The History of Jewish Foreign Affairs

Vayishlah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 19, 1994 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The meeting of Jacob and Esau after a separation of twenty years is preceded by a slow and suspenseful build-up. The Torah’s exquisite narrative skill does not allow the story to rush headlong to its climax. For our part, we would much prefer to hurry through Jacob’s extensive preparations, at least till we reach his night-long bout with an unknown adversary, which ends in the bestowal of a new name on Jacob: “Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:29).”

But medieval commentators found relevance in the details of the detour. Rashi in France just prior to the First Crusade in 1096, and Nachmanides in northern Spain in the middle of the thirteenth century both comment on the political lesson of the text. They regard the measures taken by Jacob to confront a well-armed brother, whose intentions were unknown, as emblematic of the tactics available to medieval Jews in their struggle to survive in the hostile Christian world of Esau’s descendants. Jacob did not rely solely on his piety to see him through his fraternal ordeal, and Rashi and Nachmanides identify therein a conscious tradition of Jewish political activism.

To be sure, it begins and ends with prayer. Jacob throws himself on God’s mercy. For two decades God has protected him abroad and caused him to prosper. Unabashedly, Jacob admits the great fear he has of his brother and nudges God not to forget the divine promise to multiply his fragile seed.

Beyond that, Jacob ingeniously appeals to Esau’s self-interest. Jacob is rich and ready to share his wealth with his brother. He inundates Esau with a cleverly staged flow of gifts to soften his wrath and impress him with the benefits of reconciliation.

And finally, if all else fails, Jacob is prepared to resist, to fight and flee. He divides his camp into two in the hope that “If Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape (Genesis 32:9).” These are the distinct stratagems that Rashi and Nachmanides recognize in the narrative as appropriate to their own times. As the national name suggests, Israel was neither a passive nor impotent minority. It pursued a calculated policy of political quietism to secure the maximum advantage from their numerical weakness.

I stress the existence of such an identifiable political tradition because I have long been fascinated by the remarkable survival of Jews as an organized group in exile. To account for that achievement without a trace of Jewish political savvy only compounds the mystery. I prefer to attribute some of the credit to the high quality of Jewish political action evident under the most adverse circumstances. The medieval Jewish community, without a sovereign body politic or military resources, administered its foreign affairs on the basis of reflection and transmitted experience.

What the comments of Rashi and Nachmanides preserve for us is the awareness of Jewish leadership that Jewish sufferance in the medieval world was strictly a matter of economic utility. Against the unpredictable wrath of the mob in the street, Jews needed to win the firm protection of the central authorities in the territory in which they wanted to settle. Toward that end, they parlayed the economic prowess of an industrious, disciplined and well-connected minority. As long as their financial contribution to the coffers of the king or prince offset such factors as religious fervor, economic competition or incipient nationalism, which could easily incite other sectors of society against them, Jews were tolerated with a large degree of communal self-government. The expulsions from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492 were effected by royal decree, but exacted by pressure rising from below.

When an alliance with a sovereign unraveled, Jews would move to another territory, often next door, where their services were more welcome. Nachmanides comments favorably on the extreme political fragmentation of medieval Europe, which frustrated any continental attack against the Jews and always ensured them a safe haven somewhere. “And also,” says Nachmanides, “this verse [Genesis 32:9] alludes to the fact that Esau’s descendants will never extinguish our name completely. Rather they will persecute some of us in some of their lands, one king attacking our money or person in his realm, even as another acts compassionately to rescue the refugees.”

The history of Jewish foreign affairs in the Middle Ages has yet to be studied thoroughly, in part because the prevailing conception of the period doesn’t believe it to exist. However, it is quite clear to me that political history is not solely the function of a sovereign body politic. In addition to a deep faith that made sense of their dispersion and a religious culture that placed a premium on communal organization, Jews displayed consistently a political sagacity that understood their predicament, realized their assets and potential allies and learned from bitter experience. In the words of God to Moses at the edge of the Sea of Reeds: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward (Exodus 14:15).”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yishlah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.