In Praise of a Zionism that Remembers the Exile

A group of Israeli rabbis have signed a document forbidding the sale or rental of homes in Israel to non-Jews.  Unfortunately, the rabbinic voices of dissent (dare I say "of reason") are barely noted, though they're out there (as will be regularly updated on this facebook page).

It is hard to characterize an issue like this one: it has major political and diplomatic repercussions, on the surface the rabbis address it as a halakhic issue, and there is clearly a deeper ideological element. The halakhic discussion revolves around a precept called "Lo Tehanem" that forbids granting gentiles possession of part of the Land of Israel. The parameters of that prohibition are the subject of much halakhic debate (in recent decades, the precept has been invoked in discussions of the halakhic permissibility of trading land for peace and of the hetter mekhira, the symbolic lease of the entire land of Israel to a gentile during the Sabbatical year, thus enabling Jewish farmers to continue cultivating; ironically but predictably, some rabbis explain away lo tehanem in some instances while standing firm on it in others). Like any good halakhic debate, there is a range of opinions and voices on the matter. In some ways, however, this makes the conclusion reached by the signatories of the ban even more troublesome: given clear and mainstream halakhic precedent for leasing property to gentiles in the Land of Israel, and given the well-honed halakhic toolbox for finding leniency in extenuating circumstances (incurring the disapproval of the gentile world easily qualifies), rabbinic insistence on the "hard line" seems particularly disturbing. Granted, much of what it means to be Israeli is built on the repudiation of the exilic concern with "what the goyim will say." In that sense, I am indeed proudly advocating a healthy dose of galuti mentality.

The underlying ideology of the hard line position views any gentile presence on the Land of Israel as anomalous and, to the degree possible, worthy of elimination. This ideology has adopted Rashi's comments on Genesis 1:1 as a mantra (as Rav Beni Lau notes on p. 3b here - via Tomer): "If the gentile nations say that you are robbers who occupied a land not theirs, say to them: 'The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper (le-et asher yashar be-einav). When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.'"

Here, too, there is ample room for alternative positions, and that many tenuous assumptions must be made before such an ideological position supports a practical one. Here, too, the diplomatic and galuti tempering of real or ideal positions would prove useful. Not everything that is thought must be said.

More fundamentally, though, I take issue with the common understanding of Rashi's comments and propose an alternative reading, one that cuts to the heart of what Zionism, particularly religious Zionism, means.

The key phrase of Rashi's comment is "le-et asher yashar be-einav," which can be interpreted in two ways. The first way sees God's gift of the land as essentially arbitrary: God whimsically takes the land from one group and gives it to another, which is great for the beneficiaries of God's whimsy and tough luck for the dispossessed. The second way interprets the crucial phrase in a moral vein: God grants the land to those who are upright in His eyes, to whomever pleased Him, not to whomever He pleased. In context of Rashi's comments, the land was given to Israel because God, as Owner of this bit of real estate, reserved the right to grant it to whomever deserves it, and to withdraw it if present occupants prove undeserving.

A deeper analysis of this key phrase, "le-et ashe yashar be-einav," demonstrates that the latter interpretation is indeed the correct one. The source for this key phrase is Jeremiah 27:5 (a glance at the various translations of the verse indeed bears out the ambiguity of its meaning), part of a series of prophecies set at the beginning of the reign of Yehoyakim and warning the people of Judea that continued injustice would result in the loss of sovereignty to the Chaldeans. Given the context, it seems quite unlikely that Jeremiah meant that control of the land is based on God's whim.

Furthermore, as I've written before, the various forms of the phrase "yashar be-einei Hashem" appear throughout the Bible, and always refer to man doing that which is good and right in God's eyes, and is often contrasted with those who do that which is right in their own eyes. In Deuteronomy (6:18), the Torah specifically prescribes to "do what is upright and good in God's eyes (ha-yashar ve-hatov be-einei Hashem)." Given the moral force of the phrase in question elsewhere, it can hardly be construed as a morally neutral designation in this instance.

Finally, it would be terribly ironic if Rashi used the verse in question to prove that the Holy Land eternally belongs to the people of Israel, as in context it refers to God taking the land away from Israel and giving it to the Chaldeans! Nebuchadnezzar, not the Judeans, was "proper in God's eyes" at that time.

Of course, the implications of this reading for religious Zionism are profound. It means that the Jewish grip on the land is always tenuous, conditioned upon deserving it, living up to it, and doing that which God considers upright. The attitude that Israel belongs to the Jews by Divine grace, without having to earn it, was anathema to the Prophets, who saw justice and righteousness, universally applied, as the pillars upon which the Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel could be founded, and who saw failure to deserve the land as the direct cause of exile.

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