By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

The Zeroth Commandment

Tiqun Olam: The World’s Stake in Israel’s Future

Over the course of Jewish nationhood, the powers that be have tried time and again to distance the Jewish people from their rightful inheritance. Through the great tides of history and the mightiest of empires, we survived and continue to gaze in earnest anticipation toward the holy city and the site of the holy of holies. The remarkable tenacity with which we hold onto the idea of the ‘return to Zion’ distinguishes ourselves from every other nation that has ever existed. The story goes that Napoleon, upon witnessing the devout mourn the temples on the 9th of Av, remarked that he had no doubt in his mind that one day we would indeed return. The prophets concur.

Two months ago, strange tidings befell the Jewish people. We were informed by UNESCO, the UN branch charged with the administering of ancient heritage sites, that the Temple Mount did not bear any relationship to the Jewish people, but rather was to be referred to solely as “Al Aqsa.” This resolution, of course, reeks of illegitimacy and is blatantly absurd. It is dishonest, without basis, without logic, and stands null and void to all who do not profess themselves to be staunch antisemites. We do not lack for any evidence of our people’s long, storied history in Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), or, for that matter, on the Temple Mount itself!  In fact, the Waqf (the Jordanian administrators of the Temple Mount) inadvertently delivered to us years ago the exact proof we were looking for.  Sifting through the rubble left behind after enormous illegal renovations were performed on the Temple Mount in the late 1990s (when the area called Solomon’s Stables was demolished without permits, the resulting debris was unceremoniously dumped in the nearby wadi and was subsequently recovered by archeologists) has yielded mosaics, coins bearing Hebrew script, bones of sacrificial animals, arrowheads from the sieges and much more.  Throughout Israel, archeologists have discovered vast piles of evidence that point to historical Israelite/Hebrew civilizations (e.g. the Dead Sea scrolls, ancient synagogues) and continue to reveal new finds that provide us with hard proof of our narrative.  Laudably, Bibi lashed out at UNESCO and countered that we absolutely have a connection to the holiest place in Judaism!  Even most western nations abstained or voted against the resolution, leaving only the third world to their misguided reverie.  While the resolution surely did not cause any of us to question our link to the Temple Mount, it rattled us.  I ask: How could such a spurious act of a hopelessly biased organization have had such an effect on us?  Simply, we feel that any attack on the the merits of our continued existence in historical Israel is an existential threat.  This derives from a basic lack of confidence in the ethics of our right to exist and a misunderstanding of our nation’s destiny.

In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the founders of Israel wrote of our ancestral right to Israel: “From this historical and traditional connection [to the land], the Jews in every generation struggled to return and settle [land] in their ancient homeland.”

As clearly understood from this text, we justified our growing presence in Israel during the era of the Halutzim (early Jewish pioneers) by hearkening back to our ancestral tradition.  It was not a random coincidence that we chose Israel as our national homeland, but rather out of respect for history and the longing for our ancient homeland, a place where we could exist as a nation once more.  This logic remains Israel’s sole raison d’être, her only clear justification for her right to exist.  While some may claim that Israel serves as protector of world Jewry, and must exist for purely security reasons, the argument is lacking. Why do we need Israel in the current era of western tolerant enlightenment? If we do actually need it, why there? Why start a fight with the Arabs when the whole world was up for grabs (the Russians had even granted us an entire autonomous oblast, larger than Israel itself, in 1934!)? Additionally, if the Jews were to forego their connection to Israel, would there still exist a Jewish people? We have defined ourselves for millennia by our yearning for Zion, and it seems that without it we would be nothing. It is our bond to Zion that dictates our presence in the land, and that defines our identity as a nation.

In reality, though, this justification faces severe contention when applied to politics. When the Jews happened to wake up and stream into Israel in the late 19th century, the local inhabitants feared for their territorial rights, and they claimed a narrative of their own. For centuries, Israel had been administered by different Muslim governors, and a small, but significant, Arab population called it home. When the British took over in 1920, Palestine had a large population of Jews, but great numbers of non-Jews shared the land, however violently (e.g. pogroms of 1929 which occurred in Hebron and other cities). Bowing to intense Arab pressures, the British eventually restricted Jewish immigration (the White Papers), and remained steadfast through WWII, even denying asylum to refugees fleeing the Nazis.  In response to the efforts of Jewish underground fighters (e.g. Lehi, Etzel, Hahagana), the British decided to forfeit their mandate in 1947.  On November 29, 1947, the UN resolved to divide the territory between Arab and Jewish citizens (UN Resolution 181(II)), but the Arabs refused to accept the terms as approved by the UN, and instead declared war on Israel.  Thankfully, we survived that war, and then, in 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank, Sinai, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Today she retains control over both the Golan, Jerusalem and (to varying degrees) the West Bank. The conflict produced by these competing claims on the land has been brutal and bloody, and, sadly, we all know family and friends directly affected by the ongoing violence.

The current conflict originates in the Arabs’ claim that Israel is illegitimate. According to B’Tselem, one of the leading human rights organizations in Israel, the reason why the UN does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza (and hence the illegality of the settlements) stems from a reading of Article 49 (6) of the Fourth Geneva Accord.  The accord deals with the issues of wartime occupation among other situations, and according to most, though not all (Meir Shamgar, ex Attorney General of Israel, dissents, claiming that the Jordanian occupation of 1948-67 was itself illegitimate), the current Israeli presence in the West Bank constitutes a military occupation as described by the convention.  The article in question speaks of population exchanges regarding the occupied territory: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive…The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Though the convention does not explicitly prohibit the voluntary resettling (‘transfer’?) of civilians into occupied territory, the consensus of world leaders considers the Israeli settlement enterprise illegal on the basis of this passage.  This compact additionally serves as the basis for numerous UN resolutions (notably 242 and 338).  The Israelis have tried many times to invalidate such an approach, but all to little avail.  This understanding continues to serve as the basic belief of most world leaders (including President Obama) who would love to see Israel disengage from most of the West Bank and come to an agreement with the Arabs over a two state solution.

However, two obstacles inhibit the speedy resolution of the conflict and the creation of a new Arab state.  Ideologically, the act of rending the Jewish people from their ancient fatherland would inflict tremendous harm on the Jewish nation.  As mentioned previously, Judaism manifests itself as a relationship of our people to the land.  While we’ve managed many years in the past without controlling the West Bank, I fear that we may have come too far this time to resign ourselves to yet another exile.  A defeat this late in the game could cause irreparable harm to the already-weakened national soul of Jewry.  Practically speaking, I must also note that the conflict does not concentrate solely on the West Bank.  Rather, as the PLO and Hamas have made abundantly clear in the past, the Arabs claim the entirety of what was once mandatory Palestine. and it seems incredibly unlikely that any partition will assuage the Arabs’ desire to realize their vision of a much larger Arab state which would encompass pre-1967 Israeli territory as well.  Under great duress, Israel has painfully attempted many times to make peace with the Arabs, but they have failed us every time, and nothing they currently say or do encourages us to try again.  In the face of this moral stalemate and political impasse, analyzing the situation from a higher moral frame of reference may help us come to a better understanding of what to do.

I mean to say that when making decisions of such a magnitude, it falls on the responsible parties to have in mind all the consequences that may follow.  In short, when acting morally, the ends do, in fact, matter.  I would never propose such a troublesome, nebulous, solution in normal moral discourse, but very seldom do we encounter such an ambiguous situation.  Surely, when an act is deemed objectively immoral (e.g. by a categorical imperative), then nothing short of a divine decree can justify it. While some may argue that the divine can help us even today to determine which direction to pursue in our present conflict, I advise against pursuing this path.  Though I believe in our holy inalienable right to the land of our forefathers, I feel that it does not add to the discourse to only present such an argument, as many will reject it outright as either barbarous, or fanatical.

Alternatively, I suggest a more nuanced approach.  Clearly, we can claim a narrative that, if not more credible than that of the Arabs’, surely does not lack in relative strength.  As mentioned above, evidence abounds that proves our connection to Israel, and our spiritual bond to the holy land is beyond a legitimate doubt.  In the worst case scenario, we and the Arabs have two equally powerful claims, equally strong narratives that justify our dual presences on the land.  Unable to determine the relative morality of either side, and incapable of resolving the conflict using conventional political methods, we must take a more holistic approach.

That approach should take into account our common destiny and purpose in this world.  According to Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto in his work “The Way of the Lord” (2:4), Israel represents one of the many branches of humanity.  While all nations started off the same, Israel was chosen to be the bearer of the covenant of G-d.  Israel was saved by G-d’s outstretched arm, taken out of bondage, and given a mission to sanctify G-d’s name among the nations, as Isaiah (42:6) put it: “I the LORD have called unto you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and submitted you as the people's covenant, as a light unto the nations." Throughout our history, we’ve tried to keep that mission alive, and, in so doing, we’ve contributed to the surrounding cultures and societies.  It should not surprise you, then, that more than half of the world’s people today trace their religion back to Judaic philosophy and tradition.  Today, Jews are present in so many important fields of the arts and sciences.  Jews received a whopping 21% of all Nobel prizes, one hundred times what our small population size would have predicted.  But our mission is not yet complete.

Today's world is in need of inspiration. The world cries out for order and for love, but we are stuck, mired in the darkness of greed, lust, hate and violence. The impoverished, the oppressed, the infirm and downtrodden call out in unison, begging for pity, desperate for deliverance. The earth is robbed daily of her sustenance, of her beauty, of her life, and chaos reigns.

How might we contribute to the solution?  The ever important ideals of Tiqun Olam (Repairing the World) and Or Lagoyim (Light unto the Nations) should guide the way.  Ze’ev Jabotinsky sees Israel as the conduit through which to revive the human spirit.  He said in a speech that “the ultimate, true goal of Zionism…creating a national society that will nurture the entire world from its glory.  ‘For from Zion cometh forth the Torah’”.

Similarly, Rav Kook (Orot 6:6) writes that “the final purpose [of Judaism] is not merely that of national unity, but rather the aspiration to unite all upon the earth in one family, so that all shall call out in the name of the Lord.”

Applied to our current predicament, the point is clear.  We are unique among nations.  We possess an ancient hallowed tradition, the very best spiritual guides, prowess in the arts, an incalculable potential for scientific and technological progress, and the overwhelming will to do good.  Were we to lose our uniqueness, or if we were to compromise on certain matters that might hinder the prospects of our further development as a nation, all nations would suffer as a result.

I do want to make myself clear: As we all do, I try to find a balance between religious fervor and humane ethics. It is not an easy task, and many have failed before us. I am not proposing a specific course of action, but I sincerely pray that the Lord grant those in power the knowledge and strength to make the correct, moral decisions—for humanity’s sake.