From this week's Torah portion, Parashat Ekev:
You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity...The Lord your God will dislodge those peoples before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them at once, else the wild beasts would multiply to your hurt. The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out. God will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out. (Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)
Yes, passages like these are part of our Torah - there is no getting around it. And our problem is compounded by the fact that this is not merely an academic issue. The conquest traditions of the Bible have actually been invoked by many early Zionist ideologues, the political founders of the state - and are increasingly cited by contemporary Israeli politicians and settler leaders.
The insidious comparison of Palestinians to the nations of Canaan cannot be dismissed as mere religious rhetoric. These theological linkages have enormous power, particularly when we consider the historical reality of the Zionist enterprise that includes the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1947-48 and policies of displacement and transfer that continue to this very day.
What then, do we do with Torah's conquest tradition? I would suggest its not enough to simply ignore it or pretend we can somehow “surgically excise" it from Jewish tradition.
The first thing, it seems to me, is to own the fact that this is part of our spiritual heritage. Owning the all of our tradition does not mean condoning or rationalizing. It means we must encounter these texts in a deep way and struggle to understand the fear, misdirected power and need to control that underlie them - so that we may ultimately free ourselves of these toxic impulses.
Indeed, if we truly come to grips with the internalized superiority inherent in these texts, we may yet find that we are able to achieve a kind of "sacred empathy" - to read them from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor. To decolonize the text, as it were.
In this regard, I've learned a great deal from the Native American liberation theologian Robert Warrior, who addressed the Biblical conquest tradition in a classic essay entitled "Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians":
The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus story with Canaanite eyes.
What would such a narrative look like? As ever, we will only find out when we actually endeavor to write it ourselves.
Rabbi Brant Rosen