Culture

Abraham, Part 5: Can The 'Wild Man' Ishmael Be Tamed?

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Abraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Jewish people, were for a long time a childless couple. After they lived that way in Canaan for ten years, Sarah suggested in desperation that Abraham have a child with her Egyptian maid Hagar. As Sarah puts it, “that I may obtain children by her.”

The child born to Abraham and Hagar is Ishmael, of whom an angel of God says:

…he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him….

Abraham, though, develops intense concern for the “wild man.” Sometime after Abraham and Sarah — by God’s intervention — finally have a son of their own, Isaac, Sarah sees Ishmael “mocking.” She reacts by demanding that Abraham expel Ishmael and Hagar for good.

Although Abraham is deeply pained to do so, God reassures him that — as in the case of Isaac — “also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a great nation, because he is thy seed.”

Indeed, God has already told Abraham earlier:

…as for Ishmael…: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac….

Ishmael, then, appears to be loved and valued both by Abraham and by God; but not to have equal status with Isaac.

A few years ago I read Israeli historian Robert Wistrich’s then-new, one-thousand-page tome A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. To me its most fascinating passage is one on pages 98-100 about the psychological roots of antisemitism — and most of all this:

… antagonism toward the claim of chosenness has been a constant theme in anti-Semitism through the ages. One testimony to its force lies in the usurpation of God’s promises to the Jews by the Christian churches, as the heirs of ancient Israel, who claim to have superseded it in divine favor. In Islam, too, there is a doctrine of supersession (of both Judaism and Christianity) in which Muslims become the elect people of Allah. Moreover, in many modern nationalisms, the Judaic idea of chosenness has been adopted (often in a secularized and politicized form) and has led to fierce hostility against Jews and Judaism. As the most ancient repositories of chosenness, the Jews almost inevitably become a lightning rod for the rival claims of election, whose psychological dynamics all too easily trigger boundless envy and an irrational hatred.

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Near where I live in Beersheva there’s a mall, and on its second floor there’s a drugstore, and along its rear wall there’s a pharmacy counter. The pharmacist is an Israeli Arab named Walid.

Other people working there are interns and clerks. They include other Israeli Arabs — one of them a hijab-wearing young woman — Russian Jewish immigrants, and regular Israeli Jews. This variegated crew appears to work together smoothly.

Walid looks to be about thirty and is pleasant and personable, speaking fluent Hebrew with a slight Arabic accent. One of many Israeli Arabs who work in the medical field — a point often stressed by people who refute absurd libels about Israeli “apartheid” — he takes care that you use whatever you’re buying efficiently.

A couple of things strike me about Walid. He sees that all of the myriad pills, creams, sprays, and drops he deals with are produced in the West, none in the Arab world. And — whatever his declaratory views might be —he has to appreciate Israeli democracy. He has to know that in the surrounding Arab countries living standards are much lower, minorities are often treated badly, and different groups often end up savagely fighting each other.

Indeed, a poll taken last year found that while Israeli Arabs complain of feeling like second-class citizens, 68 percent of them prefer living in Israel to other countries and 71 percent consider Israel a good place to live.

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How does Walid feel about Israeli Jews? Does he see them as they are — generally decent citizens of a democracy —or in antismitic terms? (If the latter, he’ll be like 35 percent of Israeli Arabs — though this is a much lower rate of antisemitism than in the surrounding Arab countries, where rates approach 100 percent.)

And how do Israeli Jews feel about him? Yet another recent study found that 70 percent of Israeli Jews believe Jews to be the chosen people. Which brings us back to the territory of Abraham, Ishmael, God, election, and supersession.

I would put it this way: though most Israeli Jews believe in chosenness, it is not a supremacist chosenness. I think of it instead as a “special relationship.” Looking back over the extreme anomalies of Jewish history — of which the return to the ancestral land after two millennia may be only the most dramatic — one can either ascribe it all to chance or to some sort of mission rooted in the transcendent. To me, the first alternative is wildly implausible, the second more reasonable.

At the same time, from the dawn of Jewish ideology in the first chapter of Genesis (“So God created man in his own image”), the universalist dimension of Judaism is much too powerful to allow a sense of election that is chauvinist, aggressive, or exclusionary. In our day, we have concrete proof of it: Israeli democracy, which, while not perfect, is strikingly successful in granting full rights and freedoms to religious and other minorities despite inimical surroundings.web-woolwich-itv

And what of Ishmael, the “wild man”? Recent reports from Syria of torture, cannibalism, and poison gas are only some of the worst manifestations of a wave of strife and warfare that was initially called the “Arab Spring.” It’s a good bet that Walid — looking out at the mayhem — has, like other Israeli Arabs, no desire to go live in these Arab-majority societies and knows he has it much better in Israel.

If there’s anything that gives me hope — and I’m not steeped in it these days — it’s Israel’s success in fostering relative moderation among its Arab citizens. But that, sadly, has had no discernible positive effect on the Arab world as a whole — no more than President Bush’s well-meaning but unrealistic efforts to instill democracy.

Real change would have to come from within these Arab and Muslim-majority societies, and would have to start with the question: what is it about our own religion and culture that leads us, instead of being productive, creative, tolerant, and peaceful, to be plagued with stagnation, autocracy, hatred, and war?

If such a turning ever occurs, the Arab world will find Israel fully prepared to accept and respect it — just as Abraham fully accepted “non-Jewish” Ishmael.