So where, then, Is the Land of Israel?

The State of Israel and the Land of Israel

One of the more interesting manifestations of the 1999 election campaign in Israel is the unraveling of the grand coalition which Menachem Begin assembled and coalesced as the Likud in 1973. It was based on Begin’s shrewd capitalising on the deep antagonism which many groups-—religious, Sephardim, the underclass, the far right–felt towards an indolent Labour Party. Netanyahu’s modernising tendency in the 19905 seemingly put
ideology on the back burner. This, together with a profound personal dislike of the prime minister,
propelled Dan Meridor and Yitzhak Shahak to the new Centre Party, David Levy to join Labour’s
Ehud Barak in ‘One Israel’, and Benny Begin to found a resurrected Herut. The latter was
intended for true believers who considered Netanyahu had betrayed the right, especially by
putting his signature on the Hebron and Wye agreements. They adhered to the dream that there
should be no distinction between Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) and Medinat Israel (the State of
Israel). The Herut manifesto stated:
The Land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish
People, home for the returnees to Zion. The State will
encourage immigration and absorption, and will act to
strengthen Jewish education in the Diaspora. The State will
encourage Jewish settlement in all areas of the State of Israel
and the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, its eternal capital, will not
be divided again. The right of the Jewish People to the Land
of Israel is inseparably joined to the right to peace and security.
Territory in the Land of Israel will not be transferred, including
in the Golan Heights, to foreign sovereignty. The State will
strive to attain peace agreements with all of its neighbours
but not at the expense of the security of the State and its
residents. The State will advance the eternal chain of values
of the Torah of Israel in the life of the nation.

In mid-March Herut concluded an electoral pact with Moledet and the new settlers’ party Tekumah. All adhered to loyalty to the Land of Israel. But what did this mean? It actually obscured a profound difference in the interpretation of Eretz Israel—between the biblical and the modern. But all this was conveniently glossed over in the hope of bringing down Netanyahu. So where, then is the Land of Israel?
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 stated that there should be a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was, of course, a very different entity from Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. A homeland for twentieth-century Zionists meant a Jewish nation-state, a modem secular institution and a break with the past. The Land of Israel, however, projected a biblical imagery, the building blocks of Jewish tradition and an idea that went far beyond
mere sticks and stones. Indeed, Agudat Yisrael was established in 1912 as a religious anti-Zionist party specifically to accentuate the difference between these concepts. The true Israel would arise only with the coming of the messiah. In Genesis, God made his promise to Abraham: ‘To your seed, I have given this Land from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the River Euphrates.(1)
Yet the boundaries as determined elsewhere in biblical sources are different and reflect the extent of Israelite settlement at various times in Jewish history. The inheritance promised in Numbers (2) and Deuteronomy (3) to the children of Israel in the desert differs from the promise given to Joshua (4) when they were on the brink of entering the Land. In Judges(5) some Canaanite cities were deemed to have remained unconquered.
During the Babylonian exile, the borders differ from later ones during the Second Temple period. (6)
Definitions of the Land of Israel
There is therefore a tension between the divine promise made to Abraham and its realisation by his descendants. There is a distinction between ‘the Promised Land’ and Eretz Israel defined by the limits of Israelite settlement. There are thus several historical definitions of the borders of the Land. For example, those after the return from Babylon essentially delineate the Hasmonean conquest during the Second Temple period. This coincides with the extent of settlement during the Mishnaic period, which in turn defines halakhic jurisdiction in questions of the mitzvot, dependent on the Land.(7)
The broadest and perhaps most popular term, ‘from Dan to Beersheva’, is a general description of the Land and suggests the source of the Jordan in the north to the perimeter of continuous settlement in the south.(8) All these borders, which certainly have geopolitical characteristics, became transmuted, probably in Mishnaic times, into spiritual boundaries which differentiated the holy from the profane and this tendency became accentuated when Jewish sovereignty over the Land was lost. This, in turn, led to confusion among the rabbis and the people itself when the question ‘Where is Eretz Israel?’ was posed. In Misbnah Gittin9 Rabbi Yehuda defines ‘abroad’ as beyond Rekem in the east, Ashkelon in the south and Acco in the north. All three towns were considered to be ‘like’ the areas outside Eretz Israel, which implies that they were indeed outside it. On the other hand, Rabbi Meir determines that in matters of the get, the bill of divorce, Acco ‘counts’ as part of Eretz Israel.(10)
Moreover, since Rekem is quoted in the Book of Joshua (11) as being situated within western Eretz
Israel, Tosafot (12) rationalises this in proposing that this must be another town called Rekem outside the eastern border of the Land.
The Zionist movement and the imperialist powers
It has been suggested that there are two taxonomies in operation, ‘one implicating the People Israel and the other its Land. When these are not in harmony with each other, conflicts necessarily develop’.‘(13) How then did the early Zionists, children of the Haskalah, envisage the borders of a future Jewish homeland? The confu-
sion in traditional sources was compounded by confusion in contemporary approaches. The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1910/11 comments that although the River Jordan naturally divides the area, ‘it is practically impossible to say where Palestine ends and the Arabian Desert begins.(14). Moreover, the Balfour Declaration itself did not actually delineate specific borders.
In February 1919 the Zionist movement for the first time submitted a map to the Versailles Conference. In the north, according to this map, The Jewish homeland reached up to the Litani river and Sidon in southern Lebanon and included all sources of the River Jordan. In the east, it followed the Hejaz railway but specifically did not envelop Damascus or Amman. In the south, it went down to Akaba and included Gaza. The final southern border was to be negotiated with the Egyptian government(15)
Although coloured by biblical imagery, designed to impress Christians as well as Jews, the memorandum which accompanied this map did not base its premise on God’s promise to Abraham. It suggested that control of water sources was important in establishing the demarcation of the northern border. In the east, it was
a question of agricultural areas, the Dead Sea quarries and access to the railway. In the south, an outlet to the Red Sea and the potential farmland of northern Sinai was all-important. All the borders also reflected the natural boundaries of the area with the exception of the area around Damascus, (16) where the vested interests of the
Imperial Powers took precedence. Significantly, in 1920 the Zionists abandoned settlements on the Golan Heights and in the Bashan, which were now situated within the territory of the French mandate, and hardly a voice was raised when the British overruled claims to Tyre. In March 1921 Churchill’s White Paper offered Transjordan to the Emir Abdullah, the great-grandfather of the new king of Jordan. The secession of the East Bank and the emergence of Abdullah’s kingdom constituted nearly 40 per cent of the territory dis-
cussed at Versailles. This first partition of mandatory Palestine, the softly-softly approach of the Zionist movement, the latter’s dilution of perceived Herzlian ideals and an increasing opposition to British policy—all these factors prompted the resignation of Vladimir Jabotinsky from the Zionist executive in January 1923. By the end of the year, the Zionist youth group Betar had been established in Riga and, within two years,
Jabotinsky had founded the Union of Zionist Revisionists, the forerunner of today’s Likud. Within a few short years, the Labour Zionists and their Revisionist opponents became bitter enemies.
The Revisionists and the borders of the Jewish state
One area of fundamental disagreement was the willingness of Ben-Gurion and his allies to be flexible on the question of borders. The Revisionists’ aim was the creation of a Jewish state with a Hebrew majority on both sides of the Jordan. Jabotinsky’s plan in 1926 to bring 50—60,000 Jews to Palestine each year thus required unpopulated areas. Indeed, in his testimony to the Royal Commission in 1957, Jabotinsky defined Eretz Israel as ‘a geographical entity’ on both sides of the Jordan. The East Bank was almost ideal since it was sparsely populated and Abdullah privately hinted that he was not averse to Jewish settlement. Yet Ben-Gun’on had raised the possibility at this time of a second partition of Palestine at a closed meeting of his Mapai party. When this was made public, it produced fission lines across most of the major Zionist parties. The Royal Commission supported the establishment of a Jewish state and the annexation of the remainder of Palestine to Transjordan. This would occupy some 5000 krn2——a mere 10 per cent of the Zionists’ submission to the Versailles conference.
Jabotinsky’s young, radical followers included Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Avraham Stern and Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who, while regarding themselves as his dedicated disciples, also stood to the right of their mentor. Significantly, Jabotinsky’s acolytes became of political age in the Europe of the étatist regimes of Mussolini, Dolfuss and Salazar, and that of their native Poland. Their heroes were Bar-Kokhba, Garibaldi and the IRA’s Michael Collins. Moreover, they were influenced by far-right intellectuals such as Abba Achimeir, who admired
Mussolini’s Italy and initially expressed appreciation for Hitler’s Nazi revolution, (17) Uri Zvi Greenberg, whose poetry stoked the fires of messianisrn,(18) and Yonatan Ratosh, who argued that a Jewish state need not require a Jewish majority(19) Thus, when in 1937 Jabotinsky contemplated a second partition, Betar vehemently rejected it.
Begin and the ‘crime’ of partition
One consequence of such thinking was the use of Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, to signify two different entities, one situated in traditional Jewish texts, the other a consequence of nationalist Zionist debate in the 1930s. By 1943, Jabotinsky’s movement had fragmented into three factions—-the official Revisionists, Begin’s Irgun and the Lehi of Stern and Shamir. Both the official Revisionists and the Irgun maintained the old Jabotinskyian approach of ‘There are two banks-—this one is ours and so is the other.’ When
Begin opposed the second partition of Mandatory Palestine in 1947 into Jewish and Palestinian
states, he referred to the ‘statelet’ of Israel: this partition was ‘a crime, a blasphemy, an abortion’.
Although Begin coloured his statements with a greater preponderance of traditional imagery than
Jabotinsky, he differed from Avraham Stern profoundly. Ironically, the East Bank was not considered to be part of the Promised Land by Moses even though it became part of Eretz Israel through later Israelite settlement. Stern’s romanticism and religiosity, however, coloured his politics. Influenced by messianism and in particular by Maimonides’s understanding of redemption, Stern’s Eighteen Principles of National Revival
quoted God’s promise to Abraham as defining the borders of Israel and further advocated the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. In the first Knesset, Begin condemned Ben-Gurion’s apparent acquiescence in this second partition: ‘You have acknowledged the legitimacy of handing over Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Cave of Machpela, Rachel’s tomb, Hebron, Bethlehem, Shechem, Gilead and Bashan to a foreigner, an
enemy, an oppressor. Who gave you the right?’(20)
Begin referred to Jordan as ‘that vassal state which exists on our homeland’ and, in a biblical analogy, labelled Abdullah as ‘the Ammonite slave’. He pleaded with Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, not to acquiesce in the fact that ‘Allah’s slave will rule 80 per cent of our homeland’. He even argued that the construction
of the Jewish state could not begin ‘until our country is cleansed of invading armies’.(21)
Begin tones down territorial demands
By the mid-1950s, Begin’s passion for the East Bank had begun to wane, at least in public. In the Herut manifesto for the 1959 election, the programme proclaimed merely ‘the right of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel in its historic entirety is an eternal and inalienable right’. (22) Another reason for downplaying the territorial issue was Begin’s courting of the General Zionists. The coalition manifesto of Herut and the Liberals (General Zionists) in 1965 further watered down any territorial demands. The conquest of the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day War changed everything and once again raised the issue of the borders of the state for all political parties. Groups such as the Land of Israel Movement proved to be socialising grounds for former enemies who agreed that the fruits of the 1967 victory should be retained. The status quo of Israeli control of the Territories now favoured Begin’s stand and there was a widespread public nervousness at changing this situation, which could have security ramifications.
Yet the price that Begin was willing to pay for a bilateral treaty with Egypt was the return of Mount Sinai. Indeed, religious figures would claim that Mount Sinai was the very cradle of Jewish civilisation since the Torah was given there. A proposal close to that of the original Versailles proposal of 1919 was found to be acceptable as
the price of peace with Egypt. Begin, for all his rhetoric, did not follow the quasi-messianic approach of Stem and Uri Zvi Greenberg and did not adhere to a biblical interpretation of the Promised Land. Instead, he followed Jabotinsky’s pragmatic approach and understood Eretz Israel in twentieth-century terms.

Shamir, Begin’s successor, was uninspiring, unemotional and somewhat less than traditional, yet he was profoundly doctrinaire when it came to expounding the borders of the state. When his defence minister, Moshe Arens, proposed withdrawal from Gaza especially in the light of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Shamir replied that ‘Gaza is part of the Land of Israeli’. (23) Shamir also opposed the Hebron agreement of 1997 and criticised Netanyahu in the process.

Where does Netanyahu stand on the question of the borders of Israel? He has subsumed this divisive issue within an overriding concern for security and an emphasis on combating terrorism. Yet the rapprochement with the Palestinians has posed a new reality for him. In an attempt to occupy the middle ground, Netanyahu made no overt ideological references to Judea and Samaria during the 1996 election campaign. Indeed, he even hinted that ‘[W]e cannot always fulfil our dreams?‘ (24) Yet this did not mean a renunciation of the old Revisionist dream-only a mutation of it. Netanyahu distinguished between accepting the reality of the facts created by the Oslo accord and accepting the accord itself. (25) In this fashion, he permitted loyalty to the dream of Eretz Israel while applying himself to dealing with the PLO.
On one level, it could be seen as permitting a partition of the West Bank into areas of Jewish settlement territorially bound to Israel and areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
Yet this is not a static situation. The determining factor of the acceleration of Jewish settlement on the West Bank suggests that the separation into two distinct sovereign areas will become increasingly unlikely. The politics of prevarication, by extrapolation, will be rewarded by large parts of the West Bank eventually coming
under Israeli sovereignty with enclaves of the Palestinian population controlled by Arafat. Despite the Hebron agreement of 1997, Netanyahu’s strategy remains traditionally similar to that of his predecessors, even if his tactics are very different and certainly more sophisticated. Netanyahu’s flexibility on the means does not mean compromise on the goal. For Benny Begin, the far right, the national religious camp and Netanyahu himself, the dream of Eretz Israel—however it is interpreted—is dormant but not dead.
1 Genesis 15:18-21.
2 Numbers 54:1-4.
3 Deuteronomy 1:7-8.
4 Joshua 1:4.
5 Judges 1:21-35.
6 Ezekiel 47:15-20.
7 Gideon Biger, ‘The names and boundaries of Eretz Israel
as reflections of stages in its history‘ in Ruth Kark (ed.), The
Land that Became Israel (New Haven and London 1990), pp.12-14.
8 I Samuel 24:2; I Kings 5:5.
9 Mlshnah Gfttm 1,2.
10 Ibid.
11 Joshua 18:27.
12 Note 9 on B. Gittin 2a in the Schottenstein edition.
13 Richard S. Sarason, “I’he significance of the Land of Israel
in the Mishnah’ in Lawrence A. Hoffman (ed.), The Land of
Israel: Jewish Perspectives (Bloomington 1986), 109-36.
14 Colin Shindler, Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream:
Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu
(London 1995), p.225.
15 Itzhak Galnoor, The Partition of Palestine: Decision
Crossroads in the Zionist Movement (New York 1995),
16 Arnon Sofer, ‘The geographical, historical and political
aspect of the State of Israel and Eretz Israel’ in Adam Doron
(ed.), Medina! Yisrael V’Aretz Yisrael (The State of Israel
and Eretz Israel) (Tel Aviv 1988), p 6.
17 Joseph Heller, The Stem Gang: Ideology, Politics and
Terror (London 1995).
18 Uri Zvi Greenberg, Book of Indictment and Faith
(Jerusalem 1957).
19 Yonatan Ratosh, Our Eyes are Directed towards
Domination (Tel Aviv 1957).
20 Menachem Begin, speech in the Knesset, 5 May 1950 in
Netane1Lorch (ed.), Major Knesset Debates, vol. 5 (London
1992), p. 576.
21 Menachem Begin, speech in the Knesset, 8 March 1949
in ibid., p. 395.
22 Programme for a National Liberal Government headed
by Tenuat Ha’Herut 1959, Jabotinsky Archives, Tel Aviv.
25 Moshe Arens, Broken Covenant (New York 1995), p. 210.
24 Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place Among the Nations: Israel
and the World (London 1993), pp. 575-6.
25 Ha’aretz 22 April 1996.

Judaism Today Spring 1999

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