The Israeli-Arab Conflict: A Spiritual Perspective

Ronen Neuwirth Featured Articles - Home, Tradition Online | December 7, 2020

The Origins of the Conflict

In recent weeks, we have witnessed historic peace agreements between Israel and several Arab countries, with talk of more accords on the way with additional countries. At the very same time, expressions of radical Islamism are becoming more extreme, and the poison of Islamic terrorism spreads unchecked across Europe and the Middle East, frequently targeting Jewish victims. Analyzing the spiritual roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict can give us profound insights into both the breakthrough successes and ongoing threats. 

The peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are known as the Abraham Accords, since our conflict began with Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. A close reading of the Biblical verses describing the lives of Isaac and Ishmael highlights many fascinating parallels. Both of them were named directly by God. “And the angel of God said to her [Hagar], ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because God has heard your affliction” (Genesis 16:11). “And God said: ‘But Sarah your wife shall bear you a son; and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen. 17:19). This in itself indicates that they were both righteous people, as our Sages explain, “Four were named prior to their birth: Isaac and Ishmael, Josiah and Solomon… this is so for the righteous, but for the wicked, ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb’” (Yerushalmi Berakhot 11b).

Akedat Yitzhak is one of the founding narratives of the Jewish tradition but there is a parallel story of “Akedat” Yishmael, when he was banished to the desert.1 The Torah uses similar expressions in both of these stories. Both begin with the word “Va-yashkem, And Abraham arose up early in the morning.” In both stories, the young lad faces life-endangering situations, and an angel appears to Hagar and Abraham at the most critical moment. The turning point in both stories occurs when the parents’ eyes are opened and they see what was previously hidden: “And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Gen. 21:19); “And Abraham lifted up his eyes… and there was a ram, [and] after [that] it was caught in the thicket by its horns” (Gen. 22:13). Both Abraham and Hagar named the place after the miraculous vision they experienced there: “Be’er la-hai ro’i” (Gen. 16:14);”Adonai Yir’eh” (Gen, 22:14). Finally, as a reward for passing their respective tests, they each receive a promise of multiple offspring (Gen. 16:10; 22:17).

More interesting parallels can be found in the Biblical texts. The Jewish nation is comprised of twelve tribes, but God promised Abraham that the Ishmaelites will receive the very same blessing, “And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Gen. 17:20). Moreover, the two great nations designated to sprout from Isaac and Ishmael are the only nations in our tradition that carry the name of God. “Balaam said: Of the seventy nations that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not put His name on any one of them except on Israel; and the Holy One, blessed be He, made the name of Ishmael similar to the name of Israel” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30). 

It is important to recognize that Ishmael is not necessarily the “wild man,” as we tend to characterize him, based on classic commentaries.2 Other commentators did not see the trait of “pere adam” as an inherently negative characteristic: “The word pere describes a wild donkey, saying that… he will be like a wild donkey by making the desert his home… and he will be adam, a trait that he will inherit from Abraham, as the Rabbis said that Ishmael became a penitent” (Seforno, Gen. 16:12).3 Furthermore, in the midrashim and commentaries, Ishmael is regarded as a righteous person. We saw above that Ishmael was regarded a tzaddik since he was named before his birth. Even his death is portrayed as the death of a righteous person, as Rashi explains: “And he expired (vayigva). [The term] is mentioned only regarding the righteous” (Rashi to Gen. 25:17 citing Bava Batra 16b). Ishmael was a ba’al teshuva. He absorbed the values of the house of Abraham and this set the course of his life and inspired the Rabbis to regard him as a tzaddik. The similarities between the narratives of Isaac and Ishmael are a clear indication of Ishmael’s spiritual role. 

Brit Mila and the Land of Israel

In order to analyze the spiritual roles of Isaac and Ishmael as the roots of the relationship between these two nations, I wish to focus on the special mitzva that both nations observe to this very day – Brit Mila. In the covenant of circumcision that God offers to Abraham, He depicts a direct connection between Mila and the inheritance of the Land of Canaan. “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages… I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God… As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant…every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:7-10). The observance of Brit Mila is what guarantees our return to the Land of Israel after the exile, as the Sages said: “If your children observe Brit Mila, they shall enter the Land (of Israel), and if not – they will not enter the Land” (Gen. Rabba 46:9). A surface reading of these verses in no way indicates that this part of the covenant, namely the right to settle in the Land of Canaan, excludes Ishmael. 

This was the understanding of the Zohar in the following astounding prediction of the future: “How tragic was the time when Ishmael was born to the world and performed Mila. What did God do? God prevented the children of Ishmael from the ultimate closeness to God but gave them instead a portion in the Holy Land, for they had undergone Mila. And the children of Ishmael will rule the Holy Land for a long while, as long as it is empty from all other inhabitant… And the children of Ishmael shall delay the children of Israel from returning to their place until they [the Ishmaelites] will complete their rightful sovereignty period.” According to the Zohar, circumcision is what gave the Ishmaelites right to rule in the Land of Israel, at least temporarily, and this right lies at the very foundation of the Israeli-Arab conflict, that erupted when the Jewish people made its first attempts to reclaim its national homeland. 

Why does the specific mitzva of circumcision grant entitlement to the Land of Israel more than any other commandment? There is a “code word” in the Torah which can help us to unlock the biblical text and resolve this question: the word “kol” (everything). According to the Rabbis, kol was the special blessing given to the patriarchs. “Our Rabbis taught: There were three to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, gave already in this world a foretaste of the World-to-Come: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham [we know] because it is written of him, [God blessed Abraham] with everything (ba-kol), Isaac, because it is written, [And I have eaten] from everything (mi-kol), Jacob, because it is written, [For I have] everything (kol)” (Bava Batra 16b).

What is the significance of the word kol? According to Ramban, kol is a special attribute that Abraham received from God. It symbolizes the ability to have a broad perspective on reality. Furthermore, it represents his ability to find the spiritual essence of the World-to-Come in the material world (as explained by the midrash cited above). A fascinating example of the use of the word kol in that context can be found in the dialogue between Jacob and Esau, when Jacob wanted to appease his brother with gifts. “But Esau said, ‘I have plenty (rav), my brother; let what you have remain yours. And Jacob said: ‘Please no!… take my gift… for God has favored me, and because I have everything (kol)” (Gen. 33:9, 11) Apparently kol (everything) is more than rav (plenty), but how can Jacob claim that he has more than Esau? Sefat Emet points out that Jacob is not referring to the quantity of property that he owns, but rather the spiritual quality of his assets, “For whoever is devoted to the spiritual essence [of life], all his possessions obtain the quality of kol (Sefat Emet, VaYishlach 5631). Although Esau had plentiful possessions, his achievements were merely material. Conversely, Jacob had the ability to inject spiritual meaning into all of his material assets and hence he “has everything.”

Apparently, the word kol is associated with two concepts we have discussed above – circumcision and the Land of Israel. According to the Kabbala, the word kol symbolizes the kabbalistic Sefira (emanation) of Yesod, which is associated with circumcision. As we saw above, the word kol symbolizes the harmony between Heaven and Earth, a harmony which is fulfilled by performing a holy mitzva on the most physical part of the body. This is also the spiritual quality of the Land of Israel, a land that harmonizes physicality with spiritually: “A land the Lord your God looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deut.11:12). This special quality of the land is epitomized in the word kol: “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land… a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will not lack anything (kol) in it” (Deut. 8:7-9) The grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, elaborates on the appearance of the word kol: “There is no lack in the Land of Israel, because the Land has the attribute of kol, which is the secret of the Divine presence” (Degel Mahane Ephraim, Toldot).

The Uniqueness and Strength of Islam

Up to this point, we have discussed the benefit of kol as a quality that was granted to our forefathers, but apparently Ishmael also enjoyed that benefit, as appears in God’s promise to Hagar, “He shall be a wild man: his hand will be upon all (ba-kol), and everyone’s (kol) hand upon him” (Gen. 16:10). Sefat Emet explains that this is why Ishmael is regarded as a righteous man, “His hand will be  ‘ba-kol’ means that Ishmael had a portion in this attribute of Abraham” (Hayyei Sara 5651) This is the source of Ishmael’s spiritual power, which draws from the wellsprings of Abraham. This word is also utilized by the Zohar (above) to portray the ruling period of Ishmael, “And the children of Ishmael will rule the Holy Land for a long while, as long as it is empty of everything (kol).” 

Theologically, Islam is the closest religion to Judaism. There is no Avoda Zara in Islam, and in theory it is permissible to pray in a mosque. The name of God (El) appears in the name Ishmael, and the Brit Mila that Moslems perform is an indication of their closeness to God, as the Zohar asserted. Like our own nation, Ishmael shares the role of revealing and spreading God’s name in the world, as Rambam says, “And all the doings of Jesus the Nazarene and that of that Ishmaelite who came after him are nothing but to pave the way for the King Messiah and prepare the entire world to worship God together, as it says: ‘For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the Name of the Lord, to serve Him with one consent’” (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:11). 

Despite the terrible destruction and suffering that Christianity and Islam have inflicted on us throughout history, this is part of God’s plan to bring the world to a monotheistic faith. A similar idea was expressed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “Every religion that follows Judaism transforms to be like it, though seemingly it strays away from it. These religions are therefore only preparation and introduction to the long-awaited Messiah, who is the fruit, and at the end of the days in their acknowledgment of him (the Messiah)… the whole tree will become one” (Kuzari 4:23). 

Netziv of Volozhin wrote a similar commentary on the prophecy of Balaam regarding the Messiah, “‘A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab, the foundation of all children of Seth’ (Numbers 24:17). It is known who the enemies and opponents of the religion of Edom (Christendom) have always been. It is the faith of Ishmael (Islam). And the Messiah will not fight against these two religions… since they acknowledge God and then they will get closer to God [in the days of Messiah]” (Ha’amek Davar, Numbers 24:18). 

The role of Ishmael, similar to the role of the Jewish people, is to bring God’s revelation to the world. They can be our best allies or our worst enemies in that mission. For this reason, one of the roots of the conflict is the mountain where, according to our tradition, God will reveal Himself to the world, Har HaMoria, the mountain of vision, “And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it. And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mount, to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths,’ for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:2-3). 

A fascinating midrash, composed during the 8th century, shortly after the Dome of the Rock shrine was built on the Temple Mount, draws a direct link between the shrine and the Beit HaMikdash, “Rabbi Ishmael said: In the future, the children of Ishmael will do fifteen things in the land [of Israel]… they will rebuild the desolated cities and sweep the ways; and they will plant gardens and parks, and fence in the broken walls of the Temple; and they will build a building in the Holy Place” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30). At the end of the process, the epicenter of the conflict between Ishmael and Israel will be the site of the Temple, the place that is supposed to serve as a house of prayer for all peoples.

In essence, then, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not demographic or territorial but spiritual and religious. It is a competition about which nation will reveal the name of God in this world. That is why we believe that Ishmael also carries the name of God – Yishma-El. This may also explain the extreme cruelty that we see manifested in the way that some descendants of Ishmael handle the conflict. Netziv of Volozhin suggests, “There are many nations who conquer other countries to expand their empires. And they only wish to kill the king and leaders of the conquered people, not the masses. But this is not so when they wage war for religious reasons – then they fight and wish to destroy all those who don’t believe in God in the way that they do” (Ha’amek Davar, Numbers 24:23). 

Today’s Jihadi terrorists target civilians, Jews and non-Jews alike, without distinction and without mercy. Nevertheless, according to the Sages, there is a spiritual explanation for the horrific terror that they inflict on the Jewish people. “And why is his name called Ishmael? For God (El) will hear (Yishma) the groaning of the [Jewish] people from what the children of Ishmael will do to them at the end of the days” (Yalkut Shimoni 45). 

The spiritual purpose of our conflict with the Arab world is to awaken us when we forget our destiny, to spur us to cry out to God, and to remind us why we have returned to the Land of Israel. The goal of the Jewish nation is not only to build a state in which we can live as free people in our land. It must also aspire to be a country that serves as the model for morality, spirituality, and divinity for all peoples.

A Roadmap for Peace

The Abraham Accords, together with further peace deals that will hopefully be signed with Arab nations in the coming years, are an integral part of the Messianic vision of world peace. However, we should not forget that only moderate Arab countries currently want to make peace with Israel. The major challenge that remains is making peace with the more radical Islamists.

Our tradition can assist us in setting out a roadmap to face that challenge. One of the difficulties facing Western leaders is the language barrier, and I don’t mean the different languages that we speak. In Israel and the West, we speak with a Western mindset of pragmatism and practicality, while radical Islamists speak in religious and spiritual language. It is no coincidence that the heart of our conflict is focused on the location of the Temple Mount, the place where both faiths believe that God will be revealed to the world. 

I believe that our struggle revolves around the concept of kol – our ability to discover and actualize the Divine in this world. I suspect that for as long as we try to resolve the conflict pragmatically, utilizing Western thought patterns, we will not be successful in finding common ground with the more extreme Islamic groups. Our conflict did not begin with the rise of modern Zionism 130 years ago; it began thousands of years ago, and its solution requires a different kind of discourse. If this assumption is correct, is there any chance for peace?

The Malbim shares a vision that corresponds with what we have discussed so far. “In those days, ten men from nations of every tongue will take hold—they will take hold of every Jew by a corner of his cloak and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zech. 8:23) “Now I will inform you about a different matter that will occur in the end of days, when the nations will recognize the belief of the Jewish people and their Torah… The Ishmaelites will recognize the truth of Judaism; then they will go to Jerusalem to seek God. Only the Ishmaelites will inquire about the real faith of the Jewish people and recognize that God is with the Jewish people.” (Malbim) The Islamists might seem like our worst enemies, but according to the Malbim they could also become our best allies in our mission to bring the world to believe in God.

If the root of our struggle is spiritual, then maybe the core solution should be based on shared theological and spiritual interests. I believe that a long-term solution to the conflict could be achieved through profound and courageous interfaith dialogue and negotiation. It is not unreasonable to assume that, sooner or later, the State of Israel will be back at the negotiating table with the Palestinians. When that happens, I would love to see official negotiations between rabbis and imams, sitting around a table to discuss theological issues together. There have been some privately funded organizations that planned interfaith conferences, but this would be an opportunity to make such discussions an official part of the peace process

It is a longshot. In the beginning, there will be a lot of suspicion around the table. There will be a need to build trust slowly but surely. It would be helpful to start by discussing the many ideas that are significant to both religions, such as the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, the Covenant between the Pieces, circumcision, Jerusalem, Messiah, and obviously God, exchanging notes and trying to understand the viewpoint of the other. Down the road, and this will probably be a long process, once there is a greater trust between the parties, faith leaders could move on to discuss options for spiritual cooperation and even work together to actualize them. Eventually, that might pave the path to start a more complex dialogue about ways to achieve a profound and long-lasting peace, based on the spiritual understandings that we share. Let us not forget that, after the death of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael lived peacefully together, and Isaac even moved to live near the home of Hagar and Ishmael, “Now it came to pass after Abraham’s death that God blessed his son Isaac, and Isaac dwelt near Be’er la-hai ro’i” (Gen. 25:11).

This idea may seem counterintuitive and naive, since our common perception is that religion is the root of wars in the world. However, just as we prepare a vaccine from the same virus that causes the disease we want to neutralize, perhaps the idea of officially involving religious leaders in the peace process could help to break the deadlock. In light of the breakthrough in the pragmatic peace process, and regardless of our political views, the idea of faith leaders sitting together could be part of our Messianic vision, to worship God together and to bring all the nations to pray to God in Jerusalem, as it says: “I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra’anana, is author of The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age (Urim).

  1. This parallel, and the phrase Akedat Yishmael, was already observed and coined by Prof. Uriel Simon, among others.
  2. See Abarbanel, Ramban, Maharal, and the Netziv of Volozhin.
  3. Other positive approaches to the term pere adam can be found in the commentaries of  Rashi, Ibn Ezra, HaKtav vehaKabbala, and R. D.Z. Hoffmann.

1 Comment

  1. Rob says:

    Different faiths can certainly hold “interfaith dialogue” but in neither Judaism nor Islam does any single person or body have the authority to negotiate an agreement on behalf of the entire faith with another faith or even a state. States negotiate with only other states for agreements that are binding only as long as the validity of the agreement is politically acceptable for a government of a state that is party to the agreement. And most of the leaders of Arab states and the PA have many internal and external political reasons for not making peace with Israel.

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