Ask a religious Zionist to justify his rejection of Palestinian statehood, and he will invariably open the Bible, point to this week’s parashah and say: “Look, God tells Abraham, ‘I shall give this land to your descendants’. This land is ours. Therefore, we must refuse to cede even an inch.” What he will conveniently not do, however, is look overleaf. For there, Abraham becomes the first man in history to propose the division of the Land of Israel as part of a Land-for-Peace initiative.
Let’s recap the story. God has just told Abraham (then Abram) to leave Mesopotamia for Canaan, which he promises to give to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham makes aliyah, only to become Israel’s first-ever yored: tough economic conditions force him to migrate to Egypt; but after a curious interlude, he’s back in Canaan with his nephew Lot in tow. It soon transpires, however, that Abraham and Lot are simply not going to manage to live together peacefully in the Land of Israel. So when Abraham grows sick of quarrelling with Lot, he makes a surprising proposal:
“Please let there be no quarrel between me and and you… Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left.” (Genesis 13:14-15)
אַל-נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ… הֲלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ, הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי: אִם-הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה, וְאִם-הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה.
Lot decides to settle in the Jordan Valley, and the two go their separate ways.
This is nothing short of remarkable. Abraham has just been given a God-given right over the whole of the Land of Israel; he has exclusive title. Lot has no legitimate claim to the land: he is not Abraham’s “seed”, but his nephew. Abraham would be well within his rights to subordinate Lot to his own rule; to forcibly evict Lot from his land; or to order him to “voluntarily transfer” himself elsewhere. Abraham does none of these things.
Abraham realises that the most humane resolution to his quarrel over territory with Lot is a clean separation. He understands that they will never be at peace so long as he subjects Lot to his patriarchal authority. Lot is the head of his own household: he will never accept being subsumed into Abraham’s. Abraham, for his part, has his own divine mission to accomplish, which will only be hindered by the distracting task of managing the movement of Lot’s flock.
The answer to the dispute is a division of territory. Abraham realises that although he may have a right to the whole of the Land of Israel, it is not wise for him to exercise that right. He knows that what he may do is not the same as what he should do. Instead, it is better to strike a compromise, delineating what is his and what is his nephew’s, so the two can run their own lives without the interference of the other.
Abraham is the supreme pragmatist, for he looks not backwards but forwards: he quickly grasps the fact that there are two groups of people on the land, and that neither is going anywhere. If he and Lot cannot share the land, there is no choice but to split it. In fact, no other solution to this territorial dispute is ever discussed.
Abraham is willing to cede territory that God has promised him, for the sake of peace. He even surrenders control of the Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:11)! Moreover, Abraham does not appear in the least bit worried that he is claiming less than what is owed to him. When God then tells Abraham that his land extends as far as the eye can see, Abraham does not become agitated that he does not control all of it. If Abraham believes that the land will at some point in the distant future be restored to his progeny, one imagines he expects it would come about by some divine miracle. Certainly, one gets the impression that Abraham would be horrified by either evicting Lot or returning to lord over him. This would be unthinkable.
The moderate right in Israel likes to argue that surrendering territory will not bring peace: that is certainly a proposition to investigate fully. The religious right, meanwhile, argues against surrendering territory even if it would bring peace: it argues on principle that it would be unthinkable to surrender a God-given right to land. However, in so doing, the religious right ignores the example of the very person to whom God made that promise, for Abraham proved perfectly capable of pragmatic compromise. Abraham approaches the Land-for-Peace formula with an open mind and is convinced by his merits.
Those who argue that the Bible gives the Jewish people the right to the whole Land of Israel must also accept that it permits a division of that land, if the alternative is the domination of one group over another. The Bible plainly recognises the distinction between the possession of a right and the utility of exercising it. If Abraham were alive today, he would in all likelihood accept in principle the Land-for-Peace formula vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and would be on the vanguard of attempts to make it work. He would certainly not dismiss it out of hand, insisting that he may do as he wishes with what it his, whatever the consequences for those living under this thumb.
One hopes that the national-religious camp in Israel will follow his lead.
.שבת שלום, אח שלי