A Land That Floweth with Milk and Honey

ALON BEN-MEIR

January 15, 1993|By ALON BEN-MEIR

NEW YORK. — New York -- Tragic events that have taken place over the past few weeks in the Middle East bring to mind, in a curious way, a biblical reference to the Land of Canaan, (present day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and most of Jordan) and the fortunes of the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Joshua, who was sent by Moses more then 3,000 years ago to spy on the land of Canaan before the Jews could enter, reported that the land ''floweth with milk and honey.'' On the other hand, the representatives of the 12 Jewish tribes who joined Joshua's spying expedition claimed that the land was ''a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof.'' (Numbers, chapter 13, verses 27 and 32.)

Jewish scholars of the Old Testament differ in their interpretations of the seemingly contradictory assessments. Some scholars suggest that since the land was occupied by very strong and giant-looking men (called the Nephelin), living in fortified cities, only such men could survive the harsh conditions. Hence the land must be a land that would consume its weaker dwellers.

Others explained that the Jews came to the same conclusion about the land when they realized that they would have to wage war against a formidable enemy to conquer the land, resulting in their own massive slaughter.

Shlomo Ben-Yitzhak (Rashi) who studied and worked in Troy, France, 1040-1105, is considered the foremost Jewish scholar of the Old Testament; he advanced a more compelling interpretation. The land of Canaan can either be a land of milk and honey or a land that consumes its dwellers. It seems that God intended it to be that way. The choice was left to the inhabitants themselves. Should the governors be just and caring, the people be compassionate, adhering to high morals in their day-to-day conduct, and should they live in peace and respect each other's rights, then the land would indeed exude milk and honey. But when hatred and animosity prevail, when greed is pervasive and venom, revenge and cruelty feed the soul, the inhabitants will eventually perish.

The long history of the land of Canaan attests to the fact that no other land has seen so much glory and despair, and no other land has touched the souls of so many. It is a land that shaped the destiny of its dwellers and has witnessed the rise and fall of many empires including the Assyrians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Romans and the Greeks. Each failed to live up to the promise. They forsook human rights and justice and rendered themselves unfit to possess the land. They were consumed from within, and in the end they perished.

For five decades Israelis and Palestinians have been battling each other. They have inflicted terrible wounds on each other. By deliberate actions they have sown blind hatred and animosity, poisoning yet another generation. Cold-blooded murders, stabbing, abductions and hideous crimes are countered by demolitionof homes, detentions and expulsion, all defying reason, defying humanity and defying the very premise of the religious affinity that both have to the land.

Unless the Israelis and the Arabs wake up to the reality of their inevitable coexistence, they will have, by their own deeds, fulfilled the prophecy of doom, consuming each other to their tragic detriment.

There are extremists and fanatics among both Israelis and Palestinians who are bent on destroying the peace process and each other. In particular, the Islamic fundamentalists (Hammas) seek the destruction of Israel, and revisionist right-wing Israelis still dream of greater Israel and are willing to fight to the bitter end.

But the majority -- mainstream Israelis and Palestinians -- believe in coexistance, believe in their mutual right to live on the same land, believe that they share the same destiny and that they must live and let live to make the land of Canaan a true land of milk and honey. Israeli and Palestinian moderates must seize this historic opportunity and resolve to join forces to rout and quell self-destructive fanaticism.

Those extremists who are moved by passion should take heed of history. Jews and Palestinians have been thrust together. The third Jewish commonwealth is strong and daring. Israel has fulfilled the prophecy of the ingathering. The Jews have come back to their ''home.'' The Palestinians, too, are the dwellers of the land; they, too, have built a home. After 1,400 years they have developed the same attachment to the land of their ancestors. The prayers of both peoples have been heard and answered. The pain and anguish must now come to an end. Salvation of the soul and the redemption of the soil is the task.

Hammas can kill another 6 or 60 Israelis. Thousands more Palestinians can be expelled or shot to death. Regardless of how the drama of the stranded Palestinians in southern Lebanon ends, Israelis and Palestinians will be facing each other. As each side repositions itself, they will be talking with one another simply because there is no other choice.

Except this time around, hatred will run deeper, mutual fear and suspicion will be haunting. The waste of human lives and suffering will have taken its toll, further scarring their hearts, making the negotiations more and more intractable.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can have it all, and neither can build their home on the ruins of the other. They are destined to live together. The only way to avert future disaster and stop the self-consuming cycle is by making the necessary territorial compromises which are inevitable to make peace -- to survive. Only when Israelis and Palestinians accept each other and remain inseparable, but live their separate political lives, will the land truly become the ''land of milk and homey.''

Alon Ben-Meir is a political analyst specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.

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