A Biblical Lesson on How Not to Counter Populist Revolt

June 15 2018

In this week’s Torah reading of Koraḥ (Numbers 16-18), the title character leads a revolt against Moses, accusing him of corruptly giving his brother Aaron the position of high priest. The rebellion ends when the earth opens and swallows Koraḥ and his closest associates, and a heavenly fire consumes the rest of his followers. Understanding Koraḥ as an “archetypal populist,” Jonathan Sacks seeks to learn from the aftermath of the revolt:

First Koraḥ [claims that] the establishment (Moses and Aaron) is corrupt. Moses has been guilty of nepotism in appointing his own brother as high priest. He has kept the leadership roles within his immediate family instead of sharing them out more widely. Second, Koraḥ presents himself as the people’s champion. “The whole community,” he says, “is holy.” There is nothing special about you, Moses and Aaron. We have all seen God’s miracles and heard His voice. We all helped build His sanctuary. Koraḥ is posing as the democrat so that he can become the autocrat. . . .

For once in his life, Moses acted autocratically, putting God, as it were, to the test [by predicting a miraculous death for the rebels before hearing God’s response]. . . . Yet this dramatic effort at conflict resolution by the use of force failed completely. The . . . people, despite their terror, were unimpressed. “On the next day, however, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord’” (Numbers 17:6). Jews have always resisted autocratic leaders.

What is even more striking is the way the sages framed the conflict. Instead of seeing it as a black-and-white contrast between rebellion and obedience, they insisted on the validity of argument in the public domain. They said that what was wrong with Koraḥ and his fellows was not that they argued with Moses and Aaron, but that they did so “not for the sake of Heaven.” . . .

Judaism does not silence dissent: to the contrary, it dignifies it. This was institutionalized in the biblical era in the form of the prophets [and in] the rabbinic era it lived in the culture of argument evident on every page of the Mishnah, Talmud, and their commentaries. In the contemporary state of Israel, argumentativeness is part of the very texture of its democratic freedom, in the strongest possible contrast to much of the rest of the Middle East.

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Read more at Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

More about: Biblical Politics, Hebrew Bible, Jonathan Sacks, Moses, Religion & Holidays

Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine