Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of December 29, 1995

'Real-Estate' Vs. Human Life

By Jonathan Blass

Why mourn a land? Why cry over rocks and mud, pine trees and barren hilltops?

THE IDF left Nablus and Bethlehem, and the flag of a foreign nation lies over the cities of my homeland. The bitter prophecy of Isaiah (1,7) "Your land, strangers devour it in your presence," has been fulfilled yet again in an age when the armed might of the Jewish state had made foreign military conquest of Israel's cities a near impossibility.

Once more relevant is the talmudic teaching of Rabbi Elazar (reaffirmed by Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch) requiring Jews who see the cities of Judea under foreign domination to rend their garments in mourning.

Why mourn a land? Why cry over rocks and mud, pine trees and barren hilltops? Aren't these just "real-estate," less important than the life of a single soldier called upon to risk himself in their defense?

Commonly heard is the thesis that the issue dividing right and left in Israel is the relative importance of land and human life. But that this is even seen as a question calls into doubt the vitality of Jewish nationalism. This is because all nationalism subordinates the life of the individual to the national interest, not least of which is the nation's territorial integrity.

There can, for example, be no English national identity without England, no French national identity without France. A nation's land has never been a function of security alone. It is essential to its self-definition. Land is an organic part of the national identity, much as the human body is an indispensable element of the identity of the individual man. Neither is just spirit alone.

Recognizing this truth, Yosef Trumpeldor, echoing the cries of American patriot Nathan Hale and of other patriots throughout history, declared as he lay dying in Tel Hai, felled by the bullets of Arab marauders: "It is good to die for our land." Zionist pioneers implicity acknowledged the same principle when they came to settle malarial swamps, risking their lives to reclaim the land of Israel for the Jewish people.

What motivated them to self-sacrifice was more than the feeling that they were jeopardizing the lives of the few to guarantee the lives of the many. It was also their sense that they were building a nation.

For them, as for any patriot, the question, "What is more important, life or land?" could bear only one answer: The life of the individual is more important than his private home or field, but it is less important than the life of the nation, and that life includes a territorial dimension worth fighting and, if need be, dying for.

That this is no longer clear here in Israel means that Jewish nationalism is in crisis. It should come as no surprise.

A recent issue of Newsweek reported that secular schools in Israel taught their students that Israel's significance to Jews is as a "haven."

Is the English claim to England or the French claim to France based on the need for a "haven" for Englishmen and Frenchmen? Are only Jews unentitled to a land of their own, except as a place of escape?

ISRAELIS regularly hear that Jewish nationalism is racist, that it is wrong for there to be even one small place on the globe that is particularly Jewish, where only the Jewish people is sovereign to determine national direction.

To be democratic, it is contended, Israel must belong to all of its residents, Jewish and non-Jewish, equally. The argument most often raised is: What if Jews were deprived in other countries of their right to vote on national issues - wouldn't that be unfair racial discrimination?

The answer in most cases is no. As long as I can determine the policy of my country if I choose to live there, I am not the victim of unjust discrimination if, opting to reside outside my nation's homeland, I am not allowed to participate in deciding the direction of the foreign country in which I live.

Though not the American "melting pot" mode, it is appropriate for a nation loyal to its sense of common destiny and national purpose. And, as Hamlet put it, "there's the rub." Lowering the Star of David in Bethlehem - the city of King David's birth, and touting individual life as more important than Jewish sovereignty to the Jewish homeland, are symptoms of a still greater problem that ultimately must be addressed: the loss of our sense of national purpose.

Until it is rediscovered, and barring a miracle, mingled with our exhilaration at the existence of the State of Israel will be the mourning forced on us as we watch "strangers devour our land" through no fault but our own.

Jonathan Blass is rabbi of Neveh Tzuf in Samaria, heads Ratzon Yehuda, a rabbinical training program for graduates of Yeshivot Hesder. Jerusalem Post 1994

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