By Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein, rabbi of
There is a big,
big, question hidden in Deuteronomy 9:5. The Israelites, says God, are not to give themselves any credit for the fact that their opponents are driven out of the Land which they, the Israelites, are now to possess. “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you….”
The question is: How bad does a nation have to be, before they deserve to be driven from their land? This is a question that has many sides. How bad do our enemies have to be, before we are entitled to beat them? And how bad may we ourselves get, before God delivers us in the same way into their hands? (And this leaves out other issues such as ‘collective punishment’ and the way that both the guilty and the innocent share the same fate – an issue first raised by Abraham back in Genesis 18:22-33, when he tries to persuade God that the death of innocent people in Sodom cannot simply be brushed aside as unavoidable ‘collateral damage’).
One can speculate on just how bad were the sins of the Canaanites and others, especially when compared to those of the stubborn, stiff-necked, and rebellious Israelites (referred to by God as such in the very next verse); was it just Moloch worship and human sacrifice? The Aztecs and Incas also slaughtered myriads of victims to their gods before they were in turn wiped out by Europeans serving their God, bringing Bibles and gunpowder and, for those fortunate to become victims of love rather than violence, also venereal diseases. So the Aztecs and the Incas lost their country to the alien invader. There are many other examples in history.
I live and work in Germany and am confronted frequently with this question and its historical and theological echoes. For example, it was on the very night that the last transport of Jews was confined to a train in Neustadt goods yard, ready for deportation, and the city of Dresden was effectively and officially judenrein, that fire fell from the heavens in February 1945 and destroyed it and so many of its citizens so thoroughly. Never mind the arguments amongst historians as to whether the city was a legitimate military target and whether the creation of artificial firestorms should count as a war crime – just think of the symbolism.
An entire generation of Germans had let itself be led astray, or let itself be carried along passively by those who were leading it astray. Yes, a few tried bravely to swim against the current but it was lonely and difficult and dangerous and they were a minority. Within a few years Germany had occupied the countries of the Austrians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the French, the Belgians, the Luxembourgers, the Dutch, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Poles, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and the Russians, the Hungarians, the Italians, the Romanians, the Cretans, the Tunisians, the Libyans; had frightened the Swiss and the Swedes into neutral submission; were threatening Egypt and Turkey – and then, amazingly, less than five short years later, they had been beaten back into an enclave filled with rubble and corpses, a land of destroyed bridges and burned cities, a land of humiliation and desperation, filled with displaced persons, released slaves, and occupying soldiers. The Germans call this
– the Zero Hour – a complete new start, a new era. Even though some of the damage was repaired and life for the living continued, it was forty-five years – from 1945 until 1990 – before the Occupying Forces began to think of withdrawal and the idea of letting the Germans rule their own affairs again and form their own united country could be seriously considered.
Of course this is a facile historical argument and one that can easily be challenged: why, for instance, should the Poles or other nations behind the Iron Curtain also be denied their own full independence for the same period? (One could mention pogroms in Kielce and elsewhere…). History often seems more than unfair, when one thinks how some countries were able to restore themselves so much more quickly than others. Why did so many innocent people die, yet Hitler had, in the end, to shoot himself? Why did so many victims die literally hours before the conflict formally ended, or died of exhaustion, hunger and disease after it was officially over?
I am very, very worried by people who claim to have answers to these questions. I would rather stay with the questions, wrenchingly uncomfortable though they might be.
But then we come to The Jews. When did the Jews deserve a country of their own, and when had they so perverted their ways that God could, as punishment, take it away? The prophets warned often enough before Destruction of the First Temple; the rabbis discussed in Gittin 56 the sort of appalling and humiliating behavior that might lead someone to betray their own people and lead to the Destruction of the Second Temple. And the big, unasked question would be always there in the background: What will it take to lead to a Third Destruction?
There will be Jews who will claim that giving in to secular culture is all that it would take; there will be Jews who will claim that giving in to medievalist fundamentalism and a misuse of State power by the self-proclaimed ‘Religious’ could be the last straw. Does keeping Shabbat or
outweigh a Gay Parade? Can an ingathering of exiles from persecution counterbalance an armed occupation of conquered territory? Where are the boundaries: the territorial boundaries of the land, and the moral, ethical and religious boundaries of the behavior required to keep the land?
Do the Palestinians deserve their land? Do we deserve ours? And how are we to balance out the claims? Where to draw the lines? Through or round Jerusalem?
Moses reminds the people in Chapter 10, that at Horeb, God gave them a second chance after the Golden Calf incident. True, he had to cut the stone tablets himself, and climb the mountain all over again, but at least the relationship was restored, at least God calmed down from the divine wrath.
Dare one rely on that every time?
Let us stay, for now, with the Question…