July 4, 2020
In this week’s and recent Torah portions we meet many characters who are not who they appear to be, but none more than Balaam.
Korach is said to have been both wealthy and extremely clever. He ties Moses in knots with questions about the tzitzit (ritual fringes-no pun intended). He speaks in lofty terms, “Are not the entire people holy?”(Numbers 16:3) Similarly, the midrash tells us that the reason why Moses and the Israelites were weeping as the Simeonite chieftain Zimri openly has sex combined with idolatry with the Midiante Cozbi because Moses had no answer when Zimri asked what was the difference between what he was doing and Moses marrying the Midianite Zipporah. However, the Torah leaves the reader little room to doubt that both Korakh and Zimri are acting evilly. The rabbinic midrashim are designated to show how wisdom and logic can be twisted, not to suggest that there was any truth to their manipulative rhetoric. They deserve the bad rap they get. For many years I thought that Pinkhas who takes matters into his hands at the end of our Torah portion by killing Zimri and Cozbi, gets an undeservedly good rap. His vigilantism stops the plague God brings because the Israelites have been seduced into idolatry, and earns the praise of God at the beginning of next week’s Torah portion. However, he is not actually acting as a vigilante. Both God and Moses command the slaying of those who have participated in this idolatry (Numbers 25: 4-5)
Balaam is different. He speaks with God. Despite the strange story of his not seeing that an angel is blocking his way when Balak summons him to curse the Israelites, he only goes when he has God’s permission, he only says what God tells him to say, and earns Balak’s anger by praising us. His blessings of us are part of our morning prayers,
“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5)
It is very hard to find fault with Balaam in our Torah portion. It is only in another two weeks that we will learn that it was Balaam’s idea to send the women of Midian to seduce the Israelite men to participate in idolatry. (I am taking this story at face value, although I know that this text supports negative images of women as temptresses.)
Either something changed inside him, or all along he wanted the wealth that Balak was willing to grant him, and was putting on a show of piety. Perhaps he was obeying God out of fear, or because he knew his words would have no effect if not the words God put in his mouth, but not because of any true loyalty to God.
Rashi takes both approaches. He says that Balaam was intent from the outset of finding a way of getting around God’s intent, and cursing the Israelites. On the other hand, his commentary on Numbers 24:13 is that something has changed: When Balaam says “I am unable to go beyond the Word of Adonai, Rashi writes, “It is not written here ‘My God’ as was said at first in Numbers 22:18 because he had now become conscious that God now regards him as something vile and has banished Balaam from God’s Presence
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch takes a different tack, arguing that Balaam was always an unprincipled prophet for hire:
“Already in the time of Abraham, in the midst of an idolatrous world, we find Malki Tzedek that was ‘a priest of the Supreme God;– God Whom the descendants of Abraham accepted as the only God, and also Job and his friends served the One God. We see that Balaam saw himself as serving the One God…But Judaism teaches belief in One God with all the necessary conclusions this entail regarding human life: The Unity of God with the unity of life through God’s Torah….’The spiritual level of Balaam, who believes in one God, is on a lesser moral level, and is far from Malki Tedek and Job and his friends. His spiritual talent to come close to God is subjugated to his selfishness; he puts himself at the service of earthly powers and rulers – and their lowly lusts. Our sages said in Midrash Tanhuma for the Torah portion Balak, a:
‘See the difference between the Jewish prophets and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, and the prophets of other nations (Balaam), The Jewish prophets warn the nations about their transgressions, and Balaam gives them an opening to lose their place in the World to Come. (By advising to seduce through sexual wrongdoing). See chapter 25 And not just him, but all of the Jewish prophets had the attribute of compassion for Israel and for all the nations. Isaiah 16:11: ‘Therefore, like a lyre my heart moans for Moab, and my very soul for Kirheres,’ Ezekiel 27:2: ‘Now you, O moral intone a dirge over Tyre.’ The prophets of other nations had the attribute of cruelty. Balaam tried to destroy an entire people for no reason. The story of Balaam is therefore told in order to explain why God banished the holy spirit from other peoples, after God saw what Balaam did (with the spiritual gift given him).’”
There are plenty of examples of Jewish prophets cursing other nations, and non-Jews speaking prophetically of justice and compassion, and we are elsewhere taught that prophecy has ceased for both Jews and non-Jews. I do not feel comfortable with Jewish triumphalism, any more than I feel comfortable with non-Jewish triumphalism. However, I resonate with the idea that we can use our gifts for good or for evil.
Almost all of us wear masks, and not just on Purim. More or less successfully, we try to get others to see us as we want to be seen. Some of us do it more honestly, and some less so. Some of us even delude ourselves, while some of us are quite aware that we are not what we project to the outside world. Some of us have many different personas for different viewers.
A rabbi I knew once accidentally received an email that the Jewish National Fund USA spokesperson sent to JNF USA CEO Russell Robinson. It said that JNF USA was coming under criticism, so they ought to keep emphasizing the positive projects they do for Bedouin in the Negev.
Yes, I am coming back to the theme I have been stuck on for several weeks. This week the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund won in court. It was not prophecy, but they and the State and the judicial system teamed up to promote cruelty, ruling that the Sumarin family must evacuate by August 16th the home they built and owned, until the KK-JNF and State conspired to steal it from them. The KKL-JNF, and its affiliates around the word try to put on their best mask, and present the world with the good that they do. Some of that good is real, but it cannot erase the cruelty and injustice of exploiting the law in which the Israeli government itself admitted was wrong in 1995. Below is a press release of the Sumarin coalition on this week’s events. I pray that, just as Balaam fell from God’s Favor, the KKL-JNF will to what is necessary to again make us and God proud of what they do. The release includes links to letters from 34 Israel prize winners, the director of the Aravah Institute, affiliated with the KKL-JNF, over 100 leading intellectuals worldwide, graduates of the KKL-JNF’s youth group and former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. They speak with a spirit of compassion and justice. They make me hopeful and proud.
There is no clear word about annexation yet, but the Tuesday’s Jerusalem District Court decision that the Sumarin Family must evacuate their Silwan (East Jerusalem) home by August 16th, and turn it over to the Keren Kayemet-Jewish National Fund is a portent of how the Absentee Property Law is could possibly be used if and when there will be an annexation in the West Bank.On Tuesday, a panel of three District Court judges (Shoham, Rubin and Farkash) heard the family’s appeal against a September ruling of the Magistrate’s Court, and issued their rejection of the appeal a few hours later.
The Sumarin case is clear warning of how Israel could dispossess West Bank Palestinians of large amounts of land and property if there will be further annexation. Hagit Ofran of Peace Now (contact information below) has recently written a report on the use of the Absentee Property Law after East Jerusalem was annexed. While the question of what, if any annexation will take place is currently unresolved, some 30% of the land to be annexed according to the Trump Plan is land acknowledged to be privately owned by Palestinians. (Much of what is called “state land” was also actually private land;) If the owners of those lands live even a few meters away in lands not annexed, they could be declared “absentee,” and their lands turned over to the Custodian for Absentee Property. In almost all cases, Palestinian land so confiscated (The law is not applied against Jews) has always been transferred to Jews or Jewish organizations. A 2015 Israeli Supreme Court decision makes it more difficult to declare a Palestinian living in the West Bank as absentee, but does not rule it out. The history of the use of the law, including how it was used in the Sumarin case in contradiction to previous regulations, demonstrates that a government determined to abuse the law could succeed in doing so.
Relatively recently discovered documents reveal that the Sumarin home was taken from the family at the explicit request of the KKL-JNF in 1989 through what the Israeli government eventually recognized was an improper use of the Absentee Property Law. The Custodian declared the property absentee without even checking the affidavit submitted by lawyers representing KKL-JNF and Elad, an organization quoted as being dedicated to “Judaizing” East Jerusalem. Although the three legal heirs of the deceased builder and owner of the home were in fact abroad, the late Musa Sumarin’s nephew and family were living in the home with him.
When the Absentee Property Law was first applied in East Jerusalem, regulations written in 1968 stipulated that it would only be applied when a family was truly and entirely out of the country. In the 1980s, Ariel Sharon orchestrated an aggressive use of the law in contradiction with the 1968 regulations. In 1993, the Government’s Klugman Report detailed the massive abuses of the law.
Fearing legal action, the Israeli government committed in 1995 to stop using the law in this way. A committee was set up to retroactively examine properties already seized, but in the wake of the Rabin assassination, it never actually functioned.
In 1992, the Custodian transferred the Sumarin home to the KKL-JNF in exchange for lands in the Wadi Ara area inside Israel. The Klugman report details how the KKL-JNF was frequently involved in and initiated questionable transactions with the Custodian, and generally transferred East Jerusalem properties it acquired to settler groups such as Elad. In this case they have had more difficulty. However, ever since 1992, the KKL-JNF has been waging a legal battle to take possession of the home, with a brief respite in 2011, after an international letter writing campaign caused them to declare a temporary freeze in the eviction scheduled at the time.
While many family members and one of the foreign diplomats who had come to observe on Tuesday were kept outside because of coronavirus regulations, at least one representative of “Elad” was allowed in. Part of the Elad’s “City of David” visitor’s center is built on land taken from the family, but Elad wants the home as well. A lawyer who works for Elad is representing the KKL-JNF’s subsidiary, Himanuta, in the case against the family. Although Elad is not a formal side in this case, their admission is an indication of their role and the intent of the KKL-JNF to transfer the home to Elad, should they succeed in possessing it.
Appeals to the JNF to prevent the evacuation of the family
The Court’s decision, and the insistence of the KKL-JNF to pursue this case take place despite growing concern and protest. Representatives of the British and French consulates attended the appeal, while other diplomats expressed concern.
34 Israel Prize recipients, including international best selling author and moral voice David Grossman, Alec Libak, Ruth Reznik and Ruth Katz wrote on Tuesday to JNF chairman Danny Atar and the board members: “We, the recipients of the Israel Prize, appeal to you with an unmistakable demand to leave the Sumarin family and withdraw from the attempt to take over their home. This is based on a clear and simple ethical principle. The sin against the family members violates three of the Ten Commandments: Thou shall not steal, thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor, thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house.
The expulsion of the family as part of a campaign to “Judaize” Silwan, which has been in full force for many years, will bring disgrace to the Jewish National Fund, which otherwise fondly conjures images of the blue donation boxes that have stood in our homes and synagogues in our cities, in Israel and around the world. We urge you to discontinue an act that is manifestly immoral.”
125 intellectuals, academics, and world-renowned artists addressed a letter to JNF-USA (now a legally separate entity following a row over the Israeli JNF’s settlement dealings) demanding that it stop legal proceedings against the family: “Expelling innocent Palestinians from their family homes and planting colonies of Jewish settlers in Silwan cannot be justified by any ethical standard or national purpose.”
Among the signatories are: American philosopher Prof. Michael Walzer, Professors Jan and Aleida Assmann, two of the most prominent intellectuals in Germany and Europe in general, Prof. Natalie Zimon Davis, one of the world’s most important historians, poet Peter Cole, painter and curator of art Prof. Robert Storr, Prof. Jeffrey Veidlinger, a leader in Jewish Studies, and many others. Among the Israelis who signed the letter: Prof. Eva Illouz, Prof. Elchanan Reiner, Prof. Ido Landau, Prof. Ilana Pardes, Prof. Kenneth Mann, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and others.
Some 150 graduates of JNF youth movement (Chugei Sayarut) contacted JNF chairman Danny Atar: “Please, your honor, Danny Atar, stop the activity against a family whose entire fault lies in the place of residence which is holy for so many nations. As those in power in this delicate Jerusalem space, we must shape it in the image of the vision of the prophets of Israel and human morality, as a city of justice. Please do not make the death of the family member, the late Musa Sumarin, an opportunity of plunder.
The Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, one of the flagship projects of the JNF in Israel, wrote in a letter to JNF chairman Danny Atar: “The JNF through its subsidiary, Himanuta, is advancing a political agenda contrary to what we believe should be the core purpose and mission of Keren Kayemet. Using force against this family stands in opposition to Jewish and humanitarian values.”
140 graduates of the Arava Institute signed a similar call and demanded that the Institute’s management put pressure on the JNF to prevent the evacuation.
Over 9000 people have sent letters to the KKL-JNF in Israel and affiliates abroad demanding that the Sumarin family not to be evacuated.
Former Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior recently published an open letter to the JNF chairman, stressing his historic support for the KKL-JNF, but stating: “Once I have learned the details of the Sumarin case and how the family’s dignity and confidence is undermined by the JNF’s conduct in the name of the Jewish people, I cannot stay silent. [ …] The claims are based on improper and immoral use of Absentees’ Properties Law. […] The injustice done to the family, even if done in a legal mantle, cries out to heaven. There is no question here of Right or Left, religious or secular – our existence here in the country must be based on honesty, justice and fairness towards all residents, Jews and Arabs alike”.
Singer Achinoam Nini and American comedian Ethan Herschenfeld, who recently participated in a fundraising event for JNF-USA, publicly called on JNF USA to demand that the Sumarin family not be evicted from its home.
The Coalition for the Sumarin Family, which includes many activists and organizations from Israel and overseas, declared: “The Sumarin family house was given over to the Jewish National Fund in sin, by using the Absentees’ Properties Law as a tool to dispossess Palestinians and give their properties to settlers. There is no connection between the JNF’s goals and the values in which it is supposed to work, and the attempt to ban a Palestinian family from its home in favor of expanding a settlement in the heart of a controversial area. Two government attorney generals both determined that using the law to take control of homes with families living in it was completely inappropriate. A government inquiry into the matter (Klugman report) also stated that ‘the role of the Custodian of Absentee Property was, by any measure, extremely improper.’ It is very sad that the JNF, whose income in 2020 is NIS 1.2 billion, is engaged in a brutal campaign to evict the Sumarin family from its home.”
For additional information, and to be in touch with family members and their lawyers:
Hagit Ofran Peace Now 972 54 4556052 email@example.com
Rabbi Arik Ascherman Torat Tzedek * 972 50 5607034 firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Rabbi Ascherman’s Times of Israel page.