The Land of Israel
The purpose of this article is not to give a history of Israel, but to give a brief insight into the part that it plays in our religious life. In Zech 2:16 it is called ‘the Holy Land’, and in Joel 4:2 God calls it ‘My land’. Deut 11:12 describes the land of Israel as, ‘a land which YHVH your God looks after, on which YHVH your God always keeps His eye’.
Because of this, it is viewed as more than a place which Jews hold in high regard, it is a place which God has especial affection for.
It is said that the natural place for Jews to be is in Israel. After God has chosen a descendent of David to sit on the throne of Israel, the exiles will be gathered in – including those of Ephraim (the northern kingdom) – and not one will be left be behind (Ezek 39:28).
The name of the Land
It is historically and academically incorrect to always refer to Erets Yisrael as ‘Palestine’ when describing the land that Abraham entered, or that Joshua conquered, or that Ezra returned to with the Babylonian exiles. This is because the name ‘Palestine’ did not exist then. From before Abraham to the time of David, it was called Canaan; we should not say that Joshua entered Palestine, but rather, ‘Joshua entered Canaan’. In the time of the Maccabees, we cannot say that they fought for the land of Palestine, but rather, ‘they fought for the land of Judea’ – because that is what it was called in those times. The area was only called Palestine after the Romans expelled the Jews and renamed it after the ancient enemies of the Israelites, the Philistines (very tellingly, the Arabic for Palestinian is Philistiniyya).
Even then, Palestine was not an independent state; it was just the name of a province variously in the Roman, Muslim and Ottoman Turkish Empires. The inhabitants were not called Palestinians but simply Arabs, and they were always ruled by someone else. Ironically it was the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 that also created the ‘nationality’ of Palestinian.
The holiness of the Land
When Ezra returned to Judea, he resanctified the Land. In Talmidi theology, what the Zealots did (by setting up weapons of war in the Temple, shedding human blood in the Temple etc) defiled the Temple, and the Sadducean priests defiled the Temple with their corruption and immoral behaviour (cf Jer 2:7-8). The ritual pollution of the Temple defiled the whole land, and it took over 1,800 years of our yearning to return to resanctify it. Once it was resanctified, God allowed us to return. In a sense it is similar to the thought expressed by the prophet Jeremiah when he said of the Babylonian exile, ‘They shall be brought to Babylon, and there they shall remain until the day I send for them, declares YHVH. Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place’ (Jer 27:22).
The Samaritans hold the Land in such high esteem, that it became part of their religion that they should never leave the Land of Israel. Throughout all the persecutions under the Muslims, they remained in the Land.
Pilgrims cannot resist taking rocks, stones and soil from the Land as souvenirs, as the Psalm says, ‘Your servants take delight in her stones, and cherish its dust’ (Ps 102:15 [102:14 Christian bibles). When a synagogue is built, often a small amount of soil from Israel is scattered amongst the foundations.
The population in the Land
There is a saying that, ‘More than the Jews need the Land, the Land needs the Jews.’ It reflects the belief that the descendents of Jacob know best how to look after the Land and make it flourish. In the decades preceding the declaration of Independence in 1948, there were virtually no trees in the Land; the great forests one sees now around Israel have all been planted since the arrival of Jewish immigrés. Ancient farmers in Judea knew how to plant their crops on the hills using the method of terrace farming, which prevented topsoil from being eroded.
Despite the necessity for Jews to live in the Land, this does not prevent other peoples from living there. Throughout the Torah, it is understood that there would be resident foreigners and other foreigners living in the Land. We are commanded not to oppress such foreigners or mistreat them. If we treat foreigners in our land well, we maintain our right to remain in the Land.
It should also be remembered that throughout history, from the time of Joshua to this present day, there have always been Hebrews living in the land, even in times of exile. From the beginning of the Roman exile in 135 CE until 1948, there were always some Jews living in Israel, although they were obviously not the majority. The same can be said of Jerusalem for most of its history (with the exception of the period after the Bar Kokhba revolt in the early 2nd century, when Jews were forbidden to live in the Holy City).
It might also be worth mentioning that until the Muslim conquest of Palestine (I only use that term, because that is what it was called at that time), there were several million Samaritans living there. The Samaritans are mixed descendents of Israelites and other peoples – Israelites nevertheless. The Muslims forcibly converted the Samaritans to Islam. As a result, it might be that a large section of the so-called Arab population of the West Bank is actually of Samaritan – and therefore Israelite – descent.
Returning to the Land
Eventually all Israelites will return to the Land (Ezek 39:28) when God gives us a Davidic king (Ezek 37:24). While we are dispersed among the nations, we should teach our children to prepare to return, so that they can teach their children the same. It may be generations until all our people return, but we should be ready.
It is therefore important to teach our children to speak Hebrew; it is important to teach our children Israelite culture, so that our culture may be a light to others, reflecting the greatness and holiness of YHVH our God.