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Who Owns This Land?

And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not deceive one another.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, focuses on deception in everyday transactions. The fact of life is that deception marks the foundation of trade: The seller seeks the highest price while the buyer wants the lowest. The value of the item is up for debate.

The Torah prohibits both over- and undercharging. The standard set by the Torah is one-sixth of the value of the item. So, if you’re buying a book valued at 100 shekels, the seller cannot charge 116 shekels. The same goes for a buyer. He cannot demand a discount of more than 16.6 percent. If either party violates this law then the sale is off and the money returned.

The exception is property. The sages tell us that land has no specific value: It can be sold at any price regardless of the market.

Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, explains: The Torah sets the price range for movable items — whether a car or a dessert spoon. They have a shelf life and therefore their value can be gauged. Land is different: It never disappears or breaks. You can’t manufacture it.

The law against price-gouging applies only to merchants. A private citizen who announces a yard sale is not bound by this prohibition. For him, his Little League baseball mitt, despite its condition, is far more valuable than one you can buy at a second-hand store.

Judaism places an immense value on land. The Talmud says a man sans property is not a complete person. How could he be? He doesn’t have a home. He might rent. But tomorrow, he can be kicked out of his apartment. Eviction has been a constant in Jewish history.

And land is what each Jew was promised when he left slavery in Egypt. The same divine pledge was issued to anybody who entered the Land of Israel 40 years later. This was his inheritance, and his mission was to preserve that property for future generations. The Jew could sell that inheritance but would be able to reacquire it at Jubilee, the 50-year mark in which an entire economy is reset.

As a result, every Jew understood that the property he had just bought might not stay with him. This was essentially a lease, measured by the number of crops the land would yield. Jews might become extremely rich in movable items, whether currency or cattle. But when it came to land there was a level playing field in which few would be excluded. The exception was the Levites. But scores of cities were reserved for this tribe, ensuring that nobody went homeless.

Officially, the State of Israel outlaws private property. Some 93 percent of land is owned by the state. Israelis don’t own land; they lease it on a 49-year basis. At first glance, this looks like something Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum would champion: By 2030, he says, you will own nothing, rent everything and be happy.

The system preceded the State of Israel. Under the British, the Zionist movement grabbed Jewish-owned land under a range of pretexts. In his autobiography “With Might and Strength,” the late Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren recalled how his parents and other Polish Jewish immigrants were kicked off their property near Haifa in the 1920s. The Zionist apparatchiks claimed these Jews, starving and stricken with malaria from draining the swamps, did not know how to develop land for agriculture.

“Representatives of the national institutions in Jerusalem were sent to the village again and again, especially to review the farming efficiency of the Hasidim and to remove those who were ostensibly not suited to be farmers,” Goren wrote.

Still, state ownership can be manipulated. If you can’t buy land, try stealing it. So, the super-rich, politically connected and organized crime have ensured that the authorities would not enforce regulations. The kibbutzim control huge tracts of land, exploited for profit rather than fair use. Criminal gangs operate large portions of the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Bedouin tribes have taken over state land throughout the Negev.

“Indeed, in Israel, several small groups control vast territories of land in the name of public administration,” Hanoch Dagan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, told the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee in 2004.

If the state owns all the land, then it can give it away. Israel is the only country that has repeatedly ceded significant territories and expelled their Jewish inhabitants. These decisions, upheld by the courts, have ignored the rights of Jews to life and property. In some cases, authorities declared Jewish homes and neighborhoods illegal 40 years after their establishment.

Moreover, Israel is perhaps the only state in the 21st Century that distinguishes between Jewish ownership, which is highly restricted, and gentile ownership. In Hebron, the Habad movement has been blocked by the state from regaining land bought more than a century ago. In contrast, U.S. citizens of Arab origin have bought up numerous plots of land in the Samarian district. Kuwait and Qatar have reportedly financed Arab purchases of Jewish farms in the Galilee.

As the Torah sees it, land is not real estate. It belongs to G-d and He sets the rules. Every seventh year, the Land of Israel must remain fallow. Outsiders are allowed to forage for food in private fields. During the other six years, poor Jews must be permitted to glean wheat and barley left over from a harvest. Portions of fields must be set aside for the poor — whether Jew or gentile. Twice every seven years, farmers are required to tithe their produce and flock for the needy.

And on Jubilee, there is freedom. The slaves are let go, “each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.” Again, the land remains fallow. How will the people survive? As the saying goes, G-d will provide.

All throughout, the Torah admonishes the Jews: Do not cheat. And don’t think you can get away with it. G-d is watching.

And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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