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Bamidbar, The New Desert

05/13/2021 07:47:12 PM


The book of Numbers begins with parashat Bamidbar, (literally, "in the desert") where everything in perfect order.  There is a camp in which every tribe and every levite family has its established place and marching order.  The Levites are enumerated and each one is fully accounted for. As we read further into the book in the coming weeks, that perfect order breaks down into conflict and dissent, even as the Israelites are travelling in forbidding and dangerous desert terrain. 

What we are witnessing this week is just such a breakdown, a dramatic escalation of tensions, in what could unfortunately turn into a full-scale war between Israel and Gaza, or even civil war within Israel. Many have sought to explain what is going on.  There are simplistic explanations, but there are deeper motives beneath the surface.

Tensions are often high at this time of year- it is the anniversary of Israel’s victory in 1967, and the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli control. 

The most narrow cause of this conflict would seem to be straight out of Numbers- a dispute who can live where.  Israeli society is, in many cases divided into camps.  While there are some places, like Haifa, where Jews and Arabs live together, other communities are functionally segregated.  In many Arab areas, Jews are not welcome, and anyone selling land to a Jew would be murdered.  There are certainly Jewish areas where a Moslem would never be made to feel welcome as well.

One such flashpoint is the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.   This neighborhood, near the boundary between East and West Jerusalem, has Jewish ties going back over 2000 years.  It is the site of the tomb of Simon the Just, a sage whose words adorn the wall of our synagogue sanctuary.  At issue are four homes currently inhabited by Palestinians.   Jews bought the land over 100 years ago. With the establishment of the state of Israel, the Jordanians pushed out the Jewish residents, and Jews.  A real estate company filed suit to re-stablish ownership based on the early 20th century claim, and charge rent to the current residents.  Residents of those four homes are refusing to acknowledge the claims of the original owners, and are facing eviction.  The legal case has not yet been resolved. there are hundreds of thousands of counter-claims of Arabas and Jews who lost homes and property at one time or another during the conflict, and the Ottoman Empire did not leave behind clear real estate title records.  But in the meanwhile,  protests from that violence metastasized to the old city just a few hundred yards away, and far beyond.

Unfortunately the localized violence has spread much further. The most visible escalation for those of us overseas is that Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets against Israeli civilians.  There have been casualties and destruction of property in Israel,, but the toll would be horrific if it were not for the Iron Dome anti-missile system.  In response,  Israeli forces have destroyed a number of Hamas military headquarters, and killed several senior Hamas military leaders, including the aerospace engineer responsible for their rocket designs.  Israelis have spent terrified nights in bomb shelters. Of course, there have been casualties in Gaza, in no small part because Hamas places its command centers and missile sites in densely populated areas.   Hamas is just as happy to see their own children killed as they are to see ours die.  The US president called Netanyahu to offer support and indicated that he “conveyed his unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”

None of this is news- we have seen this type of conflict with Hamas in Gaza many times.  Bamidbar talks about how the Israelites prepare to march to war, protecting the weakest.   It would not surprise me if Israeli troops again have to enter Gaza to defend Israeli civilians, and if Israeli soldiers lose their lives as a result of following Israeli rules of engagement designed to limit civilian casualties on the other side.  It would also not surprise me if many in the world distort this story to put Israel in the worst possible light.

In the Middle East, there is often a story behind the story.  Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after Israel’s fourth election.  Other leaders, both right and center, united mainly in their distrust for Netanyahu, were offered the opportunity to try instead.  It seemed as if they were close to a deal that would have included at least one of the Arab parties. While Arab parties traditionally did not join the ruling coalition, there was a hope that cooperation might lead to a better life for all residents of Israel.   The idea of Jews and Arabs cooperating was infuriating to groups like Hamas, as well as to fringe elements among Israeli nationalists, and that is one reason why this violence has surged now. This latest round of violence  will probably scuttle those efforts for Jews and Arabs to work together.

The newest, and most disturbing, aspect of the conflict, is that the riots which started in Jerusalem have spread to areas within Israel that were previously known for peaceful co-existence between Jewish and Arab neighbors.  Whereas Arabs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had previously staged Intifada, and other violence, there had not been that type of violence among Arabs with Israeli citizenship.  Now, there  have been burnings of synagogues and business by Arab mobs.  However, not only have Arabs attacked Jews, and unfortunately, some extremist Jewish mobs have attacked Arabs and their property as well.   Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for an end to the violence “Nothing justifies lynching Arabs among Jews, and nothing justifies lynching Jews by Arabs. "We will not accept this. It is not us to use this violence. We will return the control and governance to the cities of Israel. In all cities, in mixed cities, in Jewish cities, everywhere."

"Let us unite together to do the task we need as citizens of our country - to restore governance, eliminate this anarchy and preserve and restore the security and peace we all deserve."

The  long-established models of co-existence between Israel’s Arab and Israeli citizens gave me reason to hope that Palestinians would follow in their path and seek peaceful cooperation.  Unfortunately, we have reason to fear that the influence has turned in the other direction.  We can only pray that Netanyahu’s call for civil order and peace is heeded, for if not, we are headed into a very fearsome and dangerous desert indeed.










Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784