Tragic replay of Isaac and Ishmael unfolds in Israel

(July 22, 2014)

With each flare up of hostilities in the Middle East, we grow more pessimistic and weary about any long-term resolution of the conflict. Hamas sends thousands of rockets into the heart of Israel, and Israel responds with force. Suspicion and hatred endure and the status quo persists.

The number of young people nurtured on the milk of violence and death grows day by day. Despite poignant examples of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents weeping together over their kidnapped and murdered children, the voices of revenge grow louder. An article in Tablet magazine reports that “never before in the history of the region have so many young men had so little hope, so few communal ties, and so many reasons to take up arms.”

Dr. Bruce Wexler, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, in his book, “Brain and Culture,” writes that neuroscience research shows that the human brain is directly shaped by environmental stimuli throughout childhood and adolescence. Early in life the brain is plastic, receptive to new outside stimuli, to recurring features of the world around it. Each generation helps to shape the structure of the brains of the next.

A new generation in the Middle East is being raised without any vision, but an apocalyptic one. When Israeli and Palestinian children are daily bombarded with images of atrocities and discord, when they learn from infancy to distrust and suspect each other, to demonize and dehumanize the other, what hope is there for the future?

By early adulthood the brain has developed its structure and has a much-diminished capacity to change. Because of this, individuals seek environments and social structures consistent with their own internal values and outlooks. Wexler writes that instead of “changing our minds to fit the world, we try to change the world to fit our minds.” At the beginning of the 21st century, minds filled with animosity and violence are shaping the world, and we are all the losers.

Hayyim Gouri, an Israeli poet, suggests that the current pain reaches back to the generation of Isaac and Ishmael. A father holding a knife over his son may be a distant memory, but as Gouri writes, “Isaac …bequeathed that (traumatic) hour to his offspring. They are born with a knife in their hearts.”

International conflicts cannot be explained only in terms of economic, social and political conditions but in terms of a deeply seated “neurobiological antagonism to difference.” Are we encrypting our children’s brains with hate? Are we teaching a new generation of Isaacs and Ishmaels, Israelis and Arabs, to see each other as perennial enemies? Are the brains of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims being wired to hate the West? And are the brains of children born in Europe and America being fashioned to distrust and stereotype all Muslims?

While strategic and diplomatic efforts may provide short-term solutions, the long-term conflict will end only when antagonisms are addressed at their most human level; when the status quo is deemed untenable; when the sides learn and respect each other’s narratives; when Zionism is no longer demonized or the State of Israel ostracized; when the rightful aspirations of the Palestinians are reconciled with Israel’s security and not hijacked by apocalyptic jihadist ideology.

Unfolding before us is not a David and Goliath story as so many are wont to say. It is an Isaac and Ishmael story, one tied to an altar with a knife overhead and the other sent away. They are both children and both victims.

We need to fashion a generation that is not born with a knife in its hearts or wounds in its souls.


Sandy Sasso is senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University. Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.