By Admiel Kosman, 12:02 24.04.11
In one of the versions of the story of Hagar, Abraham holds a feast to celebrate the fact that Isaac has been weaned. At that event, as it is written in Genesis 21:9, Sarah catches sight of Ishmael “laughing.” This is a vague word, which our Sages, in their commentaries, interpret as meaning that Ishmael worshipped idols or raped women or tried to murder Isaac. However, it is also possible that what we have here is a fundamentally human expression of a tension between two women that leads to Sarah’s outburst. It is reasonable to assume that this festive event generated envy in the heart of Isaac’s older brother, Ishmael, because of the attention being shown toward little Isaac, the son of the mistress of the house, and because of the fact that no feast was held when Ishmael was weaned. It is thus possible to assume that the Bible is relating here that Sarah saw Ishmael mocking his young brother. In any event, as a result of this awkward situation, Sarah demands that Abraham banish Hagar: ” … for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen. 21:10 ). Abraham loathes the idea; however, God intervenes on Sarah’s behalf (Gen. 21:11-13 ), and Abraham banishes Hagar, sending her into the desert with her son Ishmael (Gen. 21:14 ).
Recently, there have been many public utterances concerning the notion that Hagar’s banishment is a divine allusion calling for the adoption of a transfer policy for the Arab population. One of the most effective ways of disseminating this position in the religious Jewish community in Israel is to utilize the various Sabbath bulletins distributed on the weekly Torah portion. The juxtapositioning of political views with the weekly Torah portion read in the synagogue on Shabbat is a powerful trick that Jews used even in ancient times. Thus, for example, during the Roman occupation of Palestine, Jewish preachers could make subversive statements under the guise of a sermon on “evil Esau.” Even if a Roman sentry were standing at the synagogue’s entrance and even if he understood the language of the local population, he would not be able to detect the sermon’s meaning as far as the current political situation was concerned because he did not understand the congregation’s internal code.The same can be said about the sermons of imams in mosques. Even if outsiders understand the imam’s language, they will likely be incapable of comprehending the hidden messages contained in sophisticated symbolic nuances.
A few words of explanation should be given here on the nature of these Sabbath bulletins, which are distributed each Friday in synagogues throughout Israel (and some of which are read out on religious radio stations or appear on the Internet ). These bulletins are starting to have a more powerful impact on the molding of positions in the religious Jewish community in Israel – like any similar missionary material throughout the world whose power stems from the fact that it is distributed without charge and that its content is easy to read and understand.
One of the many examples of the commentaries disseminated in the Sabbath bulletins on the subject of banishment and population transfer is the one that was written by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of the Har Bracha yeshiva in Samaria, which can be found on the website of Arutz Sheva, the settler radio station (issue number 366 ), in Hebrew. The sermon appears under the innocuous title, “Keeping Ishmael at a Distance so that He Can Mend His Ways.” A cursory glance at the article’s subtitles indicates where the author is headed: “The Decision to Banish,” “The Banishment is Painful,” “The Banishment is Justified” and so forth. The written sermon contains allusions to current events. For instance, Melamed argues: “Had Hagar and Ishmael departed after having reconciled themselves to the fact that it would be better for them to build their future elsewhere, the banishment would have been an easy matter and the pangs of conscience (that Abraham experiences ) would have been somewhat less painful.”
Since it is obvious that Melamed is referring to the Arabs – as he explicitly states toward the end of the article, but as also becomes clear when one gets into it – he is clearly arguing here that it is a pity the Arabs do not understand that voluntary self-banishment would be the best solution for them and that, if they only understood this, we could part company with them after their having “reconciled themselves to the fact that it would be better for them to build their future elsewhere.”
To prove his point, Melamed presents the legend that Ishmael “mended his ways” at a later stage in his life; according to Melamed, his repentance occurred after he and his mother Hagar had been banished. Thus, here is conclusive proof that the banishment helped Ishmael to mend his ways and to be privileged to bury, together with Isaac, their father Abraham in the Maarat Hamakhpela, Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, in Hebron (Gen. 25:8-9 ). How did this expression of fraternity come about? Because “it is only after they were banished and suffered torment that Hagar and Ishmael recognized their sin and mended their ways.” If one asks, “How does Ishmael’s repentance express itself?,” the answer, according to Melamed, is the recognition on the part of Ishmael (the Arabs ) that “our Patriarch Isaac [= the Jews ] is the sole heir of both the divine legacy and the Land of Israel.”
As noted above, the author ultimately abandons allusions and takes pains to make his message clear for all those who may have until then failed to grasp it. His final section is subtitled “What Was True in the Past Is True Today”: “What was true in the past (in the days of Isaac and Ishmael ) is true today: We once thought that, if we were good to our neighbors, the Arabs, Ishmael’s children; if we made the land, which was a wilderness when it was in their possession, bloom; if we developed the economy and if the standard of living rose; and, if we granted them rights that no Arab enjoyed in any of the Arab states; they would be grateful. However, the more we contributed to their prosperity, the more intense their war against us became. If we try to make life difficult for them [= do what our Matriarch Sarah did, for their own good, of course ] and if we try to defeat them in the various wars, they will only continue to accuse us [because they do not know what is really best for them ].”
What, therefore, can be done now, after we have despaired of trying to convince them that only by making life difficult for them can we help them to improve their spiritual situation (as Sarah made life difficult for Hagar in the past and thereby taught her a lesson for all eternity )? Here is Melamed’s suggestion: “The only way is to strengthen the Jewish character of the State of Israel, to make it clear to everyone that this is our land and that no other nation has the right to claim it as its ancestral homeland. Those who can accept this fact with love can live with us with the status of ger toshav, resident alien [= through the observance of the ‘Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah’ ]. However, against those who cannot accept this fact, we must use all the means at our disposal in order to banish them from here.”
Melamed’s article is full of misreadings and distortions of ancient Jewish sources. Apparently, the author is unaware of the historical fact that the legends of our Sages dealing with Hagar and Ishmael do not refer to the Arabs or to Islam because, in the days of our Sages, there was no connection, not even an associative one, between, on the one hand, those whom the Talmud calls Arabs and, on the other, Hagar and Ishmael, and also because Islam first appeared, of course, through Mohammed, in the seventh century; the Sages, in any case, did not identify Hagar and Ishmael as Muslims. That identification spread through Jewish communities only in the Middle Ages and its source is not completely clear. Historian Fergus Millar argues that the disseminators of that view derived it not from rabbinical literature but rather from Josephus’ writings on Nebajoth or Nebaioth (Nevayot in Hebrew ), Ishmael’s eldest son (Gen. 25:13; 1 Chronicles 1:29 ). According to Josephus, this marginal biblical figure is connected to the Nabateans, who were called Arabs in Roman times. Millar thus assumes this is how that connection (between Ishmael = his son Nebajoth = the Nabateans = the Arabs = the Muslims ) filtered down into medieval Jewish traditions. (These sources are identified in an article I published last year in Akdamot, the Journal for Jewish Thought, Vol. 24, 5770/2009-2010, pp. 112-113, in Hebrew.)
However, the gravest argument against Melamed’s article is that the author deliberately ignores the severe criticism that the greatest Jewish biblical commentators expressed regarding Sarah’s behavior. For instance, in his commentary on Genesis 16:6, Nahmanides writes that Abraham’s failure to protect Hagar was sinful. Nahmanides notes that Muslim persecution of the Jews (in his day, this identification was prevalent ) was punishment for the moral sin Abraham and Sarah committed against Hagar: “‘And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face’ [Gen. 16:6 ]. Our Matriarch Sarah sinned in her harsh treatment of Hagar and so did Abraham in allowing her to do so; thus, it is written ‘because the Lord hath heard thy [= Hagar’s!] affliction’ [Gen. 16:11]. Furthermore, God gives Hagar a son who will be ‘a wild man’ [Gen. 16:12] who will treat Abraham and Sarah’s descendants harshly in many different ways.”
In his commentary on this passage, Radak also expresses severe criticism regarding Sarah (or, as she was previously called, Sarai ): “Sarai’s conduct here displays neither morality nor righteousness nor a good heart. For people must not do whatever they like with those who work under them [= it is wrong to exploit our power vis-a-vis the Other ] … what Sarai does displeases God, as the angel says to Hagar, ‘because the Lord hath heard thy affliction’ God thus blesses Hagar because she has suffered under Sarah.”
It would seem that Melamed blunts the Jewish Sages’ razor-sharp words. In one passage in the article, he even alludes to his opposition to the positions taken by Nahmanides and Radak, when he writes: “Nahmanides and Radak believe that she acted improperly; however [= these biblical commentators are wrong, and the proof is that ], our righteous Matriarch Sarah hoped that, if she treated Hagar harshly, Hagar would understand her place and the previous order of things would be restored.”
What is surprising about this article is that an initial semantic analysis reveals that it has an abundance of expressions of love toward the Arabs; it is only during a second reading that one discovers that the article contains passages encouraging both the application of an iron-hand policy toward the Arabs and their forced banishment from Israel’s territories. Thus, for instance, under the first paragraph’s heading, “The Good Intentions behind Drawing Hagar Closer,” Melamed states that “because of her [= Sarah’s, that is, the Jews’ ] kindness, God will speed her [the Arab, Hagar’s ] redemption and will grant her a son; Hagar’s son will then join her [= Sarah’s ] son for the realization of the great vision that they [= the Jews ] have established in this world.” Later in the article, Melamed writes: “When they will dwell in another place [= after the population transfer ], the children of Ishmael will be able to discern all the goodness we have brought to them and to the world and they will recognize our advantage, namely, that the children of Israel received the Torah and are the heirs of the land promised to Abraham. They will then join us in mending the world.”
I think it would be appropriate to conclude this discussion with a citation from Sara Ahmed, professor of race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, who, in her article, “In the Name of Love” (Borderlands, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2003 ), writes so incisively, especially when it is realized to what extent Melamed’s pseudo-religious style recalls similar words of propaganda in other parts of the world. Ahmed writes: “It has become common for ‘hate groups’ to re-name themselves as organizations of love. Such organizations claim they act out of love for their own kind [that is, the members of their group], and for the nation … , rather than out of hatred for strangers or others. Indeed, a crucial part of the re-naming is the identification of [the emotion of] hate as coming from elsewhere [not from them at all, but rather from their opponents, and it is mistakenly directed against them] … hate becomes an emotion that belongs [this is how it is presented in their propaganda] to those [that is, their opponents] who have identified hate groups as hate groups in this first place.”