This week’s Torah portion contains both the Shema and the Ten Commandments.
It also contains a recap of the story of the conquest of the trans Jordanian lands and what we would call in our tradition the question asked by the wise son.
At a time of considerable turmoil and unrest in Israel, when the hot weather leads to frayed tempers and a temptation to do silly or intemperate things, perhaps it is appropriate to consider the conquest of territory which was not designated to us. The lands over the Jordan were not initially designated for the Israelites who settled them. They were conquered as a result of the poor policy decisions of the two kings who ruled them, Sihon of the Emorites and Og of Bashan. They were delegated as an inheritance to the tribes of Reuven and Gad and the half-tribe of Menasheh, because they argued convincingly that they had lots of cattle and sheep and the land was suitable for their herds and flocks.
The conquest of those parts of the land, and later under Joshua of the Land of Canaan itself, was under particular rules. The land was to be conquered and its inhabitants put to the sword, the women and children enslaved, according to the Torah. The Canaanite ways of life were to be uprooted, their idols destroyed, their sacred groves dug up, their temples burnt and dismantled, and all their idolatrous worship erased. There is some record of the Canaanites even worshipping insects, until recently scorned by archaeologists who had never encountered such a cult, but today confirmed by the discovery of a small gold idol in the form of an insect.
The prescription for the conquest of the land of Canaan and the subjugation of the previous inhabitants, along with the land on the other side of the Jordan, is in distinction to the rules of warfare today. We have come a very long way since 1,500 BCE and we live in a time when civilian populations have to be respected and treated humanely. There must be a rule of law and recourse to a judicial system in an occupied military zone. Yet today there are still some who wish to view the Muslim and Christian Palestinians as if they are Canaanites as in ancient times. This may not be helped by some Palestinian claims to be Canaanite, but such claims are not borne out by genetic analysis. Our Jewish genes are almost the same as those of Palestinians who today live in Nablus and Hevron. When we look at them we are looking into a mirror, despite the differences in customs religion and language.
The recent arson attack on a Palestinian home which killed a toddler should serve to all Jews as a wake-up call to the reality of being a Jew in a position of power and control, in Israel and the West Bank. We are not commanded by the Torah to kill Palestinians, nor to enslave them or take their land. They are not the Canaanites, ripe for dispossession, but our cousins, entitled to protection and respect. We may have many disputes with them, which may take a long time to resolve, but we must deal honourably with them, be civilized, and above all not oppress them because we have the power to do so.
It does our hearts good to see Israeli leaders condemn the act of terror which led to the death of an innocent child. Now we must all ensure that when we see injustice done we call it by its true name, and insist that it be pursued and prosecuted with the same vigour as other similar crimes against Jews.