Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg
American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator-activist.

The Land of Israel Doesn’t Belong to Any of Us

Satellite Image of the Land of Israel and Surroundings. Source:
Satellite Image of the Land of Israel and Surroundings. Source:

Let’s start from the beginning. The Land of Israel doesn’t belong to any of us. Not to Israelis and not to Palestinians, not to Jews and not to Arabs, and not to anyone else for that matter. In fact, no land truly belongs to any human being – at least from a Jewish theological perspective, and arguably from a secular-ethical perspective as well. If one accepts this, the entire nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shifts. Questions of “to whom does the land belong” become less relevant or at least give way to different questions, which may lead to entirely different conclusions.

In general, I’m not the biggest fan of using theological bases to justify geopolitical claims. But since many folks seem to be doing it anyway, for the sake of argument, or at least for the sake of joining the game, let’s take a moment to explore ownership of the Land of Israel theologically. I cannot, in good faith, speak from a Muslim or Christian perspective or any religious perspective other than a Jewish one, so I will focus on that one here. 

According to the Jewish tradition, who owns the land?

The Jewish tradition is quite clear on the matter of land. The Land of Israel – nor any other land – does not belong to the Jewish people, nor to any other people. The Land of Israel, like all land, belongs to God. While this theme is present throughout the Torah and the Jewish tradition, it is most explicit in this week’s Torah portion: Parashat Behar. 

Parashat Behar opens with a description of the sabbatical year (every seventh year, in which the land is to lie fallow) and the jubilee year (every fiftieth year, in which plots of land that have been sold are returned to their original holders). The Torah explains and commands that when one sells land, it cannot be sold in perpetuity, but rather, it can be sold (or perhaps more accurately: leased) for no longer than until the next jubilee year. For example, if the next jubilee year is forty-nine years away, one may lease a plot of land for up to 49 years. If, however, the next jubilee year is only one year away, one may lease land for only up to one year, and the price must be set accordingly (i.e. 1/49th of the previous case). Because in either case, in the jubilee year, the plot of land must be returned to the individual or clan who previously held it. 

Though such a law may be perplexing to many of us living in the year 2024, a number of rational explanations can be offered for this law. Most obviously, as many scholars understand it, such a law could prevent – or at least mitigate – social stratification. In an agrarian biblical society, a person would sell all or some of their land only if they had fallen into financial misfortune – most likely due to circumstances outside of their control – and then they would have to work to buy their land back, perhaps meanwhile remaining as a tenant on the land they sold. However, it is quite possible they would not succeed in buying their land back, leading to a downward spiral of having to sell more land and possessions falling deeper into a cycle of poverty, while their neighbor would only become richer. Thus the limitation on the number of years for which a land can be leased and the requirement to return it would, in theory, prevent temporary financial misfortune from becoming permanent inequalities. 

In any case, the reason – or at least the ideological basis – that is given explicitly in the Torah for this law is not sociological but rather theological, as Parashat Behar tells us that God states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23, NJPS Translation). The land belongs to God. It does not belong to the People of Israel or any people or family or individual. Yes, individuals and groups have the right to make use of the land, to live on it and farm it and derive benefit from it, or even to sublease it as a temporary source of income, but the land does not truly belong to them. Their rights to the land are contingent on following God’s will, which, at least in this chapter, involve systems to prevent inequality, overfarming, poverty and greed. 

The understanding that God is the ultimate owner of the land appears throughout the Bible.  (See, for example, Genesis 14:22, Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 10:14, Psalm 89:11). [1] Arguably this understanding – that divine land ownership is absolute and eternal while human land usage rights are conditional and temporary – underlies many if not all of the Torah’s commandments relating to the land, from sabbatical and jubilee years, to tithes and first fruits, to leaving the corners of one’s field and fallen fruits for the poor. In other words, the land does not belong to us. It belongs to God. People have the right to make limited use of land as long as they follow God’s rules which require them to limit their usage of the land, offer gratitude to God, and share the blessings of the land with others. 

But wait. Doesn’t the Bible say that God gave the Land of Israel to the People of Israel? Indeed throughout the Bible, God promises the Land of Israel to the People of Israel, but this promise is conditional on the People of Israel following God’s covenant. (See, for example, Leviticus 18:28, Leviticus 20:22, Deuteronomy 11:16-17.) As next week’s Torah portion (Parashat Bechukotai) tells us, if the People of Israel follow God’s rules, they will be able to stay on the Promised Land in safety and security, but if they do not, God will remove them from the land. This can be interpreted supernaturally – i.e. the people’s behavior will be rewarded or punished accordingly through divine supernatural power. Or it can be interpreted naturally: if the people engage in sustainable farming practices and build a society based on humility, gratitude, sharing, mutual support and solidarity, then they will prosper on the land; if not, their future on the land will not be secure. 

The language our parashah uses to describe the people’s position in relation to God and to the land is especially noteworthy. As cited above, according to Leviticus 25:23, God tells the Israelites: “… the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident [gerim ve-toshavim – גרים ותושבים] with Me” (emphasis added). The language used here to describe the Israelites is the same language used elsewhere to describe the non-Israelites who are allowed to live among the Israelites (gerim/toshavim, i.e. dwellers/residents); these non-Israelite residents are entitled to the same rights and protections as long as they follow the same rules and obligations. In other words, the Israelites themselves are entitled to dwell amidst God in the promised land, enjoy certain rights and benefits, as long as they fulfill their obligations, which include not abusing the land nor the non-Israelite residents among them. Theologically this makes sense. God is eternal. God’s ownership of the land is eternal. We mortal human beings are only here temporarily, so we had better consider the bigger picture if we and our progeny are to remain on the land in peace, safety and security. 

And now back to politics.

Many Israeli politicians, religious and secular alike, like to remind us that that “God gave us this land”, from the ostensibly religious Tzipi Hotovely (former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister) to the ostensibly secular Danny Danon (former Israeli ambassador to the UN), and many in between. Even those who strategically refrain from using such theological arguments publicly in English will use them among “friendly crowds” in Hebrew, or at least will hold them in their heart of hearts. After all, it can be rather difficult – if not impossible – to justify certain actions of the Government of Israel, and especially of the settlement movement, non-theologically, unless one falls back on vague arguments about “security” or “natural and historic rights.” [2] (More on this below.) Even if we were to stick with the theological arguments, it is fascinating how Israeli politicians consistently neglect to mention the conditionality attached to the belief of “God gave us this land” in the Jewish tradition. Are they simply that forgetful? Or does it just not fit well into the soundbite? Or do they simply not know or simply not believe that God’s promise is conditional? Perhaps they have some new Torah that says that God gave us the land unconditionally and eternally? Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the belief that God gave the Land of Israel to the People of Israel, independent of conditionality, has trickled down deep into the Israeli mindset. 

The theology of secular Jewish Israelis has often been summarized as follows: There is no God, but He gave us the Land of Israel. (See, for example, Dr. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s classic piece from 2005). It would be funny if it weren’t so frighteningly and dangerously accurate. According to the 2015 Pew Survey of Israelis, 50% of Israeli Jews believe in God “with absolute certainty”, while 61% believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews. If we zoom in on secular Israeli Jews, only 18% said they believe in God with absolute certainty while 31% said that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews. As a point of comparison, 91% of dati (religious, non-haredi) Israeli Jews said they believe in God with absolute certainty while 98% said they believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews. Unfortunately, we don’t know how many respondents said “well, it’s complicated”, or “yes, but it’s conditional,” but I assume not many. In any event, a majority of Israeli Jews seem to believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews, and more often than not, whether out of selective omission or out of ignorance, seem to believe that the land belongs to us. Period. At best this is an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the traditional Jewish take on ownership of the Land of Israel, and at worst it is a manipulative distortion of it. [3]   

What if we take God out of the picture?

Much could be said about various secular perspectives on land ownership and rights. [4] But for now let’s focus on land ownership from a secular human rights perspective. Interestingly enough, in international human rights law, there is no universal human right to land ownership, though there are certainly rights that relate to it. [5] According to international human rights law, every person is born equal in dignity and rights, which include of course the basic rights of life, liberty and security. These rights apply to all individuals equally, regardless of the group into which they were born – for example, Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Arab.  Every individual also has a right to a nationality, freedom of movement and residence within a state. There is also the right to private property and the right not to be deprived arbitrarily of said property. And there is a right to food and housing. But, for the most part, aside from private property ownership, there is no universal right for any individual or group of individuals to particular chunks of land. The only significant exception is the right of indigenous peoples to own and use land that they have traditionally owned or used. International human rights law, however, does not provide an authoritative definition of indigenous. And this is where things get sticky. Definitions may be clearer in the Americas and Oceania where thousands of years separate indigenous peoples from others. In the Middle East, it looks more complicated. 

Specifically in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are multiple claims of indigeneity. Who is more indigenous? Arab Palestinians who were expelled or fled or whose grandparents were expelled or fled Israel 76 years ago? Jewish Israelis who were expelled or fled or whose grandparents were expelled or fled the West Bank 76 years ago? Palestinian Arabs whose ancestors came one hundred years ago? One thousand years ago? Israeli Jews whose ancestors left or were expelled 1500 years ago? 2000 years ago? And do people who were evicted or left their home or whose ancestors were evicted or left their home a generation ago have the right to return to it if it requires evicting people who have lived there for a generation? Two generations? One hundred generations? Or if they have the right to do so, is it right to do so? We can also ask these questions in countless other cases and not only in the Levant. I do not mean to posit answers to these questions, nor to say that all claims are equal, what I’m trying to say is that basing land rights in the Middle East on claims of indigeneity or “who was here first” is ethically tricky, legally fuzzy, and practically problematic. Moreover, I’m also not saying that these questions should never be asked, but only that the question of “to whom does the land belong” is perhaps not the most relevant or constructive framework in seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

So what questions should we ask?

Once we put aside – or at least deprioritize – questions about “who owns the land”, we make space for other questions. I would like to be so bold as to suggest other questions to focus on. For example, from a human rights perspective, how do we pursue a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will maximize the actualization of the equality of dignity and rights of all human beings who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? And how do we do this in a way that minimizes the pain, indignity, and infringement of certain rights (such as property rights) of certain individuals or groups that may have to take place as part of the implementation of such a solution? Or, from a Jewish religious perspective, how do we engage with this blessing of land in a way that recognizes the limits of our rights to it, respects divine ownership of it and the rights and obligations of all who dwell on it, and will ensure – either through divine reward or natural consequence – our ability for us and our children to live here in security and peace? 



[1] See also Rashi on Genesis 1:1, based on Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187, as well as other rabbinic sources.

[2] The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel 1948 speaks of the right of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel by virtue of its “natural and historic right” and on the basis of UN Resolution 181. Still, this document does not speak of the Jewish people having exclusive or unconditional rights to the land, nor does it necessarily preclude the establishment of a Palestinian/Arab state on the land. On the other hand, the current government’s coalition agreement with the Religious Zionism party opens with the following Foundational Principle for the government: “The Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” though it does not state on what basis – theological or otherwise – these claims lie. 

[3] This may also relate to the way many people incorrectly understand the traditional Jewish idea of “chosenness” as an innate, immutable, superior quality of the Jewish people, as opposed to a task that the people must strive to live up to – but that’s another discussion for another day. 

[4] Many scholars have also pointed out the absurdity of the very notion of human ownership of land, from a secular perspective as well, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Henry George to Yuval Noah Harari and others.

[5] See especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Land and Human Rights – Standards and Applications (OHCHR 2015)

About the Author
Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg is an American-Canadian-Israeli queer Jewish educator and activist. Elliot is a senior educator at BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social change and co-chair of Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.
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