National Catholic Register


ISRAEL: Whose Land Is It? (Pt. 2)

BY Jimmy Akin

| Posted 6/23/10 at 9:18 PM


In our previous post on this subject, we looked at the claim that the Jewish people have a claim to the territory currently occupied by the modern state of Israel because they were promised it in the Bible.

We saw that reasonable people could take different views of this subject, especially concerning how such a promise might apply to the present age.

Now let’s look at the question from an ethical rather than a revelatory perspective. That is to say, apart from the revelation claim that we have already examined, what grounds might be offered for the claim.

Before we do that, though, I’d like to clear something up that I think has resulted in some folks spinning their wheels: the term anti-Semite. This is a misnomer. It is used to refer to hatred of Jews, though the category “Semite” properly includes people who aren’t Jews. Nevertheless, that is how the term is used. I suggest that we not fight about the word and just note that it is a misnomer that is in popular use and move on.

Now: What claims besides revelation might one appeal to in support of the claim that the Jewish people have a claim to the territory of Israel?

1) The legal argument: This would involve asserting that some entity or entities that had legal title to this territory in the 20th century lawfully gave it to the present Israeli governing entity as a Jewish homeland. And, in fact, many people do make this claim.

While it would be an interesting legal debate to thrash this out, we’re not going to do that on this blog. I am not an expert on the law, especially as it pertains to this question, and it would exceed the capacity of a multi-issue blog like this to review all the relevant information and arrive at a firm conclusion. Therefore, aware that there is more than one side to this argument, I would suppose that reasonable people could take different views on the issue.

Further, regardless of whether civil (or international or whatever) law supports does not deal directly with the question of what is ethical. Human law can support all kind of wicked and unjust things, and so even if human law supports something, that isn’t itself decisive for the question of whether the thing is moral (which is the kind of question this blog is more interested in).

So let’s look at other grounds.

2) The ancestral argument: Some in the combox have asserted that the Jewish people have a right to the land of Israel based on the fact that their ancestors lived there a long time ago.

This strikes me as the least convincing argument on this issue. The fact is that human populations move all over the place during history. Often they are forced out of one land, and at some point any claim they have to it lapses. That fact that modern Jews’ ancestors had title to the property 1900 years ago doesn’t mean that they presently do any more than I have title to where my ancestors lived 1900 years ago.

In view of the historical memory of the Land and in view of the biblical promise regarding it, it is understandable—especially after the Holocaust—that there would be a desire to immigrate there and create a Jewish haven state there, but this is a natural desire—not a moral right to do so. Based on our individual and corporate histories, there are all kinds of desires we might naturally have about the way we’d like the world to be, but that doesn’t give us the moral right to go out and try to bring them about. Whether we have a moral right to take action regarding a wish or desire is a separate question than whether is it natural for us to wish it.

Human migration is so extensive in history that all of our ancestors have been kicked out of lots of places at various stages. In fact, if the Out of Africa theory is true, all non-Africans’ ancestors at one point must have gone through the very territory currently occupied by Israel. That doesn’t give all non-Africans title to this plot of land, either.

So . . . where your distant ancestors lived doesn’t mean that you get to reclaim the place today.

(Unless God has said you can, but that’s a different ground. It’s the revelation claim, not a “we used to live here” claim.)

3) Right of conquest: Historically a lot of people have felt that if you conquer a land, it’s yours. The fact you conquered it gives you a right to it.

One problem for using this argument in the case of Israel is that it works contrary to the legal argument that many wish to use. If the land was given to the Israelis legally then it wasn’t obtained by conquest—at least in the traditional sense (we’ll get to an untraditional one, below).

The conquest claim might, however, be used for territory like the West Bank since that was obtained in war.

But the right of conquest isn’t generally acknowledged today. The fact you conquered something may have given you title to it in the middle ages (or even more recently), but it doesn’t today. America conquered Iraq, but that doesn’t mean we own it. In fact, there is a widespread sentiment that America should get out of Iraq as soon as practical.

Today if you want to claim moral title to a land, you need something more than “We militarily defeated the people who were living there.”

4) Right of self-determination: The argument here would be something like: Since the legitimacy of government depends on the consent of the governed, the majority of people who actually live in a land get to determine how it is governed and by whom. Therefore, since the majority of people currently living in the territory of Israel are Israelis and, it would seem, support the existence of Israel, they have title to the land.

You might also call this the right of present possession and, as the old saying goes, “possession is nine tenths of the law.”

This is a more persuasive argument than the ones we have considered thus far in this post. Some version of the right of self-determination in conjunction with the present possession of a territory must underly the moral right that every nation state has to its territory. Whether Israel’s case is justified is a question that has to be answered, but at least this argument presents us with a potentially successful argument.

Note, however, that it only addresses the question of whether the Israelis now have moral title to the land, not whether they did so in the past or whether they will in the future.

If we consider the past, it is quickly recognized that in the 19th and in the first half of the 20th centuries there was a massive migration of Jewish people into the territory of Palestine—with an eye to potentially founding a Jewish state or haven state there, which would mean displacing or making some other arrangement with the people who were already living there.

The desirability of creating a Jewish haven and the understandability of wanting to creating it here doesn’t mean that it was automatically moral to do so. What this amounts to is a non-military invasion of the territory with an eye to claiming it for yourself—the nontraditional form of conquest mentioned earlier.

Certainly one can see how the then-present inhabitants of the territory would object to this project, just as Native Americans could reasonably object to the mass migrations of European colonists with the same designs . . . or the way Mexicans might have viewed with suspicion the immigration of lots of potentially rebellious Anglos into Texas in the early 1800s . . . or the way Americans in the modern Southwest might view with suspicion the Reconquista sentiments expressed by some recent immigrants.

I don’t say that to pass judgment on any of these groups. It’s just a fact of history that immigrants can overwhelm and eventually take control of the lands to which they migrate. Whether they were justified in doing so is a complex moral question to which there is no automatically right or wrong answer. People do need places to live, and sometimes they need to migrate. When they migrate, some places are more rational to migrate to than others. And if enough of them migrate, over time it will have a natural impact on the governance of the region.

Because there is a natural tendency for everyone to identify their own interests with what is morally right, those who are doing the migrating have a natural tendency to think that it is morally right for them to do so, and those whose territory is being migrated to have a natural tendency to view the situation with concern or alarm and to think that it is morally wrong.

So it is reasonable for Jewish immigrants to the territory of modern Israel to view the migration as justified (or even necessary), and it is natural for Palestinians (then and now)  to view it as unnecessary and unjustified.

In other words: People can have different views on this subject.

There does come a point, if a migration is big enough, where a new governing situation becomes rational or even obligatory. The situation of a tiny nativist group holding all governing authority in the face of a disenfranchised majority class is going to lead to really bad situations (think: Apartheid, only with the natives being the rulers and the immigrants being the disenfranchised). The immigrant class must have its say in determining the governance of the region, and if it is big enough, it’s going to end up exercising that governance itself.

When that happens, a new civil order has been achieved. Hopefully it will be a just order (often it is not). Hopefully it will be achieved bloodlessly (often it is not). But the immigrant class will be the new rulers, and legitimately so.

One can hold, then, that this is the situation that applies in modern Israel, and that the common good is best secured by allowing the state to continue to exist. This would mean that the Israelis have a moral right to the territory (or at least some of the territory) now, regardless of whether they achieved this by legitimate means.

Or one can deny this and argue that the presence of modern Israel is a destabilizing element that will ultimately harm the common good of the parties involved—or that is presently harming the common good of the parties—and that it would be better to peacefully dismantle it.

I don’t see that as happening any time in the near future. A more likely scenario to my mind is that nuclear proliferation in Muslim states may at some point lead to the destruction of Israel.

That’s not at all something I wish for, but it is an eminently possible occurrence in the imminent future.

One could thus argue that, while Israel for a time held the land legitimately, it could cease to do so in the future, should the situation grow more unstable and the presence of Israel lead to great harm to the common good of the parties involved.

So just as this theory does not mean Israel achieved its title to the land through moral means, it also does not mean that it necessarily will keep its title in the future.

All of these are positions one could entertain legitimately. I’m not going to tell you which you should believe. I’m just trying to point out the scope that exists for diversity of opinion.

What are your thoughts?