Vayishlach: The First Salvation of the Jewish People in the West Bank from Conquest through Assimilation -- aka the “Rape of Dinah”

This week’s Torah portion, Yayishlach, has three main narratives. First is the account of Jacob wrestling with a man/angel/G-d. Second is what is usually referred to as the “Rape of Dinah.”  Third is Jacob’s “reconciliation” with his brother Esau.  

In America, the first and third of these narratives receive, by far, the lion’s share of attention.  I, though, would like to address the “Rape of Dinah” narrative, and, more particularly, a seldom-discussed aspect of it: its potential relevance to the current political situation in Israel.  

I'll summarize the narrative:  

After Jacob and Laban part, Jacob eventually settles in Shechem, today’s West Bank/Samarian/Palestinian town of Nablus.  Shechem, the man, rapes Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, and falls in love with her.  He asks his father, chief Hamor, to procure Dinah for him as his wife.  Hamor approaches Jacob, suggests that his people and Jacob’s people intermarry, and offers to pay any bride price for Dinah.  

Jacob’s sons, who know of the rape but do not reveal this, agree to intermarry if the men of Shechem will undergo circumcision.  Hamor and Shechem convince their kindred to comply, in part because “all their cattle and substance and all of their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms.” On the third day, while the males are in pain, Simeon and Levi kill them and take back Dinah. Jacob’s other sons plunder the town from the slain in revenge for Dinah’s rape and take all the property and the wives and children as slaves.  Jacob criticizes Simeon and Levi for bringing him trouble, since if the people of the land unite against him, they will destroy him and his entire house.  They answer, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”

When American rabbis and Torah study groups consider this narrative, the usual focus is upon the morality, or lack thereof, of Jewish actions. Does the Torah imply that Dinah was promiscuous and, under the mores of the time, brought the rape upon herself? Does it criticize or simply report Simeon and Levi’s treachery and mass killings, and their brothers’ taking of the spoils? And what should we make of Jacob’s condemnation of his sons’ actions only due to their potential repercussions?  

These are all important questions, discussed by our sages and certainly still worthy of contemplation and discussion.  Yet, current events in the very same place also warrant our attention to the facts that Schechem’s residents were engaged in effecting a plan to demographically eviscerate the Jewish people, and that even though Simeon and Levi cast their behavior in terms of honor killings, their drastic actions saved the Jewish people from extinction through assimilation.

According to a recent study, young American Jews about to visit Israel on a free 10-day trip have low “Israel literacy.”  (See also, summary news article).   Based upon their responses to a questionnaire, the majority cannot locate Tel Aviv on a map or correctly pick the name of the Israeli legislature from among four choices.  Given this, it is unsurprising that they also lack sufficient knowledge enabling them to express a nuanced opinion about the Israel-Palestinian (or broader Jewish-Arab) conflict.   

Contributing factors to this inability to discuss a situation that is so controversial on their campuses must include an unfamiliarity with the Torah’s account of our history in (pick one:) Shechem, Samaria, the “occupied territories,” the West Bank, Palestine.  They do not know that Judaism was almost strangled in its infancy in what today is called the West Bank -- a fact that should at least inform something of their views about what is happening there today.   

I have discussed “the situation” with Israelis from across the political spectrum, some of whom fought in the War of Independence.  There is far from unanimity about whether we should or should not remain in the West Bank.  Whatever one’s views about this, historical awareness is important, particularly awareness that the present conflict to the very same land dates all the way back to the Patriarchs.  And not just conflict about control of the land, but about Jewish intermarriage, assimilation, violence (by and to Jews), treachery, cultural hatred, and the threatened existence of the Jewish people.  
How can we expect our young people to have informed opinions about Israel and its politics, and about the likelihood (or not) of a political solution, if they don’t know that, according to polling, the majority of Palestinians feel about modern Israelis much the same way that the Canaanites felt about Jacob and his children? 

Here's a modest proposal.  Before 1967, it was perhaps natural that we referred to the Genesis 34 narrative as “The Rape of Dinah.”  But I think the time has come for a new description.  Not because the rape of Dinah is any less tragic than it ever was, but because that is not where our historical memory should be focused.  The most important thing about the “Rape of Dinah” narrative is not that Dinah was raped but that the Jewish people escaped a treacherous, planned “peaceful annihilation.”  

I thus propose that we start calling the narrative something like, “The First Salvation of the Jewish People in the West Bank from Conquest through Assimilation.”  That would at least allow us to recast our “occupation” there since 1967 as “The Second Salvation of Jewish People in the West Bank.” Politically correct?  Perhaps not.  Correct?  Yes.  

We have already given back Shechem; it is under Palestinian control as the city of Nablus.  Whether or not we should now give back more land, we should never forget why we had to take it in the first place – in Jacob’s time. To survive.  

Shabbat shalom. 



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb