National Catholic Register


Israel: Whose Land Is It?

BY Jimmy Akin

July 18-31, 2010 Issue | Posted 7/9/10 at 4:44 PM


Journalist Helen Thomas recently said the Israelis should “get the hell out of Palestine.” She said this to a rabbi outside a White House celebration of Jewish heritage. (Ouch!) It did not help when she added that Israeli Jews should return to “Poland, Germany and America, and everywhere else” they came from. It was no surprise when she was soon out of a job.

I am no fan of Helen Thomas, and I never have been. But some recent criticism directed against her was problematic.

Some said her remarks were anti-Semitic. Technically, as a Lebanese-American, Thomas qualifies as a Semite, but setting that aside, her remarks did not reveal fundamental hostility toward Jewish people as a whole. Her complaint was not with Jewish people everywhere, but with those she views as “occupying” Palestine. If they left, she wouldn’t have a problem. If she hated Jewish people generally, she wouldn’t have suggested that more come to live in America, where she does. From her remarks, her complaint was not racial or religious but historical and political. She isn’t an anti-Semite but an anti-Zionist.

This distinction is important. One reason is that the term “anti-Semite” should not be thrown around carelessly. Anti-Semitism really exists, and it is really evil. But if the term is applied willy-nilly, then a “boy who cried wolf” effect will occur, and it will lose its force — the same way “racist” is losing its force through overuse. For the word to preserve its punch, it should be used only when justified.

Another reason is that there are Jewish anti-Zionists. That is, Jews who oppose the modern state of Israel and call for its peaceful dismantling. A century ago, the most religious Jews opposed the creation of Israel, while secular Jews favored it. This is because of passages in the Talmud concerning “three oaths” governing the relations of Jews and gentiles in the present age. These passages indicate that the Jewish people are not to take control of Israel by force, that they shall not rebel against the gentile nations, and that the gentiles are not to oppress them too much.

A traditional Jewish teaching has been that Jewish people should not try to regain the Holy Land but should wait for the Messiah, who will give it back to them. To take it now would usurp God’s plan. So there are Jewish groups that oppose Israel. They include Satmar, Neturei Karta, and others. On the Internet you can find pictures of their members holding signs that say “State of ‘Israel’ — Heresy Murder and Theft” or “Jews Mourn 57 Years Existence of ‘Israel’ — A Rebellion Against G-D” or “Free Palestine.”

There are also secular Jews who are anti-Zionist — for ethical rather than theological reasons.

The debate in the Jewish community is interesting, but what is a Catholic to think?

Though European Catholics often take a different view, many Catholic Americans reason like this: “God promised Israel the land in the Bible, so it’s theirs. Period.” This is appealing but simplistic. God made it clear that Israel’s sins could cost it the land, at least for periods of time. Perhaps now is one of those times. Having a long-term promise to something doesn’t mean that you have the present right to occupy it. Perhaps traditional Jewish groups are right, and matters should wait until the (second) coming of the Messiah. Or one might say that when the Jewish people get back their homeland after 1,800 years that it’s a sign of a new stage in God’s plan. Either position is permissible.

The Church acknowledges the Jewish people still have a role in God’s plan, but it does not affirm or deny that they have a right to occupy Israel in the present day by divine promise. In fact, the Holy See has studiously avoided saying either. In its 1993 Fundamental Agreement with Israel, it stated: “The Holy See, while maintaining in every case the right to exercise its moral and spiritual teaching office, deems it opportune to recall that, owing to its own character, it is solemnly committed to remaining a stranger to all merely temporal conflicts, which principle applies specifically to disputed territories and unsettled borders” [Article 11:2].

This passage could be read as referring just to issues like the West Bank and Gaza rather than to the territory of Israel as a whole, but the principle applies more generally. The Holy See treats the question of what people have title to what territory as a temporal affair. The Church may raise moral objections to particular courses of action (ethnic cleansing, treatment of minorities, suicide bombing), but the question of who has title is treated as a temporal, not theological, issue.

So what temporal considerations could one raise? Perhaps the roles of the British Empire, the League of Nations, or the United Nations in creating Israel. But that only raises the question whether their actions were legitimate.

How about the fact that their ancestors lived there? This makes it understandable that — fleeing Muslim and Nazi persecution — Jewish refugees would want to settle in the land of their ancestors, but it does not guarantee a right to that land. All of our ancestors have been forced to move in history, but that doesn’t give us a temporal right to reclaim those lands.

The most promising temporal argument for the legitimacy of Israel appeals to the fact that there is a large number of Jews there now and that government rests on the consent of the governed. In other words, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Even this doesn’t mean it was right to found the state. One can see how Palestinians could reasonably object to large numbers of Jews migrating to their land with the intention of creating a new nation — just as Native Americans could reasonably object to mass migration of Europeans with the same intent, or Mexicans might object to mass Anglo migration to Texas in the early 1800s, or the way Southwestern Americans might view the Reconquista sentiments of some recent immigrants.

History shows 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 that does not have an automatic answer. People need places to live; sometimes they need to migrate. When they do, some places are more rational destinations than others. Over time, migration will have a natural impact on the governance of the region.

Thanks to the Fall, everyone has a tendency to identify his own interests with what is morally right. It’s no surprise, then, that those who migrate tend to think they are right, and those whose interests are being harmed tend to think the opposite.

Whether one holds that it was right for large numbers of Jewish people to immigrate to Palestine, leading to the creation of the modern state of Israel, one can reasonably argue that there are now so many there that they must have a proper voice in the governance of the territory and that the state of Israel is now legitimate, regardless of how it was created.

One can also argue that Israel is a destabilizing element that harms the common good of the parties involved and that it would be better to dismantle it peacefully. I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. Too many who would like to see Israel dismantled have a poor record for doing things peacefully.

Let us pray for all involved in this thorny issue.

Jimmy Akin, a senior apologist with

Catholic Answers, blogs at