Trust Trump on Israel? Seriously?

Stop the presses! Sheldon Adelson has promised to give Donald Trump’s campaign at least $100 million because Trump supports the security of the State of Israel.

Really? He does? Quick, what time is it? He already may have changed his mind.

Trump certainly has changed his mind about Jewish money. Last December 3, he told a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition that he neither expected Jewish money for his campaign, nor even wanted any. “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money,” he said. “You want to control your politicians. That’s fine. Five months ago, I was with you. I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.”

The only certain thing that can be said about Trump (other than that his RJC speech was loaded with anti-Jewish stereotypes) is that he will say whatever comes to mind at the moment. Thoughts about Israel are no exception.

In February, for example, when Trump was asked about foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, he said he intended to remain “neutral,” supposedly so he could broker a peace between the two.

Why the need for neutrality? Said Trump to the Associated Press, it is because Israel may be unwilling to deal. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things,” he said. “They may not be.”

When he came before AIPAC in March, however, Trump lost that neutrality. That in itself was interesting, because only a short while before he ascended the AIPAC stage, he held a press conference in which he suggested he would cut foreign aid to countries such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea, which could afford to pay for their own security.

Did that also include Israel, he was asked. Said Trump, “There are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big-league.”

Trump, by the way, was booed during his Republican Jewish Coalition appearance when he refused to answer a question about whether he would accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Still, many Jewish voters, especially among the Orthodox, are rallying behind Trump. They believe that a Democrat (read “Hillary”) would insist on Israel having to trade land for peace, whereas a Republican would not. Never mind that every Republican president has taken the exact same position as every Democratic president since Israel captured the territories in June 1967.

More important, from a Jewish standpoint, never mind that Jewish law itself would seem to require at least being open to trading land for peace.

To be sure, halacha is not monolithic, and it is not closed to interpretation. Different people see the law differently. This is as true of “land for peace” as any other issue.

There are people, for example, who insist that not one inch of the land of Israel may be given up willingly. It is a sin, they say. Holders of this view cite a commentary to the tractate on pagan worship, Avodah Zarah, and another commentary on Deuteronomy to support their position. In both instances, the commentary tells us that settling the Land of Israel is of greater merit than all the other mitzvot combined.

The cited commentaries do say this. However, it is also true that our Sages of Blessed Memory used such hyperbole as a device to underscore the importance of a mitzvah, and settling the land is no exception. They said the same about wearing tzitzit, or about giving tzedakah. According to BT Shabbat 127a and BT Kiddushin 39b-40a, “the study of Torah surpasses them all.” This last entry, by the way, is recited every morning in the prayers that precede Shacharit.

On the other hand, there is biblical evidence to suggest giving up land is not so great a sin, or may not be a sin at all, if what is received in return is worth the price. Solomon gave 20 cities in the Galilee to Hiram, king of Tyre, yet the biblical text offers no condemnation. That is because of what he got in return: The building materials for God’s House, and for his own. Certainly, if land can be traded for pieces of cedar wood, it can be traded for peace, because the preservation of human life is its goal.

The price would be worth it, too, if the “peace” offered is a true peace, one that battles terrorism with vigor, that includes all of the states now opposed to Israel, that has a system that puts peace into practice through such means as trade and tourism. If, as Trump suggests, Israel is not prepared to make peace, it is because no one so far has offered a realistic approach to it.

There are other sins, however, that are great sins according to all authorities, and these, too, need to be considered, because halacha always has insisted that avoiding these sins is paramount.

These “sins” are pikuach nefesh (threat to life) and shefichut damim (the needless spilling of blood). Shefichut damim is why King David was denied the honor of building God’s house. His hands were too sullied with blood.

Pikuach nefesh is considered to be pre-eminent in religious Judaism. Almost nothing — not even Shabbat, or the laws of kashrut — takes precedence when life is threatened.

This is derived from a verse read a couple of weeks ago in the Torah portion Acharei Mot. “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live” said our Sages of Blessed Memory, “shall live by them, not die by them.” (See Leviticus 18:5 for the biblical verse, and BT Yoma 85b, BT Sanhedrin 74a, and BT Avodah Zarah 27b for discussions of and exceptions to its meaning.)

Trading land for peace makes no sense if no peace will result from doing so. Believing a President Trump will sit on his hands and not push Israel into making a bad deal also makes no sense, however.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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