The entire Book of Deuteronomy serves as the instruction manual for the Land of Israel. It is Moshe’s desperate yearning to enter the good Land, and his passionate exhortation to his beloved nation to keep loyal to G-d and to His Torah so that they would inherit the Land and merit to bequeath it to their children.
In this week's Torah portion, in Parashat Re’eh, Moshe tells the people:
“When Hashem you G-d will cut off the nations to whom you are coming to inherit them from before you – and you will inherit them! – and you will dwell in their Land, guard yourself that you not be entrapped to copy them…” (Deuteronomy 12:29-30).
Writing in 1936, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, the then-Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, referred to this as “distinctiveness in worship”, and expounded:
“Not only in regard to the place of sacrifice, but in regard to the mode of Divine Worship, shall the Israelites be distinguished from their heathen neighbours. Israel shall especially beware of the hideous abominations – such as human sacrifice – that accompany their worship”.
Moshe continues by warning against emulating the abominations of the Canaanite religions, exhorting us “not to enquire about their gods, saying: How did these nations worship their gods? – Then I will do the same! You shall not do this to Hashem your G-d, because they did to their gods every abomination which Hashem hates; they would even burn their own sons and daughters in fire to their gods!” (Deuteronomy 12:30-31).
Rabbi Hertz continues by expounding:
“‘Every abomination’ – it was the immorality and inhumanity of Canaanite religion that rendered it abominable in the eyes of G-d, and imposed upon the Israelites the duty of exterminating it”.
And then Rabbi Hertz examines the phrase that “they would even burn their own sons and daughters”:
“Human sacrifice was the practice among the primeval Greeks and Romans, Celts, Slavs, and Scandinavians. It was in use among the Germans down to late Roman times; and was widespread among the ancient Semites, especially in times of national danger or disaster”.
This helps us understand why the Torah devotes so much time to excoriating a practice which to us seems so horrendous that no normal person could even contemplate it. Yet it was common practice in the ancient world: it was Judaism that was the “aberration” for opposing this obscenity.
Rabbi Hertz continues with an exposition which is well-worth citing at length:
“Israel’s fight against this horrible aberration of the religious sense began with the story of the sacrifice of Isaac [Genesis 22], and was continued throughout the centuries.
“It is one of the bitter ironies of history, that the one People which for a thousand years fought this horror, and whose religion forbids its followers the eating of any blood in the most rigorous way, should itself have to suffer the libellous accusation of ritual murder and the use of human blood for religious purposes.
“Even in the twentieth century, this foul and satanic lie was officially levelled against Israel in the Beilis trial in Kiev in 1913 [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menahem_Mendel_Beilis ]; and only last year [in 1935] it was broadcast by Nazi leaders in their campaign of ruin against the Jewish population of Germany. In regard to the Nazi resurrection of the fable of ritual murder, it is well to recall that in 1912 no less than 215 non-Jewish leaders in German public life, learning, literature, theology, science, and the arts, issued a protest against this cruel and utterly baseless libel on Judaism. They wrote:
“‘This unscrupulous fiction, spread among the people, has from the Middle Ages until recent times led to terrible consequences. It has incited the ignorant masses to outrage and massacre, and has driven misguided crowds to pollute themselves with the innocent blood of their Jewish fellow-men. And yet not a shadow of proof has ever been adduced to justify this crazy belief’”.
Such were the concerns facing Jewry 85 years ago: the charge of the blood libel, the heinous obscenity which the Torah forbids and indeed declares uncompromising war against – and which ghastly charge was levelled against the Jews countless times in countless countries.
The canard of the blood libel has largely faded away in the last couple of generations – particularly since the Shoah. It is no longer generally considered politically correct or socially acceptable, except in certain of the more fanatical Islamic societies (see for example https://www.adl.org/blog/blood-libel-broadcast-across-arab-world-new-arabic-translation-of-talmud-cited and https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/classic-blood-libel-against-jews-goes-mainstream-iran ), to accuse the Jews of using Christian babies’ blood to bake our Pesach matzos.
Nevertheless, this particular obscenity has been used by Israel-haters, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, even in recent years.
One remembers for example the Israeli poet (and Professor of Literature) Yitzchak La’or, who in 1982 wrote his notorious poem הִמְנוֹן לַגּוּשׁ (“Anthem of the Bloc”), referring both to Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), the right-wing religious organisation which pioneered the Jewish return to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza after the Six Day War, and also to Gush Etziyon, the bloc of Jewish villages in the Judean hills:
אֲנַחְנוּ כִּפּוֹת סְרוּגוֹת
וְאֶת [...] יוֹם חַג הַמַּצּוֹת הַזֶּה [...] נַחוֹג בְּהִתְכַּוְנוּת
וּבְמַצּוֹתֵינוּ דַּם נְעָרִים פַּלֶשְׂתִנַיִם...
“We are the knitted-kippah…,
And we will celebrate this the Festival of Matzot…with fervour,
And in our matzot is the blood of Palestinian children…”.
Now it is of course an open question whether the more fanatical Israel-haters really believe this obscenity that Jews (in La’or’s blood libel, specifically the “settlers”) bake gentiles’ blood into their Pesach matzot, whether it is an allegory or if they are aware that it is but a propaganda lie.
But in any event, this ancient Jew-hate lie hereby elides very naturally into the latest anti-Jewish propaganda lie: the lie that Jews are foreign interlopers and illegal colonialists in their own country.
The lie that Israel is an illegitimate “colonialist” enterprise.
Less than two weeks ago we marked the ninth of Av, the most tragic day in our calendar: the day that both our Holy Temples were destroyed, the first by Babylon and the second by Rome; the day that foreign imperialists, one from the east and one from the west, invaded our country and began forcing our ancestors into exile; the day that the Roman Empire finally crushed the last and the greatest Jewish revolt in the year 135.
Since that day 1,886 years ago, even under foreign occupation, the Jewish nation continued developing its civilisation in the Land of Israel.
It was in Israel that Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi (meaning Head of the Sanhedrin) compiled the Mishnah in the year 200.
It was in Israel in the first century that the great Tanna Yonatan ben Uzziel, one of the greatest of Hillel’s disciples, translated the Torah and most of the Prophets into Aramaic, an interpretative translation which is authoritative until today, universally revered as the Targum Yonatan.
It was in Israel, even under harsh and oppressive Roman occupation and persecution, that the Tanna Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha composed the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, a Midrashic (homiletic) exposition on part of the Book of Exodus in the early 2nd century.
About the same time, also in Israel, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay composed the Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay, a parallel work.
It was in Israel that generations of Rabbis composed the Midrash Rabbah, homiletic and historical expositions on the Torah and on the Five Scrolls, from the 5th to the 10th centuries, writing this central column of Jewish theology under Roman, Sassanid (Persian), Byzantine, and Arabian Muslim occupation.
It was in Israel that most of the Rabbis who are quoted in the Talmud lived and studied and taught and preached.
It was in Israel in the mid-8th century that an anonymous Master wrote the Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, a Midrash Aggadah (homiletic commentary) expounding on Proverbs 30:1-3.
In the millennia since Rome destroyed the Jewish Kingdom, no nation has ever succeeded in settling our Land. No other culture, no other religion, no other nation ever established itself as sovereign in Israel; no one else built anything of lasting value; no one else developed a national identity in Israel.
Settler-colonists of dozens of ethnicities have come and gone:
Romans, Persian Sassanids (who conquered Israel from the Romans in 614), Byzantines (628), Arabian Muslims (633), Turkish Muslims (878), Baghdadi (Babylonian) Muslims (904), Carmathians (906), Egyptian Muslims, both Ikhshidi Princes (934) and Fatimid Caliphs (969), Seljuq Turks (1070), European Christian Crusaders (1099), Syrian Kurdish Saracens, commanded by Sallah al-Din (Saladin) (1187), Kharezmians (1244), Egyptian Muslims, this time Mamluk Sultans (1260), Mongols (1260), Ottoman Turkish Muslims (1517), France (1799), Britain (1917), to name just the main invaders and conquerors –
– all came and went, all tried to establish themselves in Israel, and all failed.
The historical fact (contrary to the ubiquitous barrage of anti-Israel propaganda) is that ever since the Romans conquered Israel, no nation has ever succeeded in settling our Land. For 17 centuries the Land lay barren, always a dreary and dismal outpost of someone else’s empire, sparsely populated by peasants barely able to rise above the most meagre subsistence farming.
Until the Jews, the true Children of Israel, returned. And then the Land flourished for the first time since the Roman conquest.
And now, bereft of other canards to hurl at the Jews, we are now confronted with the latest outrage: that the Jews in Israel are somehow occupying another nation’s land.
Somehow the Arabian Muslim settler-colonists who came from a distant country and imposed a foreign language, a foreign culture, and a foreign religion on Israel, have the temerity to claim that they are “indigenous” to Israel and that the Jews are the foreign invaders!
And even more galling: all those nations which expended so many resources desperately trying to colonise Israel – those self-same nations now collaborate with the Arabian Muslim colonisers in their attempts to deny Jewish history in Israel.
But ultimately, all the fulminations of the hostile nations are irrelevant. The Haftarah for Parashat Re’eh is the third of the שֶׁבַע דְּנֶחֱמָתָא, the seven Haftarot of Consolation which follow the Three Weeks of mourning for our lost homeland.
In this Haftarah, the Prophet assures us:
“No weapon brandished against you will succeed, and every tongue that will rise judgementally against you, you will condemn; such is the heritage of Hashem’s servants, their righteousness being from Me, says Hashem” (Isaiah 54:17).
“The fulfilment of this promise”, notes Rabbi Joseph Hertz, “is dependent on Israel’s right choice in regard to the Two Ways, ‘Behold! – I set before you this day a blessing and a curse’, with which the Sidrah opens”.
Rabbi Hertz wrote these words in 1936, at a time when “the fulfilment of this promise” seemed but a dream. A prophecy of an impossibly distant future maybe, a tiny sliver of faith for the dreamers of the ghetto desperately to cling to in times of despair.
Today it is our living reality.
If in the past the lies they told about us cost the lives of uncountable millions of Jews throughout the dark centuries, the lies which we confront today are mere pinpricks – if that.
Because today those weapons brandished against us, those tongues that rise judgementally against us, whether from Britain, the USA, Europe, or anywhere else, whether from hostile governments or hostile ice-cream manufacturers or random strangers in the streets – if they have any affect or influence at all, it is solely to spur yet more Jews to make Aliyah, to leave exile behind, and to come home to Israel.
And that will make both every individual Jews and Israel stronger yet.
Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.