This weekend in synagogues the world over, Jews will be reading the story of Balak. In Israel, this will also be Shabbat Mashat, the Sabbath of the Pro-Palestinian Flightilla.
As luck would have it, both stories are about occupation. And about hatred.
The Biblical narrative (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9) begins just after the Children of Israel, en route to the Promised Land from Egypt, have won sweeping military victories and occupied the towns and territories of kingdom after kingdom.
Moab, east of the Jordan River, opposite the West Bank town of Jericho, is next in the path of Moses and his people. Moab's king, Balak, outnumbered and terrified, sends for Bilaam, a highly recommended hired-gun diviner from the East. Per Balak’s order, Bilaam rides in, and tries over and over to curse the Israelites and cause them to be defeated.
In a peculiarly cinematic series of scenes, however, Bilaam is repeatedly blocked from doing so, by an angel armed with a drawn sword, by his own (now-talking) donkey, and by the Lord Himself. In the end, Bilaam's attempts at damning Balak's enemies turn to blessings, among them the Ma Tovu prayer, prominent in Jewish liturgy to this day, giving voice to wonder and reverence for synagogues and other places of worship.
Time and Jewish tradition have not been kind to Bilaam, who became a prototype of the non-Jew responsible for all of our problems - including those which, as a consequence of occupation, are to a great extent self-inflicted.
In the best tradition of the worst Israeli hasbara, American-Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Berel Wein, spins the hapless but poetic Bilaam as a terrorist, Balak as an arch-terrorist – and, for good measure, throws in human rights activists as accomplices to terror homicide:
"It is not the suicide bomber – Bilaam – that is the only guilty party in terrorist attacks. It is the Balaks who send them and support them, that are certainly equally as guilty.”
"The pious human rights organizations that promote only hatred and violence under the guise of doing good deeds are also responsible for the loss of the precious lives of innocents caused by those whom they so nurture and support."
What Rabbi Wein fails to mention is that the real threat to the Israelites in the story of Balak comes from the actions of the Israelites themselves. After Bilaam gives up and goes home, God is enraged by the Israelites' immorality and idol worship, and lets loose a plague which kills 24,000 of the Israelites. (Later rabbis frame Bilaam for the killings).
In Israel, meanwhile, officials have been working overtime doing no little framing of their own. As pro-Palestinian activists, reportedly ranging in age from nine to 89, prepared to fly into Ben-Gurion Airport to demonstrate against the embargo on Gaza and the occupation, curses took wing from the diviners of hasbara.
The Prime Minister's Office issued a press release calling the the arrival of the activists an attempt "to undermine Israel's right to exist." It was, they said, part of a broader effort to breach Israel's "borders and its sovereignty, by sea, land and air."
Lest there be any doubt as to the severity of the threat, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Ahronowitz "These hooligans who seek to break the law and disturb the peace will not be allowed into Israel."
The activists' aim, Ahronowitz told reporters, was nothing less than "attacking our legitimacy in our own land." He ruled out demonstrations by the activists as illegal.
For months now, Israeli officials have described the participants of the flotilla campaign as terrorists, more recently (although with a subsequent Bilaam-like reversal) telling foreign media that the activists were planning to use "chemical weaponry," stockpiling sulfur to dump on Israeli security forces and set them alight.
The parallels to Bilaam don't end there. On Thursday, one of the organizers of the pro-Palestinian protest told Ynet that without Israel's exhaustive, high-profile efforts to condemn and curse the activists' fly-in, the campaign would never have gotten off the ground.
"We should be thanking Netanyahu, because without him, this wouldn’t have worked," the organizer said. "If we would have paid thousands of shekels in PR, it would not have worked out so well."
For those of us who live in Israel, perhaps the most useful section of the week's Torah portion is a part that barely makes it into the text. At the very close, occupation has led Moses' people to worship idols (which we, the contemporary Children of Israel, have repurposed as settlements), as well as to corruption, and immoral behavior.
The message from the government, meanwhile, remains, Hate Thy Pro-Palestinian Activist. It's certainly true that many if not most of the activists hate Israel at least as much as Israel hates them. But, as King Balak learned to his dismay, hatred and fear, as practiced by nations, have a tendency to boomerang.
Where Israel is concerned, a democracy that cannot bring itself to allow non-violent protest has already turned on itself.
Stay tuned. Within a few hours, we should learn who plays Bilaam in this version, who plays Balak, and, most tellingly perhaps, who plays the ass.
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