Opinion

The hidden mythical quest of Israel’s leaders: God gave us the land

What do Likud leaders mean when they speak of "our right to the country"? Not quite history.
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A major pillar of Zionism is the claim that Jews are merely “using their historical right” to return to Palestine. No such right exists, and the claims that Jews today are descendants of Jews living in Second Temple time (516 BC to 70 AD) are mythical; but, as we approach a critical junction, with annexation on the line, it’s important to note the people peddling annexation do not believe in history, but in outright religious myths.

The following is a short and far from exhaustive (though certainly exhausting) litany of Likud leaders claiming the Jewish right to the land relies on religion, not historical rights. Those claims are mostly coded in references to two sites: The Al Aqsa Compound (“Temple Mount”) and Hebron/Al Khalil and the Cave of the Patriarchs/The Ibrahimi Mosque.

Likud is supposedly a secular and liberal party; or at least it used to be. And it is the largest party in the government, with 36 seats; it has been the leading party and leader of the coalition for 34 of the last 43 years. It is not a fringe party. Most Israelis have lived through endless years of Likud rule, and those under 18 probably don’t remember there was once another ruling party. I have excluded minor Likudnik Members of Knesset, as they are legion, and concentrated on ministers. (For obvious reasons, I did not include ministers or MKs from the religious parties, as, well, religious myths take precedence for them over history.)

True, we can’t know whether those politicians actually believe what they spout, or rather cynically play to their base of Likud members; but we do know that they believe such a base exists, and merits courting.*

Let’s begin with the big kahuna, Binyamin Netanyahu. As a former diplomat of the old school, and Prime Minister, Netanyahu can’t appear as a complete meshugge, but from time to time he plays to the mystical base. For instance, in September 2019, Netanyahu said “we are not foreigners in Hebron, and we shall remain in it forever. Hebron will not be cleansed of Jews.” He said so (Hebrew) in a ceremony commemorating the 1929 Hebron Massacre – which conveniently took place a few days before the September elections.

A few years earlier, Netanyahu opened the cabinet meeting (Hebrew) by citing the verses from Genesis where Abraham buys the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Following the death of his wife Sarah, Abraham is looking for a burial place. He speaks to the Hittites leaders of Hebron: “I am a foreigner and a stranger among you. You sell me some property for a burial site here, so I can bury my dead.” He asks for a specific cave. Its owner tell him, “No, my lord. Listen to me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you In the presence of my people; bury your dead.” But Abraham, who a chapter earlier was in haste to slay his son Issac, refuses. He demands to pay the full price, which is 400 silver shekels; the Bible (Genesis 23) repeats the sum twice and at great length. Remember those verses, as reference to them will be made again and again.

Nationalist rabbis have long claimed that the Bible spends so much time on the issue so as to make clear the land belongs to Jews by right of purchase. For this argument, they conveniently forget the whole Book of Joshua (and significant parts of Judges, as well) which show the land was taken by the old and tried method of genocide. Be that as it may, Hebron, to nationalist Jews, is a symbol of Jewish right to the land.

Netanyahu’s main rival for the leadership of Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, former Minister of Education and Minister of the Interior, echoes this point. “Our right to the land is based, before drawing from the laws of the nations, on the deep, millennia-long connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel,” Sa’ar said, in an address to the World Biblical Quiz. “As you have studied the Bible, you know well that our forefathers, Abraham and Jacob, reached Beit El and Hebron nearly 4,000 years ago.” One might snark that Jacob spent 21 years in what is modern-day Iraq and one night in Beit El, so Sa’ar might as well lay a claim to Baghdad; but I wouldn’t want to give him any ideas.

The World Biblical Quiz is one of those peculiar Israeli customs you can’t really explain to foreigners; but it takes place on Independence Day, is broadcast live, and enjoys high ratings. Participation is open to youth from all over the world, and the semi-final question is asked by the Prime Minister himself. Among aficionados, of which yours truly was once one, there is yearly tension about whether the winner would be an Israeli or an American (the last non-Israeli winner was Canadian Eithan Amos, in 2013). Sa’ar is no longer a minister since, well, he’s Netanyahu main rival.

We go next to the notorious Gilad Erdan, now holding a pretty much empty portfolio (Regional Development, of which there is none) while waiting for a posting as double ambassador to the UN and Washington (yes). He used to be an unusually hate-mongering Minister of Internal Security (a powerful position) and Minister of Intelligence (an empty title). Erdan is sidelined to an ambassadorship because of his reputed hostility to Netanyahu and friendship with Sa’ar. Anyway, in a Likud convention about annexation, Erdan said (Hebrew) in 2017 that “Likud will declare sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, because our right to the land begins in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Shiloh, Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria.” Shiloh is the mythical place of the Ark of God, and is particularly important to American evangelicals for reasons beyond human ken.

Erdan, who as Minister of Internal Security was in charge of security of the Al Aqsa Compound, said (Hebrew) that “the return of the Temple [i.e., the building of the Third Temple – YZG] depends on the [fulfillment] of the Mitzvah of climbing to it [climbing Temple Mount] and I am happy to have taken a great part in increasing the climbing of the Temple Mount according to Halacha [Jewish law].” Even for a notoriously mendacious politician as Erdan, this sentence contains multiple lies, but, alas, we lack the space.

Asked in an interview (Hebrew) whether there would be “freedom of religious practice on Temple Mount”, Erdan answered:

Gilad Erdan, center, with Israel supporters. April 27, 2019, from his twitter feed.

“I am certain there would be, God assisting. This cannot be otherwise: The direction there is such in which we restore more and sovereignty to the place. We will reach this goal when many more Jews would wish to visit Temple Mount, creating the demand I wish and pray for – that, while keeping balance with our international interests, we would also put pressure to change the historical status quo, which sadly neglects the rights of Jews in Temple Mount.”

Note Erdan’s emphasis on “sovereignty”: His need to occupy the Temple Mount overrides the religious prohibitions against doing so. Indeed, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate forbids Jews from visiting Temple Mount, warning visitors they may put their souls in peril by climbing it, as they may accidentally enter the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest was allowed to enter (and even then only once a year, on Yom Kippur; and some of them didn’t make it out alive, presumably because of the awe of the place and their awareness of their sins.)

In the same interview, Erdan said that the Bible was a historical document regarding the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron:

“You cannot neither rewrite history nor delete it. Our Forefather Abraham bought the Cave of the Patriarchs, paying full money, and it has been the place of burial of our Forefathers ever since.”

Tzipi Hotoveli, former Deputy Foreign Minister and now ambassador to the UK (another victim of Netanyahu’s paranoia), stunned Foreign Ministry diplomats in 2015 by quoting (Hebrew) the famous First Rashi (French rabbi from the Middle Ages) at them:

Tzipi Hotovely waving an Israeli flag with the Dome of the Rock in the background, in 2014 promotion

“Rashi said that the Torah begins with the creation of the world, so if the nations of the world come to the Jews and tell them ‘you are occupiers’, you should answer that the entire world belongs to the Creator of the World, and as he so willed, he took the land away from them [the gentiles] and gave them to us.”

The diplomats were not very diplomatic when they described the incident. One noted that Hotoveli misquotes Rashi: He was much sharper towards the Jews. “Listim Hayu avoteichem – your forefathers were brigands.” Rashi certainly did not use “occupation”, a modern term – and he apparently was unconvinced by the whole “Abraham bought the Cave, hence the land is ours” argument.

Needless to say, Hotoveli – a famously devout Orthodox who would not shake hands with visiting males – is a supporter of the Third Temple movement. She once said (Hebrew) that “the building of the Temple, in its place on Temple Mount, should represent the rebirth of the sovereignty of the People of Israel in its land.”

We now move to the despicable Yuli Edelstein, former Knesset Chairman and minister in various unimportant portfolios and now Minister of Health (apparently placed there by Netanyahu in the hopes that the Covid plague would do Edelstein in politically).

Yuli Edelstein from his twitter feed. Screenshot of video, March 19, 2020.

Edelstein parrots the same biblical ideas. “There is no truth in the claims of others on our land. When I leave my house, I walk in the footpaths of [patriarchs] Abraham, Issac and Jacob. And that is the truth about our right to the land,” he said in 2015 (Hebrew).

Back in 2012, Edelstein said (Hebrew) that “my role is to deal with the daily process of building and binding together of the People of Israel, which leads to the Temple.”

Next, we have Ze’ev Elkin, a notorious traitor who reported Israeli army moves to settlers later charged with rebellion so that the settlers could disrupt the military efforts. Elkin held various portfolios over the years, and is considered to be a consummate insider. Nowadays he holds the much-maligned Portfolio of Water (there were jokes about diving it into the Portfolio of Oxygen and the Portfolio of Hydrogen). A few years ago he explained (Hebrew) his support of the Temple movement by saying:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin at a Likud party meeting in the Knesset, July 2013. (Photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It is important to move Temple Mount from the territory of the delusional religious fanatics. We must explain to large segments of the people that without this place, our national freedom is not full.”

Miri Regev, former Culture Minister and now Minister of Transportation (Heaven help us all), was a frequent agitator, demanding the right of Jews to climb the Temple Mount. She mixed “our right to pray on the Mountain” with “our right to the land”. When warned that her exhorting of Jewish entry to the Al Aqsa Compound could lead to an intifada, she replied (Hebrew) that “if we need to go through an intifada in order to protect and preserve the honor of Jews to climb Temple Mount [sic; Regev is often semi- coherent], then let’s have an intifada.”

As for Hebron, Regev wrote (Hebrew) on her social media accounts:

Regev in Jerusalem dress at Cannes Film Festival, May 2017

“Hebron. Not just real estate. [it is] our connection to eternity. The Hayei Sarah parasha [the portion of the Bible dealing with the buying of the cave] as the eternal historical answer to the babble about ‘occupation’ – the Land of Israel is ours by grace of the Patriarchs, not the grace of the nations.”

We move on to Yariv Levin, now Knesset Chairman who held various portfolios under Netanyahu, and is known as one of his principal advisors. A few years ago, he opined (Hebrew) that, “No living organism can live without a heart. I believe that when Jews were sitting in exile for so many years, and were praying for the return to Zion, they did not mean Tel Aviv but rather Jerusalem. They did not dream to return to the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Office, but rather to the Temple Mount.” As Tomer Persico, whose article I quote, rightly said, this is putting Zionism on its head: The secular Zionists who created Israel specifically looked away from the poisonous Mount and towards Tel Aviv and the Knesset.

Gila Gamliel, former Minister of Social Equality and the Elderly and currently Minister of Environmental Protection, also has a soft spot for Hebron. After visiting there in 2017, she wrote (Hebrew):

“[W]e should strengthen the world and international awareness of our right to the land. Every year for the past eight years, I visited Hebron with my extended family during the Hayei Sarah Saturday [the Saturday where the portion of the Bible dealing with the Cave is publicly read in the synagogue]. This Saturday charges us for the whole year. […] We were rewarded with a land of milk and honey, particularly the Cave, which was bought with [full] money. You just need to see who is buried in the Cave to understand the unbreakable connection between the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish people, and anyone who argues otherwise twists history, the facts and the Bible.”

Needless to say, Gamliel supports the Temple movement: She averred (Hebrew) that “The Temple is the ID card of the People of Israel. The Temple is us. This is the direct connection between the People of Israel and their Maker. It is our right to this land.”

Even the pedestrian Haim Katz, a Likud Member of Knesset who is former Minister of Labor, Welfare and Social Services, jumped on the biblical bandwagon, though it is foreign to the workers he used to represent as the legendary leader of the Aviation Industry Union. The epitome of a corrupt trade unionist, Katz recently managed to avoid a corruption trial when the Knesset refused to indict him. In a Likud annexation event, Katz said (Hebrew), “[F]ifty years ago we liberated the land of our forefathers: Judea and Samaria, Greater Jerusalem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, the Tomb of Rachel and the Western Wall.” Katz does not seem to be a part of the Temple movement (notice his mention of the Western Wall, anathema to the Templists), but even he understands that if you wish to be reelected in the Likud primaries, you have to give to the nutjobs that which belongs to the nutjobs.

How many Israelis support annexation? A recent, troubling poll by Dahlia Scheindlin – the grand lady of Israeli polling; betting against her is a fool’s game – puts the number of supporters at 48%, opponents at 52%. It’s a troubling poll, because earlier ones put support for annexation at something like 5%-10%. Then again, those polls were asking Israelis not just whether they supported but rather how important was it to them – and, needless to say, in COVID-19 times, unless you’re a settler, most people have more pressing matters to deal with.

But I think it’s fair to assume many if not most of those 48% do consider Hebron and Jerusalem to be part of their national heritage and part of their concept of themselves as Jews – and that members of Likud are much likelier to hold those views than most other Israelis.

So while I doubt Haim Katz could find the Tomb of Rachel on the map, that hardly matters to him. You have to play to the gallery. And the gallery is way, way out there. As someone once wrote, “magic never went away; it is rationality that is fading.”

*Ministers are not answerable to the general public of Likud voters, but to the minority who hold a Likud card. And we know this base skews more religious and nationalist than many of the party’s voters.

Editor’s note: Due to technical formatting problems, we removed many of Gurvitz’s links to Hebrew sources. They all exist; we will restore in days to come.

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As for all the God stuff, I think the Unitarian Universalists have the saying that the hand of God is still writing. Maybe even He doesn’t care what He wrote in 500 B.C. anymore.

We know what Rashi says about it, but what does God say about it? We need direct testimony from him, not hearsay.