Shaya Cohen -


The Nature of an Arab

There is no doubt that Ishmaelites are the Arab peoples; the descendants of Ishmael are the traders who bring the chained Joseph to Egypt. Unlike in Europe or the Americas, there is no data that the Arabs were ever substantially replaced by an invading people. Surviving (and even thriving) in the desert is not trivial, there is not much threat from outsiders. In this way, the deserts of Arabia are quite like the Arctic: there is no invasion risk from those who are not already highly skilled and well-adapted for sustaining life in such a hostile environment.

It seems wrong to somehow have a national or ethnic stereotype. The Torah tells us that each person is created in the image of G-d, and that each person contains G-d’s own divine spirit. That tells us that every person deserves respect for that reason alone.

But the Torah also tells us about the nature of different nations. Most notably, the Torah speaks of Ishmael: “He shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone. And everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.” (Gen. 16:12)

The Torah brings more imagery, that of a bowman. When Hagar wanders in the wilderness, she removes herself from her crying child, from Ishmael. The distance given is “a bowshot,” which is odd: this is the only time in the Torah where this unit is used.

The imagery continues: Ishmael grows up and becomes an archer. And I think that this continued imagery tells us a lot about Ishmael and his modern descendants, arabs.

Here’s why: Archery has two distinct characteristics: one can kill from a distance, impersonally; and an archer always keeps the option of retreat open.

The first, the idea of impersonal killing, is psychologically very important. A modern sniper watches his target die, through a scope that brings it all very close. Similarly, a swordsmen also has to kill up close and personal. But an archer can shoot a person (or into a crowd) from a distance. He is removed, both in time and in space, from the arrow piercing its target. An archer does not need personal commitment to murder in order to kill.

More than this: because there is less of a human connection when an archer kills, the archer can completely divorce themselves from the underlying nature of the deed. Someone who does not engage in close combat does not need to understand his opponent, to defeat him by getting inside his head. Archers do not need to empathize, to think like their targets in order to win. If empathy is not needed, it can be discarded. And you can end up with people who spend little to no time or effort trying to understand the other side. That person is an archer. That is the kind of person who can send a child in a suicide-bomber vest into a crowd.

Similarly, keeping retreat open always means lack of commitment. A person who is cornered will fight to the death. A person who can retreat, will do so when things start looking bad. This, too, is an Arab trait.

If we accept the Torah when it tells us that each person has a divinely-gifted soul, then we should also accept it when it tells us about the nature of different peoples. There is much to consider!

Comments are welcome!

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