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Home >> Essays >> Studies by Rabbi Lopes Cardozo >> Studies >> For God's Sake, Whose Land are we Occupying?

For God's Sake, Whose Land are we Occupying?
Written by : Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Added : 28/11/2005, Viewed : 562

First presented in 1983 as a lecture in Pittsburgh at
Congregation Poale Zedek on the invitation of its
Spiritual Leader, Rabbi Yisrael Miller (1)


The Jews living during the reign of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most influential leaders of the European continent of the 18th century, derived great benefits from his patronage. While it is true that Napoleon was responsible for a lot of unrest within the European Jewish Community, his most famous decision - as far as the Jews were concerned - was to free them from the ghettos, where they had been confined by previous monarchs and empires.

This is why they honored him with a Hebrew name and called him "Chelek Tov," literally meaning "good part" (a literal Hebrew translation of "Bona-parte")

A less famous decision of Napoleon's - perhaps because it did not succeed - was his attempt to establish the State of Israel. In the year 1799, Napoleon found himself in the Mediterranean port of Acre (Akko), having arrived there with his army after his famous "Eastern Expedition." While staying there, Napoleon sent out a proclamation to all Jewish communities of France in which he urged the Jews to return to the land of their forefathers:

General Headquarters, Jerusalem
"1st Floreal in the year 7 of the French Republic (April 20, 1799)

Bonaparte, Commander in Chief of the Armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the rightful Heirs of Palestine:

Israelites, unique nation, whom, in thousands of years, lust of conquest and tyranny were able to deprive of the ancestral lands only, but not of name and national existence! Attentive and impartial observers of the destinies of nation, even though not endowed with the gifts of seers like Isaiah and Joel, have also felt long since what these, with beautiful and uplifting faith, foretold when they saw the approaching destruction of their kingdom and fatherland: "...that the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and the enjoyment of henceforth undisturbed possession of their heritage will send an everlasting joy upon their heads" (Isaiah 35:10).

Arise then, with gladness, yea, exiled! A war unexampled in the annals of history, waged in self-defense by a nation whose hereditary lands were regarded by her enemies as plunder to be divided, arbitrarily and at their convenience, by a stroke of the pen of Cabinets, avenges her own shame and the shame of the remotest nations, long forgotten under the yoke of slavery, and, to the almost two thousand-year-old ignominy put upon you; and while time and circumstances would seem to be least favorable to a restatement of your claims or even to their expression, and indeed to be compelling their complete abandonment, she (France) offers to you at this very time and contrary to all expectations, Israel's patrimony!

The undefiled army with which Providence has sent me hither, led by justice and accompanied by victory, has made Jerusalem my headquarters, and will, within a few days, transfer them to Damascus, a proximity which is no longer terrifying to David's city.

Rightful Heirs of Palestine!
This great nation which does not trade in men and countries as did those who sold your ancestors unto all peoples (Joel 4:6) hereby calls on you not indeed to conquer your patrimony, nay, only to take over that which has been conquered and, with that nation's warranty and support, to maintain it against all comers.

Arise! Show that the once overwhelming might of your oppressors has not repressed the courage of the descendants of those heroes whose brotherly alliance did honor to Sparta and Rome (Macc. 12:15), but that all the two thousand years of slavish treatment have not succeeded in stifling it.

Hasten! Now is the moment, which may not return for thousands of years, to claim the restoration of your rights among the population of the universe which had been shamefully withheld from you for thousands of years, your political existence as a nation among the nations and the unlimited natural right to worship God in accordance with your faith, publicly and likelihood forever (Joel 4:20)."
(Quoted by Franz Kobler: Napoleon and the Jews, Schocken Books, New York, 1976, pp 55-57)

This is one of the most moving appeals ever made to the Jews. It is true that Napoleon had his political reasons for such an initiative, but it cannot be denied that he had a keen understanding of the unusual relationship between the Jews and their homeland.


There is an anecdote which may throw some light on his attitude. Some years before this episode, Napoleon and his entourage found themselves riding through Paris on the Hebrew date of the ninth of Av. As is well known, this is the date on which the first and second Temples had been destroyed and on which many tragedies in Jewish history took place. When Napoleon entered the Jewish quarter of the city, he found all the streets deserted. Puzzled, he came into a synagogue and saw all the Jews there sitting on the floor, weeping and reciting the lamentations of Jeremiah.

He decided to ask one of the rabbis about this unusual scene. What happened that all the Jews looked so distressed? Had an accident taken place? Had one of the leaders of the Jewish community just died? Had there been a pogrom about which Napoleon had not heard?

"Much worse," the rabbi responded. "Our Temple was destroyed, and we were exiled from our homeland!"

"But that happened nearly 1,800 years ago," Napoleon responded.

"No," said the venerable sage, "it happened an hour ago!"

When Napoleon inquired about this bizarre answer, the rabbi responded that as far as the Jews were concerned it happened just now! It was as if history had not moved from the moment that the Temple was destroyed and they were banished from the Promised Land.

Once Napoleon grasped the profundity of this answer, he declared that if the Jews felt so strongly about their Temple and their homeland, they would no doubt rebuild the Temple, and no power in the world would stop them from returning to their homeland.

It may be argued that Napoleon became one of the first gentile Zionists. But he was definitely not the only one. Throughout history we have seen highly powerful non-Jews who also threw their weight behind the Zionist dream. There was John Toland, a disciple of the famous English philosopher, John Locke. There was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury in the 19th century. There was Lord Byron, John Thomas, William Blackstone, Georges Elliot, author of "Daniel Deronda," and the famous Alexandre Dumas.

It is most important for us to realize that these people saw it as their task to encourage their governments to sponsor and help the immigration of Jews back to the land of Israel. They seemed to realize that this was a legitimate right of the Jews. As far as they saw it, no serious reader of history would doubt the legitimacy of such an aspiration.

Let us for just a few moments try to understand what moved all these men and the Jewish Community at large.

It is our conjecture that there has never been a nation which has had such vibrant arguments for its claim to its ancient land than the Jews. One could even argue that nations such as the United States of America, France or Great Britain might well be envious of the people of Israel, if they would but realize just how weak and problematic their claims to their own lands are when compared with the claim of the Jews to their ancient land. And who would doubt the legitimacy of their claims?


To begin with, let us make clear some points about the nature of the Jewish people. Only then will we understand the unusual relationship between the Jews and the land of Israel.

First, we have to realize that the very existence of the people of Israel is a historical mystery. The Jewish people are nearly four thousand years old. If that doesn't make the Jews the oldest nation in the world, at least it makes them the most peculiar nation in the world. It is a nation which has been more in exile than living within its country. It is a nation which survived for nearly two thousand years without its homeland, without an army, without government, without finances and without friends. It has been tortured for thousands of years, constantly attacked and repeatedly on the brink of total annihilation. No nation has witnessed so many attempts to destroy it. No nation has survived its enemies against all the odds of history. But Jews have survived the impossible. They have been tortured, oppressed and persecuted. Yet they survived. A closer look shows that they outlived six empires whose chief aim at one time or another was to create a "judenrein" world. There were the Egyptians in the days of the Bible, there were the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and, lately, the Germans.

Jews have been the victims of inquisitions, pogroms, liquidations and holocausts. But this very small people survived them all and outlived them all. Most remarkably, they have stood at the tombstones of all their enemies.

Professor Arnold Toynbee, the English historian, called the Jews fossils and denied them the right to exist. Others saw in them the lowest of all human species. In fact, they were always on the brink of dying out but they never perished. Who would ever have believed that a small nation which was invaded by the largest army of the world, the Romans, would outlive its arch enemies? And who would have believed that the Romans would utterly disappear off the face of the earth, while this small nation would survive? This is chutzpah of the first order!

Just over 50 years ago even the best friends of the Jews believed that the final end had come about. After the Nazi annihilation of 6 million, of whom nearly 2 million were children, most people believed that this time there was no longer a chance for the Jews to make it. Hitler, it was argued, had brought about the final blow. Who could survive such devastation as the Holocaust?


It is very understandable that Jews constantly annoy the world with their supreme capacity to outlive everybody, even Hitler. The most honest and fitting way to define the Jews might well be as "the most irritating people in the world." There would be more than a little truth to it.

Throughout history anti-Semitic people and nations tried to destroy the Jews only to discover that they returned as never before. But if this was not enough to make the world feel uneasy, there were the other troublesome manifestations to consider. For example, no other people have had such an influence on Western Civilization. While the Jews were smaller in number than some of the lesser known tribes in Africa, they contributed towards every form of human knowledge, totally out of proportion to their size. By normal standards, one should never have heard about the Jews! But reality shows that the world has heard more about the Jewish people than about any other nation.

This could be very irritating to their enemies.

But, by far the most irritating phenomenon demonstrated by the Jews is their miraculous return to their homeland. Despite the seeming loss of hope that the Holocaust represented, despite the predictions of even the most sympathetic onlookers that the Jews would soon completely fad away, the next event in Jewish history was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This was just too much for some anti-Semites to handle. Not only had the Jews endured throughout the thousands of years, not only had they contributed out of all proportion to their size to Western Civilization, it now became apparent that the Jews would not only survive Hitler, their worst nightmare, but that they had the unparalleled chutzpah to return to their homeland after 2,000 years. And all this within three years after the Holocaust!


It is against this background that we have to understand why the Jewish people and the State of Israel are constantly attacked and criticized. It is the failure of many people to deal with the unusual. Israel's return to its land is totally unprecedented. It is a breakthrough, a creation sui generis which requires a novel and most daring way of understanding and explaining the "impossible."

For that very reason the State of Israel has become an embarrassment to the world. Our conventional way of thinking does not allow for surprises of this magnitude. Our mental habit is to think in terms of sameness and to disregard distinctness and uniqueness.

The State of Israel is a surprise, yet the modern mind hates to be surprised. On a deeper lever, the State of Israel represents a metaphysical reality, about which people do not want to hear. It is the manifestation of the ultimate, the mysterium magnum, which forces itself into the daily life of man. Nowhere has it become clearer than in the survival of the Jewish people against all odds and in the establishment of the State of Israel that a Higher Force is at work in the history of man. Man's confrontation with this Force is often too much for him to bear. Secular man does not want to be confronted with this Higher Power which urges him to recognize a higher morality of which he is not the maker. Through the existence of Israel, man is confronted with God. It is therefore not surprising that many have turned against the State of Israel. Once we recognize this, we are able to understand more about the Jewish people, its connection to its land and Israel's unusual position in the world.


The Jewish State was destroyed by Titus about two thousand years ago and was reestablished in 1948. In all these years it never became the homeland of anybody else, neither did it become an independent state. In all these years it was simply conquered and re-conquered by different nations, altogether fourteen times. It was populated by a hodgepodge of peoples coming and going. It is most important to recognize that all its conquerors saw this land as occupied territory to be ruled from without.

Not once did any of them claim the lanad of Israel as their new homeland. The only people who saw it as its homeland for nearly two thousand years were the Jews. And it was only the Jews who reestablished it as their old/new homeland in 1948.

It is essential to realize that the Jews never left the land willingly - they were forced out by Titus, the Roman emperor. But they made it abundantly clear that they considered the land of Israel as their eternal homeland. They never ceased to assert their right and title to this land. It is a most important Talmudic dictum which reminds us of a common rule in jurisprudence: "If an object is taken by violence, but the owner does not abandon his hope of regaining it, nobody ever has any claim to the object except the original owner." (Kiddushin 52b)

The moment Titus threw the Jews out, they were speaking about the possibility of return. Neither did they ever find another homeland. It is true that individual Jews considered other countries their homeland, but the people of Israel as such did not and refused to do so.

One may argue that the protesting voice of the Jews to Israel's occupiers was never heard in the public squares and in the political establishments, that it was not heard in the international courts throughout history. This is true. But the reason tor this is most obvious. Jews were not heard because their tongues were cut short before they were able to say one word. A world of anti-Semitism would not allow the Jew to utter a word in the public forum. But within the Jewish community, within the walls of the ghettos, within the walls of the synagogues, the protest was most forceful.

Every Jewish prayer in the last two thousand years was pregnant with the land of Israel. These prayers were emotional pleas to return to a place which the Jews in fact had never left. Jews mourned the land, but they never cried it away. The more distant the land was the more it came alive in their hopes and prayers, until an overwhelming fire took hold of their souls and led them to actualize what they had been dreaming of for nearly two thousand years.


How many times did the Jews not ask themselves: Where do we live? Where is our home? The answer is most clear: Jews never lived in Poland, in Spain or in Russia. They may have stayed in these countries, but they never settled in these lands. Man does not live where his body may reside, but where his soul is dwelling. The Jewish soul has always dwelled in one place: Jerusalem or the land of Israel.

The State of Israel was, in fact, not established in 1948, but in the year 70, a day after the Romans exiled the Jews. The moment Titus threw them out, the same moment the Jews were busy contemplating their return.

One look at the prayer book of the Jews reveals their uncompromising attachment to the land. In the morning, the afternoon and the evening, they continued for two thousand years to pray for their return to the land: "God, may You rebuild Jerusalem in Your mercifulness." Or: "Take pity, our God of Israel on Jerusalem, Your city on Mount Zion, the habitation of Your glory," Or: "May it be Your will, O God, to cause us to return to our land."

Millions of Jews have for two thousand years made these prayers an ongoing priority. Such a commitment is totally unprecedented in the annals of the history of any other nation.


The international community has been declaring for decades that Jerusalem needs to be internationalized. The Roman Catholic Church, through the office of the pope, has told the people of Israel that such a step is most necessary. But is there anything to be discussed? To whom does Jerusalem belong? To the descendants of Rome? To the Christian Church? To the Arab world? Is it not true that Jerusalem was always named the City of David, even by Israel's enemies? Was it ever called the City of Titus, the City of Godfrey of Boullion or the City of Saladin? For all the thousands of years it was called after a Jew by the name of David. Who mourned for two thousand years for Jerusalem? Did the Romans declare a fast for Jerusalem? And today, do the descendants of Rome, of Titus, of Godfrey or of Saladin mourn and fast on the ninth of Av, the day of the destruction of the Temples? Is it not true that only the Jews have done so for nearly two thousand years? Would any other nation ever cry over the destruction of its capital after even two hundred years? America for New York, Britain for London, or France for Paris?

It was the famous Israeli author, Shai Agnon who made us aware of the most unusual relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. When he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, the King of Sweden, Gustav VI asked him where he had been born, and this deeply religious Jew responded in an unparalleled way when he said, "I was born in Buczacks, but that was only in a dream, in reality I was born in Jerusalem and exiled by Titus!"

This most powerful answer, which captures Jewish history within a few words, has without any doubt been the answer the Jews have given to any intruder, king or emperor in the last two thousand years! Which other nation has ever shown so much attachment to its land? But let us continue


When a Jewish boy is born and is circumcised when he is only eight days old, the Jewish community wishes him all the good things in the world. But, above all, a (Sefardi) prayer is said that he may have the opportunity to ascend to the land of Israel and visit the Temple on the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuoth and Succoth. It seems that when a baby is only eight days old, the community makes him, on the spot, into a genuine Zionist. And once a Jewish child grows up, what songs is he or she taught? The songs of the street? The songs of the countries in which Jews were exiled? The answer is most clear. For all the thousands of years, every Jewish child was taught to sing the songs of David about the land and its Temple. What else was important?

As soon as that child grows up, is ready to marry and stands for this purpose under the chupah, the bridal canopy, a most peculiar scene takes place, which should raise some eyebrows among the uninitiated. The ceremony is interrupted in the middle. Should you ask the rabbi officiating at the wedding to explain this strange behavior, his answer would be most telling. The interruption is due to the fact that the Temple has been destroyed, and who could ever forget this tragedy? The rabbi then places a glass on the floor and asks the bridegroom to break it with his feet as a sign of mourning. The young man then informs the community that he "would not forget Jerusalem and its Temple as one would not forget one's right hand." Only after this is the rabbi prepared to continue the marriage ceremony. When one reflects on this matter one realizes that this custom is most bizarre. Why insert this moment of mourning in the middle of such a happy occasion? Why not wait until after the couple is married at least? The answer is obvious. At the highlight of one's life, just at the moment when one is getting married, it is still impossible to forget the destruction and the longing towards the Temple and its city. This has been the custom for nearly two thousand years. How many millions of glasses have been broken in Jewish history? When a Jewish bridegroom takes his bride home, he will make sure that their new home will reflect the memory of the Temple. Above the door or some other part of the walls of the new home there will be a space, which will not be plastered or covered with wallpaper. It will reveal raw stones. How, after all, could one live in a home which is fully decorated while the Temple is not rebuilt?

When the Jew celebrates a special occasion and holds a feast, the table is bound to be lavishly decorated with beautiful cutlery and china and candlelight, but one candle will not be illuminated as a reference to the loss of the Temple.


Perhaps the most impressive statement the Jew ever makes concerning the land is when he dies, and his remains need to be buried. Where will his bones come to rest and his tombstone stand? It will be in the land of Israel. All Jews have been buried in the land of Israel in all the thousands of years. Some might protest and point out that there are Jewish cemeteries around the world, far away from the land of Israel. But, even if that is true, the Jew is still buried in the Holy Land.

However strange this may sound, Jewish tradition tells us that even when Jews are not able to bring the dead to Israel, they can nevertheless bring Israel to the dead. Just before the coffin is closed and buried, some earth from the land of Israel is sprinkled on the dead. Wherever Jews have been living or live nowadays, the Jewish community makes sure that it has earth of the land in its possession so that at any time any deceased Jewish person can be buried in this holy earth. While his tombstone may stand outside Israel, his body is buried in the land of Israel.

But, that's not the end of the story. As if Judaism does not know of a limit when speaking of the land, it requires that those who visit the dead's next of kin will not depart without making mention of the Holy Land. On leaving the mourner, they must say, "May you be comforted with all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.


Finally, one is reminded of a most strange statement by Rashi, the famous 11th century biblical scholar, in his commentary on the first verse in the Torah. Quoting the words, "In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth," Rashi asks why the Torah does not start much later in the annals of mankind. What is the purpose in telling us that G-d created heaven and earth? His answer is indeed most surprising. "If the nations of the world would say to the people of Israel, you are robbers, you have stolen the land, then the Jew would be able to reply, 'In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth. All the earth is the Lord's and He gave this land to the people of Israel.'" It is difficult to see how this approach would be of any help. Did Rashi really believe that if an international body, like the United Nations, would discuss the question, who should own the Land of Israel, that the Israeli delegate could actually argue that the land of Israel should belong to the Jewish people on the basis of a biblical inference? The statement of Rashi is a conundrum. It is only after reading a statement by the famous French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, that we are able to appreciate Rashi's comment. Asked to comment on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Sartre responded with the following memorable words, "I cannot judge the Jewish people by the accepted rules of history. The Jewish people is something beyond time and we cannot pass judgment on the Israeli-Arab conflict without taking this into account." (quoted by Jaacov Herzog in A People That Dwells Alone, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975, page 51)

What was Sartre saying? His point is clear. The Jewish people are an exceptional nation. Jews have done the impossible, as if time and space have had no impact on them. Jews, as we mentioned before, have stayed alive against all odds, they have violated all rules of history, they have contributed out of all proportion, and they continue to baffle the world in every way possible. Such a nation cannot be judged according to the same rules by which other nations are judged. There is another set of rules seemingly at work here, which sets the Jews completely apart. This is an inescapable fact which must not be ignored.


In 1968, Mike Royko, a famous journalist in the USA, published an article called, "Come on, Arabs, Israel's a Runt" in a Chicago newspaper. In this remarkable article, he asked some penetrating questions concerning Israel and responded with even more unusual but candid answers. He wrote: "When I look at the world map, I sometimes wonder what the insane fuss in the Middle East is all about...If I look closely and squint my eyes, I can find a country that has about 800 square miles. That's Israel! To give you an idea how small that is, you could take 40 Israels and put them together, and the whole thing would still be smaller than Texas. There may be counties, even ranches in Texas that are bigger. Little New Hampshire, where just about everybody gets a handshake from a politician during presidential primaries, is bigger than Israel. So is Vermont. In fact we have only four states that are smaller...So we are talking about a mere speck on the map...In acreage, Israel isn't as big as Belize, Burundi, Djibouti, and is only slightly larger than Fiji, but a little smaller than Haiti...So when it comes to land size and population, we're really talking dinky. Why, during any really cold winter you can find more Jews in southern Florida (seven times as big)! But, if you want to talk big, just unsquint your eyes and look at some of the countries near Israel - those that have been trying to squash their tiny neighbor for the last 41 years. Syria, nine times as big with three times as many people, Iraq, 20 times as big with 17 million people, Iran, 80 times bigger, with almost 50 million people. Put that part of the world together and there are millions odd square miles with a population bigger than that of the United States. And most of them, in one way or another, with guns, tanks, terrorists or oil money, have tried to squash a country that isn't as big as Vermont...A tiny sliver of real estate...Instead we have these vast, and in some cases, wealthy countries now entering their fifth decade of trying to take over a place you can barely find on the map. It makes no sense, I mean, Israel doesn't even have one real good golf course." These words speak for themselves. Whatever our political views concerning the Middle-East conflict may be, we should never forget that the Middle East is one of the largest areas on our globe and that the State of Israel is a very tiny country. Much of the Middle East is not inhabited, and it could easily make place for many more nations without compromising Israel in the least.


Last but not least, we would be wise to remember the words of Yaacov Herzog, rabbi, statesman and ambassador from Israel in Canada, "Zionist propaganda and the Jewish Agency with all its power and influence, the State of Israel with all its ambassadors, institutions and supreme effort, encompassing the whole of Jewry in all its economic resources have achieved ten per cent of what one hour at the Western Wall did for the Jewish people." (Herzog, p. 59) Indeed, we should never forget that it was not Zionism, Jewish nationalism or any other Jewish "isms," but traditional Judaism which kept the Jewish people alive. This simple fact holds a strong message to all those who are concerned about the future of the Israeli State. All efforts to make Israel into a purely secular state will ultimately lead to its destruction. In no way should we advocate an Israeli theocracy, but without a deep commitment to Judaism, the Israeli State will not be able to survive. Once Israel has made up its mind and embraces its goal of being a Jewish State and not just a State of Jews; it will become a great blessing to Jews and gentiles alike. It will become a peaceful place in the Middle East and witness tranquility between its citizens and neighbors. But, until that day comes, we will continue to repeat what all Jews declare when they come to an end of their discourses, "May the Redeemer soon come to Zion and Jerusalem."

  1. I am indebted to many sources for this lecture/essay. Special mention should be made of Israel, an Echo of Eternity by Abraham Joshua Heshel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1974.

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