The Territorial Character of a Jewish State

A map of the State of Israel (2022), via Creative Commons

At first glance, the Torah account of Eretz Yisrael’s borders is inconsistent and confusing. On the accounts in Bereshit 15:18 and Shemot 23:31, Hashem appears to grant the Jewish people the general region extending from the Euphrates River to either the “River of Egypt.” There is significant debate over exactly which body of what this “River of Egypt” is meant to signify between the Nile, a specific, long-dried branch of the Nile in the place of the modern Suez Canal, or the Shihor River, 48 km (30 miles) south of Rafah, which is now known as Wadi el-Arish. However, in Bereshit 17:8 and Shemot 6:4, Hashem appears to only grant the Jewish people the land of Canaan, defined in Bereshit 10:9, Bamidbar 34:2-12, and Yehezekiel 47:15-20 as a much smaller land, similar to the modern State of Israel with Yehuda and Shomron but extended north to the Litani River and only as south as the Negev.

The difference between these two borders can be found in their initial accounts, in Bereshit 15:18 and 17:8. In the former account, that of the general region given at the Covenant of the Parts, Hashem uses the word “nattati,” meaning “I gave.” In the latter account, that of the smaller portion given at the Brit Milah, Hashem adds the phrase “leahuzat olam,” meaning “as an eternal holding.” The specific area that was promised to Avraham at the Brit Milah, liberated by Yehushua, and ruled by Am Yisrael until the destruction of the First Temple is an eternal allotment to the Jewish people. The word ahuzat comes from ahuz, meaning grip. This core of Eretz Yisrael is eternally in the hands of Am Yisrael, they just need to recognize it, grip it, and hold on.

The greater region is also “given,” but not eternally. Devarim 19:8 promises that Hashem will “enlarge” the geographic holdings of the Jewish people until they match the promise to Avraham and Shemot 23:20 makes clear that this will be a gradual process. In ancient days this was expressed in the eastward expansion of Kings David and Solomon towards the Euphrates and in modern days the Israeli liberations of the southern Negev and Eilat. In effect, the Land of Canaan, the heartland of Eretz Yisrael, is an inheritance the Jewish people must recognize they already have while the greater region partially and periodically serves as grants from Hashem the Jewish people must actively accept and maintain.

It is important to note that this land is not some foreign object or asset that Israel must conquer, but an eternal part of Israel. Am and Eretz, nation and land, two sides of the same coin: Israel. As Rav Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook wrote in Orot:

Eretz Yisrael is not an external thing, an external national asset, only a means to an end of general unity or a strengthening of the physical or even spiritual. Eretz Yisrael is an essential unit of the nation, attached to it with a living bond, entwined with its existence in eternal uniqueness.”

Kook, 1

If Am Yisrael were a person, Eretz Yisrael would not be their house or their clothes, but one amongst their limbs, as Tehilim 137:5 writes, “if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” The Kuzari, a Jewish apologetic written by Sephardic golden-age scholar Yehuda haLevi, likens Am Yisrael to specific grape seeds and Eretz Yisrael as the sole soil conducive to its growth, both equally necessary and important together in creating wine.

Eretz and Am Yisrael are parts in an indivisible whole, the former not merely an object for the latter’s admiration or direction of prayer, but an area which requires real responsibility from the Jewish people. Just as a man must engage his arm in wrapping tefillin or his nose to smell the Havdalah spices, he must engage Eretz Yisrael for its physical and political settlement. Ramban famously ruled that it is an eternal mitzvah for a Jew to live in Eretz Yisrael, pursue the downfall and expulsion of occupying political powers, and enact Jewish sovereignty in the land. While Rambam omits this in Mishneh Torah, he only does so because it is a general mitzvah that contains within it many more mitzvot, which are included. In Ketubot 110b-111a, Rav Yehuda haNasi resists the argument of his students that “anyone who resides outside Eretz Yisrael is considered as if he is engaged in idol worship” by citing the Three Oaths, a concept that deserves its own article.

However, the Shulchan Aruch, the mainstream code of Jewish law, and the Pe’at haShulcha, a latter supplement written by Rav Yisroel ben Shmuel, rule that the halacha is on the side of Rav Yehuda haNasi’s students and the Ramban, as many of the rabbis in the time of Rav Yehuda haNasi and since have either settled Eretz Yisrael or advocated for such action in writing. In recent times, citing the crescendo of antisemitism of the pogroms, Holocaust, and Sephardic expulsions, the global acceptance of a Jewish state, and the necessary condition of a Jewish state for the safety of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, most rabbis today rule the Three Oaths as null and void. For all Jews throughout history, but especially today, the importance of physical and political settlement in the whole of Eretz Yisrael is of the utmost importance.

With this in mind, one can understand why Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of Mercaz haRav, did not celebrate on the day of the UN Partition Plan’s passage. In a sicha (rabbinic discourse) to his students, the younger Rav Kook said the following:

“In those first hours, I could not make peace with what was done, with the horrible news, that Hashem’s words from the prophecy in the Twelve Prophets: ‘My land was divided’ was coming true. Where is our Hebron? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Shchem? Are we forgetting it? And where is our Jericho? Are we forgetting it? And where is our east side of the Jordan? Where is every lump and chunk? Every bit and piece of the four cubits of God’s land? Is it up to us to give up any millimeter of it? God forbid! In the state of shock that took over my body, completely bruised and torn to pieces – I could not rejoice then.”

Kook, 5 Iyar 5727

Just weeks after this speech, Israel launched and quickly won the preemptive Six Day War, liberating Yehuda and Shomron, including Hebron, Shchem, Jericho, as well as the Golan (which is entirely located on the East Bank), unified Yerushalyim, Gaza, and the Sinai. Immediately after the great victory, however, Israel began its retreat. Israeli flags on Har haBayit were removed and control was given to the Jordanian waqf. Israeli acceptance of UN Resolution 242 treated these areas liberated not as indivisible parts of Yisrael but as bartering pieces for global toleration. None of these areas were integrated into Israeli sovereignty and instead placed under military rule. Jewish physical settlement was seldom allowed.

In the face of this mounting retreat, students at Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook’s Mercaz haRav yeshiva began to go on the offensive. Calling themselves “Gush Emunim” (bloc of the faithful), the students began to organize young religious youth to build settlements in empty land in the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and Golan. Although they had widespread support from religious people who recognize the importance of yishuv haaretz, nationalists who wanted to see the secure expansion of the state, and older Labour Zionists who recognized their zeal for Jewish work ethnic and connection with the land, they were a thorn in the side of the political establishment, namely Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Transportation Minister Shimon Peres, in their quest to utilize Eretz Yisrael as trading assets.

This, seemingly, would change with the election of Likud’s Menachem Begin in 1977. After all, as the longtime head of the opposition, Begin was a staunch supporter of Gush Emunim and their activities. While Begin would allow settlement to strengthen at first, his governorship would see the greatest retreat and betrayal of the land at the time, the expulsion of Jews from Sinai. The Sinai expulsion would set the government precedent that Jewish land, and, by extension, Jews themselves, were not inherently valuable but instead chess pieces to be moved on the whim of international political powers.

A decade after the Sinai was made judenrein, Yitzhak Rabin, back in the premiership, shook hands with mass-murder of Jews Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, splitting Eretz Yisrael between Jewish and foreign political control in the Oslo Accords. Eretz Yisrael, the right hand of the Jewish people, was cut off and sold for what ended up being nothing except for more violence and bloodshed. Freedom of movement within Eretz Yisrael was destroyed and the divide between its inhabitants only deepened. Inexplicably, Ariel Sharon, a Likudnik who ran on a platform of territorial unity, flip-flopped into an expulsion of Jews from Gaza decade later, a move that yielded similar results on a larger scale.

The election before this calamity, Ariel Sharon did say something very profound: “the fate of Netzarim [a large Jewish settlement in Gaza] is the fate of Tel-Aviv.” If Israel does not have a claim to Netzarim, it does not have a claim to Tel-Aviv. Eretz Yisrael is not a thing to be chopped up, divided, or sold, but an indivisible unit of the Jewish people. Denying this fact is a threat to the entirety of Eretz Yisrael, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people.

To live in respected security, Israel must assert that she is one people with one state in one land, and that Eretz Yisrael is one land for one state for one people. The Jewish people cannot continue to reject their mission and duties to Hashem, their land, and each other and expect the world to pick up their slack. The world will recognize only the Jewish people who recognize themselves, which means recognizing the wholeness of Eretz Yisrael and the unique responsibility the Jewish people have to its physical and political settlement.

While the hemorrhaging appears to have ceased following the Gaza calamity, the tide has yet to fully shift, although, there are very encouraging signs. Since the Sharon Plan, no serious land-division plot has been suggested in the Knesset. Bibi Netanyahu, perhaps still the most influential man in Israeli politics, went from publicly touting the “two-state solution” in 2009 and temporarily banning Jewish constructing in the West at Barack Obama’s behest in 2010 to proudly running behind a one-Israel plan in 2015 and publicly embarrassing the Trump administration in 2019 by refusing to verbally endorse Palestinian statehood on the White House lawn. Netanyahu put his weight behind one-Israel and has taken Likud, along with the rival spin-offs New Hope and Yamina, with him, at least in rhetoric. Additionally, the Haredim, who expressed only lukewarm opinions on previous territorial retreats, have become increasingly nationalist, with their political representation reflecting that trend. Israel is no longer on a defensive retreat, soon it will be time to go on offense, to proudly assert our connection to our land and our responsibility to its physical and political settlement.

If it is not already behind the scenes, Israel must be aggressively negotiating a buyback from the Sinai from Egypt. The expulsion of Jews from Sinai was the beginning of Israel’s territorial retreat and must be reversed for no greater reason than as a symbolic rejection of this mentality. The Sinai is among the lands promised by Hashem and was delivered to the Jewish people in 1956. Even when the United States forced Israel to withdraw, Hashem again granted Sinai to Israel in 1967. When Begin expelled the Jews from Sinai, he rejected the Jewish duty to Eretz Yisrael and to Hashem. Buying back the Sinai, or at least the northeast Sinai until the Shihor, just as our father Avraham bought haMaharat haMachpela, will serve as a national declaration of recommitment to Hashem and the land he has promised and delivered to us. This is also not to mention Sinai’s ability to halve Israel’s population density.

Gaza and the West Bank must be fully integrated into Israel. The situation of gray areas, walls, and security checkpoints is a blight on the entire Jewish people. Eretz Yisrael is one land for one people, and the political reality must reflect that. To do this, organizations that reject Israel’s law and order must be expelled and current residents fully integrated into Israeli national life. For more, read my previous article on the national character of a Jewish state.

Furthermore, the Litani River is the northern border of Israel’s biblical heartland and should not have been ceded by the Israeli government. The Litani flows southeast from Mt. Hermon, the northernmost point of Israel’s current borders, into the Mediterranean, 60 km (37 miles) at the largest gap. Israel first liberated this land in 1978’s Operation Litani, in response to PLO attacks from the area. After retreating at the behest of the UN, Israel returned in 1982’s Operation Peace in the Galilee, moving as far north as Beirut, over 100 km (62 miles) north of Israel’s current borders along the Mediterranean coast. Instead of integrating the land and its inhabitants into Israel, the Begin administration tried in vain to control the area with puppet governments and military occupations, eventually retreating south of the Litani in 1985 and to the pre-1982 line in 2000. If Israel has no claim to the Litani and the lands south of it, it has no claim to Tel-Aviv, and certainly no claim to Eilat. What is now called southern Lebanon is the heartland of Eretz Yisrael and must be liberated, lest Israel continue to face the retribution of Hezbollah missiles.

It was a core message of the younger Rav Kook that Israel should not engage in unprovoked violence, but it should not fear in the face of conflict. It is necessary to remember that Hashem is ba’al milchamot (the master of war), He uses conflict of all degrees to force people to make the choice between life and death and, with His help, choose life. It is necessary to remember that Hashem has given us the region between the Nile and Euphrates and intends to grant it to us periodically over time. Conflict foisted upon us should not be looked at as a strain or a misfortune but an opportunity to demonstrate our convictions for our nation, land, and Torah, fulfill our national duties, and make the world a better place in the process.

Never forget, the word “shalom” (peace) comes from the root “shalem” (complete). There will be no shalom until Eretz Yisrael is shalem. Peace in the entire world is dependent on the completion of the land, formally and substantively, and the leadership of Israel under the moral guidance of Torah. Eretz Yisrael must be completed, without walls, checkpoints, foreign borders and armies cutting through her, under the sovereignty of the Jewish people.

About the Author
Jesse Edberg is a member of the Religious Zionist Party's youth wing. He has previously served as a spokesman and graphic designer for the Yamina Youth and has written for such publications as The Post Millenial and The Israel Press. Jesse is a student at the Tulane University of Louisiana where he is pursuing a degree in political science.