In these weeks when Jews all over the world are worried about the future existence of the State of Israel, let alone its safety and flourishing, and when some claim that Israel is a colonial power that is usurping the right of Palestinians to their land, the philosopher in me wants to zoom out to ask this question: How does any nation have a right to its land?
I am going to suggest that there are four grounds that nations use in their self-understanding of why they rightfully occupy their land, grounds that other nations recognize as well in respecting each nation’s sovereignty over its land. For each of these grounds, I will give some examples from around the world, and then I will apply it to Israel. Interestingly, in some form all four of these grounds are illustrated in the stories in Genesis we are reading in the synagogue at this time of year.
The American Revolution and the revolutions of South American countries against their Spanish and Portuguese rulers are some examples of how nations establish sovereignty over their land. This is mirrored in Genesis 14, in which Abram has to wage war to defend his hold on the land. Interestingly, in doing so he redeems Lot from captivity, an especially poignant part of the story for the current Israel-Gaza conflict.
Israel has unfortunately had a surfeit of experience of having to establish or reenforce its claim to its land through war, from its War of Independence in 1948 to the current conflict.
God gave the Jews this land
This gift to Abram and his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, is first announced in Genesis 12 and repeated many times thereafter. In similar fashion, the Japanese believe that the gods granted them the land that they occupy.
This is a powerful justification for Jews to live on the Land of Israel for religious Jews and for many Christians, especially Evangelical Christians. When I first began formulating this essay, I thought that Muslims would disagree, based on the Koran. I Googled “the Land of Israel in the Koran,” however, and found a talk by Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini in London, in which he points to Sura 5:20-21:
“Give heed, O believers! For Moses said to his people: O my people! Remember with reverence the grace of God upon you when He appointed prophets among you and made you sovereign over yourselves. Moreover, He gave to you what He has not given to anyone else. O my people! Enter the Holy Land that God has decreed for you to enter, and do not turn away from this battle in retreat, for then you shall turn back from the faith itself as losers of an everlasting Paradise.”
Sheikh Al-Hussaini then asserts “that the traditional commentators from the eighth and ninth century onwards have uniformly interpreted the Koran to say explicitly that Eretz Yisrael has been given by God to the Jewish people as a perpetual covenant. There is no Islamic counterclaim to the Land anywhere in the traditional corpus of commentary” (https://www.thejc.com/judaism/all/what-the-koran-says-about-the-land-of-israel-1.8278). Mohammed many times urges his followers to fight for Mecca (Makka in many translations), but never for Jerusalem or Israel. The only way in which Hamas and other Muslims can justify taking it away from Jews is to claim that they are evil sinners who must be punished, but for the Koran and its official interpreters, God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews.
This is how Canada gained its independence — through the Constitution Acts from 1867 to 1982 — and it is how many nations gained independence after World War II, when colonial powers handed over sovereignty to the local communities in India, Pakistan, and many countries in Africa. In the same way, the British abandoned their rule of Israel and its neighbors in 1948, turning it over to what, according to the United Nations resolution of November, 1947, was supposed to be two independent Jewish and Arab states between the Mediterranean the Jordon River. In at least somewhat similar ways, the Torah records in Genesis 13 the division of the land between Avram and Lot to settle the conflict between their shepherds and, in Genesis 21:22 ff, the agreement between Abraham and Avimelekh to settle the conflict of their clans over their wells of water.
This is the self-understanding of the Japanese, Chinese, Russians, and many African tribes as to why they rightfully occupy their land: It has been theirs from ancient ancestors to now. This is the claim that especially secular Israeli Jews use, and so it is no accident that they (and some religious Jews too) are keenly interested in archaeology to prove the claim of the ancient Israelites on the Land of Israel, and it is also the reason that the biblical stories of the conquest of the land in the Torah and in the books of the Former Prophets are taught in secular Israeli high schools. It is also the motivation of the claim that even though Jews did not rule that land for many centuries, there were always Jews living there, and Jews prayed three times daily for their return to the land of their ancestors.
In sum, the claim of Jews to the Land of Israel is grounded in all four of these factors. That said, as Americans, Central and South Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders must deal morally with the claims of those native to those lands before the current majority arrived there, and for cogent humanitarian, political, security, economic, and other pragmatic reasons, contemporary Israelis must find a way to negotiate peace with the Muslims who lived there before the modern Jewish return to the land and their descendants, as difficult as it has been to find a partner for peace among successive Palestinian representatives. We all hope and pray that there be peace there, and may it be soon.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Ph.D. is the Rector and Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University.