Parashat Devarim: How we approach the land and the other

The positive aspect of identity as a cornerstone for so many fundamental facets of our lives is countered by a darker side, particularly when it comes to national identity.

 ENJOYING THE lavender-filled land at Kibbutz Sha’al on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
ENJOYING THE lavender-filled land at Kibbutz Sha’al on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)

The book of Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books of Moses. It consists of a series of long speeches – sermons, if you will – by Moses as he recounts all that he and the Israelites have experienced in the previous 40 years.

His opening words from this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, speak of the eternal connection of the Israelites to the Promised Land. He quotes God:

“See, I have given the land before you. Come and take hold of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their seed after them” (Deut 1:8).

Weaving together land and national identity

Land and national identity are woven together through much of human history. Saira Yamin, Ambassador Swanee Hunt Women, Peace, and Security chair at the US Naval War College, wrote in her article “Understanding Religious Identity and the Causes of Religious Violence”: “Groups represent safety, strength, harmony, and familiarity. They fulfill the needs for bonding, identity, cohesiveness, integrity, recognition, and security.” 

That is to say that our identities, and we all have many, provide an essential anchor to our existential and human experience, including, as Yamin points out, creating a sense of safety. That is why, when we feel our identity is challenged or being taken away from us, we naturally feel less secure and therefore threatened. 

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

That positive aspect of identity as a cornerstone for so many fundamental facets of our lives is countered by a darker side, particularly when it comes to national identity. Referencing Vamik Volkan, the president of the International Dialogue Initiative, Yamin adds:

“Volkan suggests that identification with a large group (such as a religious, ethnic, or national one) begins in childhood, and each member’s core personal identity is intertwined with the large group identity. Elsewhere, Volkan refers to psychology theorist Erik Erikson’s theory of ‘pseudo speciation,’ which reinforces his understanding of large group identity and the development of a group’s sense of superiority over other groups. Erikson hypothesized that each group became convinced that it was the sole possessor of the true human identity. Thus each group became a pseudo species, adopting an attitude of superiority over other groups.”

All nationalisms have that tendency within them. The challenge for all nationalisms is to cultivate an orientation that protects its people while, at the same time, not going overboard in how it treats minorities within its borders and other nations outside its borders. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and Palestinian nationalism are not immune to such maximalist expressions. The recent events in Jenin remind us that Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in the success of failure, in part fueled by mutual maximalist nationalisms which feed off each other. An off-ramp is desperately needed. I want to be very clear here. I am not saying that each action by each party is a moral equivalence. But we need to note that maximalist national voices in both camps are feeding from each other in a dance of mutual hopelessness.

Commenting on the verse above from this week’s portion, environmental educator Matthew Mauser writes in Eco Bible:

“If a person does not live in his or her homeland, if one has no concrete expectation that his or her descendants will be living on the same land, then what reason is there to treat the land properly, to live sustainably, and to ensure that the resources and health of the land will be there for future generations? Human beings are hard-wired with instincts to protect and feed their children. We should feel just as strongly about protecting our land and its health.”

In many ways, “to protect and feed their children” is one of the primary goals and functions of any nationalism. But Mauser ties that inclination to our shared environment, which can be a bridge across divides. We are learning that the world is heating up at a faster rate than originally thought when we started to take the climate crisis seriously. Three weeks ago in Vermont, air quality was at dangerous levels due to fires in Quebec; last week, devastating once-in-a-century floods returned after only 12 years. And Vermont is only one small spot on Earth. We know the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean already faces, and will continue to face, greater and greater extreme environmental challenges. The climate crisis will not wait for Israelis and Palestinians to solve their differences.

When we look upon the land solely as a geopolitical instrument, we see one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. However, when we view the land from an environmental perspective – which does not know of political borders – a new framework opens up, and we work with the other out of necessity. 

This has been the working model of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) for more than a quarter of a century. At AIES Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Moroccans, and international college students and researchers study and work together on those shared environmental risks. Located on Kibbutz Ketura, the Arava Institute is directed by Tareq Abu-Hamed, a Palestinian.

In recent years, it has become common in the United States to begin an event with the following statement: “We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the occupied/unceded/seized territory of the _________ people.”

That approach attempts to address a wrong done in the name of nationalism and prompts an important reckoning for any nationalism. However, it misses a very important point. It comes from a very anthropocentric perspective. If anything, the global climate crisis reminds us that we need to broaden our sense of self and home when it comes to both nationalism and the environment. At the Arava Institute, we say “Nature knows no borders.” This is not a panacea approach that makes political and national differences disappear, but it does allow for different human relationships to emerge so that differences between all of us have a better chance of being resolved. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.