In 1801, Thomas Jefferson had finally had enough. For the better part of 25 years, Americans had been paying ransom and tribute to the Arab nations of the Barbary Coast (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, amongst others) to avoid having their ships taken and their sailors enslaved. By 1801, when Jefferson was inaugurated as President of the United States, ten percent of America’s national budget went to paying off pirates.
There were many John Adamses among the administration who believed that paying the tribute was the best option. Still recovering from the American Revolution, with barely a navy to speak of, the Americans had attempted negotiations with the pirates to no avail.
When asked by Jefferson, then ambassador to England, and Adams what right the Barbary states had to prey upon American shipping and enslave both crew and passenger, Tripoli’s Abd Al-Rahman responded that nations who had not accepted Islam were sinners and that the Quran mandated war and enslavement against them. So the newly inaugurated president went to war.
It would be 15 years before the North African nations accepted defeat, and America finally stopped paying tribute. Sometimes negotiations don’t work, and you have to be willing to fight.
In this week’s parsha of Pinchas, G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jewish people (Bamidbar 25:17) to “harass the Midianites and smite them.”
Rashi (ibid.) suggests we are meant to “make them our enemy.” This is an unusual command for a people whose mission is ultimately to be “a light unto the nations” (Yeshayahu 49:6). Why not negotiate for lasting peace? Why must we harass them as an enemy?
It was Midian who, on the advice of the wicked prophet Balaam, sent their daughters to seduce Jewish men, leading to a terrible plague that killed thousands of our people. Yet the Torah interrupts that narrative with a number of seemingly unrelated topics (a census, the passionate story of the daughters of Tzlafchad who wish to inherit their father’s land, and the sacrifices) before finally getting back to the business of avenging the Jewish people against the Midianites in next week’s portion (Bamidbar 31:2). Why?
Furthermore, it was not only the Midianites who were responsible for this reprehensible plot. Moav was equally complicit in the plotting. Indeed, it was the King of Moav in last week’s portion who led the failed effort to curse the Jewish people. So why is it only Midian that the Jews are commanded to attack?
There is one fundamental difference between the Midianites and the Moabites: Moav wished to do battle with the Jewish people because they were afraid of us: “And Moav became frightened of the (Jewish) people, for they were so numerous” (ibid. 22:3). There was logic to their attack: they feared the economic repercussions of such a large and numerous people so close to their borders. They did not hate us; they feared us.
The Torah however, gives us no reason for the Midianites’ decision to join the attack; it seems they simply hated us for no reason.
Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that you can reason with fear, but you cannot negotiate with hatred. And hatred has to be something we as a people abhor. Hatred, and those who hate, is the antithesis of everything good the Jewish people are meant to teach the world. You cannot reason with hate.
Judith White, in the Harvard Business Review, suggests that it is possible to negotiate with people who are overly emotional. “Once the conflict is identified and addressed, and parties are allowed to vent, emotion usually dissipates” (June 2014: Two kinds of people you should never negotiate with). And you can even negotiate with people who are being unreasonable: “We often think people are being unreasonable when they don’t agree with our logic and evidence. But more often, people who disagree with us are simply seeing different problems, and even different sets of facts, than we are. Even if you think the other party is being unreasonable, it’s still possible to bridge the gap and close a deal” (ibid.)
But you can’t negotiate with people who see the world in absolute terms of good and evil:
“What [such people] want is for evil people to be held accountable and punished, and because you are in a conflict with them, you may fall into that category. Walking away would deprive [them] of the opportunity to punish you.”
There is simply no reasoning with such people; you can only walk away. And if that option does not exist, then you have to be willing to fight.
Such was the case with Adolf Hitler and the evil he represented in World War II, which was why the Allies insisted on absolute surrender. There could be no negotiating with evil; evil needs to be destroyed.
It seems that we find ourselves in similar circumstances today, with many suggesting we should negotiate with Iran to prevent a nuclear Middle East, or with Hamas and Hezbollah to achieve peace and quiet borders. Perhaps the Torah is suggesting that when our enemies hate us simply because of who we are, there is no point in negotiations. The world will not know peace until such evil is destroyed.
As we enter the traditional Three Weeks of mourning in the Jewish calendar that lead up to Tisha B’Av and the anniversary of the destruction of both Temples and the resulting exiles, it behooves us to consider whether negotiations bring us closer to peace or to war. A sobering thought.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.