Israel is engaged, yet again, in a heated debate about settlement policy. Even within the governing coalition, there are significant differences of opinion. Likud leaders Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, for example, have suggested that building be confined to the major settlement blocks that will remain part of Israel in any conceivable agreement with the Palestinians. Leaders of the settlement movement, on the other hand, call for unrestricted building in all areas of the West Bank.
Settlement leaders are utterly convinced that their call for broad settlement expansion is justified. The underlying reason for this conviction is what they perceive to be the mandate of the Jewish tradition and the holiness of the Land of Israel. The problem with this analysis is that it is wrong.
The one source that speaks unequivocally to this matter is to be found in the Mishnah, Kelim 1, Mishnah 6: "Eretz Yisrael m''kudeshet mekal ha-a''ratzot." While often mistranslated "The Land of Israel is holier than all the (other) lands," a more precise translation would be "The Land of Israel is made more holy than all the (other) lands." The text then goes on to tell us exactly what it is that makes the Land of Israel more holy: "And what (constitutes) its holiness? (In that) they bring the omer from it, and the first fruits, and the two loaves..." In other words, the holiness of the Land of Israel flows from the fact that there are certain mitzvot that are tied to the land. It is the doing of these mitzvot that makes the Land of Israel holier than any other land. In short, the holiness of the Land of Israel does not derive from a particular set of borders; holiness is generated by the performance of mitzvot, and the Land of Israel is especially holy because of the mitzvot that, the Torah tells us, can be observed there but in no other place.
The Eternal One gave us the Land so that we might create there a holy community - a task that we fulfill by observing the mitzvot, both ritual and ethical, that God has imparted to us and called upon us to obey. (See Deuteronomy 4:5.) Obviously, there are differences in our Jewish world about what constitutes proper observance of these mitzvot. But this much is clear: none of this has anything to do with borders or settlements.
Settlement leaders are idealistic, often brave, and deeply committed to their goals. But what they are fighting for is not the State of Israel, whose urgent political and diplomatic needs they ignore. It is not the citizens of Israel, whose lives and future are endangered by the path that the settlers advocate. And it is not Zionism, which calls for democratic principles that they reject. What they are fighting for is settlements - which have become their god.
I don''t profess to have the answers to the current political dilemma in which Israel finds itself. There is much wisdom among Israel''s political leaders, and moderate voices such as those of Meridor and Eitan deserve special attention. On this point, however, we must be clear: the settlers, no matter what their claims, do not speak in the name of the Jewish tradition, which they misread and distort.