Ishmael & Israel's Existential Test

Our reoccupation of our own land cannot be called theft by anyone who supports the Jewish right to exist as a separate, distinct people.

by Rabbi Noson Weisz


Jewish history is dramatically distinct from the history of other peoples. It has an aspect of inevitability. Whereas the histories of other nations can only be written after events unfold; indeed, the very meaning of the word history is the study of the past, Jewish history has the unique distinction of having been written by the Torah before it ever happened.

In the master plan of Jewish history as set forth in the Torah, the period we are currently experiencing is known as the "labor pains" associated with the birth of the Messiah. The non-Jewish prophet Bilaam's cry of anguish -- "Alas! Who can survive God's devastation " (Numbers 24:23)-- was a specific reference to our era. Jews have certainly never experienced a century so full of suffering.

The Zohar points out (1:119a) that this devastating era of Jewish history is specifically associated with the struggle over Jerusalem with the nations led by the descendants of Ishmael (i.e. the Arabs).

What is the association between the labor pains of the Messiah, the devastation associated with it, and how all this relates to the descendants of Ishmael?

The key lies in our understanding of the purpose of exile.


Rabbi Dessler explains that every exile has to be viewed as an existential test whose successful survival automatically corrects a basic flaw in the Jewish sense of identity and self-awareness. If there was no such character flaw, or if it was corrected internally by Jews themselves, the exile would be superfluous. In this sense, every exile is associated with sin.

But the goal of exile is positive, and it represents a very powerful existential corrective tool. It is precisely because of this correlation between exile and Jewish character development that the Torah was able to write Jewish history in advance.

Every exile exerts a powerful pressure to assimilate on the Jewish people -- and herein is where the test lies.

Objectively, there is never any justification for persecuting Jews. They look the same as other people physically, and they are often the most productive social group in relation to their numbers. We have only to think of the disproportionate numbers of Jewish Nobel prize winners, authors, doctors etc. Thus it always appears to the Jew that his problems stem from the fact that he is perceived as different. Assimilation is always the logical solution to the problem of exile.

If the Jew nevertheless resists the temptation to assimilate, it is only due to the fact that he decides that to be Jewish is fundamental to his being. If the solution to his persecution problem is the voluntary surrender of his Judaism, it is too high a price to pay. The resistance of the temptation to assimilate that is presented by exile thus existentially reinforces his commitment to his Judaism.

Let us now attempt to apply Rabbi Dessler's theory of exile to our own particular era. To do so, we must familiarize ourselves with Ishmael and understand what sort of temptation to assimilate is associated with the exile he imposes on us.


Abraham and Sarah were a childless couple. Sarah had an Egyptian maid Hagar whom she presented to Abraham as a concubine so that Hagar might bear a child that they could raise.

When Hagar became pregnant, she understood this as an elevation in her status and was no longer willing to be subservient to Sarah. Sarah reasserted her authority over Hagar by treating her quite harshly. Hagar ran away.

God sent an angel to persuade Hagar to return. The angel advised her that she would bear a son, Ishmael, who would be a great power in the world. In describing his greatness the angel said:

Rashi explains this concept of "hand against everyone" as a reference to theft -- Ishmael will have a predilection to theft (Tanchuma, Exodus 1).

The association of Ishmael with theft crops up again:

How can we understand this? Surely the law of Ishmael prohibits theft, as this law is a part of the criminal code of all civilized nations! Indeed, Moslem religious law treats thieves with exceptional severity. Why would the commandment against stealing prevent Ishmael from being able to accept the Torah? How can theft be considered a source of "blessing"?

To answer these questions, we must understand the concept of theft in a much broader context, totally unrelated to the act of stealing.


Ishmael was Abraham's son. Abraham's chief character trait was the pursuit of benevolence. He went around the world teaching that God is endlessly benevolent and good and is the source of all blessing in the world. God does not practice benevolence as a response to human behavior, He simply does good because He is good. The world is founded on pure benevolence. (Psalms 83:3)

Of course, there is another side to this teaching as well. Abraham went on to say that the essence of this good that God doles out for no return is the provision of an opportunity. God offers man the opportunity to attain true good by perfecting himself spiritually through his own efforts and elevating himself to the point that he earns the right to become attached to God.

When one internalizes the complete message Abraham delivered to the world, he realizes that God's great goodness really amounts to a challenge: to take advantage of the opportunity provided by God's infinite goodness to earn his reward through his achievements. The world may have been founded on pure benevolence, but it was intended to end in pure justice.

Ishmael internalized only the first half of Abraham's message. He was more than ready to be the recipient of God's infinite goodness, but was not prepared to take up the challenge attached.

In Ishmael's view, man inhabits a world where God supplies everything without the expectation of any sort of return. In such a world where God supplies everything out of pure benevolence even when it is unearned, the relationship between work and ownership simply breaks down. When all human beings are given everything they have as a matter of benevolence, theft does not stand out as a great moral evil. After all, as no one needs to earn anything, no one is deserving of anything. Need, not right, becomes the central moral standard. Thieves are generally needier than their victims. Their need supplies them with the moral right to steal.


In all the wars Israel has had with Ishmael since the reestablishment of the Jewish state, the fear of losing was never a major source of anxiety for the Arab side. The Arabs could never be seriously harmed by defeat as they would always enjoy the protection of the international community. Whenever the Arabs started to lose too badly on the field of battle, the international community could be relied upon to spring to their aid and impose a cease-fire.

War for the Arab nations was always a win-win proposition. If they won well and good, and even if they appeared to lose the war, they would still have managed to weaken Israel's determination and commitment to hang on to its territory by inflicting casualties without substantial risk to themselves. From the Arab standpoint, perhaps the major aim in all these wars was to drive home to the Jewish people the message that hanging on to Israel would always involve the high price of willingness to shed Jewish blood.

The Arabs that engage in terrorism do so with impunity for the same reason. After all, there is never any fear of massive retaliation. They understand full well that Jews will not deliberately set out to slaughter innocent people. They can keep testing Jewish resolve indefinitely by spilling Jewish blood, free of the threat of retaliation against their own civilian population.

The ability to harm others without needing to consider the logical consequences of one's actions is the essence of theft.

Every thief applies a standard of behavior towards others that he would never allow to be applied to himself. But he believes that he won't be caught. Thus the character of the thief rests on two axioms:

The Arab policy toward Israel is built on the same two axioms. They need the land and feel they are morally justified in inflicting any sort of harm in order to get it. They will never have to face the consequences of inflicting such harm.

This is the blessing the Arabs inherited from Ishmael. They succeed without the need to apply effort; it doesn't take a great deal of effort to engage in wars with little concern about losing them, or to use terrorism against innocent defenseless civilians. For this lack of effort or achievement, they reap the reward of world approval even as they engage in behavior that is abhorrent to all men. Others that would resort to these tactics would get nowhere. The descendants of Ishmael bask in the sun.

Even their strategic importance to the world stems from the oil that lies under their soil, not from anything they produce by the sweat of their brow or the genius of their ideas. In short, the success that Ishmael's descendants enjoy is not due to any sort of achievement of theirs. They truly live in a world of pure benevolence.


But what is the existential test to the Jews that is provided by this situation, this exile?

The very first Rashi commentary in Genesis supplies the key to the answer:

The mind boggles at Rashi's prophetic genius. Writing in the darkest gloom of the Middle Ages, when the idea of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel was an impossible pipe dream, he foresaw the burning dilemma of the Jewish people in the 21st century.

For that is precisely our problem. The fact that the world regards us as interlopers in our own country is to be expected given the way we have been regarded by the nations throughout history.

The shocking phenomenon of our era is that a large part of the Jewish people is sympathetic to this view.


The existential problem we face as a people is precisely this. Do we have a right to be here in Israel or are we thieves who have stolen someone else's land and justified our theft on the basis of our need?

If we do have such a right and it is our land, than we should be able to solve our problem. We certainly have sufficient military might and economic clout to suppress the Palestinian opposition to our presence here. What we do not have is the inner belief in the justice of our cause.

Many of us have bought the Arab message that we have actually stolen this land and really do not have the right to be here at all. Lacking the clear sense of being in the right we are much too ready to give away large parts of our tiny territory for absolutely no return. As we don't feel easy about the possession of our own land our posture is much too defensive. Only when the immediate rescue of Jewish lives requires the application of force do we feel entitled to apply any of our might and even then only in precisely measured amounts. This uncertainty about the moral right to be in our own land is the real source of our anguish and is the focal point of this particular exile.

The existential test of the exile we are undergoing is directed at the entire Jewish people. To successfully meet this test we must have the information at our disposal that demonstrates conclusively our right to be here. What information is there at the disposal of the entire Jewish people that could help it to know that it did not steal the land of Israel from the Arabs?

There is no doubt that Israel was the Jewish homeland at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. There is no doubt that we were driven out of it by force. Josephus Flavius, and other Roman and Greek historians, whose writings form the basis of everything we know about the ancient world, testify to the truth of both these propositions. The usurpers who settled here did so at their own risk. We always said that we would be back. We are not thieves.

But our right to Israel is based not only on local factors. Let us look at the broader picture presented by Jewish history in this context as well.

For two thousand years we wandered about the world and no nation was willing to provide us with more than a temporary home. We were repeatedly expelled from almost every "civilized" country we were ever in. We were tortured, oppressed, and persecuted. When the world finally seemed to change in 1848 -- and we gained emancipation -- this freedom also proved to be short lived.

Within less than a hundred years we were slaughtered once again by the millions. Those who sought to escape from the jaws of the murderers were refused asylum by all the "civilized" nations of the world. No one wanted to face inundation by Jewish refugees in large numbers.


Therefore, if we have no right to live in Israel, than we Jews effectively have no right to live anywhere as Jews at all. History amply demonstrates that we have nowhere else to go.

Our right to Israel is equivalent to our right to survive. Our reoccupation of our own land cannot be called theft by anyone who supports the Jewish right to exist as a separate, distinct people.


If, in spite of such knowledge, many Jews still doubt their right to Israel, that means they doubt their right of continued existence as a distinct people. The only option to a Jewish country is to disappear as Jews altogether in the melting pot of the other nations.

This is the essence of the existential test we face. We must fight for the right to survive as Jews. To want to fight, we must desire to survive. To desire to survive we must believe in our own uniqueness to an extent that makes the self-sacrifice required for survival seem worthwhile. Many of us are tempted to say it just isn't worth the price.

To successfully pass this test we must face it properly without false illusions. We must appreciate that the opposing power is Ishmael. He is not a person who will sit with us to negotiate peace so that he can get on with his work and earn his right to an independent country. He is waiting for Israel to be handed to him by the international community on a silver platter.


Ishmael is threatening to accomplish the most incredible turn of the tables in human history. The thief is attempting to persuade his intended victim that he is morally wrong for not giving him voluntarily the asset that that he wants to steal. He has managed to make a considerable number of Jews feel that it is an act of theft to hang on to what rightfully belongs to them.

Ishmael's strength lies in his ability to think well of himself in the face of the paucity of his real achievements. He is entitled, and God and the nations must supply his needs out of pure benevolence. There is no point of weakness where crippling self-doubt can enter.

When Ishmael looks closely at us Jews he finds himself looking at a nation who is unsure of its right to be at all. He sees through the fašade of Israel's great military might and the genius of its high-tech. Achievements only give strength to a people who take pride in being who they are. They are not substitutes for a sense of self.

Ishmael is unimpressed by the enormity of Jewish achievements. Only self-confidence impresses him. The only way to defeat him is by being proud of who we are and asserting our basic human right to resist the thief and protect our hard-earned property. We, the Jewish people have to apologize to no one. We have never stolen anything from anyone.