Part I: On Positions and Personalities

Below, I reprint one critical response that I received to yesterday’s blog “On Boundaries and Borders” dealing with the current antics of the Trump administration on asylum seekers who cross the southern border at legal points and individuals who cross the Mexican-American border illegally, whether in search of asylum or simply a better life. The email is well worth reading. It is from a person who has lived for decades in America on the U.S.-Mexican border. I know her well; she is an intelligent, thoughtful, considerate and humane individual. This is an open reply to her.

She wrote:

“Howard, you present a strong academic argument with regard to the border situation and the boundary situation in the United States. It serves no good function to call our president a liar and wish that he and his supporters were behind walls.

“Our social services are stretched beyond their ability to cope and adding 50,000 new requests a year changes some of the country’s ability to provide for the legal poor in the United States.

“Instead of deciding in court whether or not the United States is a safe third country according to your (my italics) treaty, why don’t the lawyers and immigration advocates ask the Canadian government to take five or 10,000 each month. You can start an airlift similar to what the Israelis did in Yemen and receive these people in a much more humane way if you think what is being done here is inhumane. What you see on the television and read in the paper is not what is happening. I have been at an Immigration center in Tornillo Texas and, although there are some issues, they are doing the best they can with the number of immigrants that they have.

“Why doesn’t Canada do something practical and invite those from Central America to come live there rather than looking at the behavior of the Americans. If it is so objectionable, then do something about it except talk.”

The following points are made:

  1. It serves no purpose to call the president of the U.S. a liar;
  2. It perhaps serves less of a purpose to call for Donald Trump (and his supporters) to be put behind walls.
  3. Texan (and perhaps American) social services are stretched beyond their ability to cope.
  4. Adding 50,000 new requests a year changes the country’s ability to provide for the legal poor in the United States.
  5. Going the legal route in accordance with the Canadian Safe First Country treaty to challenge Trump’s immigration policies is not helpful.
  6. Canada should be asked to take in 5,000 or 10,000 per month.
  7. The media misrepresent what is happening in the reception centres.
  8. The people working in those reception centres, such as the one with which she is personally familiar in Tornillo, Texas, are coping as best they can given the influx of such large numbers.
  9. Canada should walk the talk instead of criticizing Trump.

Let me take each point in turn.

  1. Calling President Trump a Liar

Does it serve any purpose to call the president a liar? Normally, definitely not, even when a politician does tell a lie. The rules of civility should give the politician the benefit of the doubt and simply offer a correction. In the case of Trump, that norm needs to be suspended. Why?

  • Trump repeatedly calls people with whom he disagrees liars, mostly when they are not, and, often, much worse;
  • Trump repeatedly refers to those media outlets with the highest standards of proof checking as “the lying media,” echoing, as The Washington Post has noted, Hitler’s branding of the opposition press in Germany in the 1930’s as the “lűgenpresse,” the lying press.
  • In all discourse, truth is a critical reference point; without truth, it is difficult to have either a civil or a rational discussion;
  • As will be seen in my response, the analysis often depends on getting the facts straight;
  • Calling Trump a liar is a fact, not a judgment; he is a well-documented serial liar; the quantity of lies seems to grow over time – recently, he told ten whoppers in one day. (The quality of both the lies and their quantity have been recorded in both The Washington Post and The New York Times);
  • If there are no common objective reference points, you not only have difficulty expressing differences of interpretation and possible policy options, but you undermine the political process itself by creating suspicion about country and civil society institutions; that, in turn, undermines the democratic polity.
  1. Walling in Trump and his supporters

As everyone should know who reads my blogs and other writings, I despise the common use of shame and humiliation. I believe it is dangerous. Yet, during the past week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia (the Red Hen in Lexington), Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was booed at a Mexican restaurant, and Stephen Miller was confronted at another Mexican restaurant. Then we know that the general norms of civility have broken down.

But who initiated the breakdown? Sanders may insist that she tries her “best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully,” but if that were true, who was at the podium in the White House is lying, is being condescending and, following the precedent of her boss, insults others?

When a well-known Trump apologist on Fox News, David Bossie, claimed his fellow Democratic Black panelist, Joel Payne was “out of his cotton-picking mind,” no half-hearted and seemingly insincere apology can make up for such insensitivity. Thankfully, Fox News offered a fulsome apology. “David Bossie’s comments today were deeply offensive and wholly inappropriate. His remarks do not reflect the sentiments of Fox News and we do not in any way condone them.”

Shunning, not engaging in counter insults, is an appropriate response in an effort to wall in serial lying and uncivil behaviour. As the Republican, Ana Navarro, has argued, if “you think the child-separation policy is in a different class — a human rights crime, an inhumane policy for which the public was primed by efforts to dehumanize a group of people (“animals,” “infest,” etc.) — then it is both natural and appropriate for decent human beings to shame and shun the practitioners of such a policy.”

Trump is a dangerous man. His populist approach to politics undermines both institutions and years of worked-out acceptable norms in democratic societies. Conservatives, both the trembling and the brave ones, recognize this. His attitude in substituting fantasy for reality is boundless, and he is in deep need of boundaries, for his own sake, for the sake of the GOP, for the sake of America and for the sake of the world.

  1. Stretching American Social Services

Social services in America are indeed stretched behind the breaking point. But why? Your country spends a fortune incarcerating a far higher percentage of its population than any other Western country. Not only is the jailed person not contributing significantly to the economy; it costs a small fortune to house people this way using the rapidly expanding detention industry in the U.S. The vast majority of those interned are no danger to American communities. Many have been imprisoned for very minor infractions, such as smoking pot, and then for much longer terms than in other Western states.

Secondly, not only are funds diverted from social services to prisons, but Trump, through his tax policies, has put greater pressure on those social services. Third, as we know from all our research on refugees, placing people in detention centres generally does not deter arrivals, though perhaps separating a parent from his child may deter that particular refugee claimant from trying again.  It did Arnovis Guidos Portillo from El Salvador who was deported back to his country without his 7-year-old daughter Meybelin. He said, “I would advise anyone who wants to travel to the United States with their children not to do it. I would never want them to have to walk in my shoes.” He said this even though he has been hunted and persecuted by gang members for two years. Note that under Jeff Sessions’ rule, victims of gang violence are not eligible for refugee status.

Nevertheless. however hard it is to be incarcerated in America, however hard it is to be incarcerated with your children, however even harder it is to be both incarcerated and separated from your children, it is far worse to have to live in fear of your and your children’s lives under the terror regimes of both governments and gangsters. Finally, there are proven far better and far less costly ways of ensuring that the vast majority of refugee claimants turn up for their hearings than incarcerating them. Even under the existing punitive regime, 75% do appear. With tested better models, 94% will; the vast majority of asylum claimants need not be in detention centres.

  1. Helping Refugees versus Helping the American Poor

The claim is made that there is a conflict between helping the deserving American poor and providing support and assistance to refugees. If that were true, why do regimes which take the most away from support for refugees also take the most support away from the deserving poor? Why do regimes that provide reasonable support for refugees, at far less cost to the economy than the American punitive system, also provide greater support for their working poor than the U.S.?

To be continued

 

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On Boundaries and Borders

 A border may be a boundary around a country, but a boundary need not be a border. Whatever the high degree of overlap between the two notions, they are not the same. But they seem identical. A dictionary or thesaurus often defines one in terms of the other to treat the two terms as equivalent. A boundary does indicate a border; but it also marks the limits of an area. That provides a hint about the difference. A border exists between entities. A boundary surroundsan entity. A border by nature divides. A boundary looks from the inside towards the edge.

What philosophic nitpicking and seeming nonsense! Is it? A hem forms the border of a skirt. But it does not form a skirt’s boundary. The border sharply defines the difference between the edge of the skirt and the legs of a woman. We have high borders or hems for mini-skirts and low-borders or hems for maxis. But we do not have high or low boundaries of skirts. A boundary ties together and unites. A border separates and divides. Donald Trump is unboundaried. But he is obsessed with strong borders.

His capacity to lie recognizes no limits. A boundary provides an abstract limitation to a sphere of activity. A border is concrete, literally no more concrete than when a wall is used as the dividing line. A border forms the outer limit to define a boundary. However, a border has a different role even when the line is exactly the same demarcation.

This week I received an email from Josh Biziak of the Broadbent Foundation asking me to sign a petition requesting that the Liberal Government of Canada rescind the safe third country agreement (SCTA) between the U.S. and Canada. Provoked by the Trump administration practice of separating children from their parents and incarcerating them in separate facilities, Amanda DiPaola, an Associate Professor at St. Thomas University, in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail earlier this week urged the same thing.

This petition was referred to me by two readers who asked for my input.  The point of the petition seemed to be political – to send a message that the U.S. is not a safe country. Why? Because it incarcerates children who accompany their parents. No. Because America separated those children from their parents and incarcerated them in a different facility, often hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The Department of Homeland Security does not even tell most of the parents where their children are or how they can be reached.

The SCTA between Canada and the U.S., as part of the so-called U.S.-Canada Smart Border Action Plan introduced in December 2002 and first implemented two years later, is administered by the Canada Border Services Agency, CBSA. (Note: not the Canada Boundary Services Agency.) The law requires a refugee asylum claimant, with some exceptions (where the best interest of a child is involved, in cases of unaccompanied minors, or where family reunification is at issue), to request asylum first in the U.S. The U.S. is the only country Canada has declared to be a Safe Third Country on the grounds that America has signed both the Refugee and the anti-Torture Conventions and treats asylum claimants in accordance with UNHCR principles. The real reason that America is the only Safe Third Country is because all refugee claimants crossing a land border come via the U.S.

But the law also does a second thing. If an asylum claimant arrives at a Canadian border and does not fall within any of the exceptions, that individual will be sent back to America to wait until Canada is ready to hear the claim. And that time may be too late. The American government may have detained or deported the potential refugee claimant. That is why these claimants cross our border with the U.S. at unmanned places. Then they can apply for refugee protection within Canada and not at the border. Even when the border is at an airport, it is a line of demarcation between the legal political authorities of the two countries; it is not a boundary. In such cases, the SCTA acts to channel asylum claimants to cross illegally into Canada.

That, however, is not the ostensible reason that the Broadbent Institute has asked me to sign the petition. Josh Biziak wants to send a message at this time that Canadians no longer consider America to be a safe third country because the U.S. no longer meets the required standards protecting human rights and, presumably, because the system of separation of powers enshrined by the constitution, in particular, Article I, are no longer in working order.

George F. Will, the erudite conservative writer, excoriated Congressional Republicans for betraying their responsibilities under the Constitution. He declared that this cowering congressional congress had allowed those Constitutional requirements to become dormant, letting its muscular powers atrophy through sloth and timidity by making common cause with the Vesuvius of mendacities. Republican congress members had become the president’s poodles motivated by abject careerism as they prostrated themselves to placate this would-be authoritarian and become his toadies in return for lower taxes.

Though widely reported as 2,300 incarcerated, the actual number of detained children separated from their parents – including not only parents who crossed the border illegally (a misdemeanor at worst), but also those who entered the U.S. at a legal crossing and claimed refugee status, is much larger. Those taken elsewhere to be interned in an American facility, including unaccompanied minors, exceeds 14,000. American law provides that minors cannot be interned for more than 20 days. Since May, the Trump government and its Department of Justice have snubbed their noses at established American law, ostensibly in the name of defending the sanctity of American law.

Why? Not because the U.S. government wants to punish the children, though that is what it is doing by the policy, but because it wants to use the action of separation as a way of deterring new arrivals. After all, the numbers crossing the border now averages 50,000 per month. The new so-called Executive Order only postpones the separation of children from parents and does nothing to reunite children with their parents or release unaccompanied minors. The U.S. is indeed engaged in cruel and unusual punishment of innocent children.

Whether their parents were or were not irresponsible in escaping the violent conditions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in bringing their children to the U.S. is beside the point, even though it is almost self-evident that these immigrants from Central America made the trek in most cases to gain a better and more secure life for those children. This issue is unequivocally a red herring. The problem is not whether some of the parents are guilty of a misdemeanor, but whether the U.S. blatantly disregards human rights norms and breaks its own laws, traumatizing children in the process, including some infants still being breastfed.

The argument is that Canada cannot allow economic self-interest and the troubling trade negotiations over NAFTA to undermine morality and law. Canada cannot allow the motivation to stand up to American bullying on a matter of such important principle. Heartbreaking pictures and the sounds of inconsolable children crying must not only move our hearts but our policies as well. Further, the latest imbroglio over whimsical and self-destructive American policies dates back much earlier and even precedes the totally insensitive actions of the current U.S. government.

At a court hearing scheduled for January, a Canadian judge will hear the charge brought against the Canadian government over the SCTA by the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International. The U.S. has for a very long time not been a Safe Third Country, not only because of its detention policy, not only because asylum claimants in the U.S. have far less access to an experienced immigration lawyer who can help them put their case forward, but because, under the policy of “expedited removal,” asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico without a hearing and without taking them to court for their misdemeanor offences. The complainants can not only show that very few of these cases involve members of murderous gangs, smugglers, rapists and drug cartel operatives, contrary to the presidential propaganda, but that, certainly in the case of Guatemala refugee claimants, very few claimants are successful in America whereas in Canada, the majority of claims are accepted. In the last three years, about two-thirds of asylum seekers in Canada received positive decisions. (For a primer on Central American migration to Canada and the U.S., read my colleague Allan Simmons’ article on “Central Americans in Canada.”)

https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://ca.search.yahoo.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1003&context=mer

The Trump administration not only uses and abuses Congress and walks all over standing moral and legal norms, but has assumed the role of the judiciary in declaring that victims of gang violence and domestic abuse cannot be grounds for a refugee claim. Canadians cannot be comforted by the fact that claimants from Central America have fallen from 2,479 in April to 1,775 crossing into Quebec, the major entry point for those who cross into Canada illegally, even though temporary protected status in the U.S. has been removed from Salvadorans, Hondurans and Haitians. Canada only holds children in detention centres for short periods of time and never by deliberately separating children from their parents to make a political point.

Has the time come, is this the Alan Kurdi moment, when Canadians awake from their indifferent stupor and say enough is enough? Do we declare the Safe Third Country dead? Was it enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the U.S. separation policies?

We can reject the American policies. We can ask the Canadian government to change the STCA, as Canadian lawyers urged the Canadian government to do over twenty months ago following Trump’s ill-advised move to ban members of specifically-named countries from entry into the U.S. Trump Executive Order 13769 banned travel from seven African and Middle East countries and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. That proposition demanding an end to SCTA was pushed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Association québécoise des avocats en droit de l’immigration, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, 200 law professors and both the Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International. In spite of concurrence by all three opposition parties, the Canadian government chose not to act. It was American law that intervened to gut the Trump initiative.

It must be noted that Canada receives less than 1,700  asylum claimants per month on average from the U.S., even during this time of extreme distress, compared to the 50,000 received per month on the U.S. southern border. Our actions should not be determined by self-righteousness. Nor by revenge to score moral points against the U.S. for its punitive and unjust tariffs. Nor should we be motivated by contempt for America’s king of mendacity, Donald Trump. I think we should be motivated by the following in order of priority:

1.    What is best for the refugee claimants;

2.    What is best for the rule of law.

3.    What is best for the anti-Trump polity in the U.S. in the war against the Trump administration

I do not think what Canadians say or do will have much, if any, effect on the Trump regime, perhaps only make Trump more contemptuous in his treatment of Canada. He is and will remain a lying bully. What happens in America now depends on the American polity. There is a very important election in just over four months. Donald Trump in his Nevada speech yesterday “embraced hard-line immigration policies as a centerpiece of the Republican Party’s midterm campaign strategy.” (Washington Post) “Strong borders; no crime.” Yesterday, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, currently running for re-election and reputedly a moderate on immigration policy, continued to display his lack of backbone and instead demonstrate his obsequious bowing before Trump triumphalism in contrast to his 2016 claims that Trump denigrated human beings.

Trump needs to be penned in and a defensive border put around him that will squeeze him into inaction and possible resignation. He is incapable of being bound by moral norms. His professed concern for the immigrant children is the ultimate in insincerity and self-contradiction. His policies have been upturned before. However, for the first time during his presidency, he has been forced to reverse course, even if that reversal was as heartless as the original policy.

The Trump regime is a menace to refugees everywhere, to Americans, to Canadians and to the rest of the world. If I thought signing the petition would help refugees, if I thought that it would change American government behaviour just one whit, I would sign. However, no matter how just I believe the petition to be, even long before the Trump administration took office, the most important goal at this key turning point in the American presidency is placing the greatest effort on building a wall around Trump’s power while avoiding antagonizing and stirring up the irrational fear of immigrants that Trump has stoked among the American populace.

It is a difficult and subtle balancing act. While our hearts are bleeding, it is even more important to focus on a goal. Unless I become convinced that the repeal of the STCA, as much as it may benefit refugees over the long term, will help put Trump and his cohorts behind a high and strong wall, I opt for strategic thinking over moral purity.

Rebellion and War: Parashat Chukat – Numbers Chapter 20&21

What a discontented lot were the Israelites! If it is not the priestly hierarchy that stirs up protests, it is the physical deprivation of which Dathan and Abiram complained in an earlier chapter.

Numbers Chapter 20

1

The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

  א

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כָּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם:

2

The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

  ב

וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָֽעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־משֶׁ֖ה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹֽן:

3

The people quarreled with Moses, and they said, “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord.

  ג

וַיָּ֥רֶב הָעָ֖ם עִם־משֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ לֵאמֹ֔ר וְל֥וּ גָוַ֛עְנוּ בִּגְוַ֥ע אַחֵ֖ינוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה:

4

Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?

  ד

וְלָמָ֤ה הֲבֵאתֶם֙ אֶת־קְהַ֣ל יְהֹוָ֔ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֖ר הַזֶּ֑ה לָמ֣וּת שָׁ֔ם אֲנַ֖חְנוּ וּבְעִירֵֽנוּ:

5

Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.

  ה

וְלָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֥וֹם הָרָ֖ע הַזֶּ֑ה לֹ֣א | מְק֣וֹם זֶ֗רַע וּתְאֵנָ֤ה וְגֶ֨פֶן֙ וְרִמּ֔וֹן וּמַ֥יִם אַ֖יִן לִשְׁתּֽוֹת:

Once again Moses and Aaron resorted to magic to overcome the crisis. Moses struck a rock with his staff and water gushed forth. That was insufficient. In the next chapter, once again the Israelites griped about the suffering they underwent during their forced marches.

5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.”   ה

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר הָעָ֗ם בֵּֽאלֹהִים֘ וּבְמשֶׁה֒ לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל:

6

The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died.

  ו

וַיְשַׁלַּ֨ח יְהֹוָ֜ה בָּעָ֗ם אֵ֚ת הַנְּחָשִׁ֣ים הַשְּׂרָפִ֔ים וַיְנַשְּׁכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֥מָת עַם־רָ֖ב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל:

7

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He remove the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed on behalf of the people.

  ז

וַיָּבֹא֩ הָעָ֨ם אֶל־משֶׁ֜ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ חָטָ֗אנוּ כִּֽי־דִבַּ֤רְנוּ בַֽיהֹוָה֙ וָבָ֔ךְ הִתְפַּלֵּל֙ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵ֥ר מֵֽעָלֵ֖ינוּ אֶת־הַנָּחָ֑שׁ וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֥ל משֶׁ֖ה בְּעַ֥ד הָעָֽם:

8

The Lord said to Moses, “Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

  ח

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ שָׂרָ֔ף וְשִׂ֥ים אֹת֖וֹ עַל־נֵ֑ס וְהָיָה֙ כָּל־הַנָּשׁ֔וּךְ וְרָאָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ וָחָֽי:

9

Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live.

  ט

וַיַּ֤עַשׂ משֶׁה֙ נְחַ֣שׁ נְח֔שֶׁת וַיְשִׂמֵ֖הוּ עַל־הַנֵּ֑ס וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־נָשַׁ֤ךְ הַנָּחָשׁ֙ אֶת־אִ֔ישׁ וְהִבִּ֛יט אֶל־נְחַ֥שׁ הַנְּח֖שֶׁת וָחָֽי:

Once again the protest was overcome with magic and the creation of a copper snake on a stick to cure the people of the poison when they were bitten by venemous real ones. But there is a third, and this time very real rather than abstract fear: the strength of the enemies that ten of the twelve scouts warned about.

The Israelites were not permitted to pass through the land of the Edomites; they retreated to go around them. It was during this time that Aaron expired on Mount Hor to be replaced by his son Eleazar; Miriam had died just before the encounter with the Edomites. Is there any connection between the Israelites avoiding battle when Miriam and Aaron were alive, but engaged in battle after their deaths? The Israelites took on the people of Arad in the Negev, the Amorites and those in Bashan and emerged victorious in all three wars. They destroyed their enemies and two-and-a-half tribes of Israelites occupied the land east of the Jordan River in the western part of what is now Jordan.

The wars are typical in part. They begin with diplomacy and the request to pass through the land with the promise that if the Israelites and their cattle use any water, they will pay for it. Just as the Edomites did, all three kings refused, but the rising tension and confrontation in the cases of Arad, the Amorites and Basham escalated into all-out war. Then the atypical part. Since these peoples were entirely destroyed by the Israelites, there was no need for peacemaking, cease-fire, peace enforcement, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconciliation. The Israelites simply replaced them on their land and in their cities.

In this section, we are dealing with real history. The geographical detail is precise and the historical record is backed up by artifacts, archeological reconstructions of the military forts and the Mesha Stele royal inscription by the King of Moab who described how he recaptured the land. I do not recall the order of the battles – I am sure they can be found in Finkelstein’s book, The Forgotten Kingdom, ​​The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement.

Professor Israel Finkelstein gave me the following map when I interviewed him years ago for Israel Today.

https://thetorah.com/north-israelite-memories-of-the-transjordan-and-the-mesha-inscription/

What is clear is that the Israelite record of its history, though overlapping with the Moabite one, was different. In the Torah, the Moabites were confined to the area south of the Arnon Stream. In the Moabite account, their territory originally stretched up to Nebo and Heshbon giving them a right of first possession after they reconquered the territory from the Israelites.

Much of the battle between modern Israel and the Palestinians is over first possession. But both claims may be true if you trace history back before the Muslim conquest to the 9th century BCE. Rabbi Dov Stein in the Israeli documentary produced by Nissim Mossek claimed, “that a significant part of the Arabs in the land of Israel are actually descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Islam over the centuries.” As Ariella Oppenheimer wrote in her PhD thesis, both Palestinians and Ashkenazi Jews can trace their origins to the Kurds of Babylon from the territory where Abraham set out on his trek. After all, many Palestinians possess the Cohen chromosome.

Dr. Harry Ostrer, when he was Director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University School of Medicine, authored a study (Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, 9 May 2000) of an international team of researchers that he led and claimed that, “Jews and Arabs are all really children of Abraham…And all have preserved their Middle Eastern genetic roots over 4,000 years.”

If these historical, archeological and genetic claims are valid, then the Israeli-Palestinian war is more of a civil war than a war between states. Before I knew any of this, I recall my own experience years ago when I was invited to be part of a panel at Tulkarem in the West Bank near Nablus. On the panel were two others, the town’s eminent physician, a communist, and the more moderate mayor. The mayor spoke first, the doctor second and I was scheduled to speak third.

I was unable to speak. For the first time in my life, I was totally tongue-tied. The mayor of the town was the spitting image of my late father. Unless you were up close, you would not have been able to tell them apart. Eventually, I did apologize for and explain my inability to speak. I cannot recall their reaction. Perhaps I was too confused at the time.

Does any of this make a difference? It does suggest that the argument over prior possession may be a red herring. It may also suggest a reason why the conflict “between blood brothers” goes so deep and is seemingly so intractable. However, if Israelites and Palestinians can see each other as long- lost cousins now practicing a different religion than either practiced in the 9th century BCE, does this offer a lever to foster peace while also explaining the deep determination of the Palestinians in the conflict and their deep love for the land?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III – Was Moses Full of Himself? Parashat Korach (פרשת קורח) (Numbers 16:1 – 17:15)

In order to understand the “rebellion” of Korach better, my last blog traced the portrait of Moses as a so-called “humble” but challenged leader who rested that leadership on exclusive access to the word of God. The guest commentator at Torah study this past Shabat focused on the charge that Moses had gone “too far.” In response to that charge, Moses replies that it is Korach and his fellow protesters who have gone “too far.” What does the charge of going “too far,” of רַב-לָכֶם mean?

א  וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח, בֶּן-יִצְהָר בֶּן-קְהָת בֶּן-לֵוִי; וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב, וְאוֹן בֶּן-פֶּלֶת–בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן. 1 Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men;
ב  וַיָּקֻמוּ לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וַאֲנָשִׁים מִבְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם, נְשִׂיאֵי עֵדָה קְרִאֵי מוֹעֵד, אַנְשֵׁי-שֵׁם. 2 and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;
ג  וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם–כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה. 3 and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’
ד  וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-פָּנָיו. 4 And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face.
ה  וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-קֹרַח וְאֶל-כָּל-עֲדָתוֹ, לֵאמֹר, בֹּקֶר וְיֹדַע יְהוָה אֶת-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ וְאֶת-הַקָּדוֹשׁ, וְהִקְרִיב אֵלָיו; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר-בּוֹ, יַקְרִיב אֵלָיו. 5 And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the LORD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.
ו  זֹאת, עֲשׂוּ:  קְחוּ-לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת, קֹרַח וְכָל-עֲדָתוֹ. 6 This do: take you censors, Korah, and all his company;
ז  וּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, מָחָר, וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר יְהוָה, הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ; רַב-לָכֶם, בְּנֵי לֵוִי. 7 and put fire therein, and put incense upon them before the LORD to-morrow; and it shall be that the man whom the LORD doth choose, he shall be holy; ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi.’
ח  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-קֹרַח:  שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, בְּנֵי לֵוִי. 8 And Moses said unto Korah: ‘Hear now, ye sons of Levi:
ט  הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם, אֵלָיו–לַעֲבֹד, אֶת-עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה, וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה, לְשָׁרְתָם. 9 is it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them;
י  וַיַּקְרֵב, אֹתְךָ, וְאֶת-כָּל-אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי-לֵוִי, אִתָּךְ; וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם, גַּם-כְּהֻנָּה. 10 and that He hath brought thee near, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee? and will ye seek the priesthood also?
יא  לָכֵן, אַתָּה וְכָל-עֲדָתְךָ–הַנֹּעָדִים, עַל-יְהוָה; וְאַהֲרֹן מַה-הוּא, כִּי תלונו (תַלִּינוּ) עָלָיו. 11 Therefore thou and all thy company that are gathered together against the LORD–; and as to Aaron, what is he that ye murmur against him?’

In the translation above, רַב-לָכֶם is interpreted in English as meaning “going too far.” Korach first accuses Moses of “going too far” for making both himself and Aaron holier than the rest of the congregation when holiness is a quality of the community and not of individuals. Moses responds and tells Korach that it is he who has gone “too far” for it is God who determines who is and who is not holy. Korach in his democratic claim for holiness is out of order.

“Rav,” from which we get the term “rabbi,” means a chief, a leader and, as an adjective, “rav” means “great.” The reference is to an authority figure and the depiction of the authority of the person referred to when used as an adjective. Essentially, Korach is accusing Moses of going beyond or outside his authority while Moses insists that Korach, in challenging Moses’ authority, even on the basis of the unanimous will of the Levite priests, is out-of-line.

The competing claims are not just about strength of leadership, but about the nature of that leadership. For Moses, all authority derived from God and it is he, Moses, who has been chosen by God to be the interface between God and the Israelites so that his leadership comes from a divine right of rule. Korach, in challenging this authority, exceeds his own role. For democratic election, even by unanimous consent of his fellow leaders, does not justify challenging Moses and, in essence, challenging God’s authority.

This is clearly a much more fundamental challenge to the leadership of Moses than that of Moses’ siblings, who accused him of lacking ethnic purity for marrying a Cushite woman. It is a much more fundamental challenge than that of the scouts who questioned Moses’ leadership and prophecy for the invasion of the Promised Land by focusing on the strength and power of the resident population.

However, רַב-לָכֶם can mean more than simply being out-of-line in terms of justifiable authority. The phrase can refer to the personal characteristics that thrust the individual into a position of going too far. The phrase can mean that Korach accuses Moses of being “too full of himself” both in the negative sense of arrogance, but also in a more positive but still critical sense of being so absorbed with his cause and his leadership that he has left behind his responsibility for communicating to his followers, and, perhaps more importantly, listening to those followers. Moses was accused of being too full of himself perhaps in both those senses.

Korach could also have been accused by Moses, not only of being out-of-line, but of being too full of himself for failing to listen to Moses and, through Moses, the word of the Lord, and of being too full of himself for taking on the mantle of leadership in challenging the leadership of Moses. The issue is not simply about formal and authentic authority but about ad hominem arguments about the character of the rivals. Thus, abundance of authority as an objective statement is one part of the contention; but the other side is the subjective quality of assuming too much for oneself.

The context of the narrative as depicted in the previous blog favours Moses in two respects. Objectively, he is God’s choice as the leader and the interface between God’s chosen people. If the people can be chosen, so can the leader. Further, in terms of personality, Moses is humble and did not seek the leadership role, unlike Korach. He was both a reluctant and a reticent leader. In contrast, Korach, even though he went to the assembly of Levites to win unanimous support, was one who initiated the leadership role he was now playing. Further, authentic authority is not derived from popular will but from divine will.

This is why this portion is so crucial in setting out the heart of the political theory of the Torah. Our contemporary sensibilities are democratic. Who among us supports a divine right of leadership? Yet the narrator of the text clearly does. The narrator unequivocally characterizes Korach’s claim as an uprising and conspiracy against the leadership of Moses, even though it appears, even in the narrator’s own description, simply to be a protest or petition or argument and not an uprising or challenge to Moses as leader. Korach challenges Moses’ performance, not his position.

However, is that a distinction without a difference? For Moses can only really perform as a leader if he is accepted as having legitimate authority. When Moses exaggerates the challenge Korach posed, and, even more, when he met Dathan’s and Abiram’s act of civil disobedience with not only exaggeration about the political action they took, but with distractions like saying, “I’m not a crook,” when no one made any such complaint, one immediately has to suspect the authenticity of such authority that depends on such an irrelevant defence and rationale.

If Moses mischaracterized the nature of both challenges, if Moses resorted to such defensiveness and irrelevancies to justify his legitimacy as the leading authority figure, does this not inherently weaken that claim for authority? How could it not? And so it is left to God (and magic) to determine who is right. But does not the means of resolution (the duel of the frying pans) as well as the apparent gross disproportion of the penalties meted out to the 250 Levites, to the Reubenites, Datham and Abiram, as well as Korach himself raise serious questions about the authentic source of authority of Moses?

A reader wrote asking:

“Can you elaborate more on a reason why Korach and his followers were punished so severely by God? What do you think is the main reason for God’s decision to execute and destroy so many human beings because of Korach’s action? What went absolutely wrong triggering God’s action? The decision to incinerate and swallow up human life must be the hardest one for God Himself considering that God is destroying His own creation created in His own image. Can we understand God’s decision and raise our awareness of its meaning for us?

“It seems to me that to understand God’s reason must be very important in order to understand the significance of Moshe’s role in his and in any generation, including ours.  Every generation needs Moshe, a man being blessed by God, giving him plenty of Ruach – God’s breath, spirit to teach man to be humble human being in any circumstances.  I need that lesson myself. Was Korach blessed? Was he rewarded with God’s spirit? I believe so. How was he using God’s blessing and his own will? Was he humble human being understanding his own limits?”

I believe a glimpse of the answer might be found in the source for the authority Korach cited in challenging Moses. Korach argued that, “all the congregation is holy.”כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁי) ) “Are,” not holiness as an aspiration. The Israelites were claimed by Korach to be a holy people, not just for being chosen, not just for that being the challenge for their realization, but because they had already achieved a holy status, and had achieved that status even before they entered the Promised Land. If that was the case, then what was the point of the whole historical struggle up until then and until now? God then would become a God of Being rather than a God of becoming – a God who reveals Himself over time.

If that is the case, then in spite of Korach’s evident merits as a political and religious leader, especially in contrast to the stumbles and bumbles of Moses who stutters as much in his actions as in his words, Korach metaphorically received the punishment that he deserved. For if the work of creation had been achieved, if the purpose of history had been accomplished, then from dust man came and to dust he could return. The earth swallowed him up, not heaven. The punishment metaphorically suited the crime.

What about Dathan and Abiram who had the opposite complaint – that the whole point of the wandering in the wilderness was a mistake? Even if it had been a success, it was not worth the cost in human lives and the extreme and disproportionate punishments meted out to challengers. If Korach was chastised for assuming he was at the end of history, Dathan and Abiram were chastised for giving up their faith in history. The cost had been too great. If the Shoah was part of that self-revelation, who needs a God who reveals Himself in history? Hence, they too had metaphorically been swallowed by the earth, but for the opposite reason to Korach.

What about the 250 other Levites, chieftains in their own right and chosen by the Assembly democratically to represent the voice of the people? They were not swallowed up by the earth. They were incinerated just as the two eldest sons of Aaron had been. They were taken up to heaven in the divine smoke for they had not made a metaphysical error but an error in judgement in following Korach and, thus, metaphorically in the use of the firer pans.

The story of Korach is a metaphysical and metaphoric tale rather than a literal one. Datham and Abiram, the 250 other Levites, and Moses himself, all screw up. Moses most of all. But the latter did so in political and sociological terms. He was full of mindblindness even more than he was infused with humility. But he never deviated for his belief in God as one who reveals Himself in history. Korach thought the Israelites had arrived. Dahlan and Abiram thought they never would, and, even if they did, it was not worth the cost. The 250 never gave any indication that they had surrendered to either view but did follow Korach in his protest and thus made an error in judgement rather than a metaphysical error. They were allowed to rise to heaven rather than being swallowed up by the earth. Each received metaphorically the “punishment” appropriate to the crime. Moses received the worst punishment of all – denial of entry into the Promised Land just when he was at the edge of fulfilling that stage of the journey.

How Moses must have suffered compared to Korach, the 250 or Dathan and Abiram!

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II Moses in Context: Parashat Korach (פרשת קורח) (Numbers 16:1 – 17:15)

We ended Part I of the discussion of the rebellion of Korach with a common depiction of Korach as a leader of rebellious Levite priests and Moses as the epitome of humility who is both a strong and wealthy political leader satisfied with his own portion and in need of no material support from the community. In addition, Moses has an exclusive conduit to God’s voice and orders. He is humble, in this interpretation of both humility and Moses. Why?

Because Moses is reluctant, a person neither seeking the limelight nor anxious to serve as a prophet. Neither does Moses measure himself against others but only against exacting divine standards. This is the main reason God chose Moses to be the political leader of the Israelites as well as being imbued with the responsibility or prophecy. Moses is humble because he is sought after rather than seeks to be God’s instrument. That is why he is chosen as the vehicle for God’s messages to the people of Israel ha-mashpili lir’ot – and why the Israelites follow and trust Moses. This is why Moses can face God and God can reveal Himself through the mediation of Moses.

I want to question this apologetic for the punishment of Korach, not initially by a close analysis of Korach, but by examining Moses in the overall context of the Book of Numbers to provide context and then, in tomorrow’s blog, with a close reading of one phrase to depict Moses in Parashat Korach.

Numbers, set during the forty years of wandering in the desert before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, begins with God’s command to Moses to conduct a census. By verse 47 of chapter 1 we learn that the Levite priests were not included in the census of the Israelites. One immediately wonders, why not count the Levites? Perhaps it was because they would not be a source of military personnel. Perhaps because they did not have to pay taxes as the royalty of the ancient Israelites. The Levites had higher and holier duties – attending to the care of the Tabernacle and the rituals of worship. In Chapter 3 we get another explanation. The Levites are akin to the first-born who are to be surrendered to the service of God.

More importantly, we encounter an apparent contradiction. I:47 commanded Moses not to count the Levites “by their ancestral tribe.” Chapter 3:5 records God’s instruction to, “Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan, every male among them from the age of one month. The issue is not whether they are counted but how they are counted. While each adult male in every other tribe is recorded as an individual, the Levites are recorded hierarchically “by ancestral house and clan.” The Levites, unlike the other tribes, were given a hierarchical rather than an egalitarian structure beneath a singular elder.

In Numbers 5:12, Moses gets a very different set of commandments concerning how a woman was to be treated by a jealous husband whether justified or unjustified by that jealousy. The Levite priest administers the test to tell whether the woman “defiled” herself with someone other than her husband or did not by seeing whether she suffers from “the curse of adjuration,” a ceremony almost as magical as the duel of the frying pans. The test is designed to ferret out the truth in a somewhat angular version of how the problem was dealt with in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 in Parashat Ki Tetze which begins with a husband who grew tired of his wife and slandered her with a charge of sexual betrayal or that she fooled him and was not a virgin when he married her.

The issue in Deuteronomy was finding out if the husband was guilty of slander. In Numbers, the test is to find whether the woman betrayed her husband. We are thus introduced to a second major theme in Korach, not simply of hierarchical organization within a tribe, but a test of whether a woman defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband. The Israelites are the wife of the Lord.  The magical practice and test is different, but the issue is not; both narratives are about honouring one’s spouse, in Korach, by the Levites on the divine level.

The priests are organized differently than the other tribes. They are subject to a test as if they were females, a test of betrayal rather than of a test for males of slander. That is so they can fulfill their primary function – invoking the name of the Lord to bless the Israelites on behalf of God who is the only agent who, in the end, can bestow a sacred blessing, a blessing that will reveal the true face of God, or, if withheld, God’s turning his back on the Israelites and hiding his face. In each case, when the person fails the test, if a female, she will be subject to sagging thighs, breasts and belly, and, if a male, a frown or a droopy mouth rather than having a face “that is lifted up.”

Then comes the divine priestly benediction repeated in virtually every Jewish synagogue and recited by a Cohen, Birkat Kohanim.

6:24 May the Lord bless you and guard you. יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

6:25 May the Lord’s face light upon you and be gracious to you.

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

6:26 May the Lord lift up his face unto you and give you peace.

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Thus, when the people brought their offerings to the Temple, they were given to the Levites in accordance with the various types of service they had been assigned in the hierarchy. Given their functions, the Levites had to be cleansed by Moses. In Numbers 8:6-7.

 קַח, אֶת-הַלְוִיִּם, מִתּוֹךְ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְטִהַרְתָּ, אֹתָם. 6 ‘Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.
ז  וְכֹה-תַעֲשֶׂה לָהֶם לְטַהֲרָם, הַזֵּה עֲלֵיהֶם מֵי חַטָּאת; וְהֶעֱבִירוּ תַעַר עַל-כָּל-בְּשָׂרָם, וְכִבְּסוּ בִגְדֵיהֶם וְהִטֶּהָרוּ. 7 And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them cause a razor to pass over all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and cleanse themselves.

As a result, Aaron was assigned the responsibility of making expiation for them to cleanse them (Numbers 8:21) This was their graduation ceremony at which they received their degrees.

The attention then shifts to the average Israelite and the sacrifices he must make, particularly on Passover. (Numbers 9-10) Only when all these elements were in place could the Israelites set out on their journey from the wilderness. Then Moses is challenged, first by his own brother Aaron and his sister Miriam for marrying a Cushite woman. (Numbers 12:1) They also made a claim that the Lord also spoke to them. God intervenes and chastises the two siblings, extolling Moses for his humility and insisting that it is only with Moses that God speaks face-to-face.

א  וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח:  כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח. 1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
ב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה–הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה. 2 And they said: ‘Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken also with us?’ And the LORD heard it.–
ג  וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד–מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.  {ס} 3 Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.– {S}
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה פִּתְאֹם, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל-מִרְיָם, צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיֵּצְאוּ, שְׁלָשְׁתָּם. 4 And the LORD spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting.’ And they three came out.
ה  וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן, וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל; וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם, וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם. 5 And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth.
ו  וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם–יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ. 6 And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I the LORD do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.
ז  לֹא-כֵן, עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה:  בְּכָל-בֵּיתִי, נֶאֱמָן הוּא. 7 My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house;
ח  פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט; וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם, לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה. 8 with him do I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD doth he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?’

It is only then that we hear the story of the twelve scouts, leaders from the different tribes, sent out to spy on the Promised Land and to report back to Moses. Ten are pessimistic. Two are not. Moses is upset at the report of the pessimists who also affirmed that the land indeed flowed with milk and honey, but warned that the people were powerful and the cities fortified. For their intelligence, they are accused of “false news,” of spreading calumnies among the Israelites, exaggerating the size of the inhabitants and their ruthlessness.

The news demoralized the Israelites. As Moses and Aaron humbled themselves by letting their faces fall to the ground as is the custom among Muslims until this day, the two optimists, Joshua and Caleb, asked that they trust the Lord to deliver this land flowing with milk and honey to them. In Numbers 14:9 they are told that conquest will only be possible if they do not rebel against the Lord and set aside their fears of the inhabitants. When the Israelites rose up to pelt them, the Lord intervened, appeared in the mist of the people and accused the Israelites directly of spurning Him. The morale and determination of the Israelites would be a test of the power of the Lord and of His ability to deliver what He promised. Moses intervenes with God and defends the people from God’s wrath for their lack of faith.

Thus, the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses is deflected. The rebellion of the people against Moses’ plan to conquer the land in accord with God’s promise is deflected. And God tells Moses how the people are to offer sacrifices to Him once they enter the land. It is in the context of the narrative that the so-called rebellion of Korach takes place. It is against this background that the protest of Korach has to be explicated.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part I – A Narrative on Rebellion? Parashat Korach (פרשת קורח) (Numbers 16:1 – 17:15)

The story of Korach read this past Shabat is perhaps more relevant today than any of the portions of Numbers read in the last 4-6 weeks. The story is also simple. The interpretations and implications are not.

Korach, a great grandson of Levi with an impeccable priestly heritage, organizes an elite protest of 250 elders of repute chosen by the assembly to confront Moses, not Aaron. But that is not how the narrator describes the action. The dissent is characterized as “rising up,” “combining against” Moses and Aaron. Not a petition. Not a protest. Not even a confrontation. The action is described by the narrator as a rebellion. And commentators generally agree.

Yet, there are no arms involved. There is no claim that Korach and his fellow priestly complainants would refuse to follow Moses’ instructions. Or even that they wanted to remove Aaron from his role as High Priest, though the implication may be that they wanted at least parity with Aaron who, on appearance, received his appointment through nepotism.

How does Moses handle the protest? Initially by a technique with which we are all familiar through the behaviour of Donald Trump – by distraction. Moses insists that the issue is one of the right of access to God, not parity among Israelites or even priests. More significantly, Moses, when confronted by another pair of dissidents, suggests that the protesters are accusing him of corruption when they have said nothing about Moses taking money or bribes. Finally, Moses insists that they are not just complaining about Aaron’s supreme authority in matters of worship, but they are in rebellion against God. What appears initially as a claim about status and parity has now been characterized by Moses as a challenge to the authority of God Himself.

How is the matter settled? By a duel. By a duel of frying pans.

במדבר טז:ו זֹאת עֲשׂוּ קְחוּ לָכֶם מַחְתּוֹת… טז:זוּתְנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וְשִׂימוּ עֲלֵיהֶן קְטֹרֶת לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה מָחָר וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הוָה הוּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ… Num 16:6 Do this: take fire-pans… 16:7 and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before YHWH. Then the man whom YHWH chooses, he shall be the holy one…

Who wins? Moses. How? By the same fate that met Aaron’s two eldest sons when they erred in how the fire pans were to be used. Korach’s 250 other protesters were incinerated by a divine fire. The other challengers to Moses’ political performance, rather than opposition against a priestly hierarchy, (still to be described), were all swallowed up by the earth rather than incinerated. Yet Korach and his followers in asking for parity did not indicate that they were challenging Aaron’s (and his descendants’) exclusive right to use fire pans to burn incense before the Lord at the High Altar. Except perhaps by implication. For they were questioning Moses’ claim of exclusive access to the word of God and Aaron’s reciprocal exclusionary role in the human worship of that same God.

Questioning Moses’ and Aaron’s claims for exclusionary status became a high crime worthy of instant death. As a result, never again could a Levite, let alone an ordinary Israelite, challenge the authority of the High Priest. From then on, the Holy of Holies was even more off limits to other Levite priests as well as ordinary Israelites. The Levites would retain their exclusive duties regarding the Tent of Meeting, but only Aaron and his descendants, the High Priest among the priesthood, would be responsible for the furnishings of the Shrine and the altar. The other Levites were permanently demoted.

וְלֹא יִקְרְב֥וּ ע֛וֹד בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד לָשֵׂ֥את חֵ֖טְא לָמֽוּת: Henceforth, Israelites shall not trespass on the Tent of Meeting, and thus incur guilt and die.[18:22]

How and why did a democratically authorized complaint rise to treason worthy of capital punishment without any right of appeal? And, most interestingly, why was Korach not himself incinerated or swallowed up by the earth? After all, he led the protest. “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (17:32) All Korach’s people. And all their property. But not Korach himself.

But the text appears contradictory. For later it is written that Korach, though not incinerated, was swallowed up; instead of being consumed by fire instantly, he was buried alive. Further, his sons were excluded from this capital punishment. “Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach.” The fire consumed the two hundred and fifty men—and they became an example. “The sons of Korach, however, did not die.” (Numbers 26:10-12)

Deuteronomy (11:6) even suggests that Korach was not part of the rebellion even though he was a leader of the protest. For of the leadership, only Dathan and Abiram, sons of Reuben, were destroyed by burial. (See also Psalm 106) As was Korach. Numbers 17:5 states unequivocally that Korach did die in depicting the culmination of the duel of the frying pans that were to be hammered to decorate the high altar as a reminder of what happens to traitors, But the text does not say there how he died; it appears that he, unlike the other priests, unlike the eldest sons of Aaron who were consumed by fire, was swallowed up by the earth. So he, like Dathan and Abiram, was delivered to a dastardly death.

The text becomes even more confusing when the protest and consequence of Korach’s so called co-conspirators are described. Whereas Korach addressed Moses with the complaint, Dahlan and Abiram, Reubenites rather than Levites, with no complaints about parity in priestly duties, went further. After all, they were descendants of the first born. They would not even talk to Moses. They would not obey his summons. “Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (16:14)

Dahlan and Abiram also seemed more aware of the fate that awaited them as a result of the disagreement. And they seemed to be even more incensed at the extreme response to a verbal or a silent protest of civil disobedience than even the issue of status at the centre of the Korach dispute. Further, the problem was not simply that Moses as a leader had failed thus far to bring them to a land of milk and honey and/or had not settled them on farms or vineyards, (or, if you rely on the new criticism, that Moses indeed had taken them from the wilderness and settled them in a fertile land, but one that required strenuous farming labour as opposed to a land flowing with milk and honey), but that Moses was a tyrant in gouging out the eyes of protesters.

As a result, the Reubenites as a whole were not simply demoted as Reuben had once been; they ultimately disappeared as a tribe. Like their primal ancestor, Reuben, who had slept with Bilah, his father Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), the Reubenites now were also accused of usurping power and authority, though there is no evidence in the text that they did anything more than disobey, and not simply express their dissatisfaction with the state of events.

To the style and substance of the protest of the Reubenites, Moses was even far more defensive and much more deeply involved in the political art of distraction. Though Dahlan and Abiram never accused Moses of any crime, Moses proclaimed his innocence. He not only had never taken a bribe, but he had not asked for any support from the community to pay for his leadership. Like Trump, he never drew a salary. He had not so much as taken a donkey, the same defence that the Prophet Samuel offered in the Haftorah reading this past Shabat (I Samuel 12:3). Moses and Samuel both claimed that they had played a benign role and had not been either exploitive or self-interested.

What is going on? What was the high crime worthy of a punishment of death? And why the discrimination concerning the penalties meted out?

Before I turn to Korach as well as the protest of Dahlan and Abiram, I want to zero in on Moses’ behaviour more intensely. But it is first important to put forth the dominant interpretation of the text, namely, that Korach was a rebel deserving of punishment and that Moses, whatever his failings, was a blessed and great leader of his people. This is not a view restricted to the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox but is one shared by many if not most Reform interpreters.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow writes, “In Korach, we learn of a tribal leader who believes he is equal to – and is jealous of – Moses. The portion reminds us to look within and see where we are on the spectrum of humility and arrogance, and on the scale of selfishness and selflessness.” There is no reference in the text to Korach being motivated by jealousy. That is an interpolation. Korach does not believe he is equal to Moses, but does initiate a discussion of priestly parity rather than democratic politics, though the text makes clear that Korach observed democratic niceties and made sure that the 250 selected to join him were chosen by the assembly. Finally, by loading the dice in making the political issue one of psychology, and a narrow band at that, the comparison clearly seems, on the surface at least, to favour Moses over Korach.

“Arrogance is comparing yourself to other people, and humility is comparing yourself to yourself.” Korach does the former; Moses does the latter. Case closed! Dena Weiss, citing Rav Kook, insists that the political claim and the psychological portraits are linked.

Korach does not insist that he is the greatest. He does not even, in fact, compare himself to others except in the sense of asking for ritual parity – a religious-political rather than psychological claim. We are all equal before God. He offers an argument against superiority. Moses, though he fell on his face on hearing the petition, does not exhibit humility either, even in the sense of insisting that he is simply being true to himself. Instead, Moses proposes a duel, the duel of the frying pans, as a proof of who has been chosen by God as God’s messenger. Moses seems self-assured of victory.

“Korah’s claim is that Moshe and Aharon are monopolizing the available leadership roles in a way that is not justified. All of the people are holy and worthy of serving God, yet Moshe and Aharon are in the positions that are most prominent and most proximate to God. Moshe demonstrates that he and Aharon are both suited to their roles and chosen by God, and his response highlights what it is about his character that makes him so deserving. Moshe’s reaction teaches us what it means to truly serve God with wisdom and humility, whatever your role is and whatever your talents may be.

“Moshe never responds to Korah on Korah’s own terms. Korah wants Moshe to justify a claim that Moshe is better, but Moshe will not. Moshe’s concern is to demonstrate that he is intrinsically worthy. He devises a test to legitimate Aharon’s right to be the Kohen Gadol, by having all of the pretenders to the priesthood offer incense alongside Aharon. When God chooses Aharon in this test, the choice of Aharon will be vindicated.”

Weiss claims that the superiority of Moses is demonstrated by both his accomplishments and his humility in refusing to compare himself to Korach. Instead, Moses “shows the importance of holding oneself to an absolute standard. He isn’t less corrupt than other politicians; he is simply not corrupt. He isn’t better than his competition; he is just objectively good. He looks only at his own behavior and evaluates it on its own terms.”

However, Weiss does admit that the examples Moses offers are both underwhelming and strange. What does a claim of non-corruption have to do with Korach’s request that equality among priests be discussed? Is Moses like Trump, making a claim that he is already so wealthy he does not need to be corrupt? Further, to be wealthy is to prove yourself worthy. However, a statement about one’s wealth is inherently comparative, undermining the claim of humility based on a refusal to engage in comparison. But, the rebuttal goes: the issue of wealth or poverty, humility of character rather than humility of circumstances, is what counts. The latter is relational and situational. The former is absolute.

“(T)he humility of someone who is weak, impoverished, and unlettered can’t be compared to the humility of one who is strong, wealthy, smart, and even tall. For the first one’s humility comes to him naturally on account of his lowliness, whereas for the second, his soul’s advantages and his own talents awaken a spirit of arrogance in him and inspire him to step on the heads of the people beneath him.”

Trump, on the other hand, is both a man of great wealth but not the least bit modest. Moses, in comparison, is a model of humility, not because he believes he is undeserving or has accomplished little, but because he measures himself against an absolute standard. Is he the best he could be in his own eyes? In God’s eyes?

Does the text support the claim that this is really not a political battle but a clash about virtue, a fight between the merits of arrogant leadership, even if rooted in popular support, versus “true” modesty even if running against popular will?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Fauda

What have I been doing binging on watching 24 episodes of the Israeli hit Fauda from its first two seasons? A third season is scheduled to come out in 2019. I had vowed to watch only those series with at most 6 (though one time it was 8) episodes. I did not like getting hooked. I have clearly broken my promise to myself. (When I read about the show online, I learned that I am not the only one.)

One explanation I offer is that I initially thought that it was an 8-episode series in one season because, unless you scrolled down, only the titles of 8 episodes appeared on the TV screen. I soon learned otherwise – there were 12 episodes. And there were two seasons. But I kept watching.

In March of this year, this original Israeli production of this action thriller, now on Netflix, swept 11 Israeli awards. For 2016, the show, which initially debuted in 2015, won six prizes at the Israeli Academy Awards; the excellent acting, script, plot and settings partially explain why I kept watching. The New York Times declared the show the best international series in 2017 and 2018.

I was certainly not entranced because of the dubbing of the Hebrew into English. Though not badly done, I generally find dubbing too annoying. This happened when I watched Berlin Babylon. I simply quit after 3 episodes. But most (evidently 70%) of the conversation of Fauda is in Arabic with English subtitles; that is one relief. Further, I learned that I could watch in the original Hebrew plus subtitles if I followed the following procedure:

  • You should get to the Fauda show on Netflix and press the icon
  • You will see at the bottom left “Audio and subtitles”
  • Scroll down and press enter:
  • Check English on the subtitle and scroll down and check Hebrew on the Audio.

These very simple instructions were too difficult for me and I simply watched the few remaining shows in the dubbed format. That alone is an indication of how compelling I found the series.

Another explanation for my compulsion in watching a terrorist and counter-terrorist thriller was because of its psychological and political realism. That is because Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, who wrote the script, both served in the elite IDF’s Duvdevan Counter-Terrorism Unit. (In Hebrew, duvdevan means cherry and the unit is considered the crème de la crème.) While all special units of the IDF of necessity are intelligence gathering operations, unlike the Israeli Seals (S-13), the Air Force 669 unit and the Yamam police unit, which are dedicated to hostage rescue, Duvdevan focuses on infiltration, and intense and aggressive actions. Unlike the Yamas undercover police unit, Dudevan does not concentrate on ambushes.

Formed in 1987 to handle the first Palestinian Intifada in which 160 Israelis were killed, Duvdevan was an undercover unit made up of soldiers who spoke fluent Arabic, had mastered Arab and Muslim practices and habits, and was capable of rapid, efficient and effective counter-terrorist interventions and undercover operations against Palestinian militants and terrorists who worked from bases in the crowded urban centres of Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah, Khan Junis, Jabalia and Hebron. Most of the episodes were shot in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim. In the series, the unit is simply called the Mistaravim or undercover unit engaged in hit-and-run operations on a daily basis, though the first 12 episodes were actually shot during an actual war – Operation Protective Edge. However, these special forces form a counter-terrorism rather than combat unit ready for deployment in war.

The work the unit is engaged in makes for great drama that is both exciting and very dangerous, but the series also concentrates on the personal and psychological costs to the members of the unit. In the episodes, the members of the unit are not just action figures; they have troubled lives, much of that trouble having to do with the work they do.

But the realism of the show comes even more powerfully from the way that the Palestinian security forces, the Hamas units and the ISIS terrorists are portrayed. They too have rich personal lives and are not just stick figures. The series humanizes the combatants on both sides, even though both sides are mostly engaged in inhumane practices. The realism is also enhanced by the range of weapons and their accurate use – Glock pistols, micro-Uzis (compact and concealable), SIG-Sauer 228 9mm pistols and M16s for backup. There is the usual RBT (Reality-Based-Training) involving boxing and martial arts and getting beaten up by your own unit commanders and fellow members to toughen up a member of the unit. Lior Raz also plays Doron, the main character in the series.

In real life, in January 2008, the unit assassinated a major Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank; the storyline borrows from real life events in creating the fictional narrative, sometimes suggested by the dedications. I believe the role of Taufiq Hammed (Hisham Sulliman) at the beginning of the series, where Taufiq is called Abu Ahmad and nicknamed “the panther,” was based partially on the life and death of a real terrorist.

If Abu Ahmad was a thorough professional terrorist, two Palestinians are portrayed as villains. Walid Al Abed (Shadi Mar’l), who begins as a twenty-year-old toady to Abu Ahmad, emerges as a combination of childish infantilism and ruthless killer. Whatever his pathological mixture of jealousy, suspicion and devotion to murder, and whatever his faults before he is killed, he cannot be compared to the psychopathic very handsome and very urbane Nidal “El Makdessi” (played brilliantly by Firas Nassar), an ISIS terrorist fanatic.

A source of the power of the film is that the Palestinian side has a much wider range of characters, from Bedouin friends of the Jews to co-operative Palestinian security commanders to various stripes of terrorist. But the variety of Palestinian women are almost more intriguing than the men, especially Dr. Shirin El Abed (eeed them yesterday. Today, I am tempted. The main problem is not simply tiredness, but I have difficulty rai Walid’s cousin and eventual wife, but also Doron’s mistress. It is usually the women who infuse both sides with the bounty of humanity, even the one woman in the undercover unit, Nurit (Rona-Lee Shim’on). Though capable of killing, she breaks into tears when she has to watch captives being tortured.

The pattern of each episode is also unusual since each one generally starts with a striking and very violent incident. Instead of being the violent culmination of a series of actions, the opening serves as the base from which the psychological dimensions of the conflict are exposed. This is not a series about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the internal, interpersonal and group tensions that arise in such conflicts. For the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians is matched within each side by rivalries, and, on the Palestinian side, also by ideology that simply makes the Israeli-Palestinian struggle only a small part of the drama.

Fauda translates as “chaos”, but the story is not about chaos in any ordinary meaning of the term since, on both sides, there is a very high degree of organization, discipline and order. The plot may become confusing at times because of the large cast of characters, but the drama itself is very focused, the message always given to the unit when they head out for an assignment. “Keep focused.” I would have preferred the title, “Tit-For-Tat,” or even “Tit Tit for Tat,” for the running motif is blood for blood, brother shot, brother-in-law killed, father shot, the other father killed. It may seem endless, but there is a positive note that runs through the series.

And this is the ultimate reality. This week alone, the IDF retaliated in Gaza against terrorist rocket fire and the Israeli Air Force pummeled nine Hamas targets. By mid-week, Israel’s Shin Bet Security Agency thwarted a mass bombing of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv targets by capturing the conspirators. The series is reality.

In the 1960s, I first met Anatol Rapoport through his wife Gwen at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour. Subsequently, in 1970 his family moved to the Wychwood Park neighbourhood in Toronto to ensure his children would not have to serve in the Vietnam War. My youngest daughter, and Gwen and Anatol’s son, Tony, became romantically involved as teenagers. Anatol, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto (as well as a brilliant pianist), was a mathematician who invented, in collaboration with Ken Boulding and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, general systems theory, known in its popular form as game theory. The simple Tit-For-Tat game provided enormous insight then into the Soviet-American rivalry at the time and forms the foundation of the Fauda series.

Fauda is a case study of Rapoport’s insights into fights, violence, war and peace. Anatol’s entry into the 1980s computer competition on Tit-For-Tat had only four lines of code. The program begins with cooperation between opponents, similar to the cooperation between Captain Gabi Ayub (Itzik Cohen) of the IDF and Abu Maher (Qader Harini) head of the Palestinian Authority’s Security Service. Tit-For-Tat is not just about revenge, about blood for blood. It is also about how positive reciprocal behaviour begets positive behaviour from the other side. But when one side defects from that cooperation, mayhem breaks out. Players on each side are rewarded for cooperation whether with the other side or with other members of one’s own team. Players when they shift into selfishness are sanctioned by punishment from the other side or rivals within and among one’s own side.

That is the base line real power of the series. In all its aspects, it explores the various dimensions of Tit-For-Tat game theory. When behaviour becomes self-centred, as it does even for Doron, the results can be catastrophic, perhaps nowhere more than when Doron turns against his Palestinian mistress when his own father is killed by terrorists. Blood feuds are perhaps the most basic part of the negative side of game theory, even though game theory also provides insights into the establishment of cooperation. And contrary to many who have watched the series, I do not believe the message is that the conflict is intractable. (My highly respected colleague Derek Penslar holds such a view, substantiated because Fauda shows that Israel has become part of the Middle East.)

One side implication was Rapoport’s work on social network analysis. The speedy flow of information through social networks is crucial to effective cooperative action allowing both the diffusion of innovation as well as the epidemic of contamination to flow through social organizations and work either creatively or destructively. Just as the Vietnam War was a war that neither side could win, though North Vietnam emerged initially as the ostensible victor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that neither side can ultimately win even though Israel is clearly the victor at this time.

To remain victorious Israel will have to reward the Palestinian Authority for its cooperation while, at the same time, punishing those who undermine that potential through violence. To the extent it fails to do so, to that extent will divisions and bad blood be created among the members of its own side, let alone between Israel and the Palestinians. The Tit-For-Tat format, however depressing in most instances, is also uplifting in that there is both a demonstration of cooperation as well as conflict between the two sides and among the members of each side.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman