“A nation without borders” — How the occupation unwinds Israel

Erez crossing, public domain
Erez crossing, public domain

Donald Trump occasionally says a true thing, even though he may not understand its implications. At most rallies, Trump would thunder, “A nation without borders is not a nation” – a slight dumbing down of Reagan’s comment that “a nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” Both were railing against illegal immigration. But on the eve of Trump’s first visit to the holy land, what happens if we turn Trump’s quote around and ask: how about a nation that literally has no consistent borders – such as Israel today?

Trump’s visit coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War, the genesis of Israel’s border problem, and with Yom Yerushalayim, which commemorates the third day of that war, when Jerusalem was re-unified. The Six-Day War of course ended with the conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Sinai. Only one of those conquests, Sinai, has been transformed into a stable border between two countries. Without borders, is Israel still a nation?

In 1967, Israel conquered all the lands of that were part of the partition of Palestine in 1948, and it took under its wings about a million Palestinians, including many refugees from the previous war, who had fled from or were expelled by Israeli forces. Two contiguous territories, one an independent Jewish state and one under Jordanian occupation, came under one ruler, but not under one rule. The first intifada disrupted years of defacto coexistence, where Israelis could jaunt off to Jericho to get a hit of Arab authenticity. The status quo changed again with Oslo, and then devolved, along with all the unfulfilled “confidence-building measures,” into the violence, resistance, and terror of the second intifada, starting in 2000. Israel began to wall off much of the West Bank in earnest in 2003; by 2006 the wall had stopped most suicide bombings.

Erez crossing
Erez crossing, public domain

Through all these stages, there has been no border. The separation wall or security fence is sometimes thought of as one – it approximates the Green Line of the 1949 armistice, which is internationally recognized even if it was meant to be temporary. But often the wall doesn’t follow that line, veering off-course to separate Palestinians from their olive groves and farms, or to include areas of Israeli settlement – almost always (85% of the time) adding territory from would-be Palestine to Israel’s side of the wall.

Even if we were to treat the wall like a defacto border, it doesn’t function like any border. What is a border for, after all? In military terms, a border defines that area within which a nation’s army may act with freedom, the area where it has the right to defend its territory by international consensus. In civil terms, a border defines the area within which a nation’s laws apply, as well as defining who is within or outside that nation’s territory.

Neither the Green Line nor the line of the wall act like a border in any of these senses. Israel’s military acts with complete freedom on the other side of the Green Line within Areas B and C, which comprise 75% of the West Bank. (Area C by itself, where Israel’s military has complete jurisdiction over Palestinians, is more than 60%.) Israel’s citizens stream back and forth over that line and past the wall with nothing more than a wave by a soldier. They can work and settle on either side of it, and their lives are administered by Israeli civil courts, on either side. They use different roads than the Palestinians, and can usually call on the military to take their side.

Everyone who cares about the issues knows these facts. Even though there are sometimes logical reasons that underlie them, they are a big part of why pro-Palestinian or anti-Zionist activists want to call the wall an “apartheid wall” – whether we like that term or not. But whatever one calls the wall, no one would call it a border.

From the Palestinian side, the separation wall divides up the land into dozens of separate pieces, and the boundaries of Area B further divide the land into hundreds more pieces. From both sides, the actual border is not territorial but judicial: if one is Jewish and Israeli, one is on the Israeli side of the border under Israeli law, wherever one lives in Areas B or C. If one is Palestinian, one is under the jurisdiction of Israeli military courts, wherever one lives. (That’s true even though some civil issues in Area B are handled by Palestinian courts.)

Another meaning of borders is lines drawn on a map. Though Jews have never ceased to decry that the Palestinians want to wipe Israel off the map, it is Israel who has wiped Palestine off the map. Most maps of Israel distributed by the government, printed by Jewish publishers, or used in Jewish religious schools, do not show the Green Line at all. Palestinians may also be using their own “contranegative” maps that wipe out Israel – but Israel’s maps come closer to the political reality.

The only meaning of borders for a non-Palestinian visitor to Israel, from a map perspective, is that you might be warned to stay out of Area A when you rent a car. Or you might look at a phone coverage map: until the end of 2015, Palestinians had no access to 3G networks, and still have no access to 4G. There are plenty of other problems – you just can’t find most of them on the average map you’ll get in Israel.

The meaning of occupation for Palestine, or what could eventually become Palestine, is neatly summarized in the fact that Palestine according to the ABC’s of Oslo is made of so many islands with their own borders that the idea of a nation with contingous borders is meaningless. But if there is no border for Palestine, then there is no border for Israel either.

So – “no nation without borders” – true or not? Porous borders make for unchecked immigration and unchecked import and export of goods, but non-functioning borders have an entirely different meaning. Proper borders put limits on a nation’s power and laws; beyond those borders other laws apply. Traditionally, the kind of entity whose borders or laws get pushed to wherever its military reaches, irrespective of boundaries, is not a nation-state but an empire, or a wannabe empire.

That was the way of the world during the time of biblical Israel, the time of the judges and the monarchies. The whole ancient world was a constant struggle to see which nation or group, or even family, could force itself upon the territory of its neighbors. The book of Judges describes it this way: “every man would do what was upright in his own eyes.” But however we describe it, both under the judges and under the kings, it was often a shitshow – not just Philistines killing Israelites and vice versa, but Israelites killing Israelites, in the thousands.

For example, in Judges 7, Gideon drives back the Midianites from Israelite territory. Then in Judges 8, the Ephraimites almost go to war against Gideon because they are insulted they were not asked to join the fight. Gideon circumvents a rebellion by flattering them. But in Judges 12, under similar circumstances, after Yiftach defeats Ammon there’s a full on war, and Yiftach’s men kill 12,000 Ephraimites. The men are rooted out as they try to escape by asking them to pronounce the shin of shibbolet, a sheaf. They would say it wrong, like sibbolet. (Kind of like checking papers when someone has the “wrong,” i.e. Hispanic, accent.) That’s just one of dozens of examples of internecine massacres.

The Netanyahu government is not about to carry out massacres against its intra-tribal enemies (though war against external enemies like Hamas is hardly felt to present moral quandaries by most Israelis). But the government has been working very hard to undermine the tribal membership of Jews who disagree with its policies. And its main way of accomplishing this is by erasing any political meaning the border of the Green Line might still have.

Palestine, 1849, from, public domain
Palestine, 1849, from, public domain

There are many Jews in the US who feel morally obligated to boycott goods coming from Israeli West Bank settlements, even though they would buy goods coming from Israel proper. Israel and right-wing Jewish lobbies (along with some evangelical groups) have been fighting to outlaw every distinction made between the two.

A law passed just two months ago allows Israel to deport any foreigner coming from Chutz La’aretz (outside “The Land”) who supports any form of boycott, whether of Israel or the settlements. And when Netanyahu recently refused to meet with the German foreign minister after that minister met with B’tselem, Israel’s human rights organization, and Breaking the Silence, the point wasn’t to snub the minister. It was to expel B’tselem and Breaking the Silence from the body politic – along with the Jews that support them. Human rights is becoming our modern-day shibboleth.

The problem with such confuscation, of course, is that the government will eventually get their wish: all thoughtful opposition to the occupation will be overwhelmed and submerged by a sea of BDS boycotts. In fact, the further the government creeps away from justice, the more plausible becomes the claim that the only way things will change is through a total boycott of Israel. That’s something I won’t support, but it’s becoming harder and harder to convince people who are not Israeli loyalists to go along with lesser measures.

I was raised in my Reform Temple with the idea of Jerusalem as “one city for one people” – ir achat l’am echad. But two peoples are sharing one land and one city, and no map or doppelgänger of a legal system changes that. Anything less than ir achat lishnei amim, “one city for two peoples,” is a lie. Nevertheless, as we approach the fiftieth Yom Yerushalayim, that lie continues to become more and more true, a self-fulfilling prophecy that is a self-fulfilling disaster.

We can’t entirely blame the state, though. God long ago promised Jacob that his descendants would spread seaward, east, north, and south into the Negev (Gen. 28:14) – no borders were mentioned. Isaiah told the people, “Enlarge your tent…spread right and left, and inherit the nations.” (54:2-3) Moreover, the West Bank – Yehudah v’Shomron, Judea and Samaria – is the locus of our ancestral lands. Much of what is now Israel proper was Philistine, the source and namesake of Palestine.

It’s too late to switch places with each other, but it’s not too late to define places. Border is not land: if we have to live on one land with a real border defining two nations, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, could still live in both places – if there’s justice and equity on both sides of that border. Isaiah also said, “Let the refugees of Moab dwell in you…and establish a throne through lovingkindness,” (16:4-5) Even Moab the enemy, located where Jordan is today, is invited in, just as refugees in general are invited in. That’s what a border is really for – to define a safe space for human beings.

It’s the only way “good fences make good neighbors,” and it’s the only way Israel can become the nation it is supposed to be. Because a nation without borders is no nation.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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