Do Jews Have Any Valid Claims To The Land Of Israel?

Dear Jew in the City-

I know how to solve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis – make Israel a 51st state of the United States. Let them leave behind that land to the Palestinians and we’ll get them some land here. Could that work?

– M.S.

Dear M.S. –

Thanks for your question. No, that wouldn’t work.

You’ve probably noticed that antisemitism has been a perpetual reality throughout history. The hypothesis of Herzl and other early Zionists was that the nations hated the Jews because we were a people without a state. “If we have a state, we’ll be just like everyone else and antisemitism will end,” they posited. Well, we’ve had a state for 73 years as of this writing and antisemitism is still alive and thriving. It’s just that some of the justifications have changed.

The early Zionists did consider lands other than Israel, such as Uganda, because a safe haven anywhere is better than persecution everywhere, but the Jewish people have an unmistakable bond with the land of Israel. 

Rashi, on the very first verse of the Torah, cites a midrash that the Torah, being a law book, should have started with the first law. Why does it start with the creation of the world? The Midrash answers, “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You’re thieves; you stole the lands of the seven Canaanite nations,’ the Jews can respond, ‘The whole world belongs to the God. He created it and He can give the land to whomever He chooses.’” The entire point of the Creation account according to this is to establish the Jews’ right to Israel.

God gave the land to the Jews through our ancestor Avraham. In Genesis 12:7, God tells Avraham, “To your descendants I will give this land,” referring to the land then called Canaan. In Genesis 26:3, God tells Yitzchak, “To you and your descendants I will give these lands.” In Genesis 28:14, God tells Yaakov, “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants.” In Exodus 3:8, God tells Moshe that He will bring the Jews “to a good and large land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the place of the Canaanites….” This promise is reiterated many places throughout the Torah.

The reason we long for Israel isn’t because it’s objectively the choicest piece of real estate on Earth. It’s pretty much the only place in the Middle East without any oil! But it’s the place that God chose for us and there are many mitzvos that can only be performed there, like tithing produce and the Sabbatical year. It’s also the only place where the Temple can be rebuilt. Israel is a necessary component of our spiritual completion. (See more here.) 

Disputes over the land go back almost to the very beginning of history. In Genesis 23, Avraham purchased the field containing the Machpela cave in Hebron for an exorbitant sum of money rather than accept it as a gift. King David likewise insisted on purchasing the Temple Mount from Aravna the Jebusite rather than accepting it as a gift in II Samuel 24. Our forebears insisted on making these transactions, and the Torah records them, to establish the Jews’ claim to them. (And what are two of the most heavily disputed pieces of real estate?) Similarly, in Judges chapter 11, the nation of Ammon complained that the Jews had stolen land from them 300 years earlier. Israel and Ammon had irreconcilable points of view, which resulted in war.

As far as modern Israel, let’s look at some brief history. The Romans occupied Israel and called it “Palaestina” (Palestine) after the Jews’ ancient enemies, the Philistines. This was the Romans’ way of thumbing their noses at the indigenous Jewish population by minimalizing their connection to the land. Israel and the surrounding lands were collectively known by this name throughout the Byzantine era, the Muslim conquest, under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. Before 1948, “Palestinian” was typically taken to refer to Jews. Money from the Bank of Palestine had Hebrew writing on it. The former Palestine Post is now the Jerusalem Post. The logo of the Palestine Football Association says “Eretz Yisrael” on it in Hebrew. When I was a kid, the “Jerusalem Talmud” was still referred to as the “Palestinian Talmud.” But there never was an independent state called Palestine. It was just a name used by other nations that controlled the area over the course of centuries. In fact, Arab leaders in the early 20th century objected to the concept that there was any such place as “Palestine,” the same as some say about Israel today.

The Jews didn’t “steal” Palestine; we were given the land the land now known as Israel. In 1917, the British government (then in control of “Mandate Palestine”) issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for establishing a national Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which included the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. This resolution created separate Jewish and Arab States. About 20% of the land called Palestine was given to the Jews, who called it Israel. The other 80% went to the Arabs, who called their share Jordan. So Jordan is as much “Palestine” as Israel, though nobody seems too upset about that. (The preceding history is necessarily brief; I encourage readers to look more into things and draw their own conclusions as to the long history of the current conflict.)

The land known as Palestine was home to Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and others. No one is denying that Arabs lived there before the UN Partition Plan, but it’s equally important to recognize that there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in Israel dating back to Biblical times.

So, we Jews have strong ties to Israel. Imagine if someone offered to take you away from your family and place you with an even better family; most of us wouldn’t take that deal. Our families may not be perfect but we love them and they’re ours. That’s how we Jews feel about Israel. You can try to entice us with lands that are temperate, abundant and full of natural resources but that’s not the point. Israel may take a lot of work to cultivate and defend but it’s the land that God gave us. We have history there, we have family there, and it’s the only place we can observe much of the Torah. Accordingly, we wouldn’t trade it for anything.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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