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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Who owns what?

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I wonder how we know or can prove that we own something. Is possession nine-tenths of the law?

Possession of a significant artwork has not been sufficient, even for prominent art galleries and museums. Proof of provenance is required, and it has been carefully and exhaustively investigated. Some were found to have been stolen by the Nazis. The serpentine process by which these treasures found their way to museums with certificates of varying degrees of authenticity is indicative of how difficult it is to prove legitimate ownership.

I wonder, then, how hard it is to prove that we own the land we settle on. We take it for granted that we don’t have to give it back to the indigenous peoples who lived here before any Europeans landed. Why is that? Why should some think others have to give back land if we do not?

How do we gain ownership?

Perhaps we are wrong to think that we can own such intangibles.

The story of Jacob’s quest to become the leader of Abraham’s legacy is instructive if perplexing. Even in the womb, legends tell us, there was a battle raging as to who would own the inheritance of Abraham and Isaac. In a society that followed the rules of primogeniture, there was no room for the Torah’s vision of meritocracy.

Since he didn’t win the race in the womb, Jacob would have to fight for the right to become like a first born. His attempt to buy the “first-born” leadership also failed. Esau sold it to him, but that didn’t yield the fulsome ownership he sought. In the end, with his mother’s counsel and help, he steals the right to be blessed as first born. But this path is bothersome as a model, to say the least. Did he steal or take as his own what had always been his from the first prophecy? Jacob owned the inheritance. He didn’t steal it and didn’t owe it to Esau. He only owed his father honesty.

However, we prefer to follow Abraham’s example. Looking for a proper burial ground for his wife, Abraham seeks to pay for the land. He refuses the owner’s offer of a gift. Why? We accept gifts all the time and assume the object gifted is ours. But Abraham declines knowing full well that with land there will always be the temptation to reclaim the gift, to, in effect, state: “I only gave it for a little while, for his lifetime or I did not really mean it.” Gifts are not trustworthy for something that we need eternally. So Abraham made it clear that this piece of land was forever.

Strange that all these avenues of ownership seem lost to Israel at this point in time.

There is evidence of long-lasting Jewish presence in the land, including the territory east of the Jordan River. Not all of it, but much of it. Yet indigenous and continuous presence does not count. I have been told by friends that they will not visit me at my relatives’ home in Gush Etzion. Why? That piece of land was long established as Jewish territory. In 1948, Jewish fighters were killed defending it. In 1967, the descendants went back to re-establish their homes there. Whose land is it?

If possession is good enough for the laws governing others, it should be for Israel, too. Israelis live on the land. Some of it was bought. Some of it was gifted or declared Jewish by the world powers through the United Nations. Some of it was possessed and expanded through warfare. The history of the world is written through such vehicles. Israel defended itself and won. So should it give away the land it established as its own through these various means?  

Some have stated that Israel should give back the occupied land, since occupation is not good for Israel. War is not good for Israel. Rockets falling down on my nephews and nieces is not good. Neither is giving back land such as Gaza and seeing not one iota of change or difference. If that Gaza land return had yielded an improvement of conditions for Israel and the Palestinians, then the discussions could go forward. But nothing happened. No one advanced. Good hothouses and homes were trashed. Who benefited?

Who owns the land? Prove it.

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