Repost: Vayishlach (and genocide)

What makes some people seek peace and cooperation, while others cannot stop finding enemies and scapegoats?  Why are some rulers, and ordinary people, tolerant of different cultures or religions, while others are bigoted, even genocidal?

I noticed the contrast between tolerance and hatred both in this week’s Torah portion and in the history of Spain, where we are traveling this month.

In Medieval Spain

Muslim rulers, from the Umayyads who conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century C.E. to the last Nazrid sultan of Granada in the late 15th century, preferred peaceful cooperation with non-Muslims living in their lands.  Jews and Christians were charged a tax, but they had  religious freedom and the right to own property and run their own civil courts.  Jews rose to prominence in their government, in science, and in scholarship.1

But Christian armies invaded Spain from the north, and in the 11th century several popes declared that the conquest of all Muslim lands was a religious duty.  In Christian Spain, Muslims and Jews were barely tolerated.

Gironella Tower

Jews were considered the property of Spanish monarchs, who valued them as bankers to fund royal ventures.  But when the church or the public needed a scapegoat or a focus for hatred, the king was often unable to intervene.  Peaceful times alternated with pogroms.

On our visit to Girona in northern Spain, my husband and I were enchanted by the ruins of Gironella Tower, a citadel at the corner of the medieval city wall.  Then we learned that in 1391 a priest incited mobs against the Jews in several Spanish cities, and in Girona many Jews fled there to hide.

When King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile married in 1469, only the vassal state of Granada in the southeast remained under Muslim rule.  The “Catholic Monarchs” started the Spanish Inquisition in 1478, and finished conquering Granada in 1491, making the entire Iberian peninsula safe for Christianity, unsafe for Muslims, and a death trap for Jews.

The last sultan of Granada surrendered on January 2, 1492, on condition that all Granadans could continue to practice their own religions and own their property.  A few months later Ferdinand and Isabella issued their “Alhambra Decree” requiring all Jews in Spain to either convert or leave the country in three months.  Jews were required to sell their real estate, but forbidden to carry gold, silver, jewels, or coins out of Spain.  And any Jews who converted were fair game for torture by the Spanish Inquisition.

Palace wall in Barcelona

In 1502 they issued a similar edict to eliminate Muslims.

Now Spain is working to revive Jewish history, but few buildings remain to help tell the story.  Even synagogues were sold in a hurry in 1492.  Our guided tour of Jewish Barcelona included the remains of a synagogue and a mikveh, and some Jewish tombstones used in the wall of the Christian royal palace.  But everything else was remodeled by the new owners.

Yehudah ibn Tibon, Granada

This week we are in Granada, where the Jewish population in 1490 was about 20,000.  Now there are four Jewish families living in Granada, according to a woman who set up a private Jewish museum on the ground floor of her house.  The only other Jewish sight in Granada is a modern sculpture2 of Yehudah ibn Tibon, a 12th-century scholar who translated several important Jewish books from Arabic into Hebrew.3

In the Torah portion

Two peoples start out on a friendly footing in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).  Jacob and his clan camp outside Shekhem in Canaan.  He buys some land from the ruling family of the city, intending to settle down.  He builds an altar for his God, and nobody objects.4

Jacob’s daughter Dinah, curious about their new home, goes out “to look at the women of the land.” (Genesis 34:1-2)  Prince Shekhem, son of the city’s ruler, seizes and rapes her.  Then he falls in love with her, and talks to her until her heart is moved.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)

The prince and his father, Chamor, come to Jacob to negotiate a marriage.  Shekhem offers to pay an exorbitant bride-price for Dinah.  Chamor proposes that his people and Jacob’s intermarry and dwell together as one people.  Jacob is silent, but his sons speak for him.  They lie to Chamor and Shekhem, promising the requested union if all the men of Shekhem become circumcised, a religious requirement for Jacob’s people.  The men of Shekhem do it.  While they are in pain, two of Jacob’s sons (Shimon and Levi) enter the city and kill them all, including Chamor and Shekhem.  They take off with Dinah (who now has no marriage prospects at all), and “Jacob’s sons” sack the city and enslave the rest of the population.

Maybe Chamor was asking for too much.  But Jacob’s sons could have tried to negotiate.  They could have asked their sister Dinah what she wanted.  Instead, they chose hatred and vengeance over peaceful cooperation.

(Click on my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 2 for more about the role of Dinah’s brothers.)

Jacob’s sons in this week’s Torah portion are genocidal zealots like Ferdinand and Isabella.  Just as the Catholic Monarchs obliterated the Jewish people and culture in Spain, Jacob’s sons obliterate the people and culture of Shekhem.

These are not the only examples of extreme intolerance.  We cannot change the past, or the Torah, but we can stand firm in favor of tolerance and peace whenever hatred rises again.

  1. Famous Jewish scholars from Spain include Maimonides (Rambam) in 12th-century Cordoba, Nachmanides (Ramban) in 13th-century Girona, and Moses de Leon (writer of the Zohar) in 13th-century Avila.
  2. Sculpture by Miguel Moreno, donated to the city in 1988.
  3. Yehudah ben Shaul ibn Tibon produced the authoritative translations of Duties of the Heart by Bahya ibn Paquda and Book of the Kuzari by Yehudah ha-Levi, among other works.
  4. Genesis 33:18-20.

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