The Bible and the Occupation

Checkp Warning: this blog post is going to be somewhat “political,” and it’s going to violate a “rule” of blogging: it’s going to be long.  If you read my blog more for Torah than political commentary, or if you prefer to read stuff that’s short and pithy, you might want to skip this one…

What does the Bible teach us about political philosophy?  How do those teachings play out in Israel today?  What’s the relationship between the Israeli occupation of land won in 1967 and the Zionist/Biblical vision for Israel?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to study with my teacher Rabbi Daniel Gordis (now relatively well known for his writings that appear in the NY Times among other places).  Some of what he taught I agree with; some I’m not sure about; but there was one thing I strongly DISAGREED with, that I want to talk about.

But before we get to what I disagree with, we need to put it in the context of the ideas he shared.  There were two important and interesting concepts:

  1. Ideas are important to the existence of some nations, and when that idea is defeated – as happened for South Africa and the Soviet Union – the nation state founded on that idea collapses.
  2. There is tension in the Western World between the ideal vision of the Hebrew Bible, as represented by the song “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem – and the ideal vision of Christianity, as represented by the song “Imagine” by John Lennon.

What, you may be wondering, is the relationship between Hatikvah and Imagine?  R. Gordis maintains that the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible is a vision of ethnic nation states, separate in their identities, but ideally living in harmony.  We see this first in the story of the tower of Babel: the people started out unified, one language, one culture.  God didn’t like that; he mixed things up, and when people have different languages they will also have different cultures and ultimately different world views.  And that’s OK.  You look at the prophetic visions of the future world, and it’s not a world where everyone is Jewish.  The prophet Isaiah quotes God as saying “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Not everyone becomes “one people.”  They retain their separate “peoplehood” and status.  But they do recognize God, and we do all get along.  In the Talmud it teaches that on Sukkot (the feast of Tabernacles) 70 bulls were sacrificed, one for each of the 70 nations – but they remain separate nations, they don’t all become Israeli-Jewish.

The Jewish vision is not one big homogenous world, all McDonalds and Starbucks, everyone getting along because there is no difference.  Israelis seem to have absorbed this ideal, and appreciate our differences: felafel is still our national fast food, and Starbucks tried, and failed to compete with our local coffee shops.  Our vision is we are an independent nation, with our own identity, living at peace with our neighbors.  As it says in Hatikvah, “the hope of 2,000 years has not been lost, to be a free nation in our land.”

On the other side is the vision of the Christian Bible – a world where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” The lack of importance of nations is also represented by the idea of “render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s.”  All those petty differences are not important and are not the fundamental reality.  Don’t concern yourself with political stuff like that.

That idea – one world, all the same, no difference between Jew and Greek, male and female, etc. – is what John Lennon expresses so poetically in “Imagine:”

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Imagine is the exact opposite of Hatikvah.  A nation fulfilling its dream, living as a nation in its own land – versus no more nations.

So now we can bring these two ideas together: the state of Israel is clearly one of those countries for whom an idea is important.  What is our founding idea?  The Jewish people returned to their ancestral home, the end of 2,000 years of exile, etc. 

One of the people at the seminar asked Rabbi Gordis an excellent question: she said that while she knows many Jews in America who support the basic idea behind the Jewish state, they are very troubled by the Occupation – so much so that they get turned off to Israel completely.  How do we respond to that?

R. Gordis replied (this is a paraphrase, not a direct quote): "That’s an important question that I can answer one of three ways: I could just agree, yes, the Occupation stinks. But that would be pretty boring.  I could try to defend the Occupation, but I won’t, because I don’t defend it.  Instead, I’ll be a little in your face.  How dare you sit in comfort in America and tell us we need to pull out of the West Bank when that would endanger us, and our children?  This building – the Hartman Institute – is also home to the Hartman Boy’s High School.  It is in Qassam rocket range of the Green Line.  My son prays every day in this room.  When you can tell us how we can end the Occupation without endangering ourselves, without making it dangerous for us, fine.  Until then, keep your mouth shut."

That’s a terrible answer.  When I heard that answer I was reminded of the story from the Talmud about a Gentile who asks a famous rabbi a difficult question.  The rabbi gives some facile answer, which the Gentile accepts and goes away.  His students turn to him and say, “OK rabbi, you pushed him off with that lame answer, but what do you have to say to us?”

R. Gordis can push off someone from the US with his answer – you don’t live here, don’t dare tell us what to do – but what does he say to me?  I also live here.  I live even closer to the Green Line than he does.  My kids ride city buses to go to school.  And I think his answer is a bunch of hooey.  What’s more, I suspect he knows his answer is hooey too.

Why is it such a big deal?  We’ve lived with the Occupation for forty years.  What difference does it make if we live with it for another forty years?

The problem is the Occupation is bad for the Palestinians, and it’s bad for us.

It’s obvious why it’s bad for the Palestinians: they are not citizens of any country, they don’t have the normal rights that go with citizenship, their movement is restricted, a government not their own controls decisions about their daily life including whether they can add a room to their house. 

Perhaps less obvious is why it is bad for the Jews.  I have several reasons why I think it’s bad for us:

  • It is making us a pariah in the view of the rest of the world.  We are being compared (unfairly, but still…) with South Africa and apartheid. 
  • The risk of violence hurts our economy.  Even though tourism is at record levels, no one doubts tourism would be higher still if we had peace.
  • It has a corrosive effect on Zionism: many young secular people do not want to serve in the IDF because they don’t want to risk their lives defending a bunch settlers living in the West Bank surrounded by people who don’t want them there.
  • As pointed out by the woman who asked the question, the Occupation has a corrosive effect on how much Jewish youths in the Diaspora identify with Israel. 
  • It is morally wrong, and as such represents a sort of communal corruption.

I want to address the last point in more detail.  What makes it morally wrong?

Many of my “lefty” friends may be offended by the following statement.  I believe that since we won the war in ’67 (and affirmed our victory in ’73) if we want to, we can keep all of the lands in the Occupied Territories (aka the West Bank and Gaza, aka Yehuda and Shomron).  We won.  The winners get to set the borders.  There is just one catch: if we keep the land, we have to keep the people and make them citizens.  The problem with that is Israel does not want to make another couple of million Muslims citizens, because it would mean the end of a Jewish state in a generation or two as there would be a Muslim majority before too long. 

We can’t be pigs.  We don’t get to have our cake and eat it too.  If we want the land, fine, we can have the land, and welcome a bunch of new citizens to Israel.  If we don’t want the additional Muslim citizens, we don’t get to keep the land.  I see it as a basic human right to be a citizen of your country.  To be able to vote for the people who decide how much taxes you pay and how those taxes are spent.  The Torah tells us “mishpat echad yiyeh lachem,” there shall be one form of law for you, for the native born and the convert, the citizen and the resident alien.

There are also plenty of moral problems in how the Occupation has been administered: privately owned Palestinian land has been unfairly confiscated, excessive checkpoints make movement difficult, the security fence and a small number of violent settlers have made access to Palestinian agricultural lands difficult, the route of the security barrier (an evil necessity because of those Palestinians who want to blow us up) unfairly favors settlers over Palestinians in land conquered in '67.

To go back to R. Gordis’ answer – the reason the Occupation is continuing is NOT because we don’t know how to end it without endangering ourselves.  That’s nonsense.  The problem is our terribly broken political system.  The reason we are not making more progress toward peace with the Palestinians is because Israel’s political leadership is more interested in keeping their jobs than in furthering the national interest.  Tzipi Livni’s ego kept her out of a coalition with Netanyahu.  As such we have a government with a racist foreign minister, under police investigation for corruption, who makes us a laughing stock around the world.  We have a government that can’t move because if Netanyahu did actually start to make the compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians his government would collapse and he’d be either at the mercy of Tzipi Livni, or facing new elections.

It’s not completely the fault of Netanyahu and Livni: it’s partly the fault of the crazy political system that puts them into this situation, where a government needs to cut a deal that inevitably ends up including small radical parties.  The charedi (ultra-Orthodox) at the moment have a huge amount of clout politically, because they are the ones keeping Netanyahu in office.

If Israel doesn’t get its act together, I suspect the Palestinian state will happen all on its own within two years.  Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister has been busy building a state already.  One small sign: in Israel and in Jewish circles in the West, the “disputed territories” are called either the West Bank, or Yehuda and Shomron, sometimes “the Occupied Territories,” sometimes the “Palestinian Authority.”  I have had a few meetings recently with businessmen from Ramallah.  You know what it says on their business cards?  Ramallah, Palestine.  Fayyad has been quietly building a country called Palestine.  Their economy is improving, their security situation is stable.  Within a couple of years—and on their schedule, not Israel’s—they will simply announce a state.  How long do you think if will take before the UN and the EU recognize Palestine?  Probably less than five minutes.  At that point Israel’s negotiating position will be seriously eroded: it will be negotiating with a sovereign state that will no doubt have the backing of the EU and the UN, if not the United States.

If I were Rabbi Gordis, I probably would have gone with the boring answer: just agree with the questioner, yes, the Occupation sucks, I hope we have a country with real borders one of these days.  A country fulfilling the Biblical vision of a unique nation, with a unique culture, living at peace with the neighbors.

Reb Barry

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

7 thoughts on “The Bible and the Occupation

  • July 16, 2010 at 5:09 am
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    It is not your country. The land belongs to the Palestinians. You are for the most part Ashkenaze converted east European Jews and you have no connection to that land. If you want to live in a Jewish region you can go to Birobidzhan or else go back to the countries your forefathers came from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany etc. etc. and stop saying the Palestinians are the terrorists, no-one buys that anymore.

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  • July 16, 2010 at 8:30 am
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    Hugo: our forefathers came from Israel. Even our converts have profound spiritual connections to the land, and are considered “children of Abraham.”

    Not all Palestinians are terrorists, but ones who blow up buses certainly are.

    I find it a little odd that you seem to be attacking me, since I was actually speaking out against the Occupation! Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews actually somewhat outnumber Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_ethnic_divisions#Statistics .

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  • July 16, 2010 at 9:38 am
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    I am not attacking you personally. I do not like what Israel represents, it is not only occupation and repression and non lives for the Palestinians and assassination of thousands of them but Israel destabilizes the whole Middle-East. And how was it created, in 5 minutes. You say converts have “profound spiritual connections to the land”. That is like saying all Catholics around the world should be in Italy where the Vatican is. And converts are not even allowed in Judaism.
    If you are a semitic Jew there should be no problem in creating one state together with the semitic Arabs-you lived side by side in the past. But I reiterate the problem stems from the eastern European Jews who are non semitic and this is why many countries do not recognize Israel. What do your ancient scriptures say – “when the Temple of David will be destroyed for the 3rd time (by the Romans) you the Jews will disperse into the world. In fact as you know better than me the ultra-orthodox Jews are against the State of Israel.
    If only there were more honest dialogue and common sense a peaceful agreement would be reached, I think.

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  • July 16, 2010 at 11:19 am
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    The song “Imagine” is not the ideal Christian vison of society, rather it is a vision of society devoid of religion, based on humanistic values only, much as Buddhism’ philosophy tells us were are all one. That said, I found your discourse very interesting and intelligent. There is a lot of emotion, rage, disgust, fear wrapped around this topic, and I am happy to read your well-reasoned lesson.

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  • July 17, 2010 at 3:18 pm
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    Mary, clearly it is understood that the Christian ideal does not include eliminating religion: however, would you say it IS fair to say that the Christian ideal is the “monoculture” R. Gordis spoke about? Everyone one religion, no more Jew and Gentile, but everyone Christian? No more ethnic nation states, everyone united in Jesus?

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  • July 20, 2010 at 7:19 am
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    i enjoyed your long blog. one disagreement. felafel as a national symbol gets right to the guts of the spirit of humility we need to really reconcile with Palestinians. It is THEIR food. we took it. We take lots of things because we are rootless, or because whenever you come to a new place you go native. My real point is that the truth is somewhere between the caricature of Biblical nationalism that gordis sets up and the caricature of universalism, here described as christianity. over thirty times about the stranger in Bible, not meat and milk dishes, real strangers, like Ruth a hated Moabite. This is not Gordis’ separate and occasionally in harmony. And certainly Amos would have none of that nor Malachi. So, the felafel is theirs, we should say thank you, how can we make it better? would you like to try some chulent? probably not. By the way, we deeply apologize for the rude way way came here, and we want to share the land with you in a way that we can be safe, all of us. http://www.marcgopin.com

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  • July 20, 2010 at 12:23 pm
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    Mark, felafel is the subject of a great debate, with the Lebanese trying to claim it as THEIR national dish. It appears Jews and Arabs in Israel adopted it around the same time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falafel for a fascinating history of the felafel.

    Of course many “national dishes” are borrowed from elswhere: hamburger (Hamburg), frankfurter (Frankfurt), french fries, for example.

    So I wouldn’t necessarily felafel is “theirs.” But I do agree it is appropriate to recognize their suffering. “Sorry you got screwed. Yes, we recognize that our Independence Day is your ‘nakba.’ Can we both move on now?”

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