This past year, I made aliyah. It was a proud moment for me, and I give a lot of credit to Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement where I gained a love for the Jewish People and the Land of Israel and became a motivated idealist and activist, for helping me fulfil a lifelong dream to live in Israel. The purpose of any youth movement is to empower young people to stand up and fight for what they believe. Bnei Akiva taught me that.
To be a religious Zionist means a devotion to building and supporting Israel, recognizing God’s hand in the miracle of the State of Israel and seeking to ensure that Israel builds its future in a way consistent with Judaism. Indeed, in the 50 years since the Six Day War, a war fought and led by many religious Zionists, Israel has returned to biblical Israel, and set up many settlements throughout the West Bank. Inherent to the state of Israel’s current policies in the West Bank – and to the settlement movement in general – is the belief that this is “our land,” and ours only. In my opinion, as a religious Zionist I must be opposed to that.
In Genesis, we read of a dispute between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot. The medieval French commentator Rashi explains: “Lot’s shepherds were wicked men and grazed their cattle in other people’s fields. Abram’s shepherds rebuked them for this act of robbery, but they replied, ‘The land has been given to Abram, consequently this is not robbery.’ Scripture, however, states: ‘The Canaanite and the Perizzite abode then in the land,’ so that Abram was not yet entitled to possession.”
From this account, we might discern that, even if the Land of Israel is promised to the Jewish People, this does not permit us to ignore existing non-Jewish communities and act as if their land was our own.
Continued settlement toward annexation will lead either to the forced removal of the Palestinians or to withholding from them political rights. This is a betrayal of Jewish history. During the long centuries of exile, Jews desired an end to being treated as second-class citizens. Now that we have a country for ourselves, can we possibly treat the Palestinians in the same way? In the words of the Talmud: “Is it possible that there is anything permitted to a Jew, yet nonetheless prohibited to a non-Jew?”
Annexation of the West Bank is only morally acceptable if equal rights are offered to the Palestinians. However, this demographic shift would challenge Israel’s Jewish majority status and the entire basis of a Jewish state. Therefore I believe in a painful separation from the land and the Palestinians – not because I don’t believe in the rights of Jews to live in the West Bank, but because I believe in the sanctity of life and that life is of greater importance to Judaism than land.
(I must note briefly that some may reject my arguments immediately, claiming that all of Israel’s actions are due to security considerations. But a majority of security experts, including former prime ministers and heads of the Shin Bet, agree that security means more than strategic hilltops and argue Israel will be safer with a permanent separation and border with the Palestinians.)
Inherent in the policies favoured by many religious Zionists is the belief that their actions will hasten the coming of the messiah. Indeed, in the early years of the state, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog composed a prayer for Israel calling it “the first flowering of our redemption.” We have undoubtedly entered a new phase of Jewish history, witnessing the ingathering of exiles and the fulfilment of ancient prophecies. But does this mean that the ultimate redemption and establishing of God’s kingdom is around the corner?
I once attended a talk by Rabbi Eli Sadan, rosh yeshiva of the influential Mechina Eli, an Israeli pre-army program. Rabbi Sadan explained that Israel is safe and guaranteed success, for God does not retrace the path of redemption. After the talk, I asked if Rabbi Sadan was falling into the same trap that Jeremiah warns of, trusting false prophets who claim that God would never destroy his holy temple.
Rabbi Sadan responded that we have been promised that there will not be a third destruction. But can we really claim to know God’s plans and believe the Almighty will keep us safe no matter what? I surely recognize God’s hand in the miracles and redemption and thank God for the goodness and the state of Israel, but I don’t suppose that this means we can ignore the consequences of our actions because the messiah is around the corner.
For centuries, Jews have sung Ani Ma’amin – “I believe with complete faith in the coming of messiah” – to maintain hope even in the darkest days of exile. Today, I believe this prayer needs to be internalized in another way. We should continue to await our redemption every day, but we should not act irresponsibly because we presume it is coming tomorrow. The religious Zionist community taught me that I have a duty to strengthen Israel and its Jewish values. I will continue to stand up for that. And at the same time, I will remember the words of Isaiah: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.”
Ezra Schwartz grew up in Toronto. He was Rosh Bus on Bnei Akiva’s Mach Hach BaAretz summer program.