Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Q: How should we prepare now for the continued settlement of Judea and Samaria? Should we encourage the establishment of numerous outposts along the lines of ‘Choma ve’Migdal’ (‘Tower and Stockade’, a settlement method used by Zionist settlers in Mandatory Palestine, ed.), or invest in the planning and construction of cities and settlements?

The Mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz and its Status

A: We must start from the basics. The goal is to fulfill the great vision of the People of Israel – to inherit the Land, and establish in it a great nation that follows the ways of God, and is thereby able to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. As was said to our forefather Avraham (Genesis 12:1-3), to our forefather Yitzhak (ibid. 26:4), and to our forefather Yaacov (ibid. 28:14).

The mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz (settling the Land of Israel) is one of the main mitzvot on the way to the realization of this great vision, and that is why our Sages said: “Settling the Land of Israel is equivalent to all the mitzvot in the Torah” (Tosefta Avodah Zara 4:3; Sifri, Re’eh 53).

From a halakhic point of view as well, it possesses a special status, since it is the only mitzvah for which we are commanded to sacrifice our lives within the framework of service in the army (Minchat Chinuch 425; Mishpat Kohen 143). And its status is so great, to the point where when either a husband or wife wishes to immigrate to Israel, the other party must comply, and if he or she does not agree – immigrating to Israel justifies a divorce, and the party that refused to ascend to Israel has to bear all the costs of the dissolution of the marriage (SA, EH, 75:4).

Moreover, in order to buy even one small room in the Land of Israel, our Sages permitted a person to violate the prohibition of shvut on Shabbat, something they did not permit for all the other mitzvot (SA, OC, 306:11).

Definition of the Mitzvah of Yishuv Ha-Aretz

The mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz is a mitzvah imposed on Clal Yisrael (all of Israel) – namely, to conquer the Land, and settle it. As Ramban wrote (Supplement to Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Commandment #4): “We were commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaacov; and to not abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate.”

In other words, there are two sides to the mitzvah:

1) that the Land be under the sovereignty of Israel, and not under foreign rule, and

2) to settle the entire Land in practice, in such a way that it will not remain desolate, but will give its blessing in the most optimal way, in urban and rural settlement.

Participation of the Individual in the Mitzvah

From the general mitzvah, continues the mitzvah for each Jew to participate, according to his ability, in settling the land. As our Sages said (Ketubot 110b): “A person should always reside in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by gentiles, and he should not reside outside of Eretz Yisrael, even in a city that is mostly populated by Jews. The reason is that anyone who resides in Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who has a God, and anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisrael is considered as one who does not have a God,” and “is considered as though he is engaged in idol worship.”

Every Jew who lives in Israel is a participant in the mitzvah, for by means of his residing in Israel, the nation of Israel’s hold on their Land is strengthened. And those who live in relatively desolate places, such as the Golan and the Arava, have a greater share in the mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz, because through residing there, the Land is settled and is not left desolate. Likewise, those who settle in areas where there are residents who threaten Israeli sovereignty, such as in the Galilee and the Negev, have a greater share in the mitzvah.

And those who settle in East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria fulfill an even greater mitzvah, since the sovereignty in these areas requires even more strengthening, settling there bolsters Israel’s security, and on top of that, these are the more sacred areas.

There is another scale: the more a Jew helps the development of the State of Israel, the more he fulfills the mitzvah.

The State of Israel

The Ramban emphasized that the mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz applies to all times, i.e., that in all generations Israel is commanded to inherit the Land, and settle it (Supplement to Sefer Hamitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Commandment #4). In the last generations, God began to give rise to our redemption, and on the 5th of Iyar 1948, at the time of the proclamation of the State, the People of Israel, after two thousand years of exile, merited to return and fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz, since at the time of the proclamation of the State, Israeli sovereignty was applied to parts of the Land of Israel, and thus, as a nation, we returned once again to fulfill the mitzvah.

Even before the establishment of the State every Jew who lived in the Land fulfilled an individual mitzvah of living in the Land, thereby bringing closer the establishment of the State – nevertheless, the primary mitzvah had still not been fulfilled – that the Land be in the possession of the People of Israel, and not in the hands of another nation.

The Israel Defense Forces

The reason we could not fulfill the mitzvah before that, is that we were in a state of exile, physically and mentally, and we lacked an army and weapons that would allow us to conquer our Land, and maintain rule over it. Thus, the establishment of Israel’s military force before the establishment of the State, and its strengthening and formation in the establishment of the IDF, allow us to fulfill the mitzvah. Consequently, the IDF plays a crucial part of fulfilling the mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz, in addition to the mitzvah of saving Israel from its enemies.

From the Past, to the Present

When the country was ruled by a foreign rule, Turkish or British, we were forced to settle it under severe restrictions. We had to take advantage of every loophole in the law, and every oversight, to buy another house and live on it. Sometimes things were done by foreign citizens of powerful nations who had the right to buy land in the country, and sometimes in the dark of night within the framework of “Choma ve’Migdal.” The merit of all the pioneers who gave their lives for it was enormous. Thanks to them, the infrastructure for Yishuv ha-Aretz today, was founded.

After the establishment of the State, understandably, a policy of broad settlement, the absorption of mass immigration and the Judaization of the Negev and the Galilee by dispersing the Jewish population, was proclaimed.

Following the Six Day War and the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, a fierce debate began regarding the future of the sacred heartland of our country. As part of the public debate, communities were established in various places in order to encourage the public and the government to settle Judea and Samaria. The activists understood that as long as the communities were not recognized by the government, it was mainly a symbolic demonstration, intended to indicate the correct goal.

By the grace of God, the effort was successful. A growing public supported the establishment of the communities, and governments were elected to whom settlement of Judea and Samaria was an important part of national goals. This is how the settlement in Judea and Samaria was planned and established by the government, with all its ministries participating in the establishment of the communities, and the construction of electricity and water systems, educational systems, roads, and public transportation. And of course, the security system that works day and night, overtly and covertly, to provide security for their residents, who are the frontline of defense of the State of Israel.

Unfortunately, there were also governments that sought to withdraw and evacuate the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. In this framework, the towns and villages in Gush Katif and northern Samaria were destroyed, and construction and development in the others were frozen. At that time, we once again resorted to protest actions, which sometimes also included the establishment of outposts to seize territory, with the aim of arousing public consciousness, and putting pressure on the government to continue the settlement momentum.

The Current Government and State Settlement

Today, having merited the establishment of a government all of whose members declare they support the continuation of the settlement in Judea and Samaria, all such operations should be done exclusively within a State framework, with the goal being to integrate Judea and Samaria into the general development momentum of the State of Israel. This will also help to solve the housing crisis, and population density in urban Israel.

The regions of Judea and Samaria are the areas closest to the employment centers in the Coastal Plains. If we succeed in leading the construction of hundreds of thousands of apartments in Judea and Samaria in the coming years, we will merit settling the Land, and at the same time, release the pressure from the large cities in the Central region, and ease the economic burden on hundreds of thousands of families.

Therefore, all efforts must be invested in a large-scale national planning of settlement, along with all the infrastructures needed for it. To this end, all pioneering activity should be concentrated in action within the government ministries for the sake of settlement drive.

The Future of Judea and Samaria has not yet been Decided

To our great dismay, the future of Judea and Samaria has not yet been decided for the good. Large areas are controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the area under our control as well, has not yet been properly settled, and there are numerous accusations on Judea and Samaria, from Israel, and from abroad.

I greatly hope that we will not regret in the future that we engaged in “putting fires out” or establishing outposts, instead of significantly expanding the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria. We must learn a lesson from the past. If all the enormous resources invested in curbing the “disengagement” from Gush Katif, which included the sacrifice of tens of thousands of volunteer days and over 100 million shekels in advocacy campaigns, had been invested in the previous years in absorbing another 30,000 settlers to Gush Katif – chances are, the expulsion would not have happened. That is why time and resources must not be wasted; everything must be devoted to increasing the number of Jews in Judea and Samaria.

Sometimes it is More Convenient for the Government to Engage in “Putting out Fires”

It should be remembered that as a result of international pressure and the left-wing parties, sometimes it is more convenient for the government to engage in lengthy discussions about unregulated outposts, instead of engaging in large-scale construction in cities and towns, and adding tens of thousands of new families in Judea and Samaria. To this end, the public agenda is compelled to deal with the outposts and evacuations, and the question of their legality. After that, government ministers can claim that instead of dealing with the development of an entire area, they had to deal with solving the difficult problems of an unregulated outpost with five or six pioneering families, that was about to be evacuated.

This was the case in the past in right-wing governments. Numerous times, ministers and Knesset members were forced to devote their optimum time to “putting out fires” and postponing the demolition of unregulated outposts, instead of working for the construction of thousands of new homes.

The Mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz According to the Degree of Statehood

The more the establishment of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria takes place in a state-like manner, the more it will fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv ha-Aretz. This was also the opinion of Rabbi Haim Druckman ztz’l, who saw Jewish statehood as the foundation of the Redemption. Let’s hope that, with God’s help, as part of the State planning, a neighborhood will be established that will be named after him.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.