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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XIV—Jewish National Borders, Real and Imagined

For new readers: This series aims to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood. It deconstructs elements of Jewishness that people consider purely religious and finds in them national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc until its Western branch, and it alone, abandoned them. It brings lots of contemporary Jewish phenomena into new focus.

The Jewish Deep Nation project now puts the Hebrew language question aside. One reason for this is that, I hope, the previous submissions established adequately (for this platform, not for a scholarly publication ) that Hebrew burst into renewed life in the modern era because it had never died and had never lost its national quality in its speakers’ eyes.

Now I turn to two other fundaments of nationhood: territory and borders.

Territory is often considered a sine qua non for nationhood, meaning that a population that lacks territory lacks nationhood. Some scholars add the element of sovereignty: to be a nation, a population must have *sovereign* control of territory. I challenge this. First, I think it confuses “nation” for “state.” Americans do this constantly, speaking of various groups wishing to “become a nation” when the groups’ true aim is statehood. Second, it suggests that a population having lost its sovereignty has lost its nationhood. Tell that to the Poles (deprived of sovereignty from the late 18th century to World War I), the peoples of Central Asia (under the USSR), and the Tibetan exiles (today). Better yet, don’t. Loss of sovereignty seems to make those affected by it into tough guys.

Now to the case of the Jews. It’s argued commonly, almost axiomatically (= with no proof needed), that the Jews lost their territory, their sovereignty, and hence their nationhood 2000 years ago.

Well, Bill Clinton, trying to fend off scandal, once asserted that the charges against him depended on what “is” is. So, no scandal involved, I will argue similarly that the Jews have had national territory all along. It depends on what “have” is.

That will take some doing, so I’ll start with a simpler point: borders.

In his renowned “Imagined Communities” (p. 104), Benedict Anderson warns us against applying modern thinking to the concept of borders in antiquity:

“In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often not even contiguous, populations for long periods of time.”

Does Anderson’s description of national borders in antiquity hold true in the case of the Jews? Here is what Numbers 34:3–12 has to say about the Israelites’ borders:

“The Lord said to Moses, command the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance is to have these boundaries: Your southern side will include some of the Desert of Zin along the border of Edom. Your southern boundary will start in the east from the southern end of the Dead Sea, cross south of Scorpion Pass, continue on to Zin, and go south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it will go to Hazar Adar and over to ‘Atsmon, where it will turn, join the Wadi of Egypt and end at the Mediterranean Sea. Your western boundary will be the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This will be your boundary on the west. For your northern boundary, run a line from the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Hor and from Mount Hor to Levo Hamat. Then the boundary will go to Tsedad, continue to Tsifron, and end at Hatsar ‘Enan. This will be your boundary on the north. For your eastern boundary, run a line from Hazar Enan to Shefam. The boundary will go down from Shefam to Rivla on the east side of ‘Ain and continue along the slopes east of Lake Kinneret [the Sea of Galilee]. Then the boundary will go down along the Jordan and end at the Dead Sea. This will be your land, with its boundaries on every side’” (source of wording: I changed some place-name spellings to conform to today’s orthography and pronunciation).

The locations of some of these places -- Tsedad, Tsifron, Hatsar ‘Enan, Shefam, Rivla, ‘Ain…. --have vanished into the mist of history. There is no question, however, that the Bible wanted the Israelites to know exactly where their borders were. First, it mentions many other nations without describing their borders in such detail, or in detail at all. Second, it omits almost all description of the location of numerous places where important events occurred. Like Mt. Sinai, no less. To find his way to Mt. Sinai, the Prophet Elijah had to be the Prophet Elijah. And once Elijah got there, the Lord gave him instructions and sent him packing.

Once the Torah (the Jewish Written Law) drew the borders, the Oral Law elaborated on the Jews’ rights and obligations within them. It describes inheritance law, tax law, property law, philanthropy law, and much more, that apply solely to these confines. When it gets to Sabbatical (land-conservation and anti-poverty) law, its provisions are so demanding that some Jewish farmers apparently crossed into Syria to dodge them -- exactly as some businesspeople and homeowners move outside municipal limits today.

So was Anderson wrong in the case of the Jews and their borders? Maybe, because the Israelites-Judeans-Jews were inept at doing what Anderson says they should have done handily had their borders been as other nations’ borders were: “sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often not even contiguous, populations for long periods of time.”

So tentatively, I say Anderson was wrong. The Jews had borders in something like a modern sense of the term.

I conclude this submission with an important digression that’s cardinal to the project. It flows from my mention of the Oral Law. The term “Oral Law” denotes elaborations on the written Torah that were passed down by oral transmission until the early 3rd century CE, whereafter they were further elaborated in the two Talmuds and subsequent literature. It is not my project’s business to rule on the historicity of the divine origin that tradition attributes to the Oral Law. Even more important, it is beyond my ability to determine whether the rules of the Oral Law are descriptive (i.e., documenting historically factual practices) or prescriptive (saying what the Jews should do once reclaiming sovereignty within these borders). But once one speaks of a comprehensive system of civil and criminal law, one speaks of its owners not as a tribe, an ethnicity, or a religious group -- but as a nation, a deep nation.

Obviously, the topic of Jewish national civil and criminal law deserves, and will receive, a lengthy chapter much later in this project. What follows in the next submission or submissions, however, will revert to the question and answer(s) of Jewish national territory.

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