David I. Roytenberg

When Paroah’s Heart Hardens

Last week we read the parashah called Va’era. This portion tells the well known story of Moses approaching Pharoah, and asking for better treatment for his people, who are being oppressed by the Egyptians. When Pharoah refuses, plagues of increasing severity are inflicted on the land of Egypt. A central part of the story is Pharoah’s vacillating reaction to the plagues. When a plague is raging, Pharoah seems willing to compromise. When Pharoah is receptive to his demands, Moses asks God to give relief to the Egyptians.

But once the plague is lifted, Pharoah invariably regrets his concessions. The text says that God hardened his heart. When Pharoah reneges on his promises, a new more terrible plague is called down onto Egypt. Pharoah’s magicians try to remove the plagues, but fail. Moses approaches Pharoah again with increased demands and the cycle repeats itself.

One aspect of this story is that if Pharoah had been cooperative from the beginning, the Jews might never have left Egypt. Originally, Moses asks only for relief of some of the most oppressive measures. It is only because Pharoah shows himself to be completely unreliable and treacherous that the worst of the plagues is brought down on Egypt, and Israel is instructed by God to pack up and get out of the land.

In some ways, the modern history of Israel is similar. When Jews first began returning to the land of Israel, their leaders campaigned for the right to return and for a Jewish national home in Palestine. The British mandate established after the first world war promised a national home, but did not promise a Jewish state. If the Jews had been welcomed by the existing inhabitants, the support for the idea of a Jewish state, controversial at the time among the world’s Jews, might never have grown.

But the influx of Jews was resisted from from the earliest days of the Mandate, including by outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. Palestinian Arabs refused to participate in any institutions that included Jewish representation. In 1920, an attack by Palestinian Arabs led to the destruction of the Jewish community of Tel Hai. Riots in Jaffa the same year led to the death of 100 Jews at the hands of their Arab neighbours. Arab violence led the Jews of Palestine to believe that the only way they could live safely in the land was by establishing a Jewish state.

From 1921, the Palestinian Arab community came under the leadership of Amin al-Husseini who was a vocal proponent of violent resistance to Zionism. Husseini’s position of Mufti of Jerusalem gave him access to money and the power to appoint teachers and preachers. In 1929, after Husseini falsely claimed that the Jews were going to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque, much of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron was massacred, and the survivors evacuated by the British authorities. Jews were also attacked in Jerusalem at the same time.

In the 1930’s, Iz al-Din al-Qassam arrived in Palestine from Syria and organized the Black Hand, a terrorist organization, which attacked Jews and their property throughout the country. After the Black Hand killed a policeman, the British authorities pursued them and in 1935,Al-Qassam was killed in a fire fight. This angered the Palestinian Arabs. Beginning in 1936 Amin al-Husseini led the Arab revolt, an attempt to overthrow the mandate and destroy the Jews of Palestine.

In 1937, the Peel commission, sent to Palestine to investigate the causes of the revolt, proposed to partition Palestine; giving a small territory to the Jews, the majority of the country to the Arabs, and retaining British control over an enclave including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. If the Palestinian Arabs had accepted this concession to the Jews, the majority of Palestine would have come under the rule of the Arab majority. But they hardened their hearts and offered nothing. They fought on for two years until the Arab revolt was crushed by the British, but in 1939 the British imposed new restrictions on Jewish immigration which left the Jews of Europe with no escape from destruction.


Image: Peel Commission Partition Plan for Palestine: 1937
By UK Government – Palestine Partition Committee report 1938, page 422, Public Domain,

In 1947, the United Nations approved a proposal that would have given the Jews 55% of the land between the river and the sea, reserving Jerusalem and Bethlehem for international administration. The Palestinian Arab response to that was to launch a civil war against the Jews, counting on the armies of the neighbouring countries to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in any part of the land. The result of this was Israel’s war of independence which left Israel in control of part of Jerusalem and 78% of the land between the river and the sea and led to the displacement of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs and 80,000 Palestinian Jews from their homes.

In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed with a charter calling for “armed struggle” against Zionism until Palestine was liberated. The founding leader of the PLO predicted that in that liberation, no Jew would be left alive. Oddly, the PLO did not make any claim to the 28% of the territory of Palestine that was not under Israeli rule.

Just as with Pharoah, each time the Palestinian Arabs hardened their hearts, the result was a bigger calamity for them than the time before. In 1967, when Israel defeated an attempt to overrun the country and seized the parts of the Palestine mandate that they had not controlled up until then, they waited, in the words of Moshe Dayan, “for the other side to call”. Israel was ready to negotiate peace in exchange for the return of the territories captured in that war. Instead the Arab states met in Khartoum and issued the infamous 3 No’s.

In 1993, at Oslo, Israel recognized the PLO and agreed to turn over part of the territory captured in 1967 to Palestinian rule. In return, the PLO agreed to put an end to “armed struggle”. But once they had control of the territory, the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat hardened his heart, broke his promise, and returned to violence. In the second intifada of the early 2000’s over 1000 Israelis died over a two year period. As a result the project of creating a Palestinian state stalled and Israel remained in overall control of the territory between the river and the sea.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, leaving the territory under the sole control of the Palestinian Authority. But given the choice between building the foundations of a Palestinian State or organizing attacks on Israel, the Palestinians chose the latter. Billions of dollars of aid pouring into Gaza were diverted for the preparation of fortifications and the acquisition of arms. By last October, Hamas, which is steadfastly dedicated to the complete eradication of Israel, had controlled the territory for 16 years.

As we have seen they devoted that time to preparing an attack against Israel that was so terrible and so cruel, that for many Israelis and Jews around the world, the very presence of the Palestinian Arabs living next to Israel seems like a mortal threat. The practicality of a Palestinian state has receded into a future which is almost impossible to imagine. Ironically, the hardening of Palestinian hearts continues to increase the chance that Israel will ultimately control all of the territory between the river and the sea and to push the prospect of a separate Palestinian Arab State further into the realm of fantasy.

This article was originally published at Canadian Zionist Forum.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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