The Prophet Jeremiah and Mahmoud Abbas

The prophet Jeremiah was a fascinating character who lived at one of the most significant turning points in Jewish history, the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylonia.  As did most prophets, Jeremiah railed against his people’s lack of faith and their worship of pagan gods and idols and cited their apparent inability to trust God as the reason for their demise.  As the Babylonians threatened the Jewish nation, Jeremiah urged not resistance but submission, knowing full well that exile lie ahead for his people, something for which he was persecuted and threatened with death by Israel’s priests and King.  Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians and was exiled to Egypt with his trusted scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, where he likely died.

In the midst of this upheaval and chaos, Jeremiah oddly makes a purchase of land in Israel.  In the Haftarah for Parashat Behar (it’s not read this year since Behar is read together with Parashat Bechukotai and we read the second of the two Haftarot), we read Jeremiah’s words:

Jeremiah said: The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, “Buy my land in Anatot, for you are next in succession to redeem it by purchase.” And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me, “Please buy my land in Anatot, in the territory of Benjamin; for the right of succession is yours, and you have the duty of redemption. Buy it.” Then I knew that it was indeed the word of the Lord.  So I bought the land in Anatot from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I wrote a deed, sealed it, and had it witnessed; and I weighed out the silver on a balance. I took the deed of purchase, the sealed text and the open one according to rule and law, and gave the deed to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah in the presence of my kinsman Hanamel, of the witnesses who were named in the deed, and all the Judeans who were sitting in the prison compound.  (Jeremiah 32:6-12)

The passage from Jeremiah is linked to the Torah reading because Parashat Behar includes laws about the requirement of the Jubilee Year to facilitate the return of land to its original owners.  Jeremiah claims that God has instructed him to exercise his right to reacquire land in his hometown of Anatot.  He pays for the land, has a deed of purchase signed and sealed by his scribe Baruch, and, knowing that he will never live on that land himself, has the document placed in a clay jar so a future generation can claim it.

The passage is remarkable because purchasing land in a place that is being overrun by a powerful enemy requires a great depth of faith in the future.  Perhaps Jeremiah purchased land in Israel as a symbolic act meant to kindle faith in the future during a desperate time.  Perhaps he never actually believed that his descendants would return to Israel to live there on their own land.  Either he was an inspiring leader, or a lunatic.

But the passage is also remarkable because it demonstrates that the Jewish people have never relinquished our connection to the Land of Israel, the place of our birth as a nation.  Whether one chooses to see the writings of Jeremiah as factual history or as lore doesn’t matter.  Either way, the passage speaks to the enduring, centuries-old tie between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  Never in our history as a people have we severed that tie.  Israel has always been our spiritual home, wherever in the world we have chosen, or been compelled, to live.

I’m not one to cite Biblical writing as evidence in political negotiations.  But the writings of Jeremiah, and the writings of other prophets and Biblical books, and the contents of the Jewish prayer book, all reinforce the idea that the Jewish people have a history in the Land of Israel.  It is the place where the Jewish enterprise came into being.  Our claim to the land is not invented, and it is not recent.

I make this point because I believe it is fundamental to achieving any resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.   Any discussion of the details of a future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must be preceded by this understanding.  The Israelis, indeed the Jewish people, have a historic claim to live in the Land of Israel.  Zionism is not an invention of the modern era (although there is a specific history to Zionism beginning in the 19th century).  Mr. Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, must be able to accept this fundamental point if Israel is to have a legitimate partner for resolving the conflict.  That means that he must stop denying that Jews have a history in the Land of Israel (a history that, inconveniently for him, pre-dates the history of Palestinians and Arabs).

David Horvitz, Editor-in-Chief of The Times of Israel, wrote in an editorial this week on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Israel that if Mr. Abbas is serious about creating a “culture of peace” (as he claimed to Mr. Trump when he was in the Oval Office), he must move from seeking “normalization” with Israel to acknowledging that Israel has a right to be there.  He must give that which he seeks for his own people to the Israelis.  He wrote:

Courageous leadership requires “No more incitement, no more glorification of terrorism. [It requires] an effort, in the interests of both sides, to confound the cynics and the doubters. And the extremists.”

None of this exempts the Israeli government from meeting the Palestinians halfway.  Israel faces a problem that, though not of their choosing or making, must be solved for the sake of Israel’s future.  Israelis must acknowledge that Palestinians have a history in the land as well, and that they wish to make their home there.  Poll after poll taken in Israel shows that if the Israelis did not perceive an existential threat, they would be more than willing to figure out a fair way to share the land.  Is it possible that Israelis have elected right-leaning governments in recent years  in part because they sense that concessions are futile in an environment where the Palestinian educational system denies the legitimacy of Zionism and denigrates Jews?

Only when Mr. Abbas and his people do what Jeremiah did 2,500 years ago—express the conviction that the Jewish people have roots in the Land of Israel—will the door be open to both sides creating a more hopeful future.

 

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