Indigenous Land Rights in Israel

By Racheli Shafier

I grew up in a home that many would call non-Zionist. After all, there was no Israeli flag anywhere, no acknowledgement of Yom Ha’atzmaut, and no HaTikvah. But if you ask me, my family embodies the kind of Zionism that existed long before Herzl and long before the nineteenth century. The Zionism that was always an integral part of Judaism, the Zionism of my family and community, is a Zionism removed from politics – a Zionism that is rooted in Jewish History, in our ancestral connection to the Land, and in the belief that the Land is ours because God gave it to us. This is the Zionism that had Jews praying for a return to Jerusalem for thousands of years, the Zionism that has every synagogue throughout the world facing towards Jerusalem, and the Zionism that includes a commemoration of the exile in every major Jewish event.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, brings a midrash on the opening phrase of the Torah. He quotes Rabbi Yitzchak, who assumes that the general purpose of the Torah is to instruct us in God’s will. If so, then what is the purpose of the whole first book and a half of the Torah? Why not start with the first commandment, the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon? Why even talk about Creation?  Rabbi Yitzchak answers this by saying that the account of Creation is included in the Torah so that “should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

While of course this does not need to be taken literally – I would not recommend that Prime Minister Netanyahu defend Israel’s right to exist in the UN by saying that “God created the world, and He said that we should have Israel,” – I was raised with this midrash’s sentiment as an internal attitude. It is this belief that underlies my family’s love for Israel – because without speaking to the other nations, we know for ourselves that God created the world, and He promised us the Land of Israel. Of course, that belief can only take me so far. I don’t believe that God’s promise to our people gives us a right to hurt another people, and I struggle with many of the government’s decisions.

All of this background is why I especially enjoyed the weekend we spent in the West Bank, entitled Narratives of the People, Land and State of Israel: Jewish Israeli Politics on the Left and Right.

After a busy Friday where we met with Hagit Ofran of Shalom Achshav (“Peace Now”), walked along the “Path of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs,” and of course, went ziplining at “Deer Land,” we settled in at our host families, residents of Alon Shvut- a religious community in Gush Etzion.  Over the weekend, we also heard from Yishai Fleisher (spokesperson for the Jewish community in Hebron), and had the opportunity to visit the Shorashim “Peace Tent” and heard from participants in a dialogue group of local Israelis and Palestinians.

While each activity and speaker helped me understand another facet of the conflict, I specifically enjoyed hearing Rabbi Tzvi Hirschfield speak about Indigenous Land Rights. 

In his text study, we discussed Lech Lecha, the call that Abraham received to enter the Land, and the promise that God made to him – that the land will be an inheritance for his children. We also talked about the struggle that Israelis face today – living with the knowledge that their land rights are competing with Palestinian land rights. Rabbi Hirschfield, himself a resident of Alon Shvut, spoke about the different reasons why one would choose to live in a settlement and how one can be committed to the peace process while still living in a settlement.

We also discussed the difference between rights and obligations. While the secular legal system is based on rights – one’s right to bear arms, one’s right to a free ad public education, etc – the Jewish system is based on obligations – one’s obligation to be honest in business, one’s obligation to keep shabbat, ones obligation to respect one’s fellow man. We talked about how that plays into land rights – how perhaps knowing that you have a right to the land has no legal impact, and it certainly does not override our obligation to treat everyone with decency.

While I loved hearing the different voices over this weekend, I especially enjoyed hearing this narrative, which combines my deeply rooted beliefs about the Jewish connection to the Land and my strong convictions about our obligation to all people. This is the voice of the Zionism that calls to me.


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