Balak, Bil’am and BDS

Posted by David Bernstein on June 18, 2015
Topics: Divrei Torah, Torah, Bamidbar (Numbers), Balak

Does a book thousands of years old have any relevance to our lives? Does a tradition of ancient and medieval origins bring any new insights to a post-modern world?

We find ourselves, in the cycle of the Torah readings, near the end of the book of B’midbar. The Jewish people have wandered in the desert for 40 years. The generation of slavery and of the Exodus has passed. A new generation has arisen, destined to conquer the land of Canaan. They have already won impressive military victories along the way: defeating the king of Arad, Sichon the king of the Emori, and Og, the king of Bashan. The locals begin to panic. They fear they cannot overcome the Israelites on the battlefield. Instead, Balak the King of Moav decides on a different strategy: delegitimization.

He hires a prophet, Bil’am. (Interesting that the Torah ascribes prophecy – a direct link to God – to non-Jews as well as Jews.) He instructs him to defame the Jews, hoping to defeat them in this way. Miraculously, God intervenes, and changes Bil’am’s curses into blessings, creating an almost-humorous situation. (Not quite as funny, though, as the scene of the talking donkey. Who said the Torah had no sense of humor?)

The BDS movement is front page news in Israel, and Jewish communities worldwide. As others have pointed out, one way to view it is as a third stage in the struggle to destroy the Jewish state. The first, from 1948-1973, was the military stage. The second, from 1974-2005, was the stage of terrorism. Both of them failed. Israel defeated enemy armies, and also showed remarkable resilience in the face of the First and Second intifadas.

The third stage is the delegitimization of the Jewish State. While many Israelis oppose the settlements, only a fringe can support a movement that seeks not to isolate the settlements, but to isolate the entire Jewish State. We recognize that while many critics of Israel are not anti-Semitic (indeed some are Jewish, both within Israel and from abroad), there is considerable overlap between anti-Semitism and opposition to the Jewish state.

Israel does deserve criticism at times, like any country. (Our press regularly criticizes the government all the time!) But how else to explain the wildly disproportionate number of anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N, and the frequent condemnation of human rights violations by Israel while much more repressive regimes seem to get away scott-free? When a double-standard is applied to Jews, there is a name for it: anti-Semitism (to quote Alan Dershowitz).

We do not live in a world of obvious miracles (nes nigleh). The miracles around us, those that happen every day, are hidden (nes nistar). No one changes the words of the Bil’ams of our day. Balak has recruited many who denounce the Jewish State. And we are not blameless. The parallel is not perfect. We are not the Israelites of almost 4,000 years ago. Balak and Bil’am have no direct descendants.

Yet our history should give us hope. There is a Hebrew saying which, when translated says “We survived Pharoah, we’ll get through this as well.” That proverb should not lead us to passivity. Rather, it should give us hope. While we might wish and pray for Divine intervention, it is up to us to find ways to respond to our detractors, while at the same time insuring that we be the best we can be under our difficult circumstances.

We can and should debate these issues, but as a family, and not as adversaries. We have enough of them.

About David Bernstein

David holds a B.A. and M.A. in History and a Ph.D. in Religious Education from New York University. He also attended Yeshivat HaMivtar. David is Dean Emeritus at Pardes. Previously, David served as Dean starting in 1998. David was the director of Midreshet Lindenbaum, popularly known as Brovender’s, for 12 years. David was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel School for Jewish Education in Jerusalem from 1996-1998. Click here to read more.

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