Torah cannot be ignored in analysis of Israeli motivations
By Rabbi Philip Graubart
LA JOLLA, California–Why do Jews live in settlements on the other side of Israel’s supposed green line? Recently, after yet another series of tension-filled discussions with the United States, Israel announced yet another settlement freeze. This pattern of American-Israeli discussions, disagreements, threats, and then freezes and occasional subterfuge regarding the settlements goes back at least to the time of President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Yet, at least in the United States, I’ve rarely encountered thoughtful analyses as to why we built those controversial settlements in the first place. We can easily imagine a different scenario, where, after 1967, Israel holds on to the territories – possibly until the Arabs sue for peace – without moving large civilian populations into areas that are clearly in dispute.
And, when we read explanations, they rarely ring true. Danny Gordis, in his interesting new book “Saving Israel” (I’ll be reviewing the book in this space next month), writes that, because Jews in Israel have had to fight so hard for small pieces of land, there’s a peculiar restlessness in the Israeli character regarding territory. I’ve also read security arguments from Israeli generals – that Israel needs civilian populations both to motivate its soldiers serving in the territories, and also to provide basic infrastructure (food, fuel) for the troops. Some settlers – particularly in Gush Etzion – simply returned to the homes and fields of their parents, who’d been driven out or massacred by the Jordanian army in 1948. And, of course, we’re aware of the many material motivations drawing at least some of the settlers – the government-subsidized housing, the wide open spaces, the larger homes, especially in the “suburb” settlements, like Ma’aleh Adumin.
But none of these reasons fully explains such a large scale migration, now involving over half a million souls. There are still enough open spaces in the North and the Negev to satisfy any innate, Israeli “restlessness.” Government subsidies may partially explain Ma’aleh Adumin (of course, we then have to ask: why the government subsidies?), but what about Hebron? Or Kiryat Arba? Or Beit El? Or any of the tenacious hilltop settlements cutting deep into Samaria? Why would people – often parents of babies – move their families to the heartland of anti-Jewish hostility, and live behind barbed-wire fences, with armed guards accompanying their children to school every day? There really is only one answer that makes sense: religion. Jews have returned – are still returning – to biblical lands, because they feel deep in their bones that these are the territories God promised Abraham, in the book of Genesis.
And, of course, this isn’t a secret. Settlers in places such as Beit El readily admit their motivations. Not long ago, I was visiting Efrat, a settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc. On the way back, I shared a bullet-proof taxi with a young American couple who were moving to Bat Ayin, a new settlement just up the road. When I asked them why Bat Ayin (as opposed, say, to Haifa or Tel Aviv or Jerusalem), they answered that Judea was the biblical heartland, where Abraham roamed with Sarah. The Torah calls us here, they told me.
A few years ago Morton Klein, the right-leaning president of the ZOA was speaking at my synagogue. At the time, he was touring the country, arguing against then Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza. In his public talk, he spoke mostly of the security risks, of the folly of trusting the Palestinian leadership in Gaza. But in a private conversation, I asked him, what if there were no security risks? What if we could trust the Palestinians? Would he support the withdrawal? Without hesitating, he told me no. The Torah promised us this land, he insisted. Without the Torah, our claim to the land means nothing.
I suspect that many, perhaps most Jews base a large part of their affection for Israel on God and the Torah. I can use myself as an example. Over the years, I’ve been a fanatical reader of Zionist literature, devouring tomes by Herzl, Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Buber, Hertzberg, Rav Kook and others. But after imbibing multiple generations of Zionist theory, I can state plainly that my personal Zionism begins and ends with God’s promise to Abraham in the Torah. Now, “begins and ends” means there’s something in between, so, of course I also resonate with Jewish peoplehood and the need for a secure Jewish home. But my passion for Zion doesn’t flow from security needs, or secular nationalism, or the flowering of a Hebrew culture. It comes from the Torah. And I don’t think I’m alone. After all, the great majority of olim from North America are religious Jews.
I wonder why American Zionists rarely speak about the religious sources of their love for Israel? Partly, we’re embarrassed by explicit appeals to the supernatural. And we recognize that God’s promise to Abraham is not exactly a good propaganda point in our struggle for public opinion (which, I imagine, is why Danny Gordis - a rabbi! – rarely writes about his religious motivations). We also don’t want to be lumped with Islamic extremists, who also act out of religious passion.
But avoiding religion when discussing Israel gives us a distorted picture of what’s happening there. After all, if Jews moved to Hebron out of commitment to the Torah, they will be extremely reluctant to leave just because of a peace treaty. And other Jews, even those not living beyond the green line – even those not living in Israel – will support the settlers, for the same reason: religious commitment. Religion is a central element in the conflict, as alive on our side, as it is on the Palestinians’. When we ignore it – when we don’t at least discuss it – we misunderstand perhaps the greatest reason why Israel exists.
Rabbi Graubart is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, California
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