Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ezra 4: The Original Settlement Freeze

Another presidency, another failing attempt to negotiate a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A month back, President Obama got leaders from both camps in the same room for the umpteenth time to try to hash out a deal. And this week--also for the umpteenth time--the talks are in danger of falling apart. Why? The expiration of the so-called "settlement freeze."

For talks to begin, Palestinian leaders asked that Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu call for a temporary stop to Israeli construction in Palestinian territories. He did, setting a ten-month moratorium. However, the freeze ended last week, and Palestinian leaders are threatening to leave the negotiating table. (Here's the Times's latest update on the story.)

All this talk of settlement freezes got me thinking about the Biblical book of Ezra, in which King Artaxerxes issues a very different kind of building moratorium--one that stops construction of the holiest structure in Israel.

In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one; as a composite, they tell the story of the Israelites' return to the Holy Land after the Babylonian exile. Roughly speaking, Ezra narrates the reconstruction of the Temple, and Nehemiah deals with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

But much like the book of Judges--in which the Hebrews' entry into Israel is a bloody, complicated slog--Ezra-Nehemiah describes the Return as a difficult process.

It all begins well. Ezra 1 gives the text of an edict released by King Cyrus of Persia, who decrees that the Israelites may go home and rebuild their holy places. He even releases the contents of the Temple treasury, which had apparently been moldering in a really big Babylonian safety deposit box for the last fifty years.

Tens of thousands of exiled Israelites heed the decree and head back to Jerusalem to start building. However, no sooner do they lay the foundations for the new Temple than the locals start getting restless: "the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia until the reign of King Darius of Persia" (Ezra 4:4-5).

This "discouragement" reaches a peak in 4:7 and following, when the other residents of the land send a letter to the sitting king, Artaxerxes, asking him to revoke the Israelites' building permit. In their letter--the entirety of which is reproduced in chapter 4--they argue that the Hebrews are are a rebellious people, and that the Temple is merely the first step in a new revolt: "They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city; they are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced" (4:12-13).

The letter is persuasive, and Artaxerxes issues his own moratorium. Construction on the new Temple is stopped, not to begin again until the reign of a later king, Darius. (This "second Temple" will be completed in 515 B.C.E.)

For me, Ezra 4 provides two insights that might help us understand the current negotiating impasse in Israel.

First off, the chapter explains some Israelis' rationale for opposing a settlement freeze. It goes something like this: "The Persians (read: Iranians) told us we couldn't build in the Holy Land 2500 years ago. Who are you to stop us now?"

But there's another passage in Ezra 4 that is equally relevant to this discussion. Before the "people of the land" begin agitating against the Israelites, they offer an olive branch: "When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of the families and said to them, 'Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him'" (4:1-2).

There's nothing in the text to suggest that these adversaries' request is not sincere; nonetheless, the Israelites reject it: "You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel" (4:3).

This exclusivist language--"our God"--is telling. The Israelites believe that they have a unique claim to the land, and to the construction of their temple. They don't want to share their building--or their God.

Here's hoping that today's Israelites are more flexible. After all, the "adversaries" are at the table, willing to talk.

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