The heathen prophet Bilaam was prompted to bless the Jewish people, instead of exposing their weaknesses to his patron Balak, but one phrase stands out as curious. He described us first as a “nation that dwells alone” (Bamidbar 23:9) – a fact reinforced in modern times in that Israel is the only country in the world that cannot serve on the United Nations Security Council. Non-permanent members are selected based on the regional bloc to which they belong – and Israel is the only country that is denied membership in a regional bloc (it is not considered a formal part of Asia, Africa or Europe; it is literally, a continent to itself). So Israel has no natural allies, and is different than everyone else.
But Bilaam added something else that is often lost in our reflections on dwelling in solitude: “and they will not be reckoned among the nations.” But what does that really add to our understanding – to be alone is by definition not to be reckoned ? What does it mean “not to be reckoned” ?
The great commentator Rashi offers two explanations: first, it means that “we will not be destroyed like the idolatrous nations” on the day of judgment. Every other nation’s existence is finite; ours is eternal. We are not reckoned with them, in that we are not a nation like other nations. Rashi then added that ‘when we rejoice, no nation rejoices with us; and when the nations are in fine fettle, they celebrate with each other” – and we don’t make it to the guest list – we just don’t count. What a dark and foreboding view of Jewish life – and what kind of “blessing” is that ?
Most thinking Jews live with a persistent frustration that is often suppressed, and rarely articulated, but goes something like this: how come the world never sees things our way ? Our most vehement critics are often evil people, but sometimes they are decent – or at least people who evince decency in other areas of their lives. And yet, it always seems that nothing we do is appreciated, and no suffering that we endure is of any import. I have been hearing for most of my life that Israel’s international image suffers from poor hasbara, a nice word for PR. And each time something happens that to us is so obviously moral and the world condemns it as patently immoral, we wonder where did we go wrong ? Was it something we said, or did, that we could have said or done differently ?
Israel, time and again, has conducted its statecraft and military policy specifically in order to preclude criticism – and the criticism comes nonetheless. Israelis thought they would leave Gaza even at the cost of expelling thousands of Jews – so they wouldn’t be accused of the “occupation.” Having left, the “occupation” accusation still continues. They thought that if they removed the pretext of occupation and rockets continued to fall on Israeli towns, they would have free rein to attack the enemy. Wrong again – any military response is deemed a “disproportionate use of force.” (Usually, nations win wars because of the “disproportionate use of force;” evidently, not here.)
Before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and to forestall the charge that Israel was attacking civilians, Israel dropped millions of leaflets and made 250,000 cell phone calls urging civilians to flee! In the process, they relinquished the element of surprise. Did they then avoid that indictment ? Of course not ! The Goldstone Report appeared, accusing Israel of wantonly killed civilians, a criticism leveled with vehemence by, among others, the Russians, who just 10 years ago killed 50,000 civilians in Chechnya. From Sudan to Afghanistan, mass murderers routinely accuse Israel of mass murder. The more Israel concedes and appeases, the worse its reputation becomes.
So, what are we missing ? The Western world is currently expelling Israeli diplomats (one per country) to protest the Mossad’s allegedly use of forged passports in allegedly carrying out the killing of Mabhouh, the Hamas official in Dubai, just 4 months ago. Note: the West and Dubai are outraged – not by the terrorist who walks freely among them plotting his mayhem against Jews but by an arcane breach of diplomatic protocol – something every intelligence agency in the world does.
The rules don’t seem to apply equally. Israel’s blockade of Gaza is legal, proper and wise – every nation at war does the same – Turkey, US, UK, Russia, etc. That is part of war – and the hand-wringing over the takeover in international waters, outside the 20-mile limit, is also a smokescreen. (If the enemy was within 20 miles, or three miles, would it have mattered at all ?)
The new satirical web site www.latma.co.il is based on the premise that regular diplomacy or policy briefings no longer matter much in terms of public opinion – that PR can better enlighten through parody. And, indeed, the most effective PR Israel has had in 30 years was the “We Con the World” about the flotilla raid, and even there the double standard was obvious. The video has been removed from YouTube on grounds of a “copyright claim” by Warner-Chappell music, despite the fact that satire is permitted under the Fair Use Doctrine (otherwise, satirists from Paul Shanklin to Shlock Rock would be out of work); indeed, the original “We are the World” is so treacly and cloying that there are about twenty parodies that are still on the internet – that doesn’t seem to bother Warner-Chappell, who obviously came under pressure from anti-Israel forces.
Every time we think something will happen that will make the world see things our way, it doesn’t – from the surrender of Sinai, to Oslo, from welcoming back Arafat to the lynching in Shechem, from the Arabs cheering the Arab terror of 9/11 to the suicide bombings, from the withdrawal from Lebanon to the rocket wars in the north and south, from the capture of the Iranian arms ship Karine-A to Gilad Shalit (four years in captivity), and on and on. What can we do to change this ? The answer is…
Absolutely nothing. That is what it means “and they will not be reckoned among the nations.” We are not esteemed, our viewpoints are not valued, and our arguments mean nothing. We torture ourselves by thinking – “if only we said this, if only we had louder demonstrations, if only we took our more ads, if only we wrote more letters to the editor, if only we had more articulate diplomats, if only, if only. It will not make a difference. This fantasy of “universal acceptance” – that something will happen that will magically transform the world into Israel-lovers who extol the justice of our cause – is the elusive brass ring, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the Holy Grail – it’s the lure that the greyhounds chase at the races. “And they will not be reckoned among the nations.”
Nothing will change it. The nations of the world are pre-programmed not to be sympathetic to Israel. That is why their opposition is often so illogical and patently hypocritical. Sure, we will pick off a few people here and there – isolated individuals – who write beautiful, substantive, pro-Israel pieces. In fact, we are so excited when it happens – one week it’s journalist Joe McCain (John’s brother), the next week it’s the ex-prime minister of Spain, next week it will be someone else – that we widely circulate these articles via e-mail and wish we could fete them, at Jewish organizational banquets. All are agents of the Almighty sent to us that we should not lose our sanity. And Israel has many non-Jewish supporters – good people all – but they are exceptions, and can never become the majority.
Rashi says that we are inherently different – not a nation like others, and not subject to the frailties and infirmities of nations. And something else: if “and they will not be reckoned among the nations” means anything, it means that they do not want to hear our story. They can’t hear it. They don’t grieve with us when our soldiers are captured or killed, they don’t mourn when our civilians are bombed or terrorized, and they do not rejoice in our military triumphs. On the contrary: we are constantly dehumanized (as the Netziv comments) so that from the perspective of our critics, we never suffer. And if it looks like we do, then we deserve it because we brought it on ourselves. (Indeed, we did, in part: Israel has foolishly asserted for 20 years already that it wishes to share the land of Israel, recognizing the “legitimate” claims of others; the other side claims the land is all theirs, and that the thief always wants to share his ill-gotten gains. Their claim is more plausible – but that too is a subterfuge. It wouldn’t matter – “and they will not be reckoned among the nations.”) Nonetheless, the more we demonstrate a lack of faith in the justice of our cause, the more we embolden our enemies and dishearten our friends.
Bilaam is the vehicle of this prophecy – which is important, like all of Israel’s PR – for us – not for them. That’s the blessing ! When we listen to their attacks, and wonder where we went wrong, we have our answer: “and they will not be reckoned among the nations.” We can yell and scream and demonstrate all we want – and we should, because it strengthens us and makes us feel better – but it will not change their opinion, which is not based on reasoned analysis but on the natural and unavoidable implications of “and they will not be reckoned among the nations.”. From the perspective of the outsider – and only an outsider can teach us this – Bilaam verifies that we will not be reckoned, but also that, deep down, these same nations admire us and respect us, and concede that “ G-d sees in us no iniquity or perversity.”
We may not always see it in ourselves – but they do – that is why they keep their distance, until the day comes when the remnant of Yaakov will perceived as a lion among the forest animals, when our hands will be raised over all our adversaries, and the Messiah brings to the world justice, brotherhood, peace and global acknowledgment of the reign of G-d.