By Right, Not Might

Safeguarding the state’s identity exacts a price here and there in terms of inconvenience and restrictions of various kinds. But the nation’s resilience requires that we pay the price necessary to uphold its values, certainly those that define its identity and justify its existence.

Two components joined together to form the basis on which the state of the Jews – the State of Israel – was founded: The People of Israel and The Land of Israel. One people that for many centuries was scattered and dispersed among the other peoples but has now returned from all corners of the earth to fulfill its right and its obligation to settle in its land and to manifest, as a collective, its national character – the Jewish people!

If we are to formulate a definition of the meaning of the Jewish state, we must consider and examine these two components.

I am often involved in discussions where young people are asked what our common ground is as Jews; what it is that connects us and creates our impressive solidarity, even with our brothers in the Diaspora, including Jews who are “global citizens” and may never have visited Israel. The answer I frequently get is “shared fate,” referring to the various forms of antisemitism from which no Jew is spared, and which do not distinguish between denominations.

This response is deeply troubling and infuriating and has been a source of discord since the earliest days of our people’s history, in the Book of Books, the Bible.

The first to define us as a people was none other than Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the first enemy to rise up against us to destroy us. Until the descent to Egypt we appear in the Bible as individuals, as a family, but at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, when Pharaoh convenes the first “Wannsee Conference,” he presents the Jews (then still referred to as the “Hebrews”) as follows: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase” (Exodus 1, 9-10). Someone suddenly sees us as a people and starts inciting against that people.

Later, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the children of Israel, just before they enter Eretz Israel: “Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day thou art become a people unto the Lord thy God. Thou shalt therefore hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and do His commandments and His statutes, which I command thee this day.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-10). Neither Pharaoh nor any other enemy, neither antisemitism nor any shared fate of suffering, are what give us an identity and define us as a society. What unites us despite geographic, social, and differences in mentality, and what has connected us with fellow Jews throughout history, is the Divine imperative that chose us from all the other peoples and gave us His Torah; the day that Moshe recreated Ma’amad Har Sinai (the revelation at Sinai) and made us party to a dual covenant – our covenant of loyalty with the Creator and a covenant of mutual solidarity between ourselves that imposes on us, among other things, a shared responsibility for preserving Jewish identity and Jewish tradition – that is the day that transformed us into a people.

In contrast to its commonly understood meaning in the era of “Book Week,” the distinguished title of “People of the Book” is not a matter of the quantity of reading material we purchase. “People of the Book” denotes a people that is defined by, and that lives by, the Book – the Bible, whose values are the basis for our national identity.

Taking a historical perspective, we find that, objectively, we owe our survival amid the “wilderness” of the world’s nations to the Bible. The very many Jews who observe and celebrate the Passover seder sing the Vehi she’amda passage in the Haggadah: “And it is this (the Torah) that has stood by our ancestors and for us. For not only one (enemy) has risen up against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hands.” It is a wondrous fact that superpowers and well-established nations that seemed vulnerable to no threat have simply passed from the world and exited the historical stage. Ammon, Moab, the Philistines, Tyre, Sidon, Assyria, Babylon, Midian, and others are no more. Only little “Srulik,” the maligned and oppressed nation of Israel, lives on. The fact that in ’48 there was a “people” here with which to establish a state may be credited to the commitment of the People of the Book.

As with the people, so with the land.

In the late 1960s, I was invited to a private meeting with the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion. This was a fascinating talk, born of circumstances that were themselves interesting. During our discussion, Ben-Gurion sought to clarify the meaning of several Torah verses that he had trouble understanding. By this means I became aware of the tremendous importance that he attached to regular Bible study, and of his daily effort to engage with the Babylonian Talmud. In the course of our meeting I asked, and received, his confirmation of the story of his dialogue with the members of the Peel Commission.

The Commission was appointed by the British government in 1936, subsequent to the rioting endured by the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel and worsening Arab-Jewish tensions prior to a partitioning of the land and the founding of a Jewish state. Representatives of the two sides appeared before the Commission, each in their turn making arguments for ownership of the land. When the then-chairman of the Jewish Agency and representative of the Zionist organizations, David Ben-Gurion, took the stand, Lord Peel asked him: “Mr. Ben-Gurion, where were you born?” “In Plonsk,” was the response. “And where is Plonsk, if I may ask?” “In Poland,” answered Ben-Gurion. “See now,” said Lord Peel, “All the Palestinian representatives who stood here are natives of the land. Their families have been rooted here for centuries. By contrast, of all the Jewish representatives not one was born here. You, Ben-Gurion, are from Poland, others are German born, still others are from Russia, Hungary, or Oriental lands. Where is the justice and where is the logic in your demand for the land? Based on what title deed do you assert ownership?” “This!” cried Ben-Gurion, pointing to the Bible that lay before him, and not by coincidence. “This is our title deed, the Divine promise given to our forefathers and our Prophets. This historic covenant, which is eternal, is our title deed.” Ben-Gurion’s oratory ardor made an impression on all those present. “Is it true,” one member of the Commission asked, “Is it really true that you uphold everything written in it, in this document known as the Hebrew Bible? Are you bound by it?”

I asked Ben-Gurion to confirm that the story was true, and he corroborated every detail. “And what did you answer the Commission member?” I asked. To this I received no answer during the three hours that our conversation lasted.

The answer was given, among others, by King David, Poet of Israel, in the Book of Psalms (111:6): “He hath declared to His people the power of His works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.” God wrote for us, in the Bible, of the “power of His works” – the story of the Creation, the Flood, the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, the exile to and Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai and the entry into the Land, mitzvot and laws, transgressions and their punishments – in order to give us Eretz Israel, until then the “heritage of the nations.”

King David was precise in his wording: “He hath declared to His people the power of His works.” It is not the nations of the world who need convincing; rather, we need to enlighten ourselves. Why are we living here? What is the true basis for our right to the Land, a right that comes with an obligation? If we recognize the justness of our path and if we draw from the Torah the basis for our existence, the arguments of the many doubters of our right to the Land will be rendered groundless.

While visiting Al-Azhar University in Cairo I met with the leader of the World Sunni Movement, Imam Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, and we spoke about the Jews’ right to Jerusalem. “How many times is Jerusalem mentioned in the Quran?” I asked him. Not once! By contrast, the Bible mentions Zion 151 times in and Jerusalem 587 times. This effectively ended the discussion.

The right to establish a state in Eretz Israel, and the moral justification for the bloodshed entailed by that effort, stem from our adherence to the Torah and to our heritage, which preserved us as a people and restored us to the land of Zion and to Jerusalem.

In the stairwell of our home in Piotrków, a few days before his deportation to Treblinka, my father, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau zatzal HY”D (of righteous memory, may God avenge his blood) enjoined my brother Naftali of blessed memory to make every effort to reach Eretz Israel. For us this was his last will and testament, transmitted to me by Naftali as he lay critically ill with typhus at the end of the war, when it looked as though he would not survive. In a feeble voice he told me “Lulek, your place is in Eretz Israel. Repeat after me these two words: E-r-e-t-z Y-i-s-r-a-e-l. There, they don’t kill Jews.” The yearning for Eretz Israel was due to its being the land promised by Divine command, originating in the Torah of Israel.

That is the source and the basis for our presence here. Our right to the land is not “by might,” but “by right” as Menachem Begin put it (in a Knesset speech of 2 Adar 5718 – April 22, 1958).

But the Bible is not merely a title deed to this land. The Bible also lays out the rules for our existence here. This is a covenant – a package deal – between the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people. Our Book of Books is the basis for Jewish ethics and for human ethics altogether. It is the source of the precepts “Honor thy father and thy mother” and “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”

A Jewish state whose justification for existence rests on the Bible must ensure the presence in its public realm of Shabbat observance, kashruth, respect for elders, and kindness to others. A Jewish state must display an attachment to Jewish ethics and to the words of the Prophets and the sages of every generation. A Jewish state takes an exalted view of Torah study, which must be sustained and cultivated for the sake of future generations.

Any unbundling of these values, out of a desire to retain some and discard others, breaks up the package and weakens the case for our right to Eretz Israel. “If the Bible is yours,” the nations will say to us, “where is the Sabbath? Where is the Divine command?”

Indeed, some segments of our people do not observe the mitzvot. There is no intention of imposing a way of life on them that they do not desire. This is how it has always been. But a distinction must be made between the private domain and the public domain. The private domain is that of the individual, which one can arrange as one deems fit. But the public domain, the Israeli public realm, is the Jewish state. The public domain must represent to the entire world the fact that we are the land of the Bible, the Promised Land, the land that “when He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us” (Rashi, Genesis 1:1).

These things were once acknowledged even by those who did not observe Torah and mitzvot. Haim Nachman Bialik, for instance, wrote in 1933 (Letters, 5693 [1932-1933]), regarding Shabbat desecration by some of the pioneers: “How can our young people not comprehend that the majority of the Jewish people, on whose land you live and with whose money you have settled and whose funds support you, have agreed to aid in the building of the Land on the understanding that Shabbat would be observed in full – and sends you here on that understanding. Is it good, is it right for you to betray your mission?”

This understanding guided the founders of the state, and on that basis they saw fit to anchor Jewish law within the character of the state and in its public realm, along with individual freedom and rights. Thus, the entire Israeli public, as a collective, in the framework of the status quo, would safeguard Shabbat and the holidays, the institution of marriage, kashruth in state institutions, and all the other manifestations of Jewish solidarity and Jewish values.

True, safeguarding the state’s identity exacts a price here and there in terms of inconvenience and restrictions of various kinds. But the nation’s resilience requires that we pay the price necessary to uphold its values, certainly those that define its identity and justify its existence.

Since there are voices calling for the separation of religion and state, it is worth noting that such a scenario would not harm the Jewish religion, which has survived for 3,300 years – most of that time without a state – and will continue to survive. The harm will be to the state: we will be disgraced in the eyes of the world – or, worse, our own ethical character will be compromised.

Preserving the Biblical “package” and ensuring its presence in the Israeli public square – this is our duty to the Jewish people, this is our duty to future generations, this is our duty to ourselves. The State of Israel is not just a language, a culture, and a body of folklore. The State of Israel is the land of the Bible. It is the title deed to our sovereign existence. This is the basis for our being a light unto the nations. This is the Jewish state.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1993-2003 and the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo from 1988-1993 and from 2005-2017. He is currently Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. In 2005, Rabbi Lau was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement.