Abraham’s Iraq Mistake


By David Klinghoffer

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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‘Turn it over and over, for everything is in it.” So the mishnaic tractate Pirke Avot tells us of the capaciousness of Torah: Everything that concerns us in our private or public lives is addressed by Jewish tradition — everything, including what America’s plans should be for post-war Iraq.

In making the case for war, President Bush spoke of his “goal of a unified Iraq with democratic institutions,” of “helping the Iraqi people to build a free Iraq.” Judging from the fact that Jews have been polling 10 percentage points behind other Americans in support for the war itself — 52% versus 62% — one suspects that there is also some skepticism in our community about the president’s nation-rebuilding ambitions.

Of course, one may reasonably wonder if a democratic Iraq is even possible. Middle East historian Bernard Lewis observes that public participation in government is unknown among the Arab states: “There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law.”

In his outstanding book “The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs,” David Pryce-Jones argues that Arab culture, propelled by tribal dynamics much older than Islam, is by nature unsuited to any system of orderly, legal transferring of office from one individual to another. In such a tribal society, power is achieved by violence; and once acquired it is given up only through further violence.

The Torah, however, challenges us to believe that cultures can change, if directed from the outside. The very first war recorded in the Bible is found in Genesis 14. As the story goes, four kings led by the tyrant of the land of Shinar — also known as Sumeria or Mesopotamia, and geographically identical with today’s Iraq — had been harassing five peoples of Canaan.

The latter, victims of Iraqi — I mean, Sumerian — violence, included among their five leaders the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. War broke out between the four Sumerian kings and the five Canaanite kings, and in the ensuing conflict Lot, a Sodom resident and nephew of the patriarch Abraham, was abducted.

Abraham intervened in the conflict against Shinar, leading a “coalition of the willing,” one might say, comprising 318 disciples. When Abraham won the war, there ensued a brief parley between himself and the king of Sodom. The latter offered a reward of booty: “Give me the people [the war prisoners] and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abraham high-mindedly refused both: “I lift up my hand to the Lord, God, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth: Not a thread of a shoe-string will I accept of anything that is yours!”

Despite his high-minded intentions, the Talmud takes Abraham severely to task for declining to accept responsibility for the people who had been left leaderless in the war.

In tractate Nedarim, Rabbi Eliezer asks, “Why was our father Abraham punished [so that] his children [the Jews] were enslaved for 210 years to Egypt?”

Various answers are then proposed by the other rabbis, but it is Rabbi Yochanan’s that catches our attention: Abraham was punished and the Jews enslaved because the patriarch “prevented human beings from entering under the wings of the Divine Presence, as it said [by the king of Sodom], ‘Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself’” (32a).

In Yochanan’s view, Abraham had an opportunity to mold this populace that had been displaced by war, to educate them and bring them into a proper relationship with God.

That is not to say that it would have been an easy task. The displaced persons Abraham and the Sodomite tyrant bargained over included the men and women of Sodom, a disreputable bunch.

But Jewish tradition holds that even a corrupt culture can be reshaped. Indeed, it is the responsibility of anyone who has the opportunity to reform such people to do so.

It would seem, then, that Iraqis likewise should not be regarded as hopelessly enslaved to their culture — nor to the legacy of Saddam Hussein. They can be liberated in soul as well as in body, turned into the first democrats in Arab history, if America wills it.

With less than a month until Jews celebrate the liberation of our ancestors from precisely the slavery that Abraham’s misplaced high-mindedness got us into, we can hope our president does not repeat our patriarch’s mistake.

David Klinghoffer’s new book, “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism,” was published this week by Doubleday.

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