Some, like historian Arnold Toynbee, argue that the Jewish people have no right to return to Palestine after so long in exile. How are we to approach and answer this question? In answering this in the second chapter of his A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations, Benjamin Netanyahu deals with two related issues.
First Issue – How can we say that Israel retains the right?
- The Jews never relinquished ownership of the land or the right of return. In fact, in liturgy, in literature, in art, poetry, and prayer, as well as in scriptural promise, the return to the Land was a constant lighthouse of hope in the darkness of exile. This right of return for those who never relinquished ownership applies whether others have come in and exercised “squatters rights” or whether the land remained completely vacant.
- Netanyahu compares Israel’s case with the case of Spain which succumbed to Muslim conquest in the year 711. The Spaniards never relinquished their claim to the land, reclaiming sovereignty there after 800 long years. During that 800 years the Arabs had developed a rich culture there–nevertheless this did not make them the new owners of the land.
- As for the issue of returning to a land now occupied, in the case of the Jews who were expelled by others only to reclaim sovereignty in 1948, during the interim of exile, the people who occupied the land never established a state there, a rival claim to ownership, which may not have stood had it been made anyway.
Second Issue – Who expelled the Jews from the Land and who expelled them?
- The common response is “the Romans in 70 C.E.” However, this response is defective. Although many Jews were expelled at that time, the Jews still in the land again rebelled against Roman rule (as in 70 C.E.) in 135 C.E., in what is known as the Bar Kochba rebellion. Nor was that the last time!
- In 212 C.E. the Roman Emperor Caracalla bestowed citizenship on any people group in the Roman Empire that had a country of their own, which is why he granted citizenship to the Jews of Palestine. It was still a Jewish State with a recognizable Jewish population,
- There was another Jewish rebellion against Rome in 351-352 C.E. This was in particular directed against the rule of Constantius Gallus, brother-in-law of Emperor Constantius II and Caesar of the East.
- In 614, the Jews of Palestine and of the Diaspora allied with Persia against the Byzantines who had previously occupied the Land. The Jews supplied 20,000 soldiers, Jewish wealth from the Land helped to fund the project, and in exchange for their cooperation, a Jewish governor was appointed over the now liberated Jerusalem. Indeed, sacrifice was resumed on the Temple Mount in this period! So the Jews were not gone yet!
- It was not until 636 C.E. that the Jews were effectively driven out of the Land, although even then, not entirely. And who drove them out? Arabs under the flag of Islam! Netanyahu reminds us forcefully: “It was not the Jews who usurped the land from the Arabs, but the Arabs who usurped the land from the Jews.”
Returning then to a comparison between Spain and the Jewish people of Palestine, it took Spain eight centuries to regain sovereignty from the Arab invaders, and the Jews twelve centuries. The Spanish means was fire and blood, while The Jews sought to return peaceably, reclaiming the land, purchasing their own land from absentee Arab landlords in Cairo and Damascus. The land which the the Spaniards regained had been developed by the Arabs who had occupied it: the land which the Jews regained had lain fallow.
What Spain and Israel had in common was the continued existence of a people whose country had been conquered who had never given up their rights to their land, with both the Spaniards and the Jews having persistent aspirations that their people would eventually be restored to their natural homeland.
Many today complain that the State of Israel was a new invention involving the usurping of Arab rights and land in order for the West to assuage their consciences after the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. The facts speak otherwise, The rhythm of exile and return had been long established for many centuries prior to the Holocaust, which served as a final impetus but certainly not and never the sole impetus for Jewish return.
Netanyahu’s grandfather, Rabbi Nathan Mielkowsky of Blessed Memory was a participant in Herzl’s early Zionist Congresses. At the very beginning, the position was proposed that the Jews might establish a homeland elsewhere, including Uganda. Some felt that any homeland was good enough. Mielkowsky was among that very vocal majority that voted down “The Uganda Plan.” His son, Netanyahu’s father, asked him if they had turned down the plan because they thought the British would not see it through. Here was his poignant answer, which says so much that makes my Jewish heart sing:
On the contrary. We believed that the British would be faithful to their word. In those days England enjoyed a great reputation among the Jews. But it was precisely because we believed that the project could be carried out that we were all the more opposed to it. For so many centuries the Jewish people had made so many sacrifices for this land, had shed their blood for it, had prayed for a thousand years to return to it, had tied their most intimate hopes to its revival–we considered it inconceivable that we would now betray the generations of Jews who had fought and died for this end. It would have rendered the whole of Jewish history meaningless. We had to oppose it.
Yes, it makes me proud to be a Jew.
This longing for the Land never left the Jewish soul. In the early 12th century, writing in Muslim Spain, the great poet Yehuda Ha-Levi put it this way in his “In Remembrance of Jerusalem”:
Delight of the world,
City of Kings,
My heart longs for you from the far-off west.
I am very sad when I remember how you were.
Now your glory is gone, your homes destroyed.
If I could fly to you on the wings of eagles,
I would soak your soil with my tears.