goal of people in life is to become human and to protect their humanity against these kinds of tendencies. Had Yishmael understood this and fought his inclinations or channeled them appropriately, he could have become an eloquent and highly civilized man, perhaps more civilized than all those who did not have to go through such challenges.

The above-quoted prophetic descriptions are made from a combination of dispositions that make up the personality of Yishmael. On the one hand, they are rooted in the world of Avraham, while on the other, they stem from the world of Cham.

Perseverance, courage, and independence are the very qualities that Avraham developed in order to fulfill his mission to teach all humanity about God. Once, however, these qualities become misdirected and absorbed by the world of Cham, they start to serve external and physical purposes such as military power and willful stubbornness. The very propensity for domination found within the Arab world, combined with the vast financial resources at its disposal, is the result of the qualities inherent in Avraham’s spiritual mission having been misdirected. When these qualities are used for earthly causes, as is the case with the Chamite philosophy, they become dangerous and destructive. The Arab will to dominate, with its bold, daring and often self-destructive courage, combined with autonomous philosophies, is therefore a misdirected quality inherited from Avraham.

World Domination

At this point it would be pertinent to investigate another feature of our global question. From the verses cited above we can deduce that the descendants of Yishmael would like to dominate the world and create an independent world power. We may ask how an entity becomes a world-dominating power. In other words, how does one possess the world? How does one seize the very powers by which this world is set in motion?

Jewish tradition believes that a kind of spiritual and moral domination is accomplished by possessing the land of Israel, specifically Jerusalem which, we are told, is built on the even shetiyah, the world’s foundation stone. The Talmud, in Yoma 54b, states that it was called so because “from it the world was established.” In his commentary to this statement, Rashi adds, “Zion was first created, and then around it other clods and rock formations. Continents were formed until the earth was complete.”

The Ramban, commenting on the first verse of the Torah and reflecting kabbalistic teachings, writes, “Jerusalem is the preeminent place, for the life of the world starts there, its potential is developed therein, its climates and species of all orders appear in it.”

Therefore, Jerusalem is seen as the root of all places. The land of Israel, the first extension of Jerusalem, is the “soul” of the world. It is the Holy Land, sanctified and set apart from the rest of the world. It is the world in microcosm, in which all the components of the greater world are represented. It is the “kav emtza’i,” the medium line, the “inner, spiritual bolt that contains everything that connects all points of the world among themselves to the original point.”[11]

This is the reason the nations of the world have always maintained their focus on Jerusalem and Israel. Subconsciously, they have been aware that, somehow, possession of this city and this land meant “controlling” the world. The essence of this world is virtually contained in Jerusalem. Obviously, this means that Jerusalem and Israel are the center of this world in the spiritual sense. It is from there that the teachings of the Torah will come and transform the world. However, the many nations that once occupied the land of Israel translated this inner knowledge into terms of purely physical occupations, without understanding the spiritual implications.

In the case of the Arab nations, this matter is even more apparent. As children of Avraham, they regard the status and ownership of the land of Israel as a vitally important matter. Their longing for this land is not just bound up with their ambition to become a world power. It is the consequence of Avraham’s mission to transform that makes the impetus to possess this land so powerful. As explained above, it is this mission, albeit misdirected by Chamite influence, that makes the Arab world seek ways to inherit the land and overpower the world. It is this matter that makes the Israeli-Arab conflict so complex.

What are the conditions by which one can permanently secure the Land of Israel and thereby really inherit it? Such a matter is not decided on the basis of history or political force alone.

According to biblical thought, the matter depends mainly upon the spiritual and moral condition of the tenant. The country itself, as the center of the world, is like Jerusalem, which is also called “Sha’ar Shamayim” (the gateway to heaven). Jerusalem is a heavenly city. The Sanctuary with the Holy of Holies, in which there is no limitation of time and space, is located there; it is le-ma’ala min ha-teva (beyond the laws of nature). It is heaven reflected on earth. Consequently, only a nation that is rooted in and lives by the norms of heaven is capable of possessing this land and this city.

In its discussion of the mitzvah of making pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the festivals in the Temple, the Torah states, “No one will covet your land when you ascend to appear before the Lord three times a year” (Shemot 34:24). The implication of this verse is that if all Jews go the Temple on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, the borders of the Land of Israel will be in grave danger. The pilgrimage will be an open invitation for Israel’s enemies to cross the border and force the people of Israel out of their homeland. Nevertheless, the Torah states that not only will the enemies not enter the land but they would not even consider making such a move. This is an unusual, unnatural promise and goes against our general experience. Why should Israel’s enemies not consider such an option? Why would they not even consider coveting the land?

According to our observations, we may understand what the Torah is driving at. When the Jews ascend to “appear before the Lord” – in other words, when their lives are built upon the principles that the Temple represents, only then will it be clear and undisputed who holds the title to this land. When Israel views its national life from beyond and lives up to its mission, it will have peace on its borders. This land can only be possessed by those whose lives are in accordance with its spiritual nature. Otherwise, other nations will claim it. Only when the Land of Israel’s spiritual standards are met will other nations no longer aspire to possess it.

This, then, is the prophecy behind the above-cited verse. Only the people of Israel, adhering to the Torah of Israel, hold title to the land of Israel. This may be the biblical message behind the Israeli-Arab conflict.

[1] This essay, with slight differences, originally appeared in my book Between Silence and Speech (Jason Aronson, 1995) and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

[2] Bereshit Rabbah 61:4.

[3] Rashi on Bereshit 21:9.

[4] Bereshit Rabbah on Bereshit 24:62.

[5] Bereshit 16:2.

[6] Ramban on Bereshit 16:5.

[7] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Translated and Explained. Trans. Isaac Levy. New York: Judaica Press, 1971.

[8] Ibid., Bereshit 16:14.

[9] Bereshit Rabbah 61.

[10] Ad loc.

[11] Rabbi Menachem Recanati, Bereshit, 8a; Va-yetze, 28a–29a.

This essay was excerpted from For the Love of Israel and the Jewish People: Essays and Studies on Israel, Jews and Judaism with permission from the author, Nathan Lopez Cardozo.


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