By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Since Jews began returning to the land of Israel in the late 19th century, they have faced no shortage of enemies. Surrounded by nations such as Syria, Egypt and Iran, Israel has overcome many powerful and frightening foes with armies far larger than the Jewish State could ever muster.
Yet somehow, Israel has managed to more than hold its own against these enemies. The one enemy that Israel has not yet found a way to overcome is perhaps the least likely of all: the Palestinians. The very name adopted by Israel’s Arab inhabitants, “Palestinians,” is misleading, for the modern-day Palestinians do not descend from, and bear no relation to, the ancient Philistines who dwelled along Israel’s coast in Biblical times.
Nevertheless, today’s Palestinians share something in common with the Philistines of old. The Philistines of the Biblical era were also the Jewish people’s most persistent and difficult adversary. Beginning with the era of Samson (Judges 13:1) and continuing through the generations of Samuel, Saul and David, the Philistines were consistently the most dangerous foe of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Why have both modern Palestinians and ancient Philistines been such difficult enemies of the people of Israel?
After the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, Moses and the people of Israel sing in thanks to God:
“The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; The tribes of Moab—trembling grips them; All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast” (Exodus 15:14-15).
In this prophetic song, three enemies of Israel are mentioned: Edom (the descendants of Esau), Moab (the descendants of Lot), and the Philistines. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (1720-1797) explains that these three nations represent three distinct types of enemies that the people of Israel were destined to confront throughout their history.
Edom represents those enemies, like the evil Nazis, who seek to physically harm the Jewish people as much as possible. Moab, by contrast, attacks the people of Israel spiritually, seeking to pollute them with impurity, as Moab did when its daughters seduced the men of Israel (Numbers 25:1).
And what about the Philistines?
“The Philistines caused Israel great suffering and did not allow them to be sovereign in their own land” (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, Commentary to Habakuk).
Throughout Jewish history, the vast majority of Israel’s enemies either sought to physically destroy the Jewish people or to force them to assimilate into the broader culture and lose their unique identity. The Philistines, however, were unique. Though they certainly murdered many Jews, their primary goal was not to seduce or annihilate the Jewish people but rather to prevent the Jewish people from ruling their own land!
A close look at the Biblical verses describing Philistine society reveals that the Philistines – unlike the Jews – left no positive legacy for the world. A pagan people who never developed an advanced legal system or culture, the Philistine identity was shaped almost entirely by its goal of subduing the people of Israel!
In our own time, the Palestinian people have continued the tradition of the Biblical Philistines. Over the last 75 years, as Israel has grown to become a spiritual and economic light unto the nations, the Palestinians have accomplished nothing. The Palestinian identity is shaped by one thing, and one thing alone: hatred of Israel and its battle with the Jewish people for sovereignty over the Holy Land!
Day after day, year after year, the Palestinians do everything in their power to torture the Jewish people. They will stop at nothing – including the murder of innocent men, women and children – in their quest to prevent the Jewish people from achieving their destiny: sovereignty over the Land of Israel. But just as King David ultimately defeated and destroyed the Philistine enemy, we know that one day, hopefully soon, God will deliver the Palestinian enemy into the hands of David’s heir, the Messiah that we pray and long for. May he soon come!