The one place where Jews are not settlers is Israel

Until the French Revolution, and for much afterwards, the world was galut (exile) to Jews - except for the land of Israel.


Wailing Wall (Kotel) in Old city of Jerusalem. Ancient Holy Land landscape. Western Wall in Jerusalem is a major Jewish sacred place. Image was toned for inspiration of vintage style. Conceptual Image

May 10, 2022 10:53

The BBC Arabic Service descriptions of ordinary Israelis as ‘settlers’ recalls the ancient rabbinic disgust for ‘yeridah’, i.e. of ‘going down’ from the Holy Land of Israel to ‘settle’ in the lands of the diaspora. Jews in the rabbinic view were indeed ‘settlers’ - everywhere except the land of Israel.

Until the time of the French Revolution, and to a large extent afterwards, the world was galut (exile) to Jews - except for the land of Israel.

From the late-18th century, emancipation and equal rights led Jews increasingly to regard the lands of their dispersion as home, but the Holocaust and the persistence of anti-Semitism since 1945, even in secular democracies, raises the question if Jews can call anywhere home.

In mainstream Judaism, however, the land of Israel from the biblical age to modern times has always been the ancestral homeland.

The rabbinic view was stated centuries before the rise of Islam: ‘One should always live in the land of Israel, even if in a mostly-non-Jewish town, and should not live outside the land of Israel, even in a mostly-Jewish town’ (Ketubot 110b).

Aversion to yeridah is alluded to in the Haggadah of Passover, recalling the famine which drove the patriarch, Abraham, to Egypt (Genesis 12: 10). The rabbis insist that Abraham merely settled in Egypt temporarily: his true home was the land of Israel, to which he returned, and where he died. Abraham was a model of aliyah (‘going up’ to the land of Israel), not yeridah.

The rabbis taught the merits of aliyah: they even permitted a contract to be written on the Sabbath for a house in the land of Israel (Bava Kamma 80b); those who lived in the land of Israel were assured of life in the World to Come (Ketubot 111a).

In Midrash (Jewish homiletics), the arid land of Israel is preferable to palaces abroad, for it is a place of piety, health, blessing and wisdom, encouraging faith and moral conduct among its inhabitants; a frugal life in the land of Israel is better than a luxurious life elsewhere; at the end of days, the dead would be resurrected in the Holy Land, and diaspora synagogues and houses of study would be miraculously transported there.

In one view, to live in the land of Israel is the mitzvah (commandment) par excellence; in contrast, the lands of the diaspora promote idolatry and immorality.

To leave the land of Israel was a source of grief, like leaving a beloved mother. The Midrash tells of rabbis who broke down in tears when they left the land of Israel: they turned round and went back. It was customary from ancient to modern times that Jews arriving in Eretz Yisrael would kneel and kiss its dust. Many Jews returned to Israel to be buried there, or arranged for a small portion of earth from the land of Israel to be buried with them in the diaspora.

Priests and Levites in the Temple in Jerusalem were evidently discouraged from leaving the Holy Land for the impure lands of the nations (Avoda Zara 8b).

The growth of the Jewish population in the late-biblical era meant that by the time of the Roman conquest of the land of Israel (63 BCE) most Jews lived in the diaspora. The rabbis saw how economic hardship drove Jews to other countries, where they could make a living. In the Talmud, inflation is a cause of yeridah (Bava Batra 91a).

In their wars against the Jews, the Romans depopulated the land of Israel to the point of genocide: Jerusalem (which in the 2nd century CE was razed, renamed, and rebuilt as a pagan city) was banned to Jews for many generations.

After the Bar-Kokhba war (c. 132-135 CE), small communities of Jews remained, chiefly in the North, in Galilee, where the Mishna was edited (c. 200 CE), including an entire Order on agricultural laws pertaining to the land of Israel. The Jewish educational curriculum which developed in Galilee and spread wherever Jews lived, inculcated love for the land of Israel and for the Hebrew language.

From ancient to modern times, Jews have prayed daily toward Jerusalem, from the prayerbook (the siddur) with many selections from the Hebrew Bible: prayers recited by David for the building of the Temple ((I Chronicles 29: 10-13), and by Ezra the Scribe on the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem from Babylonia (Nehemiah 9: 6-11), are recited in the daily Shacharit (Morning Service); the biblical counting of the Omer during the harvest season in the land of Israel between Pesach and Shavuot continues wherever Jews live to this day; and on the New Year for Trees (Tu Bishvat), it is customary to eat from the ‘seven fruits for which the Land of Israel was praised’ in Deuteronomy (8: 8): wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Many other prayers and blessings in the siddur are directed to the land of Israel. Psalm 48, recited in the Temple on Mondays, was preserved in the siddur and continues to be recited on Mondays as part of the morning synagogue service:

Circle the city round,

count Zion’s towers,

inspect its ramparts,

go through its palaces.

Remember it to the last generation…

for our God is forever here,

to guide us till death…

The Hebrew Grace after Meals, recited from ancient times to the present, includes blessings for the land of Israel; the Jewish calendar used in the diaspora is that of the land of Israel; the Jewish marriage service includes the following blessing with an allusion to Jeremiah (6th century BCE) - ‘Soon may we hear in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy, the sound of groom and bride…’  - and at the moment the marriage is sanctified, the groom breaks a glass in memory of the Temple in Jerusalem.

As rabbinic law came from Zion, so did Hebrew poetry. Among the best-known post-biblical Hebrew poems is Judah Halevi’s ‘My heart is in the east’ (Libi be-mizrach), written in 12th century Spain after the First Crusade.

My heart is in the east and I –

on the end of the west: how can I enjoy,

how taste my food, how keep my vows

while Zion is in Christian hands

and I in Arab chains.

I’d lightly leave the good of Spain

to see the Temple’s dust again

In the pre-modern Christian and Muslim theocratic world, the Hebrew Bible was sacred, the Jews were generally tolerated - though at timers persecuted and pressured to convert - and their reverence for the Holy Land was recognized as an inseparable part of Judaism, though the hope of return was relegated to the messianic age.

This hope was especially clear in 1666, after Shabbetai Zevi was proclaimed as the Messiah when, for a few weeks, many Jews both in European and Oriental countries believed that the return to Zion was imminent.

The denial of a continual Jewish religious/national link with the land of Israel began with the Enlightenment, which rejected religion as a source of superstition and backwardness, and the French Revolution which created the first modern European secular state based on Enlightenment ideals.

Emancipation from the late-18th century onward tended to weaken the traditional hold of the land of Israel on the more secularly educated minority of European Jews.

Nineteenth-century Reform Judaism, in reaction against Orthodoxy, claimed - as do many recent critics of Israel - that the ancient bond of Jews to the land of Israel as taught in rabbinic Judaism is irrelevant; what counts is present reality.

In a pamphlet of 1812 (the year the Prussian Jews were emancipated), David Friedländer, founder of German Reform, appealed to Prussian Jewry to make whatever religious, social and educational reforms were needed to become fully integrated in the Prussian state. The attachment of Jews to the Holy Land, and the longing to return to Jerusalem, belonged to the past:

‘As long as the Jews . . . were not only made to feel, but actually told, that they were only tolerated and really belonged to Palestine, there was neither cause nor reason to change the contents and the language of the prayers.’

However, in the age of emancipation, Friedländer went on, these ancient beliefs and traditions could be discarded:

‘Here I stand before God. I pray for blessing and success for my king, for my fellow citizens, for myself and for my family – not for a return to Jerusalem…’

Among German Jews, who were fiercely patriotic, anti-Zionism was exceptionally strong until the rise of Hitler and the adoption of antisemitism as German state policy.

In these circumstances, Reform Judaism changed its stance, acknowledging in its Columbus Platform of 1937 that Zionism sought to create ‘not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.’ American Reform Jews in the immediate post-Holocaust years contributed massive financial support, without which it is unlikely that the Jewish state would have survived the onslaught of five Arab armies, aided and abetted by the Palestinian Arabs, in 1948-49.

Admittedly, the BBC Arabic Service is mindful of resistance in the Arab world to seeing Israel in the long-term religious/historical context; and it is perhaps easier to portray Israelis stereotypically - as is common in the Arab world - as illegal ‘settlers’, and Israel as a recent temporary shallow alien entity, a colonial aberration with no connection to the Middle East.

If so, what claim can the BBC have to impartiality and truthful reporting?

In la longue durée, Islam follows Judaism in the view that justice demands recognition that the earth cannot be owned by its human inhabitants. Biblical poetry and law agree the only real ownership is divine: in song, ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalms 24: 1); and in law, the land must not be sold in perpetuity, ‘for the land is Mine and you are strangers and sojourners with me’ (Leviticus 25: 23).

Tithes recall human impermanence: God, creator, owner, and ruler, requires a rent to be paid to the priests, his representatives, and used for the common weal. In ancient Judah centuries before the birth of Christianity and Islam, Jewish farmers presented tithes to priests in the Temple of Jerusalem - whose very existence is denied by some Arab propagandists - with a solemn Hebrew declaration of the divine ownership of the land and the landless, nomad origins of Israel and its slavery in Egypt, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father [i.e. Abraham]… and the Egyptians afflicted us’.

To Rashi, the greatest of Jewish exegetes, who lived at the time of the First Crusade, the story of Creation at the opening of Genesis teaches that the land is given by God’s grace: all are 'settlers' - a view in which the Abrahamic religions concur.

May 10, 2022 10:53

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