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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Land and Memory V

Galilee Diary #276
March 12, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

While Jeremiah was in prison in Jerusalem (chapter 32) for having prophesied that the Babylonians would be victorious, “the word of the Lord” came to him and ordered him to buy a plot of land from his cousin, in the village of Anathoth, north of Jerusalem. And sure enough, his cousin came to the prison, saying “Please, buy my land in Anathoth, in the territory of Benjamin; for the right of succession is yours, and you have the duty of redemption. Buy it.” And so he did, even though he was certain that the kingdom of Judah was about to go under any day. Which, indeed, it did.

Jeremiah’s purchase was ordered by God in order to symbolize the hope of redemption: indeed, the country was about to be conquered by a foreign power, and chaos and suffering and exile would result. Nevertheless, the promise of the land of Israel as the people’s eternal inheritance meant that ultimately, the foreign conqueror would leave, and the original owners – or their heirs – would return to their birthright. This episode in Jeremiah’s life casts in sharp relief the interesting interplay between private ownership and public jurisdiction. Jeremiah assumes that his private deed will remain binding through the Babylonian rule and into the restoration of a Jewish kingdom at an unknown future time – even if the Babylonians expropriate the land and assign it to someone else, with the restoration the plot will be returned to Jeremiah or his descendants.

And now there is a Jewish government again. Alas, Jeremiah’s deed has been lost, but, as pointed out in a previous entry, over 90% of the land belongs to the state, and Jeremiah’s plot can be leased for a biblical 49 years by his descendants. But now, ironically, it is the Palestinian Arabs who are playing the role of Jeremiah. Many of the refugees of 1948 – both internal (living in Israel but not on the land they lived on before the state was established) and external (in refugee camps or elsewhere in the world) will happily show you the key to their pre-1948 house, now occupied by a Jewish family, or destroyed to make way for Israeli construction. They keep that key as a symbol, like Jeremiah’s deed (two copies of which he had placed in an earthen jar “so that they may last a long time”), of the hope of future return. One can say, of course, that there is nothing wrong with the nostalgic longing for an idealized past, and that there is a gap between the Palestinians’ rhetoric and the demands of modern reality. I know a Beduin teacher whose entire village near the Syrian border was transferred by the army in 1951 to a village near us. He was one year old. He has a life now, a responsible job with the ministry of education, grown children with college degrees, a nice house; it is hard to conceive of him picking up and moving back to his ancestral lands, where the economy was based on subsistence farming. But if you ask him, he will tell you that he is sitting on his suitcases waiting for the return. And we could find thousands of similar examples.

For an agrarian culture, there is no question that rootedness in the land is a central value, and hence a key element in Palestinian identity. The question is, as agrarian culture becomes post-agrarian, what exactly is the meaning of land and the personal connection to it? The Zionist settlers came with a vision of re-rooting in the land – but today we go to museums to learn about Jewish farmers. Is the Palestinian demand for return a bluff? A product of the fact that Israel and the Arab countries have not enabled the displaced Palestinians to put down new roots anywhere else? A bargaining strategy? A refusal to let go of a significant element in their identity as their society goes through the trauma of modernization? A simple demand for justice?

And – this is the fateful question – is there an alternative to a zero-sum game?

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