Friday October 22, 2021 – ט״ז חֶשְׁוָן תשפ״ב
וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק׃ וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֗ם אַל־יֵרַ֤ע בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ עַל־הַנַּ֣עַר וְעַל־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ כִּ֣י בְיִצְחָ֔ק יִקָּרֵ֥א לְךָ֖ זָֽרַע׃ וְגַ֥ם אֶת־בֶּן־הָאָמָ֖ה לְג֣וֹי אֲשִׂימֶ֑נּוּ כִּ֥י זַרְעֲךָ֖ הֽוּא׃ (בראשית כ”א י:יג)
She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac. The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.” (Genesis 21:10-13)
In a riveting news segment this past Tuesday in Israel, a charismatic and captivating high school history teacher from the coastal Arab town of Gisr-el Zarka, minutes from the affluent city of Caesaria, taught a history lesson and asked, “What do you call anyone who immigrated to Palestine or anyone Jewish or non-Jewish who called for the immigration and settlement of Jews in Palestine?” The class sat in suspense. “A Z-i-o-n-i-s-t,” the teacher exclaimed. Class dismissed.
The segment was part of a weeklong series by Israel’s Channel 12’s leading Arabic-speaking journalist Ohad Hemo called להיות ערבי בישראל –Being Arab in Israel which was aired on Israel’s main nightly news each night this week. The idea is to provide a window into Israel’s Arab community, to hear its many voices and different challenges, to see it through its economic reality and the booming crime and high murder rate permeating the community.
Ohad Hemo and Channel 12 are Isaac trying to understand Ishmael.
The series takes us to weddings, classrooms, private homes, and restaurants. It talks to young and old, feminists, traditionalists, urban and rural residents. It deals with sensitive issues like Israel’s national anthem and the national days of remembrance and Independence all of which are uniquely Zionist emblems of the Jewish State of Israel. It uses a wider lens, beyond the portrayal of Arab society on the news through stories of crime and violence, or through the lens of coalition politics.
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Ishmael, the first-born son of Avraham, who was banished along with his mother Hagar by Sarah with Avraham’s acquiescence. Though they were cast away and were seemingly unwanted by Avraham, God promised the patriarch that his son Ishmael would also become a great nation just as Isaac, the second-born, was so promised.
By tradition, Isaac’s descendants became the Jews and Ishmael’s became the Arabs. One of Ishmael’s descendants, mentioned in Genesis, according to Islamic tradition, is an ancestor of The Prophet Mohammed. Therefore, each people has its own inherited account of the biblical story. The Genesis version (mid-2nd millennium B.C.E.) is not the only version. The Koran (late 6th-early 7th century C.E.) offers an alternative reading with a different emphasis. Islamic commentaries expand the ancient story and suggest that Genesis got it wrong. That is not surprising, nor is it the only story in our two respective traditions like this.
In our rabbinic literature (Midrash and Tosefta), Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (2nd century C.E.), in a conversation with other sages claims that the onus is on Ishmael for being kicked out, as he blamed him of disparaging Isaac to their parents.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
The first step to reconciliation between our two peoples (i.e. Jews and Arabs as descendants of Isaac and Ishmael with the same father Avraham) is not who can maintain the upper hand, or who can keep the other down. “We must stop trying to refute each other’s narratives,” explained Palestinian diplomat and member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ghaith el-Omari. “That clearly only breeds further enmity and defensiveness.”
A step forward might be to internalize a different narrative and ask how members of each community see the other.
Samer Swaid, a self-described Palestinian-Druze-Israeli-Communist puts it this way:
“Here’s how I see you: What’s important to the Jewish Israeli is to remain a hegemon, even if that means stomping on me. That’s the most important thing to him. He wants me to be a good Arab who accepts his hegemony. That comes across in each and every daily interaction. In my work, when I cooperate and partner with Jewish organizations, I know where the combined/collaborative space begins, and where it ends. In my organization, I work with uprooted villages and about land and I don’t bring it up in every context because some Jews feel threatened by it. One of my insights from the Palestinian discourse in Israel is that our [Druze] discourse could be more effective. We don’t take into consideration your hesitations or fears, those of the majority. And the fear is to lose control. The weird thing is, that we have no intention or goal to become the majority and to rule. It’s a contrived threat, and you live in fear of it.”
What would have happened had Sarah not exiled Hagar and Ishmael? What if she raised them both, as her sons, and Hagar as her sister? What if Avraham had told Sarah that “we can show love for both of our sons, and the more love and equality we show, the less we’ll need to feel threatened.”
Isaac and Ishmael reunited a few chapters later upon the death of their father Avraham and both went on to become great nations. Yet, nearly 4 millennia later, the children of Isaac are still threatening the children of Ishmael.
This week, far-right Religious Zionism chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich, in a tirade told Arab Members of Knesset that they “are here by mistake because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”
We must reject the hate and rhetoric of MK Smotrich and his ilk. Banishing, expelling, and belittling the descendants of Ishmael is morally unacceptable. MK Smotrich may have ignored what Ben Gurion stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
“WE APPEAL — in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months — to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
Full and equal citizenship are rights, as is due representation. When the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael, those brothers from different mothers, reconcile, they should remember what the prophet Malachi taught:
הֲל֨וֹא אָ֤ב אֶחָד֙ לְכֻלָּ֔נוּ הֲל֛וֹא אֵ֥ל אֶחָ֖ד בְּרָאָ֑נוּ מַדּ֗וּעַ נִבְגַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ בְּאָחִ֔יו לְחַלֵּ֖ל בְּרִ֥ית אֲבֹתֵֽינוּ׃
“Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (Malachi 2:10)
It’s time to return to each other as siblings, learn who each other are, and live together
 (The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics, Tradition and Jewish Power, by Mikhael Manekin, p. 132. Translation from the Hebrew, J.Weinberg)