Is This Land Your Land?

This past Thursday, demonstrators in White Plaza commemorated the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The political purpose of publicly lamenting this “Naqba,” or “catastrophe,” was to convince the world that the creation of the State of Israel was a crime whose victims have yet to receive justice.

Naqba Day typically elicits a response from Israel’s defenders that focuses on the detailed history of both Arab and Jewish refugee populations that emerged during the periods before and after Israeli independence. In the interest of providing a different perspective, I’d like to avoid such a historical discussion in favor of a more philosophical one. My question is: where do rights to land come from?

I ask this question because it strikes me that a great deal of moral outrage is vented on behalf of the sufferers of the Naqba without ever undertaking to discuss how it is we should decide in the first place which land belongs to whom. It is straightforward to demonstrate that this is not a trivial problem. For example, let’s say I had been the first person to arrive in North America: could I have claimed it all for myself? If not, then how much of it? Would that depend on whether I wanted to use it for farming, hunting, or lighting trees on fire for my amusement? Could it also depend on how rapidly I expected my family to grow, or how far I could easily travel in a day using current technology?

These questions turn out to be largely moot, since by the time anyone was interested in whether or not they had answers (and by that, I mean several thousand years ago), virtually every bit of land worth having on the face of the Earth was inhabited by people who had killed someone else and taken it from them. So then the question becomes: what is the statute of limitations on killing someone and taking his home? Do your grandchildren get to say that land you conquered violently belongs to them? Does it matter what they do with the land? Or how they treat each other and their neighbors?

All this is to say that in a region of the world that has been conquered by ancient Egyptians, Hellenistic Macedonians, Christian Europeans, Muslim Arabs, Zoroastrian Persians and perhaps a dozen other groups that at one time or another were bent on world domination, the Israelites lived by a sacred text instructing them that an Almighty God had given them a tiny strip of land with extremely well-defined, limiting borders. And although claiming to have a divinely inscribed deed of ownership may seem an absurd bit of trickery to both atheists and skeptics alike, I would like to suggest that the Jews actually make a subtle and valid point when they obstinately lay claim to no more and no less than the entire Land of Israel: that in order to have a nation you need land, and when you take possession of land, someone else will always be able to say you did so at his expense. In the face of this accusation, there isn’t actually a better response to make than “God said I could,” and if you have the temerity to go on existing as a nation, the best you can do morally speaking is to place hard upper limits on the amount of land you take.

It is a great irony that the people most often suspected of secretly conspiring to rule the world have done the most to put explicit constraints on how big a piece of the world they take (in contrast with, say, Russia). It is an even greater irony that the people now annually accused of the same crime that every territorial nation commits merely by existing was the only nation to make an anguished, and nearly unsuccessful two-thousand-year attempt to survive without a territory. I wish the refugees of the Naqba well in finding homes outside the Land of Israel. No doubt some vast country that champions their cause will be happy to help them out with that.

Jeremy England is a third year graduate student in the physics PhD program. He was a 2003 Rhodes Scholar.

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