In Tractate Sanhedrin (91a), we read about a most relevant story which took place in the days of Alexander of Macedonia, known as Alexander the Great (4th century before the common era.) Just after Moshe’ death, when Yehoshua was about to enter the land of Israel together with his people, there were seven tribes hostile to the Jews occupying the land. Yehoshua offered them peace and security on condition that they would commit themselves to the seven commandments of Noach, the basic moral code for all humanity. In case they would refuse, and as such implying that they would not adhere to civilized behavior, Yehoshua informed them that they still had the option to leave peacefully. After this he led his people into the land. Since most tribes refused to opt for either suggestion war broke out. The only tribe which actually left, were the Canaanites and Tradition has it that they settled in Africa. (Rambam, Melachim, 6.5)
Hundreds of years later the Canaanites came to Alexander’s international court with a claim that the land of Israel should be returned to them. When the court inquired into their reasons, the Canaanites, also called the “B’ne Africa” (the inhabitants of Africa), said that they were forced out of the land by the Israelites in the days of Yehoshua and that this injustice should be rectified. When Alexander asked them for proof of their claim to the land, they responded that it was the Torah of the Jews, which in fact supported it. Did it not say, “The land of Canaan with the coasts thereof”? (Bamidbar 34:2) And since Canaan was their forefather, they had a legitimate claim to return to the land and take possession of it.
Consequently, Alexander (who is known to have been somewhat sympathetic to the Jews) turned to the sages with a request to respond. One Jewish ignoramus by the name of Gebiha ben Pesisa, known for his great love for his fellow Jews, asked that he defend the Jewish claim to the land against the Canaanites. “Authorize me to go and plead against them before Alexander of Macedonia. Should they defeat me, then (you can) say: ‘You have defeated an ignoramus from among us,’ and if I defeat them, then say: ‘The Torah of Moshe has defeated them.’ After the sages decided to give him their approval, Gebiha ben Pesisa said to the Canaanites, “From where do you have your proof?” “From the Torah!” they responded. “I will also bring a proof from the Torah”, said Gebiha ben Pesisa, “for it says that at the time that Cham, one of Noach’s children, had uncovered his father’s nakedness, Noach said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brothers.” (Bereshith 9.25) (Canaan was another name for the children of Cham). Gebiha ben Pesisa continued, arguing that since the Canaanites, due to this curse, became slaves to the children of Shem (another son of Noach and the forefather of the Semite peoples and the Jews), the Jews would, in any case, be the owners of the land: “Whatever a slave acquirers belongs to the master,” since the slave is the property of his master. “Moreover,” he said, “you have not served us for years!!”
“Then Alexander said to them (the Canaanites), “Answer him.” “Give us three days,” they responded; they looked but found no answer. And they left.”
When carefully studying this incident, several matters are difficult to understand. First of all, it is rather obvious that the Canaanites were guilty of reading the Torah selectively. Had they have turned the page they would no doubt have found that the land was already promised to Avraham in earlier days and that the Torah keeps on making the point that God willed it to the Jews. Even more mysterious is the defense of Gebiha ben Pesisa. Why did he use an argument which was so roundabout? Why did he not use the most obvious argument i.e. that the Torah makes it abundantly clear that the land was given to the Jews? He could have quoted tens of verses to back up his claim!
Maharasha, in his commentary, argues that the motivation behind the Canaanites was much more sophisticated than one might imagine. The Canaanites had read the Torah very carefully and were well aware of the promise that God had made to the Israelites concerning the land. They reminded Alexander’s court that they, the Canaanites, had been forced out of the country because of their immoral behavior. The holy land had no longer been able to contain them and had consequently spat them out. But, continued the Canaanites, the Israelites had become just as evil as they, the Canaanites, had been!! They had also become disobedient and had violated the moral code. Even more so, had not the Torah made it abundantly clear that the Jews would only merit the land when they would be a holy nation as demanded by the Torah? In that case, the Jews no longer had a claim on the land and they, the Canaanites, having lived there prior to the Jews had full right to claim it in return!
Even an ignoramus such as Gebiha ben Pesisa understood the Canaanites’ argument and had to admit that their point was somewhat valid. So there was no point in quoting verses which stated that God had promised and given this land to the Israelites in much earlier days. The promise was no longer effective till the Jews would repent! The only way in which he was able to defend the Jewish claim was indeed a roundabout one, the one referring to Noach’s curse of Cham. However, it does not take much to realize that this claim is somehow weak and not very convincing.
One cannot but be reminded of this Talmudic narrative when thinking of the imminent “disengagement” of Israel from the so called Gaza Strip. Unless we are missing a major component necessary to understand the logic of this move, whichever way one would like to look on it, the plan to leave the Gaza strip and Gush Katif makes no sense. Besides the fact that such a pull out can only be understood as rewarding terrorists, Israel does not gain any real benefit from this move since there is no evidence that the Palestinians really want or are able to enforce peace. It only results in endangering a large contingent of its population which will now only be even more vulnerable to rockets and other terrorist actions. It is after all difficult to see why Afula and Ashkelon will be less endangered tomorrow than Sderot and Gush Katif today.
Common sense tells us that instead of this disengagement saving the other settlements on the “West Bank” from being forced to be dismantled, it will only whet the appetite of the Palestinian terrorists and the International Community to force Israel in an ongoing withdrawal of more and more land till it will be entirely impossible to defend its “Auschwitz borders” as Abba Eban dubbed them.
Most disturbing is that there is no longer any serious opposition to the plan coming from among Israel’s top leadership, intelligentsia and above all the press. A strong outspoken opposition in the Knesset is by now altogether absent. While a great number of the common people have protested in every way possible, there are no strong voices heard which are challenging this plan. The Press paying a major role in forging people’s understanding of what is really taking place, completely failed and continues to fail in its moral obligation to inform the population of the facts on the ground. What becomes clearer and clearer is that it deliberately and against better knowledge sees its task as one of covering up the truth instead of revealing it.
There is an “authoritative” silence covering the land as if its leaders, including the opposition, have been intoxicated by a kind of dream state not unlike the case in which a person has just woken up from surgery, but unable to undo the effects of the anesthesia decides to fall back into a fast slumber.
Although nobody is able to read the workings of the mind of God, from a religious point of view we are obliged to ask whether such a silence and ambivalence is not the result of a divine interference that we are losing the grip on this land because we have lost our way as the people of God. One wonders whether the Lord of the Universe withholds the Israeli leadership the ability to wake up and see the facts as they are, since they together with a large part of the nation have failed to understand the meaning of the people of Israel in all its moral and religious dimensions. As such it is playing into the hands of the old claim of the Canaanites that we too have violated the right to this land.
Unless the governmental and religious leaders of Israel wake up and inject Israel with a strong moral code and a deep sense of Jewish religious content Israel will fall more and more into the hands of those who out of desperation and lack of vision will keep on chopping pieces of land away till we will be forced to recognize to our utter bewilderment that by having forfeited our Jewish connection to this land we have forfeited the land itself. We will then be forced to wake up from our slumber and find that all of Israel has turned into one large Gush Katif.
What we will then discover is that it was not political error which were ultimately responsible for this dangerous predicament but that these errors were the direct result of our ongoing refusal to deal with our Jewishness. Only when the people of Israel realize that its moral-religious mission is crucial to its survival, will it be able to understand its relationship to the land. It will then become abundantly clear that without a strong attachment to Jewish identity, a deep involvement with Jewish living and religious authenticity combined with the highest level of moral behavior the Lord of the Universe may no longer be prepared to guarantee this land as an obvious inheritance of the people of Israel.
Since it is becoming clearer and clearer that the secular and religious establishment in Israel is incapable of turning the tide, it will be the common people of Israel themselves who will have to undertake the task to insist on radical changes in order to force the governmental, educational and rabbinical leadership to take action or otherwise replace them.
One of the characteristics of the dream is that nothing surprises us in it. It permits us to be quietly and safely insane without being aware of it. It allows man to live in a world of deafness and while being invulnerable to the cries of the real world.
But we should never forget that the efforts which we make to escape our destiny only serve to lead us into it.
Let us however be aware that miracles do take place and that all may turn out for the best while at the same time not forget that miracles are created by men when they use the courage and intelligence which God granted them.
(1) Rabbi Cardozo will continue his series on the Rabbi Slifkin affair after he returns from the USA and South Africa.
(2) Let it be clear that we do not propose a Greater Land of Israel policy. Israel is a means and not an end in itself. The goal is to be a light to the nations and a holy people not holding on to land for its own sake. To be a holy people can only be achieved through proper inspirational Jewish Education. One of the great mistakes of the religious Gush bloc, about which we have warned many times, was in making Jewish education subordinate to the land. Jewish education was not its primary goal and consequently Jewish Education was not properly developed and applied to its full force. As such it lost a great opportunity to forge a great Jewish moral mission which would have inspired a large percentage of Israeli society. This would have had a direct effect on how Israel would have been able to deal with the Palestinian uprising. Since the religious Gush bloc includes Israel’s finest inhabitants, it could have created an unprecedented spiritual revolution in Israel which would have created a strong Jewish pride throughout the land. We believe that it is now vital that this bloc re-considers its task in Israel and starts working on this very revolution.