These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Land, Birthrights, and Ownership

Posted on October 21, 2010 by Barer

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In trying to figure out what I should write for my weekly New Voices post yesterday, it took me no more than five minutes to realize that a big part of my struggle with living in this country is best expressed (for me) in a series of interconnected questions about fundamental issues of humanity’s relationship to this planet and to each other. Hope it isn’t too philosophical…

My post-secondary education has consisted of a couple years of this and that, followed by two years of almost exclusive (Western analytic) philosophy. Just speaking for myself, I have learnt to ask pertinent questions, but articulating answers of a similar quality has not been part of my education. This is because philosophy teaches you how to argue and reason, but does not provide the extensive amount of life experience and education in many other fields that would be required to develop answers to the extremely ‘big-picture’ questions that philosophers are attracted to.

That is all my way of apologizing right from the start. I am going to lay out a series of related, meaningful, and terribly difficult-to-answer questions, with no real hope of providing even a framework in which to answer them – especially given the short nature of my posts here. So forgive me for raising more problems than I can resolve, but living in Israel has left me thinking about the issues of land as a commodity, the idea of a birthright, and whether one can meaningfully say that either can be owned.

I must say up front that there are many background assumptions operating behind all of these questions, but that is almost a necessary result of growing up embracing a certain set of values and priorities. So what follows is my way of trying to articulate these problems through a series of questions: Who owns land? Can one own land? What is a birthright? Do persons (defined in a morally significant way) have a birthright, and, if so, to what? Do Jews, or any predefined group of people, have a birthright? Do they deserve one?

I will now offer a few brief thoughts on these questions and in which direction I would point in order to answer them. First, I will say that by ‘person’ I mean to include a set of conscious beings that do not necessarily equal just those who are biologically human. This is most articulately explained in the writings of Peter Singer and for those who are interested, I refer you to his published works. Second, the idea of owning land in the 21st century can be meaningfully juxtaposed to previous times in the history of the world — examples important to me including the original Biblical division of the land of Israel and the theory of property rights expounded by John Locke — when it was perfectly feasible that each person, or nuclear family, could develop their own plot of land. Third, and particularly applying to the current State of Israel where, as I Jew, I can make aliyah more easily than someone who is not a Jew, is the idea of a birthright. I would like to argue — maybe overly idealistically — that all people are born with a birthright to a certain set of basic rights. The idea that a certain textual and cultural tradition would be an additional right bestowed to only a certain group of people is considerably more challenging. A defense of this very incomplete view would require a much fuller treatment of the issues, so I will leave this as an introduction to what I view as critical issues for Jews growing up in the 21st century.