appeasement first

Parshat Vayishlach

Ever since Neville Chamberlain claimed “Peace for our time” , “Appeasement” has become a dirty word…. especially for Jews.  During the current debate over how to deal with the Iran threat, any talk of negotiations has raised taunts using the “A” word.  Even George W Bush, considered by some to be the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, was accused by Ariel Sharon of being an appeaser (I quote at length ….)


“I call on the Western democracies and primarily the leader of the free world, the United States: Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938 when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient temporary solution,” Sharon said.
“Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense,” he said. “This is unacceptable to us. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism.”

To which the Bush white house responded:

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s warning to the United States not to “appease” Arabs at Israel’s expense is “unacceptable.”
President Bush’s spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration’s reaction has been relayed to the Israeli Embassy, the National Security Council and the State Department.
“Israel has no stronger friend and ally in the world than the United States,” Fleischer told reporters. “President Bush is an especially close friend of Israel. The United States has been working for months to press the parties to end the violence and return to a political dialogue.”

October 5th 2001, CNN

Since many of those who are quick to make accusations of appeasement are also students of the Bible and its classical commentaries, it may come as a surprise that in his treatment of Jacob’s peace initiative with his estranged (and defrauded) brother, Rashi suggests that trying to appease one’s enemy is the first step to engagement with one’s enemy.

the remaining camp will escape: Against His will, for I will Wage war with Him. He (Jacob) prepared himself for three things: for a gift*, for prayer, and for war. For a gift, [as Scripture says] (verse 22): “So the gift passed on before him.” For prayer, [as Scripture says] (verse 10): “God of my father Abraham …” For war, [as Scripture says]: “the remaining camp will escape.” – [commentary on Genesis 32: 9 from Tanchuma Buber, Vayishlach 6]


Lest you think that I am confusing gift-giving etiquette with an appeasement strategy, or should you think that something is being lost in translation…. Rashi continues:

Genesis 33: 10. And Jacob said: ‘Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found favor in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand; forasmuch as I have seen thy face, as one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.

genesis 33-10
Rashi: thou wast pleased with me: You have become reconciled with me. Likewise, every [instance of] רָצוֹן in Scripture is an expression of appeasement, apayement in Old French, e.g.,“for it will not be for an appeasement (לְרָצוֹן) for you” (Lev. 22:20),“The lips of a righteous man know רָצוֹן. They know how to placate and appease (לְרַצוֹת)” (Prov. 10:32). [from Targum Onkelos]


What lessons are we to draw from Rashi and the Tanhuma (arguably the earliest collection of midrashim)?

There are some thinkers who believe that we should learn political philosophy from the Bible.  The most outspoken advocate of this is Yoram Hazony who recently published a book called The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.  He argues rather unconvincingly, that we should take the Bible as a philosophical tract.  I would argue that the Bible contains a code of law and is also great literature.  Literature in the most magnificent sense of the word.  As in literature (depending on your perspective) written by God or written in the most collaborative and ongoing writing program in existence. But does it contain any systematic philosophy, based on premises and logical thinking and structured in corollaries and driven by deductive reasoning… I think not.  [Hazony is a professor at the Shalem center which also published the discontinued Hebraic Political Studies Journal]

Hazony in a previous book The Dawn – Political Teaching of the Book of Esther, leans toward realpolitik  approach which looks at conciliatory approaches to conflict resolution (especially by Jews) as a weakness and as an unfortunate reflex picked up over years as a pariah in exile.  In short, he is not apologetic about massacres such as at the end of the book of Esther or in the conquest of the land.

I am confident that Hazony would read Rashi and the Tanhuma’s approach as the pathetic product of a ghetto mentality and would select alternative commentaries that fault Jacob for humiliating himself in front of Esau.  For instance Bereshit Raba 65. II 5:

“When Jacob called Esau ‘my lord’, the Holy One blessed be He, said to him: ‘Thou hast abased thyself and called Esau “my lord” eight times.  I will raise up eight kings of his descendants before thy descendants,’ as it says, And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel”

A book by Ruth Wisse and (unlike Hazony’s) eminently worth reading called Jews and Power demonstrates how Jewish political weakness both increased Jewish vulnerability to scapegoating and violence, and unwittingly goaded power-seeking nations to cast Jews as perpetual targets.

I think that there is much to the argument that after 2,000 years of exile, Jews need to learn how to use power and non-Jews need to learn to accept Jews with Power.  But I don’t think that in so doing we need to forget the utility, affect and propriety of conciliation, compromise and appeasement.

Fortunately, our Bible, its commentaries and the intellectual debates it drove did not produce a rigorous philosophy, political or otherwise, let alone dogma.  Rather it, like all great literature contains opposing opinions and unresolved conflicts.  It does not provide for one universal rule to be applied without exception.  And so a healthy debate over the benefits and proper use of power and appeasement continues till today.

You may permit me however, to thank Jacob, the Tanhuma and Rashi for reminding us that appeasement need not be a dirty word.


* of interest, the word used for gift is “do’-ron” which is actually a greek word:

doron greek

which raises the question of greek (foreign) influence regarding this 3-step political action program….


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Torah

3 responses to “appeasement first

  1. Orna Stern

    Brilliant analysis and connection to current events, maybe someone in the israeli government should read this..

  2. Haya Wexler

    Dearest Thank you for the article. It is very interesting. Bless you.

  3. Pingback: the hiker’s guide to zionism | madlik

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