By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Israel’s Current Treatment of Israeli-Arabs
During the year 5781 (2021), Parashat Beha’alotekha happens to be read shortly after a cease-fire was signed in what is referred to as the “Gaza War” of that year.
The term “Gaza War,” however, is misleading. The fact that overt military hostilities were discontinued as the result of a cease-fire agreement is more indicative of the real situation: the Gaza Battle of 5781 (2021) was concluded when both sides agreed to stop openly shooting at each other – hence the “cease-fire” agreement – the war, however, rages on.
Predictably, those who oppose Medinat Yisra’el (the State of Israel) have used the Gaza Battle of 5781 to reassert charges that Medinat Yisra’el, as evidenced by its conduct toward Arabs who live in Gaza, Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem, and other parts of Medinat Yisra’el, is a racist and apartheid state.
The term “racist” is defined as “prejudice against or antagonistism toward a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.” Oxford Languages English dictionary (Google).
“Apartheid” means “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.” Id. The term “apartheid” often implicitly refers to policies that were formerly in effect in South Africa.
Currently, in Medinat Yisra’el, Arabs (and all other ethnic groups and minorities) enjoy equal political and personal rights. Arabs who are citizens of Medinat Yisra’el can vote and, indeed, some are even members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament). Furthermore, not only do Israeli-Arabs enjoy equality under the law, they are, as a practical matter, often given special, favorable, treatment by the police, prosecutors, and courts, who fail to investigate, prosecute, and punish crimes committed by Arabs against Jews as zealously as they do when a Jew perpetrates a crime against an Arab. Thus, the treatment by Medinat Yisra’el of Israeli-Arabs cannot reasonably be said to be prejudiced or antagonistic based on their membership in a racial or ethnic group. Likewise, although there are geographic areas of Medinat Yisra’el which are considered Jewish, Arab, and “mixed,” any segregation that might exist is voluntary in nature, that is, not imposed by government.
Regarding Gaza, Medinat Yisra’el “disengaged” from that portion of Medinat Yisra’el in 2005, by removing all Jews from Gaza and by withdrawing all direct governmental controls over Gaza. Medinat Yisra’el, however, maintains control over the air and maritime space of Gaza and has reserved the legal right to reenter Gaza with its military. Gaza is also dependent on Medinat Yisra’el for its water, electricity, telecommunications, and other utilities.
Although Gaza is not a nation-state, and is not recognized by Medinat Yisra’el or the international community to be a nation-state, the Arab residents of Gaza have established a de facto Arab government in Gaza, which in turn has adopted its own flag and which maintains its own military. Although the Arab residents of Gaza do not enjoy the privileges of Israeli citizenship or residency, that circumstance is the result of Arab choice and was not imposed upon Gazan Arabs by Medinat Yisra’el. Thus, as with the Arabs who reside in other parts of Medinat Yisra’el, the treatment by Medinat Yisra’el of Gazan Arabs cannot reasonably be said to be prejudiced or antagonistic based on their membership in a racial or ethnic group. Any so-called “segregation” of Gazan Arabs from the rest of Israeli society is wholly attributable to Gazan Arabs, who in 2005 decided that they wanted to segregate themselves from the rest of Israeli society.
Thus, we see that the current conduct of Medinat Yisra’el toward its Arab citizens and residents, whether those persons reside in Jerusalem or Gaza, is neither “racist” nor “apartheid.”
Halachic Treatment of Israeli-Arabs
Medinat Yisra’el, being a self-described Jewish state, the only one in the world, could, however, change course and decide that it will follow the commands of the Torah and Halacha (Jewish Law). That is, Medinat Yisra’el could exercise sovereignty over the entirety of that portion of Eretz Yisra’el which currently is under Jewish control and expel all non-Jewish inhabitants who claim a right to the Land which is superior to that of the Jewish people. In other words, Medinat Yisra’el could assert its sovereign rights over Gaza (as well as Judea and Samaria) and expel all non-Jewish Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el.
The question, then, is whether such a course of conduct would be racist or apartheid.
If Medinat Yisra’el were to expel all Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el, it would be doing so not because they are Arab, but rather, because they are not Jewish. Thus, an expulsion of Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el would not be racist because such expulsion would not be based on prejudice against or antagonistism toward non-Jewish Arabs on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group – Arabs – but rather, would be based on their lack of membership in a different group, the group identified as persons who are “Jewish.”
At this point it is important to point out two critical facts. First, “racism” is a form of discrimination, but not all discrimination is racist. For example, when a person decides to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt, he is discriminating against the red shirt and discriminating in favor of the blue shirt. This would constitute benign, non-racist discrimination.
Second, there is a two-prong test to determine whether a policy or action is racist. The first prong is whether the policy or action is based on prejudice or antagonism; the second prong is whether such prejudice or antagonism is directed against a racial or ethnic group.
The reason for the second-prong – the racial or ethnic group prong – is that membership in a racial or ethnic group is immutable, that is, it cannot be changed. A person who is Black may not choose to become White; a person who is Hispanic may not choose to become Asian; and so forth. This is why discrimination based on an immutable racial or ethnic characteristic is reprehensible.
We learn in Parashat Beha’alotekha that “Moshe said to Hobab, son of Re’u’el, the Midyanite, Moshe’s father-in-law. . . .” Bamidbar 10:29. Nachmanides explains that the name “Hobab” was the name Yitro took when he converted to Judaism, stating that “such is the way of all proselytes, ‘for HaShem calls His servants by another name.’” Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Bamidbar 10:29, citing Yesha’yahu 65:15.
Moshe’s father-in-law, although referred to as “Hobab” in Sefer Bamidbar, is referred to earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Shemot, simply as “the priest of Midyan.” “Now the priest of Midyan had seven daughters. . . .” Shemot 2:16, “and [the priest of Midyan] gave Moshe Zippora, his daughter. And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom. . . .” Shemot 2:21-22.
Later in Sefer Shemot, Moshe’s father-in-law is referred to as “Yitro.” “When Yitro, the priest of Midyan, Moshe’s father-in-law. . . .” Shemot 18:1. Prior to converting to Judaism, Moshe’s father-in-law was given the name Yiter [יתר], which means “more,” “excess,” or “addition,” in recognition of his pre-conversion service to the Jewish people. Rashi taught that the Hebrew letter “vav” was added to his name when he converted, thus changing his name from Yiter [יתר] to Yitro [יתרו].
Although there is a considerable degree of ambiguity concerning exactly when Moshe’s father-in-law converted to Judaism, the one thing that we do know is that he did convert at some point in time.
Although Yitro may have been one of the first converts to Judaism, many converts have followed in his footsteps. In fact, anyone – including Arabs and Muslims – who legitimately seek to convert can do so. There are rabbis and Jewish courts both in Medinat Yisra’el and throughout the Diaspora who regularly assist people from all races, ethnicities, and religions in converting to Judaism.
Not only do converts to Judaism come from all races, ethnicities, and religions, those who were born Jewish, that is, born to a Jewish mother, likewise come from all races and ethnicities. There are Jews who can trace their lineage to Germanic and European countries (Ashkenazim), Jews who can trace their lineage to Spain, the Middle East, and Africa (Sephardim), as well as Jews who can trace their lineage to every other corner of the earth.
Thus, we see that being “Jewish” is not based on race or ethnicity, and that “Jewishness” is not an immutable characteristic. Accordingly, there simply is no such thing as the “Jewish race” or “Jewish ethnicity.”
Therefore, a policy of expelling all non-Jewish Arabs from Medinat Yisra’el would not, in fact by definition, could not, be “racist,” nor could it constitute an “apartheid” a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.
Arab-Israeli Plans for Eretz Yisra’el
We return now to where we started, the Gaza Battle of 5781 (2021). Gazan and Israeli-Arabs have decided something that Jewish Israelis, as a group, are either unaware, or which they do not want to admit: The war that is currently being waged by Gazan and Israeli-Arabs, on the one hand, against Medinat Yisra’el, on the other hand, will continue until one side wholly and completely defeats the other side. This is the only true path to peace. Gazan and Israeli-Arabs do not want to live side-by-side, in peace, with Jews, whether as two states or in one state.
How do we know this? We know this because Israeli-Arabs, of which the present-day Gazan Arabs are descended, have repeatedly been presented with the opportunity to have a sovereign Arab state which would have been carved out of land that belongs to Medinat Yisra’el. The Gazan and Israeli-Arabs have rejected every such offer of an Arab state.
Furthermore, Israeli-Arabs have openly stated that their goal is the complete annihilation of Medinat Yisra’el.
The Jewish people are extremely compassionate, which is a good thing. However, too much of a good thing can be bad.
As we learn from Tanakh, King Sha’ul was commanded by the prophet Shemu’el to “go and smite Amaleq and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” I Shemu’el 15:3. Shemu’el’s commandment that King Shau’el smite Amalaq was derived from the Torah commandment to erase the memory of Amalek. Debarim 25:19.
King Shau’el, however, had compassion on Agag, King of Amaleq, and refrained from completely carrying out the command to smite Amaleq. Regarding this failure, the Midrash explains, “Rabbi Elazar said: One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate, as it is written, ‘And Shau’el and the nation spared Agag and the best sheep and cattle.’” Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1; Yalkut Shimoni, I Shamu’el, Chapter 121.
May the political and military leaders of Medinat Yisra’el have both the wisdom and fortitude to not be compassionate to those who would annihilate the Jewish people and thereby be cruel to the Jewish citizens and residents of Medinat Yisra’el.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.