Israel: Whose Land Is It?


Iím not going to solve that long-standing and thorny question of who has rightful claim to the land of Israel, but I can offer some considerations that need to be taken into account when forming an opinion on the subject.

Recently we were discussing the recent Helen Thomas broujaja and the question of who "owns" the land of Israel/Palestine inevitably arose.

I'm not going to solve that long-standing and thorny question in this blog post, but I can offer some considerations that need to be taken into account when forming an opinion on the subject.

First let me note that there is room for different opinions, here. The issue is a complex one, and people of good will can take different positions – regarding the founding of the modern state of Israel, regarding its role in God's plan, and regarding what should happen with it in the future.

In previous comboxes, some readers asserted that support for Zionism is so important that opposition to Zionism makes ipso facto one an anti-Semite. This claim is etymologically ironic in that many of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine are, in fact, Semites, but even allowing for this irony, it is simply note true. Zionism has been and remains controversial within the Jewish community itself.

Just to eliminate potential confusion at the outset, let's define our terms. I will be using the term "Zionism" in two senses: (1) The belief that the modern state of Israel should have been founded and (2) the belief that the modern state of Israel should continue to exist. There are other ways in which the term can be and historically has been used, but these are the two ideas that we will interact with here.

Note that one can be a Zionist in one sense but not the other. One could be a Zionist in sense (2) only and hold that, while the modern state of Israel should not have been created, now that it has been, it has a right to defend itself and to continue to exist. On the other hand, one could be a Zionist in sense (1) only and hold – for example – that, while it was right to create the modern state of Israel, that state has morally forfeited its right to exist due to human rights violations or that while it may have been right to found the state of Israel in the 20th century, if unstable Arab states start getting nukes and a regional nuclear war is about to start then the best thing for the welfare of the Jewish people would be to leave the region.

Many Jewish people today are Zionists in both sense (1) and sense (2), though not all. There are quite a number who are sense (2) only Zionists, and the even-more-nuclear-future could give rise to a significant number of sense (1) only Zionists.

Some Jewish people are Zionists in neither sense (1) nor sense (2). This is the case, for example, with members of Neturei Karta, who hold a view that was quite common among Orthodox Jews prior to the founding of Israel.

This view is that the Jewish people should not try to control the land of Palestine on their own and that they should regain statehood there only through the coming and the actions of the Messiah. Trying to take control of Palestine prior to that point, on this view, constitutes a usurpation of God's plan and is viewed as a violation of the three oaths held to regulate relations between the Jewish people and the nations during the present age.

Neturei Karta is by no means the only Jewish group holding this view, BTW.

These people are not anti-Semites. They don't even deny that the Jewish people have a special title to the land of Palestine. They simply see the legitimate control of this land as an eschatological reality that should not be confused with contemporary Zionist aspirations.

But the question of who has title is treated as a temporal rather than theological issue. The Church does not hold that any particular people has an immutable divine right to a particular territory.

I thus hope that the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a little more clear and that we can discuss the issue without people wanting to automatically play the anti-Semitism card.

That said: Who owns the land?

There are two main perspectives from which this question needs to be evaluated: the prophetic and the ethical. In this post we'll look at the prophetic perspective.

Many here in America have reflexively treated the prophetic aspect of the question as unambiguous and definitive: God promised Israel the land in the Old Testament, and so it's theirs. Case closed.

But prophesy often is not so straightforward in its interpretation or application. God also made it clear that, if Israel committed certain sins – or sins of a certain character and magnitude – that it would be dispossessed of its land, at least for periods of time. And there are passages warning the Jewish people to submit to their conquerors and that they will not be restored to the land for a set time and things like that.

There is also the question of the way in which many Old Testament prophesies have found fulfillment through Christ in ways that would not have been expected previously. The impact that this phenomenon has on the promises regarding the land is something that cannot be ignored.

For its part, the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Jewish people still have a special role in God's plan. That's something I've written about before. But the Church does not teach that the Jewish people have a right to possess the land of the modern state of Israel in the present day by divine promise. In fact, the Holy See has studiously avoided saying that.

It has even gone so far, in its 1993 Fundamental Agreement with Israel, to state:

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 [art. 11:2].

In its specific application, this passage is referring to disputed territories like the West Bank and Gaza rather than to the territory of Israel as a whole, but the same principle applies in general. The Holy See treats the question of what people have title to what territory as a temporal affair and thus something that goes beyond the Church's purview. The Church can certainly raise moral objections to various courses of action, like trying to forcibly kick out the people who currently have title to a territory. But the question of who has title is treated as a temporal rather than theological issue. The Church does not hold that any particular people has an immutable divine right to a particular territory.

This is not to say that a Catholic could not hold that Israel does have a right to the land in the present day due to God's promise. That is an opinion within the realm of permitted theological speculation. But it is not something the Church has signed off on. The Church has remained conspicuously neutral on that theological question as it applies in our age.

One could thus hold the opinion that the Jewish people have a right to that land in our day, that they have a right to the land but not in our day (perhaps at the Second Coming or near it, if we are not now near it), or that they no longer have a special right to the land. Each view is permitted.

This deals with the subject from the prophetic perspective. What about the ethical one?

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.

We have 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.

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.

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?




Jimmy Akin. "Israel: Whose Land Is It?" National Catholic Register blog (June 23, 2010).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Jimmy Akin is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live." He was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he was compelled in conscience to enter the Catholic Church, which he did in 1992. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Among the books and pamphlets he's written are: Mass Appeal: The ABCs of Worship, Mass Confusion, The Salvation Controversy, Islam: A Catholic Perspective, The Nightmare World Of Jack T. Chick, and Annulments: What You Need To Know.

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