The Jews and the Land

Israel is a Jewish state.  Why is this important?

Mahmoud Abbas would not agree, having said at various times things like

What is a ‘Jewish state’? We call it the ‘State of Israel.’  . . . . You can call yourselves whatever you want. But I will not accept it . . . .You can call yourselves the Zionist Republic, the Hebrew, the National, the Socialist [Republic], call it whatever you like. I don’t care. (2009)

The official Arab position is that ‘Jewish’ describes a religion, not a people, because a ‘people’ is connected to a land, and they  believe that the land in question belongs to them. Jews can live in a Muslim state, as a tolerated second-class minority, just like Christians. But there isn’t a Jewish people, they think, any more than a Christian people.

Never mind that they reserve the right to define themselves as a people, and their proposed state as one whose official religion is Islam. Note that we have been defining ourselves as a people with a connection to a land for several thousand years, while there are almost no Arab references to a ‘Palestinian people’ that predate the 1960’s.

Others oppose the idea of a Jewish state for different reasons, like those who think that any ethnic nationalism is atavistic or even racist, and that states, if they exist at all, should be just administrative units providing services to the people that happen to live within their borders. It always strikes me as strange that these types often call for a Palestinian Arab state while opposing Israel.

If you read the Torah, you will quickly see that a major theme (the major theme, I think) is the relationship between God, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel is everywhere in Judaism: God is often addressed as the one who brought as out of Egypt — the Land of Israel is where he brought us to, and Jerusalem is “the place where His name will reside.” The land appears in daily prayers and holiday observances.

Of course, there are many Israeli Jews that do not practice Judaism, indeed that are hostile to the organized practice of Judaism. This is understandable, given the sometimes coercive way ‘official’ Judaism in the state has been implemented. Nevertheless, most of them have an understanding of the importance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Most of them feel the pull of the land, the importance of Jerusalem, even if they are not ‘religious’ in the traditional sense.

I spent some time in the early 1980’s on a highly secular, left-wing hashomer hatzair kibbutz where members often displayed their contempt for traditional Judaism. Although they voted for Labor and leftward, most were not prepared to give up the symbols of the Jewish relationship to the land, like Jerusalem, and they were prepared to (and did) fight for the Jewish state. There was a group that organized hikes to various places, including Judea/Samaria in order to ‘know the land’.

For most secular Israelis, the Jewishness of the state is not found in the fact that public transportation is unavailable on Shabbat or that there is no civil marriage. Despite these irritations, a tradition of connectedness remains. It is something that is specific to this land. If the state were moved to the Australian Outback (there is more than enough room), most secular Israeli Jews would think something essential had been lost. I wouldn’t call this connection to the land Judaism. Nevertheless, it’s an ideology, a particularly Jewish ideology.

I said most secular Jews. Clearly there are some who have replaced this Jewish ideology with something else, most usually a universalist, anti-nationalist faith in the perfectibility of humankind. A fundamental part of this ideology is that all cultures have the same basic needs, and that conflict is usually caused by poor communication. This ideology is usually also mixed with Marxist and post-colonialist ideas, but that’s not essential. Institutions that would be standard-bearers for this ideology today would be the European Union and the United Nations.

I think that a Jew that ‘converts’ to a universalist ideology is as lost to the Jewish people as one who undergoes baptism or says the shahada. When J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami says of his generation that they are “baffled by the notion of ‘Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you’ (as an early NY Times puff piece put it), what he really means is that they are baffled by the idea of the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel. This is not surprising, considering that they live in the Diaspora, know little of Jewish history, and either practice no Judaism at all or a form in which the traditional connection with the land has been replaced with a humanistic ethic.

But for those, both secular and observant, who have this connection, the state of Israel is the concrete realization of it. Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel means that Jews can live there, can visit their holy sites if they wish, can see the archaeological evidence of Jewish history before their eyes, and (if they are observant) follow all of the mitzvot. The fact that there is a Jewish state is precisely what finally validates the contention of Diaspora Jews since the expulsion from Judea by the Romans that they are in fact a people, despite exile. The idea of a Jewish state, even though it did not exist, is part of what allowed the Jewish people to survive as a people throughout the centuries of exile, often as despised and persecuted minority.

The fact that there is a Jewish state unites Jews everywhere, who can say that they belong somewhere, while the Diaspora experience has always been that no matter how hard they try, at some point it is made clear that they do not belong. Not only does it serve as a physical refuge for persecuted Jews (Ben-Ami may be “baffled” by this, but Ethiopian Jews certainly aren’t), but as a psychic one for Diaspora Jews battered by antisemitic conceptions that Jews are parasitical or weak.

Our enemies understand the importance of the Land of Israel better than many of us, I think:

With the two-state solution, in my opinion, Israel will collapse, because if they get out of Jerusalem, what will become of all the talk about the Promised Land and the Chosen People? What will become of all the sacrifices they made – just to be told to leave? They consider Jerusalem to have a spiritual status. The Jews consider Judea and Samaria to be their historic dream. If the Jews leave those places, the Zionist idea will begin to collapse. It will regress of its own accord. Then we will move forward. — Abbas Zaki, member of Fatah Central Committee and PLO representative in Lebanon

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One Response to “The Jews and the Land”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    You illuminate the key point that the Arabs refuse to recognize Jewish peoplehood because that would entail recognizing the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Implicitly you also reveal why all our efforts at making Peace never suffice. The other side cannot really recognize who and what we are. It is imprisoned in its own mythic view of reality.