Feeling conflicted over Hebron

Do we invest the same energy struggling to be worthy of Abraham’s spiritual inheritance, and not only of a geographic parcel of land?

IDF soldier, religious Jews on sukkot, Hebron_311 (photo credit: The Jewish Community of Hebron)
IDF soldier, religious Jews on sukkot, Hebron_311
(photo credit: The Jewish Community of Hebron)
As a Jew, an Israeli, a rabbi and a Zionist, I feel deeply rooted to the Biblical Land of Israel, and believe that God has promised us an eternal connection to the Land. I also note that God makes it clear in the Torah and through the prophets that the amount of the Land of Israel we live on will expand and contract according to our moral behavior. Abraham, the patriarch most closely associated with Hebron, provides examples of moral behavior to be emulated.
But rather than following Abraham’s example, some skew our tradition by obsessing on one commandment. The commitment to “redeem” the entire Biblical Land of Israel by any means possible has sadly become avodah zarah, blasphemous idolatry. Abusing others in the name of God’s promises to us causes hilul Hashem, the desecration of God’s Name.
God does not give the Jewish people a blank check. The Torah, prophets and sages all teach that when we act evilly “the Land will spit us out” (Leviticus 18: 28, etc.).
We say in our prayers that God twice exiled the Jews from this land as punishment for our sins. Were we to follow Abraham’s example, Hebron could truly be a Jewish cultural heritage site.
I once caught two Israelis in the act of stealing olives from Palestinianowned trees. I later found out that one of them was the leader of a group specifically created to steal olives. We were all religious Jews. A surreal discussion therefore developed out in the olive groves, even as they were trying to escape before the police arrived. What does Jewish tradition say about the property rights of non-Jews in the Land of Israel?
It was not a very productive discussion, and I can’t say that either side was listening to the other all that carefully. At one point, one of them said mockingly, “You must be reading from a warped Torah.” I confess that I descended to their level and answered in kind. “I think you’re right,” I said. “The Torah I read from has things that seem to be missing from yours, like ‘don’t steal’ and ‘don’t trespass.’”
ANYTHING CAN be justified if one tries hard enough. Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu once said that it should not be considered theft to take olives from Palestinian trees because God gave the Land to the Jewish people. Other rabbis eventually forced him to recant.
This week’s Torah portion is invoked to say that, beyond God’s promise, Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of the Patriarchs, Me’arat Machpelah, symbolizes the legal purchase of the entire Land of Israel.
One can counter the commandment to treat the ger (stranger) decently by arguing that this only refers to converts, although this contradicts the plain meaning of the text and the interpretation of classical commentators such as Ibn Ezra. One can cite the commandments to drive out other nations, although the Talmud clarifies that this refers to specific nations that no longer exist, because of specific sins.
Others recall the homes which were owned in Hebron by Jews before the 1929 massacre, though they would not agree that Palestinians should be returned to the lands they owned before 1929 or 1948. Some list the history of Palestinian terror or the Holocaust, as if two wrongs make a right. Some dismiss me because I am a Reform rabbi, conveniently ignoring the Orthodox rabbis who are part of our organization, Rabbis for Human Rights.
This, then, is the great Jewish divide. Many feel that mitzvot bein adam l’havero (commandments that govern behavior between human beings) apply only to fellow Jews. Some limit the scope of these commandments even further, fully implementing them only regarding those Jews who share their interpretation of the mitzvot. Others of us note that when the Torah teaches that humanity was created in God’s Image (Genesis 1:27), the Torah doesn’t limit this only to Jews or the wealthy, and makes a point of including both men and women.
SADLY, LIKE that day in the olive groves, those on each side of this divide generally talk past each other. Those paying mere lip service to the idea that every human being is created in God’s image will almost always blind themselves to God’s image in non-Jews and justify Jewish privilege. Those who feel obligated to honor God’s Image in every human being will generally automatically agree with the things I write without checking my sources too carefully.
In RHR’s educational programs we attempt to bring together people holding a wide variety of opinions. We make our positions clear, but make a point of also teaching Jewish sources challenging those positions. We have no direct telephone line to God or to Absolute Truth. The Jewish people and humanity are best served by a genuine and open attempt to understand God’s will.
When I visit Hebron or think about the 30,000 Beduin that the Praver plan proposes to expel from “unrecognized” villages near Beersheba, I find it ironic that we Jews and Palestinians are fighting to inherit the Land that God promised to Abraham.
Do we invest the same energy struggling to be worthy of Abraham’s spiritual inheritance, and not only of a geographic parcel of land? Do we follow Abraham and Sarah’s example of hospitality to total strangers? Abraham bent over backwards to avoid conflict with his nephew Lot: “Let there be no strife between you and me... If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north” (Genesis 13:8- 9). Do we share his commitment to peace?
Would we pass the test God poses for Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right, in order that Adonai may bring about for Abraham what God has promised him” (Genesis 18: 17-19)?
Abraham passes that test, even arguing with God for justice for people whom he does not even know. “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?... Far be it from You. Shall not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18: 23-25).
To me, sadly, it is not at all clear that we would pass the test as Abraham did. And so, in Hebron my maelstrom of feelings collide, between strong feelings of love for this holy city and the holy desire to create a society in which we serve as God’s partners in bringing closer to fruition the promise made so many times to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, ‘Through you will all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 3, etc.)
The writer is director for external relations and special projects for Rabbis for Human Rights. To exchange Jewish sources regarding property rights of non-Jews in the Land of Israel contact him at [email protected] to exchange sources.