As returns from Israel’s incredibly close election began to roll in Tuesday, my mind kept returning to the bar mitzvah of my oldest friend’s son, which I attended in June 2017.
I entertained myself in synagogue by silently cheering on the antics of the most rebellious children in attendance, and by reading the English version of that week’s Torah portion. On the day that Ben became a man in the eyes of the congregation (while remaining very much a boy in the eyes of his two younger brothers), the reading was Numbers 13, called Parashat Sh’lach. What struck me in it was the list of all the people who were living in the Promised Land when (our version of) God first promised it to us Jews.
There were Anakites all over the place, Amalekites in the Negeb, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites in the hill country and Canaanites by the sea. Forty years later, when the Jews actually came back post-wander and took Israel militarily with God’s ample help, the vanquished tribes listed in Joshua included Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.
And they all thought they were the good guys, that it was their land, that God loved them best, and that the triumph of the Israelites was a horrible theft and a cruel abomination.
Now, debate over who has the moral and legal right to control two regions has played a huge part in the Israeli elections. Last month, President Donald Trump signed an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Then Saturday, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said that if re-elected, he would annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, also captured in 1967.
Both moves, along with the struggles that will emerge in the coming weeks as either the right-wing Netanyahu or his main opponent, the more liberal Benny Gantz, seeks to put together a government, highlight pressing questions. A workable solution that provides for the needs and rights of both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians and regional and world stability remains the goal, but feels increasingly unlikely.
Parsing that topic will fill a lot of newspapers, but I’m fixated on a related topic: When it comes to the control and habitation of one piece of land, which more than one group wants and claims to deserve, there is no right and wrong. There are no good guys or bad guys. There are only winners and losers, those who possess and those who are dispossessed, the strong and the weak.
Nearly every piece of land on this planet is controlled by the people who were able, by violent or diplomatic or political means, to seize it, and hold it. A people that cannot seize land has no right to it. A people that cannot continue to hold land loses the right to it. This is the primary plot point in human civilization.
Americans control the United States because we seized most of it from the indigenous population, which just means anyone who got here before Europeans, and got the rest of it from other Europeans via a variety of methods. But the Indians we seized the land from had often stayed busy fighting each other for it before we came along. And this has been the case all over the world. The origin story of the current ruling entity of most every nation involves a battle won and an enemy disenfranchised.
The Jews persuaded the world to give them Israel, and they’ve held it. The Palestinians have not managed the same feat. But the key to peace in Canaan does not lie in continually adjudicating the endless argument over who has the moral right to a piece of land, because no such right exists. The key to peace lies in letting go of the idea of that right’s existence, and coming to a pragmatic agreement to stop killing each other.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.