Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

What Jews and Arabs in the Middle East Can Learn from the Book of Genesis

Orthodox Jews and traditional Moslems view the Bible as the major source for teaching personal and national behavior. Perhaps many of them aren’t reading it closely enough.

These days, Jews are in the midst of publicly reading the Book of Genesis each shabbat. Here’s the most recurring theme running through almost all the weekly readings: what should “brothers” do when they can’t get along? One would be hard pressed to think of a theme more relevant to the contemporary Middle East, some 3500 years later.

First, we have Cain and Abel. We don’t know why one murdered the other, but it certainly set the tone for brotherly unlove in the ensuing stories. But first, Cain’s punishment: separation from the family, including whatever other siblings might come along.

In this week’s portion (Lekh Lekha), a similar albeit far less violent narrative appears: Abraham’s and Lot’s shepherds are constantly at loggerheads (over grazing land). Abraham’s solution: separation. Lot can choose which land to move to, and Abraham gets what’s left. Note that “separation” now becomes the solution to prevent any need for a punishment. And indeed, it works.

Somewhat later (next week’s reading), another potential sibling rivalry rears its head, between Ishmael and Isaac. This time it’s Sarah who sees the potential problem and here too insists on the preventive solution: separation of the two by throwing Ishmael (and Hagar) out of the house. Not very nice – but perhaps reasonable to prevent future intra-familial bloodshed.

Onward. The next sibling rivalry has the potential to be very serious indeed, as Jacob “buys” firstborn rights from Esau and then uses subterfuge to receive Isaac’s firstborn blessing. Esau is (rightly) very upset. Mother Rebecca sees the potential explosion, so following (but reversing) mother-in-law Sarah’s lead she sends the younger Jacob away from home – again, separation!

Jacob manages to flourish in his exile, bringing up a large family with twelve sons – but they don’t exactly flourish in their sibling relationship. The result? Close to the Cain/Abel denouement, but Judah comes to the “rescue” with a plan: separation!! Instead of killing Joseph, sell him into bondage and let him end up in Egypt.
That’s five cases of separation in the Book of Genesis: the first as punishment for sibling violence; the next four as a preventive measure to avoid that. However, those four stories don’t end with the act of separation. No less important is what ensues: in each case, eventual peaceful resolution. First, Abraham comes to Lot’s rescue from Sodom and Gemorrah. Second, after his near sacrifice on the altar, Isaac leaves Abraham and goes to live with… Ishmael! Third, twenty years after Jacob’s subterfuge with Esau, they meet and Esau shows Jacob true brotherly love, completely forgiving his younger brother. And finally, Joseph brings his brothers to Egypt and forgives them for their dastardly deed.

The bottom-line message here is unmistakable. The Torah understands human nature, especially what can happen between close relatives in the emotional hothouse of the home(land). Thus, its lesson is clear: when there’s too much friction, when brotherly love is turned on its head – it’s time to separate. Let each side live alone, and then let time do its work with an eventual rapprochement.
The lesson for Israel and its surrounding neighbors? As much separation as possible; that’s the only hope for each side to lower their own emotional flames. However, as those bible narratives show, there are different levels of “separation.” Regarding Israel’s long-term interests, a demilitarized state would be sufficient separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. (For those Jews who claim immutable title to that land, recall Abraham’s largesse to his cousin Lot – precisely to avoid bloodshed!) On the other hand, if the “other side” seeks nothing less than banishment of the Jews, then such separation would demand long-distance exile, at least of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leadership (a la Jacob’s long trek to Laban’s home in Mesopotamia). Perhaps then, those separated from their murderous leaders, as well as from their nemesis the Israelis, would over time decompress and find within themselves the way to a true “sulha”. Their forebearers Ishmael and Esau could show them the way.

Thanks to my wife Tami for providing the spark for this essay, by remarking how Sarah’s demand to banish Ishmael was a wiser move than Sarah is usually given “credit” for.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: