David H. Levitt

Hardened Hearts: What Parsha Bo Teaches for Israel and the Palestinians

Parsha Bo, along with the preceding (Va-Eira) and succeeding  (B’Shelach) parshiot, form, in essence, the central core of Jewish culture and mindset – and certainly of our liturgy. These three parshiot tell of the ten plagues, the Passover, leaving from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea – the flight from slavery to freedom.

There are valid modern parallels – especially in the context of the world view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. These parallels teach us some important lessons for how we discuss these issues. The time has come – indeed it came a long time ago – for us, as a community, to call the Palestinians and their supporters on their repeated rejectionism, and to insist that our leaders, and indeed the entire U.S. and international community, change the tone and terms of the discussion. The time has come – indeed it came a long time ago – for us to insist that pressure be brought not solely on Israel but on the Palestinians as well – that the Palestinians be asked to make concessions for peace.

In Parsha Bo we find the last 3 plagues, the Passover event, the commandment to celebrate Passover each year “throughout the ages as an institution for all time” (Exodus 12:18), the foundation for our Seder to meet the obligation to explain the story to one’s children (Exodus 13:8), the obligation to wear tefillin (Exodus 13:9).

But what is most interesting is the repeated reference to G-d having “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Why? There a number of commentaries on this subject, and many of them explain that the reason that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened was to confirm that Pharaoh’s choices – both to refuse and eventually to allow the Israelites to leave – were made of his own free will and not because of the plagues. This seems odd, because if the purpose of the plagues were not to change Pharaoh’s position, not to be the reason that he eventually chooses to allow Israel to leave, then why have them at all?

To use the language of modern human rights: were the plagues “collective punishment” of the Egyptians for the acts of their leaders? Were they “proportional”?

Beyond that, in some ways the hardening of Pharaoh’s has the look and feel of a negotiation. Before the plague of locusts, Pharaoh asks Moses: “Who are the ones to go”? Moses answers that it will be everyone, young and old, sons and daughters, flocks and herds – but Pharaoh allows menfolk only. So the plague of locusts proceeded.

After Pharaoh repents and the locusts are blown into the Sea of Reeds, the Lord again “stiffens Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus, 10:20). But after the plague of darkness, Pharaoh allows all the humans to leave, demanding that the Israelites leave behind the flocks and herds. Moses refuses this offer as well, and the Lord again “stiffens Pharaoh’s heart.”

Finally the last plague, death of the first born, and Pharaoh now allows the Israelites to take their flocks and herds.

And yet, even though every Egyptian family had lost a loved one (“for there was no house where there was not someone dead” – Exodus 12:30), “the Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people” (Exodus 11:3; 12:35-36), who were therefore willing to grant the Israelite’s requests for objects of silver and gold. We see, then, that although Egypt’s leadership was hard-hearted and merely negotiating to retain as much as it could, Egypt’s common folk had a better view of Moses and the Israelites.

We continue to see the impact of hard-hearted leadership today.

The evil of the hardened hearts of the far right – those who marched in Charlottesville yelling that “Jews will not replace us” – is easy to see; it is right out there in the open.

The evil of the hardened hearts of the far left – and not always so far as epitomized by the mainstream honors given to such anti-Semites as Linda Sansour and Rasmea Odeh – is not always quite so obvious. Black Lives Matter includes an anti-Israel plank in its platform that refers to Israel as an apartheid state, accuses Israel of genocide, and refers to West Bank settlements as “illegal.” I previously written about the improper use of “illegal” in relation to the West Bank under international law.

Neither of these political segments is open to discussion. Contrary views are drowned out, shouted down, banned from campus or disrupted. Indeed, the constitution of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) states: “[W]e as students in solidarity with Palestinians refrain from participating in projects that normalize the occupation. Specifically, we will not participate in collaborative or dialogue projects unless they are “’based on unambiguous recognition of Palestinian rights and framed within the explicit context of opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.’” In other words – they won’t debate until the other side first concedes that they’ve already one the debate. Sound familiar? The Palestinians repeatedly say that they won’t come to the bargaining table until Israel first concedes that the borders will be the “’67 lines” and that they will have their capital in Jerusalem.

Thus, too, we constantly hear – especially from the Left and from Europe – about how Israel  sabotages or acts in a way that damages the opportunity for a two-state solution. But whose hearts are “hardened”? Which side is preventing a deal? And what should we be doing and saying about it?

Full transparency – I personally favor a two-state solution. I acknowledge – and indeed argue – that Israel has the legal right under international law to the entire West Bank and Jerusalem as well as Israel’s historic and legal claims to the entire area – Greater Israel. But I also acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a fair narrative and history in the Land, and rights that must be respected. More importantly, I believe that it is not in Israel’s best interest to govern over people who do not share Israel’s values and culture.

But guess who does not want a two-state solution? The Palestinians and their supporters.

Just in the last week, PA President Abbas made a speech at the PLO Central Council Meeting in which he all but declared an end to the Oslo Accords, made it clear that a two-state solution is not what the Palestinians want, and rejected a possible U.S. proposal (as apparently relayed by the Saudis) to recognize a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis.

Abu Dis is in East Jerusalem. Once again, as on many past occasions that about which most of you are already aware, Palestinian leadership has rejected a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. A side note: I have actually been to Abu Dis and seen with my own eyes the Palestinian Parliament building that has already been built: waiting, waiting, waiting for the Palestinian’s to ever, ever, ever say “yes.”

Not only Palestinian leadership, but pro-Palestinian and BDS groups mouth the platitude of a two-state solution in public as a way to criticize Israel while making it clear that their true goal is a one-state solution – one for the Palestinians without Jews.

Did you see the video of the protests in NYC in December after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? The chants were “We don’t want no Two-State – we want ‘48” and calling for a new Intifada. One speaker said that “every inch of Palestine is Palestinian land” and “we should be just as angry if the U.S. embassy was in Tel Aviv or Jaffa.”

When you see a BDS rally and they say “Palestine shall be free from the river to the sea” – that is code for elimination of Israel. Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS, insists: “Definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”

Think about it. When was the last time that you’ve heard of a concession by the Palestinians? Right of return? A deal breaker. Recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”? No way. When have you ever heard a European leader or media outlet criticize any Palestinian leader, as former President Clinton did, as having rejected a fair offer or for refusing to make a reasonable proposal? Indeed, what peace proposal has EVER been made by the Palestinians? What peace proposal has EVER been made by supporters of the Palestinians?

J-Street’s website has many excellent maps of possible two-state solutions – primarily along the Green Line (often erroneously called the “1967 lines”) with land swaps and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Go to the “MAPS” section here:

When have you ever heard any progressive or any European leader or anyone in the UN say: “Ok, Mr. Abbas, pick one and we’ll put pressure on the Israelis to accept it”? When have you ever heard any progressive or any European leader or anyone in the UN say: “UNRWA, you must change your textbooks to show the existence of Israel and to stop defaming Jews – or no funding”?

Which brings us, inevitably, to Mr. Trump. I am not a Trump fan. I did not vote for him (or Hillary). But let’s give credit where credit is due – he is the first U.S. President in decades to try to change the status quo and to move things forward without the time-worn, threadbare, repeatedly disproved strategy of putting pressure solely on Israel and expecting nothing from the Palestinians.

The U.S. is by far the biggest funder of UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) according to recent news reports and UNRWA’s own website – some $370M/year, about the same as the next 3 donors (EU, Saudi Arabia, and Germany) combined. There are many, many arguments against UNRWA – its perpetuation of Palestinians as refugees in contrast to virtually every other refugee population in UN history managed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), its mismanagement and miscounting of refugees, allowing storage of Hamas and Islamic Jihad weaponry in schools, and more.

But UNRWA’s worst crime is its continuing to indoctrinate generations of Palestinian children to hate Jews. We’ve all seen the videos of grammar school programs where kids put on militant pageants of operations to kill Israelis. Of the glorification of becoming a shahid. Of the insistence that Israel does not or should not exist.

In the U.S., federal funding almost always comes with strings. I am aware of Catholic hospital systems that refuse to accept federal funding for construction and other projects because of federal guidelines that require that, if one accepts those funds, one must violate the right-to-life and end-of-life guidelines principles so important to such institutions. School district funding comes with requirements for testing and curriculum.

The point here is not to debate the correctness of either the regulations or the institutions that choose to accept or refuse that funding. Rather, the point is that the funding is attached to requirements in the first place. But not so for UNRWA. Why not? Why shouldn’t the U.S. demand, as a prerequisite for receipt of U.S. funding, that UNRWA school curriculum in Gaza and the West Bank include recognition of Israel’s right to exist as required element? Why shouldn’t one of the requirements be teaching of a true, honest-to-goodness two-state solution? And more?

So, what can we do? We can educate ourselves. Talk to your friends about what you learn. Talk to your children about them – let this be part of a new style of Passover Seder, where we tell the story to our children.

We can and must educate our elected representatives about the issues, and insist that they be aware of them if they want our vote. Did you know that many new members of the U.S. House of Representatives do not have a U.S. passport and have never traveled abroad? That the Israel-Palestinian dispute is not among the top priorities of their districts, many of which have few if any Jews? Did you know that while over 90% of incumbents who run for re-election win, we are experiencing record numbers of turnover because of incumbents who choose not to run again for a variety of reasons? That this means that most new members of Congress who have never been educated on pro-Israel issues?

In Parsha B’Shelach, we’ll read that during the flight from Egypt, Moses brought along Joseph’s bones, who had extracted an oath from the children of Israel that they would return his bones to the land of Israel. Joseph – the ultimate assimilated, successful stranger in a strange land not his own – longed for home, for Israel.

We’ll also read that G-d did not lead the Israelites by way of the land of the Phillistines, although it was nearer, concerned about a change of heart among the Israelites should the Phillistine’s react violently. Regardless of Mr. Abbas’s far-fetched and historically inaccurate assertion that present-day Palestinians are descendants of those ancient Phillistines, the lesson for today remains clear – at least to me:

As did the Israelites in the Exodus, we must overcome the hard-hearted Palestinian leadership that refuses to recognize the rights of Jews to a Jewish homeland. And we must appeal, as those Israelites did to the ordinary citizens of Egypt who were favorably disposed towards the Israelites, to the ordinary citizens among the Palestinians to impel their leadership to change course, to stop teaching hate, to lead a new generation of Palestinians to create their own state, living side by side with the Jewish state of Israel.

About the Author
David H. Levitt practices intellectual property and commercial litigation law in Chicago, and is a pro-Israel activist.
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