Lech Lecha: My Land, But Maybe Yours, Too.

Having just returned to California, I’m still thinking about the ruins of ancient Jewish communities in Samaria (Northern “West Bank”) that Barbara and I visited last week.  This was our land!  This is again our land!  Perhaps it’s inevitable, therefore, that the focus of my attention upon this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is the issue of land ownership.  

I’m a “settler” … and so are you.  By this I simply mean that we are not the first human residents of the land on which we live.  And so, each of us might consider, by what right do we “occupy” our land? 

Barbara and I (and, for three more years, our bank) own the small parcel of land in Orange County, California upon which our home sits.  Before us, other private owners held title.  Previously, beginning in 1850, the State of California owned it.  Earlier, Mexico; Spain, and “’Native’ Americans” (although, apparently, their ancestors, like ours, came from somewhere else, so they, too, were “settlers.”).   Have all of our exclusive claims to this property been just?  Are yours to your property? 

It’s a complicated question, and impossible to answer in the affirmative. None of us in America has title records to our parcels dating from “B’resheet.”  And even if we did, how would we evaluate whether the “first,” and each successive acquisition was “morally just?” Is forcible conquest ever morally just?  Does it matter whether conquests are “offensive” (“preemptive?”) or “defensive” from the point of view of the conqueror?  Does it matter whether the conquerors'/occupiers' aims were to gain more land for family and tribe, to destroy others, to spread a philosophy/religion, and/or to acquire wealth? Was the Catholic mission system in California just? The Spanish conquest of Native American land?  The Mexican-American war that led to the US Government’s acquisition of this land?  Which standards should we use to decide?  I'm not a "moral relativist," but neither can I summarily dismiss and discredit all claims but my own.  

In Lech Lecha, G-d instructs Abraham to leave his native land and go to a land that G-d will show him.  There, G-d promises, G-d will make of Abraham and of his descendants a great nation.  [Genesis 12:1-2; 13:14-16].  For religious Zionists (and many Christians), this Scripture is the basis for Jewish claims to the land of Israel, including the lands that Palestinians now claim as theirs.  For many other Jews, our claim to the land is historical.  For example, Dani Dayan, former chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria [i.e. “West Bank”], writes in an Op-Ed in today’s Los Angeles Times:  

"The strategic hills of Judea and Samaria are the ancient Jewish heartland and the cradle of Jewish civilization; therefore no other nation state but Israel can exist west of the Jordan River.”  

Does the former fact lead inevitably to the latter conclusion?  

Other Jews base our claim to the land upon:

•    land purchases beginning with Abraham (Cave of Machpelah; Genesis 23:17-20) and, especially, in the waves of Aliyah that began in 1882.  
•    the UN’s 1947 Partition granting land for a Jewish state
•    territorial acquisitions during the many subsequent wars against the Arabs, and/or land “occupied” for security purposes [per others, land “redeemed”]. 

These claims need not be mutually exclusive. 

It’s my understanding that Palestinian claims are likewise based on a similar mix of rationales: religious, historical, financial, security, etc.  

Apart from beliefs and traditions, no one knows whether G-d actually spoke to Abraham – or, possibly, Allah spoke to Mohammed -- and promised either of them – or both? -- the land of Israel.  

What we do know is that two groups, each with millions of people and little or no likelihood of leaving, live in close proximity and claim the land.  Since each lacks irrefutable, empirical proof that their claim alone is valid, the other’s claim might also be just.  Moreover, and perhaps more fundamentally, if there is ever to be true peace, each group must acknowledge the potential justice of the other’s claim, since there can be no peace without a perception of justice among all principal parties. 

Can this occur in our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our children, our grandchildren, etc. ... before we fight more wars?  Let us pray for, and work toward, each side acknowledging the potential validity of the other’s claim, and the practical necessity of such acknowledgment for a genuine peace, soon and in our day.  

Shabbat shalom.

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