Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Does Gaza Belong to the Jews? (Judean Rose)

Disclaimer: the views expressed here are solely those of the author, weekly Judean Rose columnist Varda Meyers Epstein.

Israel left Gaza in 2005, and now Israel has returned. Not to grow peppers and tomatoes, but to obliterate monsters. Many want to know what will happen the day after, when the war is over.  Some hope and pray that Israel can once again make Gush Katif area bloom and grow, and that beautiful Jewish children can be born to live there in peace, without fear of sirens and explosions, or having their heads cut off. Is this a realistic scenario?

Probably not. Objectively speaking, it seems unlikely that the Israeli government will allow the Jews to return to Gaza. Also, the majority of Israelis may not be in favor of such a move, believing that there will be some sort of creative solution that will allow the Arab refugees to return home. Others even call into question whether the Jews have a right to this territory. Not because they want to give Gaza away to the Arabs, but because some question whether Gaza is really Jewish land: whether this territory was part of the original Land of Israel, as described in the bible.

In the months and days leading up to Disengagement, or as those of us on the right call it, “The Expulsion,” we needed a way to express our distress over this traumatic event. Orange was the color chosen to symbolize Gush Katif. You’d see orange ribbons tied to car antennae and side view mirrors, and people wearing orange t-shirts, wristbands, and other assorted orange apparel. In addition to the color orange, a slogan was adopted, “Lo nishkach, v’lo nislach.” We will not forget, and we will not forgive.

I recall a bar mitzvah I attended not long after the Expulsion. The celebrants were twins. Their mother had crocheted yarmulkes for them in Gush Katif orange, with the “we won’t forget or forgive” slogan winding its way around the border. I said something to the mother of the boys, along the lines of, “Ha ha ha. Even their ‘kippot’ are patriotic.”

The mother did not find this at all funny. She said, “Yes. We feel very strongly about this,” with a serious expression on her face.

I had made a faux pas. And I should have known better. My entire community, including me, felt very strongly about the Expulsion, and until today, pray and hope and dream to return. We don’t forget and don’t forgive. But what constitutes the Jewish right to inherit this particular territory, Gaza?

In the real estate world, it’s all about location, location, location. One could make the case that the same is true of Gaza. If it’s part of the biblical land of Israel, then it’s Jewish land, if not, not. Perhaps that why author Toby Klein Greenwald begins The Significance of Gaza in Jewish History, with an indisputable fact: “Gaza is located within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda,” or the land belonging to the tribe of Judah.

Then, and only then, does Klein Greenwald begin to detail for the reader the marvelous history and presence of the Jews in Gaza:

Avraham and Yitzchak lived in Gerar, located near Gaza. In the fourth century, Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Eretz Yisrael for international trade and commerce. Yonatan the Hasmonean (the brother of Yehuda HaMaccabi) conquered Gaza and settled there in 145 BCE. At various times throughout the centuries, Gaza was a center of Jewish learning (a yeshivah in Gaza is mentioned in the Talmud), life and commerce. King David is featured with his harp in an elaborate mosaic in an ancient synagogue in Gaza

Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of “Kah Ribon Olam,” served as Gaza’s chief rabbi in the middle of the seventeenth century. Rabbi Avraham Azoulay of Fez wrote his mystical work “Chesed l’Avraham” in Gaza. Other well-known scholars and mystics lived there in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Sadly, this glory period was not to last:

The Jewish presence in Gaza was cut short in 1929, when Jews were forced to leave the area due to Arab riots, after which the British prohibited them from living in Gaza. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, established the religious kibbutz Kfar Darom. A Jewish village by the same name existed there in the times of the Mishnah.

The Jewish Virtual Library entry on Gaza tells us that originally, Gaza belonged to the Philistines:

Gaza first appears in the Tanach as a Philistine city, the site of Samson's dramatic death. Jews finally conquered it in the Hasmonean era, and continued to live there. Notable residents include Dunash Ibn Labrat,* and Nathan of Gaza, advisor to false messiah Shabtai Zvi. Gaza is within the boundaries of Shevet Yehuda in Biblical Israel (see Genesis 15, Joshua 15:47, Kings 15:47 and Judges 1:18) and therefore some have argued that there is a Halachic requirement to live in this land. The earliest settlement of the area is by Avraham and Yitzhak, both of whom lived in the Gerar area of Gaza. In the fourth century Gaza was the primary Jewish port of Israel for international trade and commerce.

We also learn that even the “glory period” of the Jewish presence in Gaza, was not so glorious or uninterrupted as one might have hoped. Over the centuries, various occupying powers found they liked nothing better than to expel Jews—just as today’s Arab occupiers of Jewish land hope to push the Jews into the sea. But just as many Jews hope to return to Gaza after the war on Hamas is ended, so too, the Jews returned to Gaza, again and again:

The periodic removal of Jews from Gaza goes back at least to the Romans in 61 CE, followed much later by the Crusaders, Napoleon, the Ottoman Turks, the British and the contemporary Egyptians. However, Jews definitely lived in Gaza throughout the centuries, with a stronger presence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And now we learn the bitter history of what happened next:

Jews were present in Gaza until 1929, when they were forced to leave the area due to violent riots against them by the Arabs. Following these riots, and the death of nearly 135 Jews in all, the British prohibited Jews from living in Gaza to quell tension and appease the Arabs. Some Jews returned, however, and, in 1946, kibbutz Kfar Darom was established to prevent the British from separating the Negev from the Jewish state.

The United Nations 1947 partition plan allotted the coastal strip from Yavneh to [Rafah] on the Egyptian border to be an Arab state. In Israel's war for independence, most Arab inhabitants in this region fled or were expelled, settling around Gaza City. Israeli forces conquered Gaza, and proceeded south to El-Arish, but subsequently gave control of the area to Egypt in negotiations, keeping Ashdod and Ashkelon. In 1956, Israel went to war with Egypt, conquered Gaza again, only to return it again.

With the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli forces reentered Gaza and captured it. During the war, Israel had no idea what it would do with the territory. [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol called it “a bone stuck in our throats.”

There is a tendency to think of the Labor Party as the party of land giveaways, but in actuality, it was a Labor government that built the first of the Gush Katif settlements:

The initial settlements were established by the Labor government in the early 1970s. The first was Kfar Darom, which was originally established in 1946, and reformed in 1970. In 1981, as part of a peace treaty with Egypt, the last settlements of the Sinai were destroyed, and some Jews moved to the Gaza area . . .

 . . . There were twenty-one settlements in Gaza. The most populated Gush Katif area contained some thirty synagogues plus Yeshivat Torat Hachim with 200 students, the Hesder Yeshiva with 150 students, the Mechina in Atzmona with 200 students, Yeshivot in Netzarim and Kfar Darom, 6 Kollelim, a Medrasha for girls in Neve Dekalim and more. All of the settlements had their own schools, seminaries, stores, and doctors.

All of this was destroyed in 2005. The vibrant communities of Gush Katif are no more. We even dug up our dead—many of them Holocaust survivors—to move them out of Gaza.

From then until now with this war, the only Jews present in Gaza were captives, some of them alive, like Gilad Shalit, and some of them almost certainly dead, like Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

Will the Jews be allowed to reclaim and rebuild Gaza? Like so many Israelis, I wish it with all my heart, but have little faith that this will happen—even though it should. The centuries’ long Jewish presence and history in Gaza is indisputable, and certainly long predates that of the Arab latecomers.

Jews lived in Gaza long before the Arab people ever existed. In fact, the first reference to the Arabs as a distinct people comes only in 853 BCE, by the hand of an Assyrian scribe as he recorded the details of a battle. How fitting a beginning for a people who worship war and death.

Jews have more of a right to Gaza than any Arab ever did. And if return should prove impossible in the days following this wretched war, forced on us by cruel Arab two-legged beasts, I have faith that the return of the Jews to Gaza is inevitable, if at some unknown point in the future.  


*I see no evidence to support the idea that Dunash Ibn Labrat lived in Gaza. After looking at many sources, it seems clear he lived only in Spain and Morocco.

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