Since President Obama came to office on Jan. 20 and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 31, the main motif in relations between the two governments has been friction. While nearly 80% of American Jews voted for Mr. Obama, that friction has been visible enough to propel him to meet with American Jewish leaders recently to reassure them about his policies. But last month, despite those reassurances, both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League issued statements critical of the president’s handling of Israel. Given the warm relations during the Bush years and candidate Obama’s repeated statements of commitment to the very best relations with Israel, this is troubling to many Jews.
The most often discussed point of contention is “settlements:” The Obama administration is seeking a total “freeze” on “Israeli settlement growth,” assuming that they are the great obstacle for peace.
Alas, the issue of the settlements and their future are on the table again. Let us attempt to gain perspective, as we embark on a humble journey through biblical thought, Talmudic wisdom, Zionist doctrine and the facts on the ground.
Grace After Meals
In Deuteronomy, in this week’s Torah portion (Eikev), the Bible instructs us to bless G-d after eating a satiating meal. “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you(1).”
Thus was invented the ritual of “benching” (Yiddish for blessing), or “grace after meals,” recited after every meal of bread, and consisting of a number of sections, or blessings. In the first blessing we express gratitude for the resources G-d created in the world to nourish His creatures. The second blessing is a thank you for the beautiful land that He gave the Jewish people. In the third, we give thanks and pray for Jerusalem. These three blessings were fashioned to echo the biblical injunction “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you,” linking gratitude for a meal with gratitude for the soil which produced the meal(2).
Yet there is a strange law associated with this ritual. The Talmud states(3) that the second blessing, in which we express our gratefulness for the land, must include a few words about the Covenant G-d made with the first Jew, Abraham. In this Covenant, recorded in Genesis, G-d promised Abraham that He would give the land of Canaan as an inheritance to his descendants (the circumcision of every Jewish male baby represents this Covenant). What is more, in this blessing we must also make mention of the Torah, the divine constitution for the Jewish people, which promises -- scores of times -- the land of Canaan to the Jews.
In other words, the sages are suggesting, it is necessary not only to thank G-d for the beautiful land itself, but we also must articulate the source for our rights for this land: the Abrahamic Covenant and the Torah. Hence, the standard version of the grace after meals: “We offer thanks to You, Lord our G-d, for having given us as a heritage to our ancestors a precious, good and spacious land… for your Covenant which you have sealed in our flesh, and for Your Torah which You have taught us.”
Benching vs. Hatikvah
The Talmud is so emphatic about the inclusion of these two concepts -- the Covenant and the Torah -- that it states (4): “Whoever did not mention the Covenant and the Torah in the blessing for the land (the second blessing in the grace after meals) did not fulfill his obligation.” This person must repeat his grace after meals.
This seems strange. The Bible merely states, “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you.” The Torah just wants us to express appreciation for the land. Period. Why the absolute necessity to mention the Abrahamic Covenant and the Torah? What is wrong with a simple offering of thanks for a beautiful national homeland?
In fact, the Israeli national anthem, adorning countless Jewish functions over the past 61 years, does just that. It speaks of “the 2,000 year old Jewish hope to be a free people in its land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” It makes no mention of G-d’s Covenant with Abraham or the Torah as the moral grounds for establishing the modern State of Israel.
Similarly, the signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, drawn up in May 1948, made no mention of G-d or Torah. After much debate, it was agreed upon to insert the ambiguous phrase “The Rock of Israel (Tzur Yisrael),” to be interpreted as one desired. “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand and testimony to this Declaration, here on the soil of the Homeland, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this day, the eve of the Sabbath, 5 Iyar 5708, 14 May 1948.”
This seems like a rational approach. Why mix religion and statehood? For a democracy to flourish, liberal pluralism must be maintained. Church and state need to be separated. Introducing biblical notions into the Zionist endeavor would only undermine Israel’s success as a liberal democracy.
Nachman Syrkin, the preeminent theorist of Zionist socialism, once remarked: “Religion is the major impediment confronting the Jewish nation on the road to culture, science and freedom.”
Torah Vs. the UN
Yet the Talmudic rabbis, 1,700 years ago, apparently understood something about the Jewish psyche and Middle Eastern politics that eluded many of the founders of modern Israel.
The contemporary political conversation has many of us convinced that if Israel would withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, Palestinians will at last make peace with the Jewish state. Hence, the praise in the world and Israeli media for the Gaza evacuation in August 2005: It is a step in the right direction, the beginning of the end of Israeli occupation, the first mile in a road toward reconciliation and co-existence.
Yet these hopes totally insult Palestinians by making mockery of their explicitly stated dreams and beliefs. Their words, repeated by their leaders time and time again, leave no room for doubt. “All of Palestine belongs to us,” is the Palestinian message. Palestinian leader Abu Mazan said that the Gaza departure was the beginning of a process that would result in all of the Arab refugees returning to their homes of pre-1948.
That is why there was no peace before the 1967 war, a time of no Jewish settlements and no settlers. Gaza belonged to Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan, and the Golan Heights to Syria. Why did six Arab countries decide to invade and exterminate Israel? Because, in their belief, the entire Zionist entity is illegal. All of Israel rests on occupied Arab land. According to the Koran, Jews have no right to establish a self-governed homeland on Islamic soil.
This is why following the Gaza evacuation exactly four years ago, Israel did not enjoy a day of serenity from the new residents of Gaza. Instead of showing the slightest appreciation for Israel ceding all of Gaza, thousands of rockets have been launched with the intent to murder as many Jewish civilians as possible.
Have you heard any Muslim leader suggest that Jews are not, by their very existence on Middle Eastern soil, occupying land that does not belong to them?
Only when Israel ceases to exist will the occupation cease. Which is why ceding Gaza and even all of the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem to Palestinians will not bring about peace. Peace will not come about by Israel giving away territory. Peace will arrive when responsible Arab leaders will reform Palestinian culture so as to not see the Jew as the “devil” and Israel as the “enemy of Allah.” Peace will come when the world, instead of pressuring Israel to cede territory, pressures Palestinian educators and parents to teach tolerance, respect and civil morality. Till that day comes, Israel’s giving away of land will only intoxicate Palestinians with the hope that their agenda of freeing all of Palestine from the Zionist enemy is doable.
The Obama administration is apparently not daunted by the “minor” detail that half of the eventual “Palestine” is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas, which clearly states its objective to exterminate all of Israel.
Whose Home Is It?
Yet here is what makes this apparently straightforward idea so complicated. If Muslims in Detroit would begin blowing up busses or pizza shops and demanding a Palestinian State in Michigan, no one would question America’s right to eliminate the terrorists and not cede even an inch of land to them. When an enemy wises to destroy you, you must eliminate it. The reason Israel is treated so differently is because many see Israel as “partners in crime:” Some Palestinians may be terrorists but Israel, too, shares in the guilt. It is an occupying state.
No one doubts that Michigan belongs to the United States. Hence, their right to fight for it and squelch any attempt to seize it. However in the case of Israel, the matter is about the question, does Israel have a right to defend itself while dwelling on stolen property?
Where exactly does Israel draw the line and declare, “From here on we are legal?” And based on which moral grounds can these lines be drawn?
The distinction between post-1967 Israel and pre-1967 Israel is artificial and mythical. The Arabs say that all of Israel is occupied. We must confront the painful truth: If the Jews living in Gaza, West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem are occupiers, then the Jews living in Tel-Aviv, Yaffa, Haifa and Rosh Pinah are the same occupiers. Many a city in pre-1967 Israel used to be Arab settlements, now occupied by Israel.
According to Arab doctrine, Jews, especially European Jews, are a foreign implant, outsiders who have colonized and occupied native Arab land since 1948. All the reasonable arguments in the world and all the UN resolutions combined will not change the belief that Jews are thieves, occupying the land of millions of displaced Arabs. Is it fair that because the Europeans were guilt-ridden after the Holocaust and were kind enough to give the Jews a slice of the Middle East, the Arabs have to pay the price and suffer?
The Moral Foundation
Here lies one of the greatest failures of secular Zionism. Its philosophy did not possess the tools to instill within its children the moral foundations for calling Israel a Jewish homeland.
If the Jewish people’s connection to the soil between Jordan and the Mediterranean stems merely from Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream to give displaced and exiled Jews a national identity, endorsed by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 United Nations’ partition plan, their connection to the land remains fragile and ambiguous. When Palestinians scream “You are stealing our land,” and the international community thunders, “Stop the occupation,” we have lost the argument.
Yet the critical point is missing. For 3300 years Jews breathed and lived with the conviction that the Creator of the world designated one piece of earth for them. Even in the most hellish moments of Jewish exile, the people of the Book clung to their faith that one day they would return to their divinely promised land. The only reason Jews returned from Odessa, Vilna and Warsaw to Israel was because of their passion and belief that the Creator of the heaven and earth chose to give his Holy Land to the children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, as stated hundreds of times in the Bible. There are three billion people in the world who believe in the Bible, who live with the Bible and who quote the Bible. Secular Zionist should not have been afraid to bequeath this tradition and faith to their children, for this, and only this, is the moral justification for a Jewish presence in the Holy Land -- in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Gaza all the same.
Paradoxically, it seems the world is waiting for this. Not only the Christian and Islamic world, who view the Bible as the definition of truth. Even the secular world, seems to respect Jews who respect themselves and their faith. The world is waiting for Israel to treat the Land the way Israel should be treated, as G-d’s personal gift to the Jewish people.
Blessing or Curse?
That is why the sages said that “Whoever did not mention the Covenant and the Torah in the blessing for the land did not fulfill his obligation.” If our sense of gratitude and connection to the land is based on the divine Covenant with Abraham and the Torah, it will remain passionate, morally inspired and eternal. If not, our loyalty to our homeland hangs on a thread.
The Talmudic sages keenly grasped that if the thankfulness of the Jew for the Land of Israel is not based on the covenant G-d crafted with Abraham some 3,700 years ago, and on the Torah, the 3,300-year-old blueprint for Jewish existence, we might one day feel unappreciative -- rather than grateful – for the homeland flowing with milk and honey. We might feel compelled to rid ourselves from it.
The Sun and the Moon
The Talmud states(5), “Moses is the face of the sun; Joshua is the face of the moon.” What is the symbolism behind this poetic statement?
One explanation might be this:
Moses represents Torah; Joshua embodies the Land of Israel. Moses gave us the Torah; Joshua gave us Israel.
The light of the moon is beautiful, soothing, and romantic. Moonlight has inspired many an imagination and a heart. Yet the glow of the moon is merely a reflection of the sun. As long as the moon reflects the sun’s glow, it casts upon the earth its own unique poetic luminescence; if the moon is separated from its source of light – as is the case in a lunar eclipse -- it becomes a large chunk of dark and rocky matter.
The relationship between Moses, the face of Torah, and Joshua, the face of Jewish statehood, is that of the sun and the moon. As long as Israel reflects Torah – its faith, its dreams and its passions -- it is hard to find something more beautiful and inspiring. When Israel, however, ceases to see itself as a reflection of Torah, but rather as a secular national homeland for Jews, a member of the United Nations, it loses much of its inner glow and beauty. Its very identity and future is put into question.
Every nation needs a soul. Even Israel. And the soul of the Jewish people for 4,000 years has been the Torah.
We cannot afford to lose our soul now. Obama will get it if we get it.
1) Deuteronomy 7:10. 2) Thus, the first three blessings are biblically required. In the city of Yabneh, around 100 CE, the sages added a fourth blessing, thanking G-d for His kindness during the times of exile following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Talmud Berachos 48b). 3) Talmud ibid. 4) Talmud ibid. 49a. 5) Bava Basrs 75b.