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The Discourse on “Right to the Land of Israel” in Zionism and Israel by Prof. (Emeritus) Gideon Shimoni,

The purpose of this paper is to examine analytically the historical record of Zionist formulations of the putative Jewish Right to the Land of Israel, and to compare this record to its currently predominant formulation in Israeli public consciousness.

The Zionist movement, in all its sub-ideological variety, evinced a variety of Jewish claims to the Land of Israel. In my book The Zionist Ideology I attempted a comprehensive explication of the entire spectrum of Zionist formulations. Here, in this necessarily succinct paper, I shall use a simple paradigm in order to define the ultimate common denominator of all Zionist formulations:-  Imagine theoretically the thinking of an objective impartial judge after hearing all relevant arguments – religious, historical, legal,– marshaled by authoritative spokespersons for the Arab and Jewish claim respectively.

First of all, the judge must clarify the issue at stake. Is it human and civic rights? The answer is negative; each side is on record as willing to grant full human and civic rights to all in the state it claims as its national home. Given this assurance, it becomes evident that the issue at stake is essentially national. This is to say, the Jewish ethnic group, represented by its self-defined nationalist movement, Zionism, claims the collective right to make the land Jews call Eretz Israel a state framework for the satisfaction of particular Jewish needs, both material and cultural, and overall for Jewish national self-determination and self-fulfillment. In symmetrical contrast, the Arab ethnic group, represented by its self-defined Palestinian-Arab nationalist entity, claims the collective right of the Arab population domiciled in the land which it calls  Filastin,  to constitute that land  as its own national state in conjunction with other Arab states which  provide overall Arab national self-determination.

In these circumstances our theoretical judge would have to deliberate on these lines:  The religious claim is wholly subjective therefore unacceptable; a subjective faith-claim cannot pass as a legitimate right.  As for so-called “historical rights”, these really mean claims based upon historical evidence of physical and cultural connection. These most certainly establish relevance of the Jewish claim, yet are surely inconclusive because the Arabs have equivalent relevance.  Likewise claims in terms of international law are inconclusive. Conclusion – this is a clash between two closely balanced claims. There is no available solution congruent with absolute equity.

This calls for a purely ethical path to judgment. In these circumstances, our theoretical judge might apply the utilitarian ethical principle. Spelled out simply, this means arriving at a decision that would do the maximum of good and the minimum of harm (“good” meaning not doing unto another that which one would not have the other do unto oneself). The judge therefore cogitates: Suppose I decided in favor of the Jewish national claim, what good will I have done? Certainly a wonderful good for the long- suffering and persecuted Jews, in dire need of putting an end to centuries of national homelessness! But what harm to the Arabs? Certainly grave wound and relative deprivation would be inflicted on that section of the Arab peoples which identifies itself as Palestinian. In a perfect world it should have its own national state no less that do fellow Arabs in other parts of the Middle East who have independent states, such as Syria, or Iraq, for example. The Palestinian national segment alone of all the Arab peoples (self-defined as a pan-Arab Umma) would have to accept the status of a population group which enjoys all civic rights as well as a modicum of national-cultural autonomy such as is compatible with the hegemony of the national majority.

The judge now asks himself: Suppose I decided in favor of the Arab national claim, what good would I have done? Certainly a wonderful good, giving the Arabs of Palestine the same measure of national self-determination as is enjoyed by all other sections of the pan-Arab nation. In a perfect world there can be no doubt that this should be done. But what harm would this do to the Jews? Here is the rub; not just a wound and relative deprivation, but a fatal death blow. For there is absolutely no other place or possibility in the world  for Jewish national self-determination.

To sum up the significance of  the paradigm :– in the final analysis the bottom line of the Zionist case was that, on the grounds of greater existential need and utilitarian ethical principle, the Jewish national claim to Eretz Israel has precedence over the Arab national claim to Filastin; note: relative precedence, not necessarily absolutely exclusive right.

 It should not be thought that this paradigm is purely an abstraction, detached from historical reality. That it is in fact amply rooted in documentary evidence can be demonstrated with a plenitude of citations from the statements of the most important Zionist leaders right across the political spectrum. Witness the words of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the preeminent leader of the Zionist right-wing, addressing the Peel Commission of 1936-7, appointed by the British government to examine profoundly the Arab-Jewish conflict.  In that speech Jabotinsky argued:

when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation. [Emphasis added.]  No tribunal has ever had the luck of trying a case where all the justice was on the side of one party and the other party had no case whatsoever.  Usually in human affairs any tribunal, including this tribunal, in trying two cases, has to concede that both sides have a case on their side and, in order to do justice, they must take into consideration what should constitute the basic justification of all human demands, individual or mass demands — the decisive terrible balance of Need.[1]

Moving right across the spectrum to the preeminent Labor Zionist leader, David Ben-Gurion, one may cite is evidence to the United Nations Commission on Palestine of 1947:

                       The conscience of humanity ought to weigh this: where is the balance of justice, where is the greater need, where is the greater peril, where is the lesser evil and where is the lesser injustice? [2]

To cite another example: Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, saying to to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry of 1946 he submitted:

                      there is no counsel of perfection in this world, and there is no absolute justice in this world.  What you are trying to perform, and what we are all trying to do in our small way, is just rough human justice.  I think the decision which I should like this committee to take, if I dare say this, would be to move on the line of least injustice…[3]

That this formulation of the Jewish right to make the Eretz Israel a Jewish state was the consensual common denominator in Zionist ideology can be illustrated with many other examples across the spectrum of Zionist political groups, obviously including leading advocates of what might be termed the “compromise for peace camp” such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who advocated bi-national solutions for Eretz Israel/Filastin. In Buber’s words, this camp considered it “a fundamental point, that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just or unjust.” [4]

            Nothing is more indicative of this formulation’s consensual status – at any rate throughout the years prior to the post-Six Day War – than the fact that much the same may be found even in the Orthodox National-Religious camp of Zionism. Indeed it forms the basis of what is perhaps the most profoundly argued moral-legal published work on the subject in the pre-State of Israel period. This is a book in Hebrew published in 1933 under the title “Our Historical-Legal Right to Eretz Israel.” Its author was Reuven Gafni (Weinshenker), an active personage in the Hapoel–Hamizrahi party of orthodox-religious Zionism. Gafni argued that International equity, like intra-national equity, required the application of universally accepted moral principles such as “do not unto another that which you would not have him do unto you,” or Kant’s categorical imperative according to which one’s actions should be of a kind that one would wish to be the universal rule.][5]

                      It should be noted that this is where the idea of compromise by means of partition, entered the ideological debate, first in 1937 and finally in 1947.  The essence of the consensual Zionist position  was: that in the first instance the Jewish national case has relative moral  precedence over the Arab national case. How much more so if, in the second instance, a partition solution were to provide also a measure of Palestinian Arab national self-fulfillment in a neighbor state peacefully  coexisting with the Jewish state.

Within the international arena, this was the consensual formulation of Jewish Right to the Land. This is not to say that in the history of the Zionist movement until the establishment of the State of Israel, there were no Zionist groups that posited the rigid tenet that the Jewish people have an absolutely exclusive right to possess the Land of Israel in its entirety. But this characterized only the radical right-wing minority of Revisionist Zionism, exemplified by the miniscule and short-lived Brit Habiryonim group in late 1920s Palestine, and the more important Lehi militant underground group in the 1940s. They grafted their conception on the fascist-like conviction that might is right; hence real-politik entitles Jews to displace or dominate the non-Jewish “aliens” who had usurped Eretz Israel’s rightful owners and occupied it during the centuries of enforced Jewish exile (galut). 


After  Jewish Statehood


We may now ask:- What has changed over the past half century? Within the Israeli political mainstream today, what is the predominant rhetoric concerning Right to the Land? By “mainstream” I mean the major political groups, leaving aside radical extremes on the periphery, namely, on the one extreme self-declared Jewish anti-Zionists or so-called post-Zionist advocates of a de-Zionized single state of all citizens, and on the other extreme, neo-Kahanist advocates of ethnic transfer of Palestinian Arabs or various schemes for partial autonomy calculated to perpetuate their subordinate civic status. It is manifestly evident that what predominates in today’s public discourse is simply the fundamentalist tenet – God’s promise of the Land to the Jewish people in eternal perpetuity, as evidenced in the Bible. The seeds of this conception were not planted in pre-State Zionism, but only after the Six Day war, primarily by the ideologists of Gush Emunim and that movement’s successors in the representative Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, popularly known as Yosh. To this day their most authoritative source and inspiration remains the late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, (son of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook) who headed the Rav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Soon after the 1967 Six Day War, he dogmatically imprinted  the halakhic tenet: “The Land [of Israel] in its entirety is absolutely ours and no part of it is to be given to others, it is “an inheritance from our forefathers.” (Avoda Zara נ”ג עבודה זרה) and that the Torah absolutely proscribed any “irrevocable renunciation of territory in favor of a foreign nation.”[6]

Without entering into a fully documented historical analysis, one may easily identify the factors that have produced consensual prevalence of this particular self-understanding of Right to the Land, although the relative weight of each factor is subject to debate.  These factors Include the transformation of national-religious Zionism wrought by the Gush Emunim movement and its phenomenal religious and political  influence upon the conservative–hawk segment of the Israeli political spectrum, which has in turn been on the ascendant ever since the late 1970s when Menahem Begin became Prime Minister. This ascendancy has reached its most formidable peak in the present government. Attendant upon this factor is the natural influence not only of power exercised by military occupation but also of human vested interests that drive self-justification of the expanding settler population, including urban development which fosters ideological co-optation of both ultra-orthodox and secular segments of the population. Of course, in addition, these internally generated factors have largely been reactive to intractable Palestinian hostility, vastly exacerbated by the  ascendancy of Hamas, whose faith-rooted  absolute rejection of Israel fosters a fanaticism incomparably more brutal than that of  Gush Emunim’s faith–rooted rejection of Palestinian claims. To these factors one must add  the repeated failures and deadlocks that punctuate the frustrated so-called “peace process”, especially the undeniably counter-productive outcomes of Prime Minister  Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip. The combined effect of all these factors has established an overriding real-politik conviction that the Jews of Israel face a zero-sum survivalist situation.

Be, as they may, the factors that explain, however understandably, the prevalence of this zero-sum conception within the Jewish public, the reality is that  it has rooted itself ideologically — or one might say, found ideological refuge — in the faith-based absolute formulation that has radiated out of the ideology of  Gush Emunim and its successors in the Council of Judea and Samaria.   It is believed with zealous faith and argued with formidable eloquence and assumed incontrovertibility that by absolute divinely endowed right the Land of Israel in its entirety belongs exclusively to the Jewish nation.  Moreover, it is maintained that this holds true in perpetuity even if one recognizes that historical circumstances beyond Jewish control have made it necessary to relinquish parts of the Land – such as  the exclusion of  trans-Jordan  in 1921, and also the West Bank of the Jordan after the war of 1948. Hence, if altered circumstances have restored such parts of the Land of Israel to Jewish national control – as happened after the Six Day war of 1967— Jews are fully entitled to reassert their exclusive  right.  By the same token, it is held that if equal civic rights are enjoyed by Arab domiciles of the Land of Israel, this is so not by a right equivalent to the absolute right of the Jewish people but rather merely as a benevolent grant made by virtue of the democratic values that inhere in Zionism and define Israel as a state not only “Jewish” but also” Democratic”.

 It follows from these same faith-based premises that exercise of the Jewish right to Hebron and any other site in Samaria and Judea is no different from Jewish right to sites such as Tel Aviv and Petach Tikva. On this basis, Yosef Ben-Shlomo, a sophisticated Professor of Philosophy, who became a leading thinker of the settler movement in the post 1967 occupied territories, could justify settlement of Yosh in the first instance not by security zero-sum considerations but emphatically on ethical grounds. He argued that possession of and settlement in Yosh   is the very basis of Jewish moral right to the Land. To deny the ethical validity of Yosh is to deny the ethical validity of the State of Israel itself.  To label Yosh “occupied territory” is to label the State of Israel occupied territory. To censure  occupied land  settlements like Ofra or Efrat as colonialist is ipso facto to censure likewise Tel Aviv and all sites within Israel proper as colonialist. In so far as such ethical denial is based on the charge of its being colonialism, (colonialism, Ben-Yosef agrees, is no longer acceptable at the end of the twentieth century) this is to say ipso facto that that Israel itself is a colonial venture, hence  unethical.  According to Ben-Yosef, “…moral principle has no lines, green or otherwise.  Colonialism applies to every place where a foreign people rules occupied territories in a land not its own, which must include Sheykh Munis (Ramat Aviv), Katamon and Baq’a in Jerusalem, Ashdod and Ramla – not to mention the land on which rest seventy-five Hashomer Hatza’ir kibbutzim.” [7]  Hence, says Ben-Shlomo, there is absolutely no difference between the right of Jews to settlement and sovereignty beyond the so-called green line in Yosh, and their right to live in the sovereign Jewish state of Israel. In sum, only assertion of divinely endowed and therefore absolute right to the Land of Israel makes Israel’s existence morally defensible!

 The sheer sophism of this argument is stunning, as is the self-blinding non-recognition of the ethical difference between settlement in the context of Ottoman and British mandate Palestine and settlement in the context of rule over, and consequent suppression of, an indigenous majority bearing subordinate civic status.  Yet this sophistic fallacy has been imprinted on the consciousness of the majority of Israeli Jews and, all signs show, also on a majority of orthodox religious Jews in the Diaspora.

 It is not the belief that there is a God who has promised the Land to the Jewish people that is at issue here. This is the authentic belief necessarily held by any and all adherents of orthodox Judaism. What is at issue is the fundamentalist interpretation of this belief which endows it with absolute validity, and thence its political transfiguration from subjective “claim” to objective “right.”  Hence the character of the exegetical debate within the orthodox camp; that is to say, between, on the one side, rabbis of the major segment of national-religious Zionists and, on the other side,  a cognitive minority of orthodox Zionist Jews who have over the years formed associations such as Netivot Shalom, Oz Ve-Shalom and the political party, Meimad. This exegetical debate has revolved around Rashi’s commentary on Genesis (1,1).[8] Thus, Prof. Uriel Simon, a foremost spokesman of this rump segment of national-religious Zionism, has argued that Rashi’s Midrash is by no means either the exclusive or valid interpretation. He shows this by offering Ramban’s interpretation of the same verse, according to which the Book of Genesis in its entirety “is intended to teach us the principle that our hold on the Land is conditional on our obedience to the word of God”.[9]

Within the national-religious camp, this minority voice alone is compatible with the historically consensual justification of Right to the Land on the utilitarian ethical basis of existential need, to which only the rump liberal sector of Israel’s  secularized and non-orthodox religious public remains faithful. That rump’s most eloquent articulator is the famous writer Amos Oz. Oz has repeatedly used the analogy of a drowning man who can save his life only if he ascends a floating plank on which another shipwreck survivor has already found safety. He argues that “the Zionist enterprise has no other objective rationalization  than the right of a drowning man to grasp the only plank that can save him. And that is justification enough.” But, he adds: “There is a vast moral difference between the drowning man who grasps a plank and makes room for himself and pushes the others into the sea. This is the moral argument that lies behind our repeated agreement in principle to partition of the Land.. This is the difference between making Jaffa and Nazareth Jewish, and making Ramallah and Nablus Jewish.”[10]

                But there can be little doubt that this understanding of the Right to the Land has been marginalized in contemporary Israel. It is only in diminishing circles of intellectuals and intelligentsia, mainly writers, journalists and academics, that one finds such refined articulation of the liberal, morally conditional conception of Jewish right to the Land on the basis of historically demonstrable existential need and entitlement.  The bitter truth is: Today it is all about pushing the other off the plank.  


Paper for 27th Annual Meeting of the AIS, June 13-15 2011 


[1] Vladimir Jabotinsky, Evidence Submitted to the Palestine Royal Commission, (pamphlet), London 1937, pp. 10-29.


[2] “Evidence of David Ben-Gurion,” The Jewish Plan for Palestine: Memoranda and Statements Presented by the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, Jerusalem, 1947, pp. 324, 325.


[3]“Testimony to the Anglo-American Committee, August 3rd 1946,” The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, Series B: Papers, vol. 2, ed. Barnet Litvinoff, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 594-595.


[4]See Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology, pp. 345-350; 372-378.


[5]Reuven Gafni, Zekhutenu ha-historit-mishpatit al Eretz Israel, (Our Historical-Legal Right to Eretz Israel), Jerusalem, 1933. This was published only a few years before the partition issue came to the fore.  A lawyer by profession, Gafni presented the Jewish case mainly with reference to the divine promise.  He emphasized the objective historical connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Israel, presented the case for Jewish self-determination from the point of view of international law, and explicated the objective “moral right” of the Jews to Eretz Israel independently of belief in the divine promise.


[6] Zvi Yehuda Kook, Torah Loyalty and The Land,” Whose Homeland: Eretz Israel Roots of the Jewish Claim, ed. Avner Tomaschoff, Jerusalem, n.d., c. 1980, p. 184.  See idem, Le-netivot Israel, Jerusalem, Rav kook Institute, 1967 [Hebrew]


[7]Yosef Ben-Shlomo, “The Beginning of the End?” Policy Paper No. 54, Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR) from the book Israel and the Palestinisn State: Zero Sum Game?, 2001


[8] See the highly authoritative commentary of Rashi to Genesis 1,1, in which he states: “Should the nations of the world question the validity of Israel’s title to the Holy Land by saying: ‘You are robbers in that you have overrun the territories of the seven peoples’, [that occupied the Land previously] Israel can retort: ‘The whole world is the Lord’s. He created it and gave it to whomsoever He saw fit.  It was His will to give it to them [the Canaanite nations] and it was His will to take it away from them and give it to us.'”


[9] He explains: This principle is clearly expressed in the warning issued to the People of Israel, on the eve of their settling in Eretz Israel: they should beware of following in the ways of Canaan, lest the land reject them as it had done to the Canaanites (Leviticus, XVIII:28).”…”The Master of the universe intended the Land of Israel for the people of Israel, but only in conjunction with the severe admonition that our real hold on the Land is conditional on our behavior…It follows that we are commanded not only to believe in sovereignty of the Creator, but also to take care that the realization of our right to the Land will be compatible with truth and justice.” Uriel Simon, “Religion, Morality and Politics,” in Religious Zionism: Challenges and Choices, Oz Veshalom Publications, (n.d., circa 1980). pp.22-23


[10]See Amos Oz, Under this Bazing Light: Essays,(trs. Nicholas de Lange), Cambridge, 1995, Idem, Help Us to Divorce: Israel and Palestine between Right and Right,  Vintage, London, 2004.  See also Amos Oz, “The meaning of Homeland”, as reprinted in Who Is Left: Zionism Answers Back, The Zionist Library, Jerusalem 1971. Much the same justification of Jewish national right to the Land of Israel is explicated by A.B. Yehoshua. See A.B. Yehoshua, Between Right and Right, (trs. Arnold Schwartz) New York, 1981.



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