As the nations of the world gather for the Olympic Games, flags wave proudly in
the wind, representing the more than 200 participating countries. Every flag
represents a country marked by borders which determine the athletes’
Borders create national identity, not only in sports but in
everything cultural and political, and yet they are artificially – and often
arbitrarily – drawn by human beings, dividing one territory from another,
sometimes using natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges and often
resulting from a quirk of fate.
South Africa is one example: its present
borders date back to 1910. Prior to that European colonialists had dispossessed
the indigenous African population and established the Cape Colony, Natal and the
early Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), these all became one country called South
Its northern border is the Limpopo River. If you live on the
southern bank of the river you are South African, and on the northern you are
What does the “South African nation” mean? It’s the same in
across the world. Someone who lives on one side of the Niagara Falls is American
and on the other is Canadian.
What makes these nations different? Who
drew up these borders in the first place? They were drawn up arbitrarily by
force of circumstances; is that enough to form nationhood? Evidently, it is: So
much hinges on a border, which is merely an imperfectly – and often capriciously
– drawn line.
Indeed, the arbitrary nature of international borders has
caused many conflicts. Some of the worst bloodshed in recent history has
resulted from these borders. Rwanda and Iraq are classic examples of how
European colonial powers drew borders on a whim and thereby created countries,
bringing together people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities and
forcing them into a unitary state, the consequences of which were
Among the many national flags at the Olympic Games, there is
one that represents the most ancient of the nations, the only one which exists
with its original land, language, religion and values as it had when it was born
thousands of years ago: Israel. It is also the only country on earth whose
original borders are not artificially nor arbitrarily created by human beings
but delineated clearly in the Bible, a book which came into the world more than
3,330 years ago, authored by G-d Himself. As the Torah states (Numbers 34:1-12):
“G-d spoke to Moshe saying... This is the land that shall fall to you as an
inheritance... Your southern border shall be from the edge of the Dead Sea to
The border shall go around from Atzmon to the stream of
Egypt. The western border shall be for you the Mediterranean Sea... This shall
be for you the northern border... The border shall descend and extend to the
bank of the Kinneret Sea to the east.
“The border shall descend to the
Jordan [River], and its outskirts shall be the Dead Sea...”
In 1947, the
United Nations allocated a much smaller portion within these borders as the area
for the modern State of Israel. Since the Six Day War many countries have
declared Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “illegal occupation.”
can argue that to achieve peace and for other socio-political and humanitarian
reasons a Palestinian state should be established; but to call Israel a
“colonialist occupier” is absurd.
How is it possible that the only nation
in the world whose borders are not arbitrary, and who has an ancient, unbroken
connection to its land is accused of illegal occupation? It is a particularly
bitter irony when young nations of the world, barely a hundred years old
themselves, accuse the oldest nation of all of colonialism, and deny its right
to exist within its ancient borders.
Modern-born countries, such as South
Africa and others, arrogantly seek to label goods from the “occupied
territories,” and yet they were not even a glimmer on the horizon of human
history when there was already a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Thousands
of years before the United States, or Britain, even existed, ancient Israel was
a thriving Jewish country with great cities such as Jerusalem, Shiloh and Hebron
and many others which the world today classifies as the “West Bank” but which
the Hebrew Bible calls Judea and Samaria. Since Joshua conquered the land about
3,300 years ago there have been three Jewish commonwealths and an unbroken
Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
The audacity of those who contest
Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is historically bizarre and unconscionable.
Three thousand years ago the great capitals of today did not even exist; there
was no London, Paris, Washington or Moscow – but Jerusalem was a Jewish city,
and it was the capital of the Jewish state. Since the Roman conquest of Israel
about 2,000 years ago, Jews mention the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple
at every wedding and funeral; we pray for their rebuilding in every prayer
service and every time we say Grace after Meals. If Jerusalem is not the capital
of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, then the very concept of a capital
city has no meaning.
The Olympic Games officially open on the 27th of
July. It is remarkable that on the Jewish calendar this date corresponds to
Tisha Be’av – the very day which, more than any other, demonstrates the eternal
Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Israel. It is the fast day on which we mourn
the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple some 2,500 years and then again,
almost 2,000 years ago. (This year, due to Shabbat, the fast is postponed to
Saturday night and Sunday.) Generation after generation, every Tisha Be’av, Jews
mourn these and other calamities of Jewish history. On this day, synagogues
throughout the world will be shrouded in darkness as the ancient Book of
Lamentations, authored by the prophet Jeremiah, is recited.
The Sages of
the Talmud teach us that the pain and mourning of Tisha Be’av contain the seeds
of future redemption.
It is not only a day of sorrow, but also of
repentance and reconnection with the Divine moral mission and destiny of the
Jewish People. There is a well-known legend of Napoleon Bonaparte walking into a
dimly lit synagogue on Tisha Be’av night. He asked why the congregants were
sitting on the floor reciting mournful prayers, and was told they were mourning
the destruction of Jerusalem and their Temple some 1,800 years before.
Reportedly, Napoleon then said that a nation which remembers and is connected to
its historic mission and destiny in such a way will one day regain its land,
Jerusalem and its Temple.
Perhaps this year the kings, presidents and
world leaders gathered in London for the Olympic Games will follow in the
footsteps of Napoleon and find a synagogue to enter on Tisha Be’av. Maybe then
they will finally appreciate the eternal Jewish connection to Israel, Jerusalem
and the values of the Torah. Maybe then they too will understand the Divine
mission that has sustained the oldest, most resilient and ever-vital nation on
earth, which has seen so many others burst onto the stage of history only to
disappear forever. Maybe then they too will glimpse the truth of the world’s
eternal nation.The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.