The Jewish “Right” to the Land: A Response to Yossi Klein Halevi

As opposition grows to Israeli government plans to annex portions of the West Bank, it was not surprising to read journalist Yossi Klein Halevi’s plea in a recent Times of Israel blogpost urging the government to renounce those plans. A senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and co-director of its Muslim Leadership initiative, Halevi has for some time been focused on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. His most recent book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbors, is his effort to explain to Palestinians and other Arabs his commitment and connection to the State of Israel while inviting them to write their own letters to reveal their narrative to Jewish Israelis.

But there was one statement in the article that caught my eye. Halevi says,

“As a centrist, I believe that all of the land between the river and the sea belongs by right to the Jewish people; reality, though, leaves us no choice but to partition the land.”

It’s the first part of that statement, the Jewish “right” to the land, that I’d like to drill down on a bit, since Halevi offers no indication of how he determines “that all of the land between the river and the sea belongs by right to the Jewish people.”

I always like to begin, when possible, with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, since it lays out for us a vision of the state as expressed by its founders. Let’s first recall that this declaration was issued at a time when the provisional government of Israel had accepted the UN General Assembly’s plan to partition Cis-Jordanian Palestine—the land between the river and the sea— into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Declaration explains the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel this way:

“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”

A bit further on it claims,

“Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland.”

It then mentions the First Zionist Congress in 1897 and its proclamation of “the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.”

How shall we characterize this claim? I would suggest that it is largely historical-cultural. It was in this land historically that the character of the Jewish people was forged, and that this historical-cultural attachment to the land has withstood the test of time. However, it should be noted that while there is reference to spiritual and religious identity, there is no claim that the connection to the land is a divine mandate, nor is there any mention of any particular set of borders or boundaries that demark the “ancient homeland.”

I mention divine mandate—though Halevi does not—because Zionists, Christian and Jewish, repeatedly bring this claim to bear: that God gave the land to the Jewish people as an eternal covenant. So let’s drill down on that claim. In Genesis 15:18, the LORD says to Abram/ Abraham, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

While there is some dispute as to the meaning of the reference to the river of Egypt, there is no disputing the significance of the Euphrates River. Extending the border of God’s land grant to the Euphrates River would include what is today Syria, Jordan and parts of Iraq. A similar border demarcation is offered in Exodus 23:31, Deuteronomy 11:24, Joshua 1:4 and elsewhere. Is that our claim? While the actual conquests and border demarcations laid out in the Book of Joshua do not extend the borders of the land of Israel to the Euphrates, they do include territory in what is today Lebanon and Jordan. Is that our claim? Is that our divine mandate, our right to the land? Has anyone told the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis?

The historical issue is a bit more complicated. This is because what most of us have been taught is more in the realm of tribal legend and national epic than it is history in the modern sense. The Torah teaches us that we are descended from three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The last had his name changed to Israel and gave birth to the progenitors of the 12 tribes of a singular nation called after it’s eponymous ancestor, Israel.

This is not history. It is tribal lore that was turned into national epic probably beginning in the 8th century BCE, some four centuries after the first appearance of these tribes in the land of Canaan. The historical reality as revealed through archeology is that beginning around the year 1200 BCE, a new group of people began to settle in the central highlands of Canaan, probably as a result of the breakdown of Late Bronze Age urban society caused by the invasion of what Egyptian sources call the Sea Peoples, the remnants of Mycenaean Greeks forced out by the Dorian invasion of Greece.

The historical books of the Bible beginning with the book of Judges reveal a very loose confederation of tribes in the central highlands with no central political, military or religious leadership. Even the list of tribal groups, as for example the list in Judges 5, does not exactly match the list of tribes enumerated in the Torah. If there was ever a unified Israel, as perhaps under King David as described in II Samuel, it didn’t last long. Under his son Solomon, the northern tribes rebelled, and from that period onward, there were two Hebrew kingdoms in Canaan: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Indeed, they sometimes were at war with one another.

The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The inhabitants were deported never to be heard from again. Only Judah remained inside a territory that at most included the hill country around Jerusalem, the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and probably the northern Negev. This was for the most part the territory of Judah through to the Roman destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. The historical fact is that the State of Israel should more accurately be named the State of Judah. Israel disappeared from history some 2700 years ago.

So, Yossi, let’s go back to the vision of the State of Israel’s founders, understanding the Jewish historical, cultural, religious and spiritual connection to the land of Israel, but let us not attempt to translate that into specific borders, since religiously, spiritually and historically the validity of those borders is dubious at best.

About the Author
Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, Lederman now serves as adjunct professor in the Metropolitan School of Professional Studies at the Catholic University of America. He blogs at www.thereligioushumanist.com and liberalizionism.blogspot.com.
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