President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are scheduled to meet on March 3 to discuss the soon-to-be-revealed United States proposals for a framework agreement meant to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Even before the actual proposals are unveiled, their author, Secretary of State John Kerry, has come under harsh, even demeaning, criticism from the Israeli right, mainly because the plan is expected to call on Israel to trade lots of land for the chance of a little peace. No one on the nationalist right or the religious right is willing to give up an inch, and they tend to loathe anyone who suggests that they do.
There is no argument anyone can make against the secularist nationalists, because for them compromise is not possible They will not accept an Israel that does not encompass all the land on both sides of the green line. Let us be honest about that: When we prayed for 2,000 years to return to our homeland, we were more in mind of the Old City of Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus (Shechem), not Haifa or Caesarea or Eilat. That is where so much of our history played out – and those place all are on the “wrong” side of the line.
For that segment of the religious right that accepts Israel as legitimate, the argument goes deeper: Jewish law forbids giving up even a single dunam of the land of Israel, for any reason. Holders of this view cite a commentary to the Babylonian Talmud tractate on pagan worship, Avodah Zarah, and another commentary on Deuteronomy to support their position. In both instances, the commentary says that settling the Land of Israel is of greater merit than all the other mitzvot combined.
They are correct; the cited commentaries say this. However, it is also true that the sages of blessed memory used hyperbole as a device to underscore the importance of a mitzvah, and this is no exception.
Thus, according to BT M’nachot, wearing tzitzit is the commandment that outweighs all others combined. In BT Bava Batra, it is tzedakah. In BT Shabbat, it is “the study of Torah [that] surpasses them all.”
It is also true, as some on the religious right note, that halachah permits buying parcels of the Land of Israel from non-Jews, even on Shabbat.
On the other hand, there is biblical evidence to suggest that giving up land is not so great a sin, or may not be a sin at all, if what is received in return is worth the price. Solomon swapped 20 cities in the Galilee for the building materials he needed to complete the Temple, yet the biblical text offers no condemnation. Certainly, if land can be traded for cedar wood, it can be traded for peace, because the preservation of human life is the goal of peace.
In the current case, the price would be worth it, too, if the “peace” offered is a true peace, and that includes recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Such recognition is an apparent red line for the Palestinians at the moment. It is one they never will cross, if we are to take the word of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who reiterated this position in an interview last weekend.
There are other sins, however, that are great sins according to all authorities, and these, too, must be considered, because halachah has always insisted that avoiding these sins is paramount.
These “sins” are pikuach nefesh (threat to life) and sh’fichut damim (the needless spilling of blood). Sh’fichut damim is why King David was denied the honor of building the Temple, the Tanach tells us; his hands were too sullied with blood.
Pikuach nefesh is considered to be pre-eminent in religious Judaism, and not just hyperbolically. Almost nothing – not even Shabbat or the laws of kashrut – takes precedence when life is threatened.
Here, the religion-oriented spokesmen for not trading land for peace offer a simplistic and wholly unrealistic (even absurd) solution: If the Arabs in the territories will not live in peace, throw them out. Then there would be no pikuach nefesh.
No consideration is given to the almost certain violent response from the Arab world, and the condemnation and reprisals that will come from the rest of the world.
For many on the extreme religious right, however, such things are of no concern. At work for them is a theological premise we have seen before. It is a premise that always ends in disaster for us; something, in fact, that halachah itself specifically forbids: reliance on a miracle. The religious nationalists truly believe that if they start the war, God will finish it.
That did not work for the Zealots in the year 70. It did not work for Bar Kochba in the year 130. And for those who argue that it has worked in modern times, please note that the war that began in 1948 is still ongoing.
There is only one legitimate consideration for Israel in deciding on whether to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians: whether its security concerns are more than adequately met. Only if the planners and strategists of the Israel Defense Forces are fully satisfied with an agreement – not the politicians, not the ideologues, not the religiously rigid, but the people charged with winning every war because losing one is not an option – only then may an agreement be signed and implemented.
That is enough of a hurdle to overcome.