This particular Jewish claim is bandied about so much that I imagine it would some as a surprise to many that it is, in fact, a misrepresentation of the Torah and its teachings.
I would go farther and say this: this view is actually a betrayal of Jewish tradition – and has only become widely popular since the rise of political Zionism.
Let’s take a closer look at the texts in question:
Jewish fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists are fond of pointing out that God promised the land of Israel to Abraham in the book of Genesis:
On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Genesis 15:18)
Biblical scholars and commentators note that the covenant God makes with Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) appears as a promisory covenant. In this early point in the narrative, the land indeed seems to be assigned to the people Israel with “no strings attached.”
Later in Exodus, however, once Israel has left Egypt and has become a nation at Sinai, God clarifies the terms of this covenant. It is spelled out in decidedly conditional language: if Israel follows God’s commandments, then they will indeed be able to live on the land that has been assigned to them by God. In other words, Israel now learns that their future on the land will be radically dependent on how they behave on the land.
As I see it, this is the fatal mistake made by those who claim that the land must ipso facto “belong” to the Jewish people. They focus exclusively on the Abrahamic promise, but neglect the critical next step: God’s conditional covenant with the Israelite nation.
In so doing, they pervert the Torah’s meaning – and do great damage to the central Jewish understanding of our relationship to the land. The land is not given to us unconditionally – we will only be able to live on the land if we prove ourselves worthy of it.
Interestingly, the Torah actually points out that previous inhabitants of the land had failed in this regard. Following a long litany of laws in Leviticus, we read:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)
In similarly colorful language, Israel is told that they might well meet the same fate if they do not keep God’s laws when they live on the land:
So let not the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (18:28)
In another important verse from Leviticus, God makes it clear to whom the land ultimately belongs. In the discussion of the Jubilee year (in which landholdings revert back to their original owners) we read:
…the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
Notably, the Hebrew word for “stranger,” (“ger”) literally means “resident alien.” This word appears over and over throughout the Torah – particularly in admonitions to Israel not to mistreat the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is sobering indeed to learn that even after the Israelites enter Israel, they will still be, in effect, resident aliens on the land.
In the end, although many Jewish fundamentalists often treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease” with very explicit conditions. In Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant:
If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching…the Lord will scatter you among all the people from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest… (Deuteronomy 28:58-65)
For the prophets and later the rabbis, the conditional covenant was central in understanding Israel’s collective tragedy: “mipnei chataeinu” – “because of our sins” we were exiled from the land. This in fact remained the normative Jewish understanding of our centuries-long sojourn in the diaspora until the advent of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel.
Though today we live in a radically different context than Ancient Israel, this question remains powerfully relevant: now that we have returned again to this land, how will we prove ourselves worthy of it?
Whatever our answer, this much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. The Torah teaches us still: if we insist that the land “belongs” to us and us alone, we will only endanger our collective future upon it.