Parashat Beha’alotekha: Is Israel a Racist, Apartheid State?

Parashat Beha’alotekha is set in “bamidbar” [במדבר], “the desert.”  The Jewish people had become a nation when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai [הר סיני], “[Y]ou shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Shemot 19:6) In compliance with HaShem’s command, we’re preparing to invade and conquer the Land of Israel [ארץ ישראל].

Fast-forward some 3,300+ years. After multiple and long exiles, the Jewish people – and the Jewish nation – are back in their Land, with a sovereign government. Some things, however, have not changed. The Jewish people and nation are still plagued by occupants of the Land who claim a right to the Land which is superior to that of the Jewish people and nation.

The resulting questions which arise include:

  1. What does the Torah command with respect to responding to claims that certain Gentiles possess a right to the Land which is superior to that of the Jewish people and nation; and
  2. Whether the Torah commands a response that contemporary, Western and Hellenist culture considers to be “racist” or “apartheid.”

I. Israel’s Current Treatment of Israeli-Arabs

During the year 5781 (2021), Parashat Beha’alotekha happened to have been read shortly after a cease-fire was signed in what is referred to as the “Gaza War” of that year.

The term “Gaza War,” however, is misleading. The fact that overt military hostilities were discontinued as the result of a cease-fire agreement is more indicative of the real situation: the Gaza Battle of 5781 (2021), which was concluded when both sides agreed to stop openly shooting at each other – hence the “cease-fire” agreement – the war, however, rages on.

Predictably, those who oppose Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel) used the Gaza Battle of 5781, as well as any other opportune event, to reassert charges that Medinat Yisra’el, as evidenced by its conduct toward Arabs who live in Gaza, Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem, and other parts of Medinat Yisra’el, is a racist and apartheid state.

The term “racist” is defined as “prejudice against or antagonism toward a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically, one that is a minority or marginalized.” Oxford Languages English dictionary (Google).

“Apartheid” means “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.” Id. The term “apartheid” is often used to refer to policies in South Africa that discriminated against Black people.

Currently, in Medinat Yisra’el, Arabs (and all other ethnic groups and minorities) enjoy equal political and personal rights. Arabs who are citizens of Medinat Yisra’el can vote and, indeed, some are, or have been, members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and Supreme Court. Furthermore, not only do Israeli-Arabs enjoy equality under the law, they are, as a practical matter, often given special, favorable, treatment by the police, prosecutors, and courts, who fail to investigate, prosecute, or punish crimes committed by Arabs against Jews as zealously as they do when a Jew perpetrates a crime against an Arab. Thus, the treatment by Medinat Yisra’el of Israeli-Arabs cannot reasonably be said to be prejudiced or antagonistic based on their membership in a racial or ethnic group.

Regarding Gaza, Medinat Yisra’el “disengaged” from that portion of Medinat Yisra’el in 2005, by removing all Jews from Gaza and by withdrawing all direct governmental controls over Gaza. Medinat Yisra’el, however, maintains control over the air and maritime space of Gaza and has reserved the legal right to reenter Gaza with its military. Gaza is also dependent on Medinat Yisra’el for its water, electricity, telecommunications, and other utilities.

Although Gaza is not a nation-state, and is not recognized as such by Medinat Yisra’el or the international community, the residents of Gaza have established a de facto Arab government in Gaza, which in turn has adopted its own flag and which maintains its own military. Although the Arab residents of Gaza do not enjoy the privileges of Israeli citizenship or residency, that circumstance is the result of Arab choice and was not imposed upon Gazan Arabs by Medinat Yisra’el. Thus, as with the Arabs who reside in other parts of Medinat Yisra’el, the treatment by Medinat Yisra’el of Gazan Arabs cannot reasonably be said to be prejudiced or antagonistic based on their membership in a racial or ethnic group. Any so-called “segregation” of Gazan Arabs from the rest of Israeli society is wholly attributable to Gazan Arabs, who in 2005 decided that they wanted to segregate themselves from the rest of Israeli society.

Thus, we see that the current conduct of Medinat Yisra’el toward its Arab citizens and residents, whether those persons reside in Jerusalem or Gaza, is neither “racist” nor “apartheid.”

II.  Halakhic Treatment of Israeli-Arabs

Medinat Yisra’el, being a self-described Jewish state (the only one in the world), could, however, change course and decide that it instead of its current system of laws, which consist of a mixture of laws adopted from various Gentile nations, it will, instead, do what is fitting for a Jewish State and follow the commands of the Torah and Halakha (Jewish Law).

Both the Torah and Halakha require that all Gentiles who claim a right to Eretz Yisra’el which is superior to that of the Jewish people must be expelled from the Land.

Beware of what I command you today. Behold, I drive out before you the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivvite, and the Jebusite. Be vigilant lest you seal a covenant with the inhabitant[s] of the land to which you are to come, lest it be a snare among you.

Shemot 34:11-17.

Regarding non-Jews who live in Eretz Yisra’el, the Halakha – Jewish law – recognizes two classes of people: those who claim an ownership or similar interest in Eretz Yisra’el and those who do not claim any such interest. Regarding the former, the Torah is not merely referring to ancient civilizations who just happened to be occupying Eretz Yisra’el prior to the arrival of the Jewish people; rather, the Torah is referring to any people – for all time – who claim a legal right to Eretz Yisra’el.

According to the Or HaChaim:

“You are to drive out all of the inhabitants of the land. . . .”  Even though the Torah says in Debarim 20:16 that “you must not allow a single soul [of the Canaanite nations to remain in Eretz Yisra’el], . . . the Torah does not speak of [only] the seven Canaanite nations[,] but [also] about others who lived among them. This is the reason the Torah chose its words carefully, i.e., “all the ones who dwell in the land,” that the Israelites were to drive out even those people who lived there who were not members of the seven [Canaanite] nations.

Or HaChaim, commentary to Bamidbar 33:52.

Likewise, Abarbanel said:

Shemot 34:11-12 inform us that since HaShem is driving out the [Canaanite] nations, it would be improper for Yisra’el to forge a covenant with them. If a nobleman helps someone by fighting that person’s battles and banishing that person’s enemies, it would be immoral for that person to make peace with [those enemies] without [first obtaining the] nobleman’s permission. So, too, with HaShem driving out Yisra’el’s enemies, it is immoral for Yisra’el to enter into a treaty with them, for that would profane HaShem’s Glory. This is especially true considering that the treaty will not succeed. Because Yisra’el dispossessed them of what they believe to have been their land, there is no doubt that they will constantly seek to defeat and destroy Yisra’el. This is why it said, “[the Land] to which you are coming.” Since Yisra’el came to that Land and took it from its inhabitants, and because they feel that the Land has been stolen from them, how will they make a covenant of friendship with you? Rather the opposite will occur: “they will be a snare among you.” When war strikes you, they will join your enemies and fight you.

Abarbanel, Commentary on Shemot 34:11-12.

If Medinat Yisra’el were to assert sovereign over the entirety of the Land, including, but not limited to all of Jerusalem (including the Old City), Gaza, Judea and Samaria, etc., and expel all non-Jewish Arabs from these areas, the question which would be raised is whether such laws and actions would be racist or apartheid.

At this point it is important to point out two critical facts. First, “racism” is a form of discrimination, but not all discrimination is racist. For example, when a person decides to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt, he is discriminating against the red shirt and discriminating in favor of the blue shirt. This would constitute benign, non-racist discrimination.

Second, there is a two-prong test to determine whether a policy or action is racist.  The first prong is whether the policy or action is based on prejudice; the second prong is whether such prejudice is directed against a racial or ethnic group.

“Prejudice” is defined as “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason” or as “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.”  Here, an expulsion of Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el would not be based on any “preconceived opinion” or without “knowledge, thought, or reason.” Rather, such action would be based on warnings from HaShem that such people will “be a snare among” the Jewish people; the Halakha, as articulated by our Sages and Scholars; and our tragic and painful history with the Arabs of Eretz Yisra’el, a history which dates back not just to 1948, but many years prior the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

The reason for the second-prong – the racial or ethnic group prong – is that membership in a racial or ethnic group is immutable, that is, it cannot be changed.  A person who is Black may not choose to become White; a person who is Hispanic may not choose to become Asian; and so forth. This is why discrimination based on a (immutable) racial or ethnic characteristic is reprehensible.

We learn in Parashat Beha’alotekha that “Moshe said to Hobab, son of Re’u’el, the Midyanite, Moshe’s father-in-law, we are journeying to the place which which HaShem said, I will give it [to] you; come thou with us. . . .”  Bamidbar 10:29.  Nachmanides explains that the name “Hobab” was the name Yitro took when he converted to Judaism, stating that “such is the way of all proselytes, ‘for HaShem calls His servants by another name.’” Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Bamidbar 10:29, citing Yesha’yahu 65:15.

Moshe’s father-in-law, although referred to as “Hobab” in Sefer Bamidbar, is referred to earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Shemot, simply as “the priest of Midyan.”  “Now the priest of Midyan had seven daughters. . . .” Shemot 2:16, “and [the priest of Midyan] gave Moshe Zippora, his daughter. And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom. . . .”  Shemot 2:21-22.

Later in Sefer Shemot, Moshe’s father-in-law is referred to as “Yitro.”  “When Yitro, the priest of Midyan, Moshe’s father-in-law. . . .”  Shemot 18:1. Prior to converting to Judaism, Moshe’s father-in-law was given the name Yiter [יתר], which means “more,” “excess,” or “addition,” in recognition of his pre-conversion service to the Jewish people. Rashi taught that the Hebrew letter “vav” was added to Moshe’s name when he converted, thus changing his name from Yiter [יתר] to Yitro [יתרו].

Although there is a considerable degree of ambiguity concerning exactly when Moshe’s father-in-law converted to Judaism, the one thing that we do know is that he did convert at some point in time.

Although Yitro may have been one of the first converts to Judaism, many converts have followed in his footsteps. In fact, anyone – including Arabs and Muslims – who legitimately seek to convert can do so. There are rabbis and Jewish courts both in Medinat Yisra’el and throughout the Diaspora who regularly assist people from all races, ethnicities, and religions in converting to Judaism.

Not only do converts to Judaism come from all races, ethnicities, and religions, those who were born Jewish, that is, born to a Jewish mother, likewise come from all races and ethnicities. There are Jews who can trace their lineage to Germanic and European countries (Ashkenazim), Jews who can trace their lineage to Spain, the Middle East, and Africa (Sephardim), as well as Jews who can trace their lineage to every other corner of the earth.

Thus, we see that being “Jewish” is not based on race or ethnicity, and that “Jewishness” is not an immutable characteristic. Accordingly, there simply is no such thing as the “Jewish race” or “Jewish ethnicity.”

Therefore, a policy of expelling all non-Jewish Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el could not, by definition, be “racist,” nor could it constitute an “apartheid” policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.

III.  Arab-Israeli Plans for Eretz Yisra’el

We return now to where we started, the Gaza Battle of 5781 (2021). Gazan and Israeli-Arabs have decided something that Jewish Israelis, as a group, are either unaware, or which they do not want to admit:  The war that is being waged by Gazan and Israeli-Arabs, on the one hand, against Medinat Yisra’el, on the other hand, will continue until one side wholly and completely defeats the other side. Collectively, Gazan and Israeli-Arabs have no interest in living side-by-side, in peace, with Jews, whether as two states or in one state.

How do we know this? We know this because Israeli-Arabs, of which the present-day Gazan Arabs are descended, have repeatedly been presented with the opportunity to have a sovereign Arab state which would have been carved out of land that belongs to Medinat Yisra’el.  The Gazan and Israeli-Arabs have rejected such offers each and every time they have been made.

Furthermore, Israeli-Arabs have openly stated that their goal is the complete annihilation of the Jews of Medinat Yisra’el. At a celebration commemorating the 34th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Intifada, a Hamas leader said: “You have no place on our land. Leave it or be killed on it.” Mushir al-Masri, senior Hamas figure.

Using violence to take control of the Land of Israel from the Jewish people and nation isn’t this enemy’s only battle plan; they also intended to – and do – use Medinat Yisra’el’s democratic processes and institutions in an attempt to wrest control of the Land from the Jewish people and nation:

Today, I am in the minority. The state is democratic. Who says that in the year 2000 we Arabs will still be the minority. Today I accept the fact that this is a Jewish state with an Arab minority. But when we are the majority, I will not accept the fact of a Jewish state with an Arab majority.

Na’ama Saud, a teacher from the Israeli Arab village of Araba; May 28, 1976.

The Jewish people are extremely compassionate, which is a good thing. However, too much of a good thing can be bad.

As we learn from Tanakh, King Sha’ul was commanded by the prophet Shemu’el to “go and smite Amaleq and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” I Shemu’el 15:3.  Shemu’el’s commandment that King Shau’el smite Amalaq was derived from the Torah commandment to erase the memory of Amalek.  Debarim 25:19.

King Shau’el, however, had compassion on Agag, King of Amaleq, and refrained from completely carrying out the command to smite Amaleq. Regarding this failure, the Midrash explains, “Rabbi Elazar said: One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, ‘And Shau’el and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle.’” Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1; Yalkut Shimoni, I Shamu’el, Chapter 121.

May the political and military leaders of Medinat Yisra’el acquire both the wisdom and fortitude to make the Torah the Constitution of Medinat Yisra’el and, to act consistently with the Torah by not being compassionate to those who would be cruel to, that is, those who would annihilate, the Jewish citizens and residents of Medinat Yisra’el.

שבת שלום

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel. He is the Executive Director of The Israel Foundation, a U.S.-based not-for-profit organization that provides Jews and Noahides with a Torah perspective on The Land of Israel, Contemporary Jewish Law, and Torah for Noahides. HaRav Sasson can be contacted via:
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