“Land, Land! – This is the secret to the solution of the Jewish Question”
~Nathan Birnbaum, “Die Nationale Wiedergeburt judischen Volkes in seinem Lande” (1893)
One of my most memorable moments in Israel was not a swearing-in ceremony in the army, nor even the birth of Sabra children, but signing the contract to buy our apartment. That was it. We now owned a piece of Israel. The dreams of our ancestors had come true now we had documented roots. It was at that moment that I could truly identify with Abraham.
And Abraham knew what he was doing. He had to pay full price and ensure that he wasn’t just a recipient of charity while searching for a burial plot for his wife Sarah. He knew that in addition to finding suitable internment for Sarah that he had to establish facts on the ground:
וְיִתֶּן־לִ֗י אֶת־מְעָרַ֤ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בִּקְצֵ֣ה שָׂדֵ֑הוּ בְּכֶ֨סֶף מָלֵ֜א יִתְּנֶ֥נָּה לִ֛י
“Let him sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (Gen. 23:9)
Purchasing a plot of Land was critical to the story and our fate as a people. It gave him undisputed ownership and allowed him to avoid an uncomfortable yet predictable situation in which one’s existence in the Land was somehow dependent on the good will of an aristocrat or the could-turn-on-a-dime generosity of a landlord.
We had to own it. It had to be ours. Despite God’s promise to us in earlier [and later] chapters of Genesis we needed this as an insurance policy to own it fair and square, receive a deed, and be masters of our own domain.
We were not going to let anybody come back later and kick us out, or tell us that our lease was up and that they’d love us to stay but…
The medieval commentator Sforno, articulates it succinctly: “Avraham wanted complete freedom to do what he wanted to in the property once he had acquired it. This is the privilege granted to anyone owning an ancestral heritage.”
Because of Abraham’s savviness and good foresight, today we too, are inheritors of an ancestral heritage.
But that’s where it gets complicated.
On the one hand, yes absolutely. This is our Land promised to us by God, purchased for us by our forefather, and is our inheritance.
Amos Oz expressed it beautifully in his 1979 book Under this Blazing Light:
“The land of the Jews could not have come into being and could not have existed anywhere but here. Not in Uganda, not in Ararat and not in Birobidjan. Because this is the place the Jews have always looked to throughout their history. Because there is no other territory to which the Jews would have come in their masses to establish a Jewish homeland.”
We are no longer Territorialists (Zionist leaders, who took seriously proposals for Jewish homelands in places other than Palestine like Uganda, Argentina, or Madagascar – see In the Shadow of Zion for more on this), and Oz does not mince words on the importance of our homeland.
On December 29, 1901, the delegates to the 5th Zionist Congress voted to establish a Jewish National Fund with the express purpose of purchasing land for Jewish settlement. The Zionist enterprise understood this imperative that if we were to actualize our national aspirations, we had to take a page out of Abraham’s playbook and establish undisputable ownership over the land. And for decades, Jews around the world supported this lifeline and understood, as Baron Rothchild did and Abraham before him that we had to own land, and that we were not going to be subject to the will of others. We were done with that after centuries of perilous uncertainty. The Jewish national movement needed Jews to return to live in the region they are named for. Purchasing land for Jewish settlement became imperative for world Jewry for decades, but to what extent?
118 years later the reality has considerably shifted. The State of Israel has been established in our ancestral homeland and now one must ask not whether we could settle on all the Land, but if we should.
This is not a new argument, as the early Zionist adage of a “people without a land for a land without a people” has been both debunked and rejected, and yet the real fundamental disagreement over where Jews should purchase land is playing out before our very eyes.
One could make the argument that KK”L (Israeli JNF which is a separate organization from JNF-USA), based on its mission, could justifiably purchase land on those very same grounds mentioned in Genesis which we read this week. However, KKL is actually owned by the Jewish people and therefore should be prohibited from explicit land acquisition on areas that are beyond the realm of general consensus in today’s reality (see Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ recent op-ed on the issue).
The recent policy reversal by the U.S. administration on the understood legality of Israeli settlements sent many into a flurry of discussion and debate as to the legal question of Settlements. Many proponents of the Greater Land of Israel vision claim, that one cannot be considered an occupier on one’s own land, and that specific prohibitions of civilian settlement on conquered land do not apply. While the legal discussion is important it misses the larger issue, that of practicality and morality.
Despite the story of Avraham purchasing the Cave of the Machpela, the Torah is, unfortunately, not a legally binding deed to the Land in today’s world. We may have perfectly legitimate claims to our biblical inheritance and our ancestral homeland. That could include the key areas mentioned in these very chapters, Hevron, Kiryat Arba, Beit El, etc. But, as a moral and ethical people we must account for the consequences that our presence has. The discussion about whether the occupation is real or not has actually very little to do with the Land, and everything to do with the people.
If we are prepared to ensure the full civil and human rights of all people living in our ancestral land then we can do so without issue.
However, as we all well know and have been spouting endlessly for over a half-century, that will likely force us to lose our Jewish majority.
This touches at the fundamental core of the Jewish national and Zionist question of wanting to reclaim presence in our ancestral homeland.
“The age-old longings are a motive, but not a justification,” Amos Oz continued.
And here’s the rub:
“In a nutshell, I am a Zionist in all that concerns the redemption of the Jews, but not when it comes to the ‘redemption of the Holy Land’. We have come here to live as a free nation, not ‘to liberate the land that groans under the desecration of a foreign yoke’, Samaria, Gilead, Aram, and Haran up to the great Euphrates River. The word ‘liberation’ applies to people, not to dust and stone.”
(Amos Oz, Under This Blazing Light, p. 82-83, 1979)
So, two points to consider:
First, be like Abraham. Purchase your own piece of Israel. If you’re thinking about that retirement home in Florida or Arizona, or that cottage on Lake Wobegon, how about instead a beachfront property in Netanya, Herzliya, Tiberias, or Eilat? Call it ‘snowbird aliya,’ and join our 4,000-year-old tradition of owning a piece of Israel.
Second, don’t be like Avraham. Don’t let our Zionism be tied to a specific piece of real estate. Be flexible and understanding, keenly aware of today’s reality in order to maintain the dream of a establishing a just society. Being right isn’t always synonymous with being smart. Today’s reality calls for a moral reckoning for the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The critics aren’t wrong to say that our neighbors may never recognize us, even if we give up every last inch of land conquered in 1967 (which I am not advocating for). But while we struggle for recognition by our neighbors, and even our enemies, our job is to ensure that we recognize ourselves when we look in the mirror.