By Rabbi Josh Weinberg February 19, 2021 – ז’ אדר תשפ”א
Over the past few days/weeks, we have been in deep discussion around a leaked proposal of the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL, the Israeli Jewish National Fund) to certify the right and interest by its current leadership to invest in more land in Area C of the West Bank (See the Reform Movement’s Statement on this issue). The organization is not talking about constructing new settlements but, according to the report, building within the jurisdiction of existing settlements or adjacent to them. Some have called for building only within “consensus” area settlements, those that will remain as part of Israel after a negotiated agreement.
The idea of “consensus areas” is an ancient idea in Judaism. The Book of Exodus could be renamed “the birth of a Nation” as we move from slavery to freedom and enter into a covenant between God and the Israelites, which endures until today. After that cathartic moment of receiving Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai – which tradition tells us included every Jew, past, present, and future (based on Exodus Rabbah 28:6) – the next mission for the people was a centralizing and formative building project. This great project, the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “brought to closure their birth as a nation and it symbolized the challenge of the future. The society they were summoned to create in the Land of Israel would be one in which everyone would play their part. It was to become … ‘the home we build together.’”
The Mishkan is a microcosm of society. The Ark sits at its core and represents righteousness. The Mishkan places righteousness in the center of a building project, a consensus institution. For the nascent Nation of Israel, the Mishkan and its Ark were not only the site of ritual performance, but also the seat of legislation (Deuteronomy 17:9), of conflict resolution (Exodus 22:10), and even a military headquarters (Numbers 10:35).
One goal of the Mishkan, and subsequently the Temple in Jerusalem, was to build a consensus area. Despite our division into tribes, the Mishkan provided the center, the focal point, and the singular unifying entity that all could see.
The question is: What do we mean today by “consensus?” For decades, settling the Land of Israel was the central consensus for Jews around the world. From institutional appeals, to the early propaganda, to the various projects of working and settling the Land, to Ben Gurion’s notion of settling the Negev desert, there was a general consensus. After the Six-Day war in 1967, the question of consensus changed.
The question of what to do with the territory conquered in the war remains among the most divisive questions of Israeli society and world Jewry at large.
Over half a century later some of those early settlements have turned into full-blown cities, with four of them toting populations of over 50,000 people (Modiin Ilit, Betar Ilit, Ariel, and Maale Adumim in order of size).
Roughly 71% of the Jews in the West Bank live in five main settlement “blocs,” four of which are near the 1949 Armistice Line (colloquially known as the Green Line). Most Israelis refer to these areas or blocs as “consensus areas” that should, one day, become part of the State of Israel when final status arrangements are made. Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have declared that the large settlement blocs will “remain in our hands.”
Is there really a consensus about these areas? It is hard to imagine that these large areas and highly populated towns, cities, and communities will ever be dismantled – like the Gush Katif bloc was in 2005. However, does the claim that they represent “consensus” mean that they should be treated as such?
What does that claim mean for official government or NGO policy? Last summer, during the various discussions around the possibility of West Bank annexation, some who favored annexation touted that only “general consensus areas” would fall under Israeli sovereignty.
Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc) is an instructive case. It was a group of communities 20 minutes south of Jerusalem, the core of which was established in the 1920s-30s – well before 1948. The village Kfar Etzion fell just days before Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Some maintain that the establishment, defense, and fall of Gush Etzion is “one of the major episodes of the State of Israel-in-the-making.” It still plays a significant role in Israeli collective memory. The motivation for resettling the region is not so much ideological, political, or security-related as it is symbolic, linked in the Israeli psyche to the massive loss of life (1% of its total population) in the 1947–1949 war.
So, does symbolic importance signify a consensus? Does that symbolic significance make it a “consensus area” with freedom to expand and grow (even under the guise of what might be considered natural growth) far into territory that might not be part of Israel after a negotiated agreement?
Even if Gush Etzion is a consensus area, what about the Jordan Valley?
Who decides what could or should be considered consensus? Is it the Israeli government? Or World Jewry, who technically owns the KKL (Israeli JNF)? Is it the Media or International law?
Are the Palestinians involved in the discussion of “consensus” – as they might have something to say about it?
Does consensus mean a ‘general feeling’ or is there a metric by which we could judge. For instance, a pollster likely would refuse to consider something to be consensus if it falls short of 100% agreement?
Rabbi Sacks continues:
“There is only one solution: to make the people co-architects of their own destiny, to get them to build something together, to shape them into a team and show them that they are not helpless, that they are responsible and capable of collaborative action.”
That’s how the Mishkan was built and its placement and symbolism designed. Today’s reality requires us to evaluate the notion of consensus, and to see what we actually agree on. This week we can use the Mishkan as our model for the way elections are carried out, the way checks and balances are calculated, the commitment to truthful reports in all public communications, and the way domestic and international policies are developed and implemented. All systems should exemplify this commitment: to include all the people as co-architects of their own destiny – taking responsible and collaborative action that ensures the safety, freedom, and dignity of all people.