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Who has the Right to Return?
The Tenth of Tevet is relevant to the Jewish-Palestinian conflict
Can we really still be in mourning for the destruction of the ancient Jewish kingdom, when we are living in a thriving state?
When the exiles returned from Babylonia to build the Second Temple, minor fasts such as the Tenth of Tevet were canceled and transformed into joyous days. The Talmud says that in the current era, when the Temple is destroyed, but we are not plagued with harsh decrees, the status of minor fasts depends on the will of the Jewish people: “If they want to fast, they do so; if they do not want, they do not fast.” However, contemporary custom is to observe the fast. But some may claim that it’s not just that we aren’t plagued by harsh decrees - we actually enjoy sovereignty over the land. Why dwell on the past, when we have such a glorious present?
I recently had an argument with some people about the Right of Return - both for Jews and for Palestinians. My disputants were claiming that it should apply to the Palestinians, since their immediate ancestors were forcibly dispossessed by Israel, but should not have ever applied to the Jews of Europe, whose connection to the Land of Israel was vague, historically distant, geographically far, and not even necessarily genetically contiguant.
With regard to Palestinian refugees, I countered that in theory it would be very nice for everyone to be able to go back to their ancestral homeland, but in practice there are unfortunately two related practical problems: One is that Israel is very small, and the second is that many of these descendants of Palestinian refugees would have the goal of destroying Israel. The result would be to increase the conflict, likely resulting in a bloodbath that would be terrible for all sides. It would be much better all around if pressure was instead put on the surrounding Arab countries to absorb these refugees, just as Israel has done for hundreds of thousands of refugees from Arab countries.
And what about the Jews who came back to the Land of Israel to create a state? My disputant agreed that the Jewish People were being treated rather badly in Europe, but said that reponsibility lies with the Europeans, and we should have found somewhere else to live, such as Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast, that wouldn’t result in anyone else’s dispossession.
Well, saying that the Europeans were responsible for the destruction of European Jewry doesn’t help. What were the Jews supposed to do? The so-called Russian Jewish Autonomous Oblast was not autonomous and was not a safe haven, placing Jews as a buffer between Cossaks and Chinese inflitrators. There were explorations of a number of options for a Jewish homeland, including Uganda, Tasmania, and Madagascar. Each of these involved their own practical problems, and none were entirely free of other peoples. There would have been conflicts wherever we went.
But the main reason for selecting the historic Land of Israel was, very simply, that it was the historic Land of Israel.
The connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel is not only ancient; it is also incredibly powerful. The destruction of the original State of Israel has always been mourned. The language of the ancient kingdom has always been spoken. The city of Jerusalem has always been in our prayers. Even the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel has always been part of our cultural heritage - Jews in Europe were decorating their synagogues with pictures of animals whose appearance they had long since forgotten, but whose natures and characteristics were an integral part of our tradition. Israel has always been our homeland, and there has been a Jewish presence here for thousands of years.
It’s true that over the centuries there was plenty of conversion, intermarriage and dilution, resulting in Ashkenazi Jews having a weaker genetic link to ancient inhabitants of this land. But there is still a strong core of genetic connection. And peoplehood is not solely a function of genetics. The Jewish People have always been not only self-identified as such but also externally identified as such, which is precisely why we have suffered so much persecution all over the world (and is one reason why Israel’s Law of Return was broadened so as to enable safe haven for anyone who was persecuted for being Jewish even if they were not halachically Jewish). Even just a few years ago, a man who was nearly elected Prime Minister of Britain made it clear that he believes that Jews are not properly British. There’s only one country that we can truly be sure will always have our back, and that’s our own.
Yes, this was a recipe for conflict with the Palestinians. That’s unfortunately what happens when there are competing national interests. Perhaps it could have worked out much better for all, had there not been certain figures who inflamed tensions, instigated violence and rejected compromise. There is still much that both sides can do to minimize the conflict, but until the connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel is acknowledged by all, and the demographic history of both Jews and Arabs is acknowledged by both sides (there are Jews who seem not to realize that there were several hundred thousand Palestinians living here when the Zionist aliyah came), any such progress will be very difficult.
It’s as crucial as ever to commemorate the fall of the first State of Israel which began on the Tenth of Tevet. It reminds us that we can’t take having a country for granted. It reinforces our connection with the past. And this is something that we need to constantly make clear not only to ourselves, but also to the world, and especially to those who either deny our traditional connection to the land, or who indulge others that engage in such falsification. Our survival here may depend on it.
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