What the Patriarch Abraham can teach us about land and peace

It sometimes seems as if the Torah set down this 3,500-year-old incident for no other reason than to offer guidance for the situation Israel is in right now.

Abraham visited by angels 521 (photo credit: Creative Commons)
Abraham visited by angels 521
(photo credit: Creative Commons)
For some Jews, the Bible is frequently cited as the source of the belief that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, and that Israel should hold onto all this land even if doing so eliminates the possibility of peace with the Arab world.
In this understanding of the Torah, one very important Bible story is invariably ignored, a story that offers very different guidance as to how Jews, “the children of Abraham,” should act.
The story occurs early in the Book of Genesis shortly after we are introduced to Abraham, the first Jew. A chapter earlier, God instructed Abraham to leave his father’s house, and to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abraham follows God’s command and, after a brief stay in Egypt during a famine, heads with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, along with their cattle and workers, into the land of Canaan.
Abraham and Lot have at this point accumulated large flocks and are quite affluent. Nonetheless, “there was fighting [the sort of fighting that can quickly lead to bloodshed] between the herdsmen of Abraham’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock.” The fighting is severe – the Torah says, “and they were unable to dwell together” – and Abraham is anxious to find a solution.
Abraham approaches Lot: “Please let there be no fighting between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen.... Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me: If you go left then I will go right, and if you right then I will go left.” The Bible records that Lot accepts Abraham’s offer, and chooses land in the plain of Jordan.
It sometimes seems as if the Torah set down this 3,500-year-old incident for no other reason than to offer guidance for the situation Israel is in right now.
I am well aware that there are other biblical stories that reflect a more militant point of view (such as the command to destroy the Amalekites), I just want to emphasize that this is one of the first stories the Torah tells us about Abraham, and it depicts him as a man willing to compromise. And what is he willing to compromise about? Land, and avoiding unnecessary conflict about it.
Certainly, the Torah’s words, “and they were unable to dwell together,” seem a pretty apt description of the situation of the Palestinians and Jews today. The Palestinians of the West Bank (and in Gaza) want their own country and, like the herdsmen of Lot, are willing to fight until they get what they want.
Abraham, by the way, could certainly have instructed his herdsmen to fight back. It is clear from the Torah that Abraham was stronger than Lot, and just one chapter later, Lot and his workers are unable to defend themselves against an attack from local Canaanite forces and are taken captive. It is his uncle Abraham and the people under his command who go on the attack and free Lot.
And yet, as noted, he chooses to compromise with his weaker nephew to avoid conflict.
Why? Not because he was afraid that Lot and his herdsmen could defeat him. They couldn’t. But because he didn’t want strife and bloodshed. And to avoid that happening, Abraham knew that he and his nephew needed to agree on a separation between them.
Today, of course, no one is suggesting that Israel make the same sort of offer to the Palestinians that Abraham made to Lot. The Palestinians have made it clear that they are also willing to compromise, and reach an agreement with Israel under which some 80 percent of Jewish Israelis who live beyond the 1967 line will be incorporated into the new internationally recognized borders of Israel.
Thus, all of the settlement blocs will be inside Israel. Fatah wants to reach such an agreement and settle the border issues permanently, so that they can establish the new State of Palestine.
They have also agreed that their state will be a demilitarized state without an army. And in behindthe- scenes negotiations they have made it clear that only a small, symbolic number of Palestinian refugees would be admitted to Israel, and only with Israel’s agreement.
What Israel can and should say to the Palestinians can be modeled on Abraham’s words to his nephew, and adapted to the present situation: “Please let there be no fighting and bloodshed between my people and your people... Please separate from me, and take the land on which so many of your people, and so few of mine, live. We have been fighting now for close to a century, and if we don’t reach an agreement we will go on fighting for another century and more.
Thousands of young men on both sides have already been killed and maimed in a fight over land. We need a peace agreement more than we need those parts of the West Bank which consist overwhelmingly of Palestinians.”
When I look at the parties on Israel’s Right, they often speak the language of military might. Israel is, after all, militarily much stronger than the Palestinians, and in fact Israel today is probably the strongest military power on earth per capita. But all that their bravado is leading to is a Jewish state that will one day have more Arabs living in it than Jews.
Today, the time has come for the children of Abraham to start speaking the language of Abraham.
The author is an American entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington. Follow the center on Twitter: @AbrahamCenter.