Politics and Property Rights in Israel
What explains the persistent collaboration of Israeli politicians across party lines to deny the property rights of Jews where they have every historical and legal right to live?
Ninety years ago, the League of Nations, seeking to establish a peaceful new world order after the carnage of war, turned its attention to Palestine. Wrested from the defeated Ottoman Empire, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people suddenly appeared on the international agenda. Lord James Balfour's declaration, five years earlier, that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" had ratified the Zionist dream.
Winston Churchill, British secretary of state for the colonies, reassured uneasy Arabs that the declaration did not mean that "Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine." He also declared that the Declaration, reaffirmed by the San Remo Conference and the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, "is not susceptible of change."
But where was Palestine? The Mandate for Palestine, approved by the League of Nations in September 1922, included a note that relocated the Jewish national home. "Palestine" no longer included "the territory known as Trans-Jordan," east of the Jordan River. That land was a reward to Abdullah, son of the Emir of Mecca, for planning the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule.
But Article 6 of the Mandate assured to Jews the right of "close settlement" between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the remaining one-third of the land that would thereafter comprise Palestine. In today's language that includes the State of Israel, the West Bank (biblical Judea and Samaria), and Gaza.
There were, to be sure, complications along the way. In 1948, during the Arab war to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state, Trans-Jordan seized the land that became known as its West Bank. But that land-grab was never internationally recognized. Nineteen years later, Jordanian military aggression against Israel cost it that territory during the Six-Day War. After the war, U.N. Resolution 242 called for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from newly occupied "territories." But not from "the territories," or "all the territories" -- the carefully drafted language that preserved the Jewish right of "close settlement" that was guaranteed in 1922 was never rescinded.
Following the war, Jews began to do what, under international law, they had every right to do: settle in what remained of Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River. Led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, several dozen Jewish families came to Hebron, the ancient Jewish holy city where the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are located, to hold a Passover Seder. Nearly forty-five years later, they are still living where Jews have lived for 3,000 years and where King David ruled before relocating his throne to Jerusalem.
By now, more than 300,000 Jews live in Judea and Samaria. They are the widely despised settlers who allegedly occupy "Palestinian" land. But under international law, to say nothing of millennia of Jewish history, the right of Jews to live in Hebron and more than one hundred settlements in Judea and Samaria are no less significant than their right to live in Tel Aviv.
That raises the puzzling question: why, ever since the Six-Day War, have successive Israeli governments across party lines refused to assert the legitimate Jewish right of "close settlement" in the land west of the Jordan River? Indeed, why did Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) recently collaborate to expel fifteen Jewish families from a house in Hebron that they had legally purchased from a willing Palestinian seller?
This was not the first time that Netanyahu had surrendered Jewish rights in Hebron or that Barak had nullified a legitimate transaction that transferred property from Arab to Jew. Four years ago, he overrode evidence that included signed purchase and sale documents and a video of the Palestinian seller receiving and counting his money. That case is still being litigated.
To be sure, selling property to a Jew is a crime punishable by death under Palestinian (and, previously, Jordanian) law. Hearing of the purchase four years ago, a Hebron Arab candidly told an Israeli journalist: "We will find the seller and chop him up into tiny pieces."
But it is unlikely that Barak or Netanyahu decided to abrogate Jewish property rights on humanitarian grounds. As secular politicians, they will use their power to repel any challenge from religious Zionists, the passionately determined settlers whom secular Israelis -- and Israel's critics worldwide -- love to hate. But as the rule of law is sacrificed to enhance political power, and as Judenrein principles are imposed by the government of Israel in the Land of Israel (imagine the outcry if the Jewish state became Arabrein), Zionism is morally diminished.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Hebron Jews. His new book, Against the Grain: A Historian's Journey, will be published next month by Quid Pro Books.