By Gerald Steinberg
No. 439 3 Tishrei 5761 / 2 October 2000
INTERPRETATIONS OF JEWISH TRADITION ON DEMOCRACY, LAND, AND PEACE
From the beginning of the Oslo process, some prominent rabbis and religious leaders ruled that, although settling the Land of Israel is an important commandment, negotiating peace is of even greater importance, citing the importance placed in the Torah on pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life. “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
This approach was articulated by the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, who lived in the U.S. and was regarded by many modern Orthodox Jews, including Israelis, as the leading authority of his generation. Opposing the rabbinical rulings that gave exclusive emphasis to sovereignty in the Land of Israel, and noting the centrality of pikuach nefesh, his view was that policy decisions on these issues are best left to the professional military and political authorities.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and founder of the Shas political party, adopted a similar position. (Poll data suggests that Shas supporters tend to be more hawkish than the party’s leadership, but in most cases the voters are willing to accept the religious and political authority of the rabbinical leadership. Shas was a member of the Netanyahu government coalition, but often attempted to exert a moderating influence on policies related to the peace process.)
In a series of scholarly articles and public declarations, Rabbi Yosef stated that the positive commandment to settle the land is overridden by the commandment to avoid unnecessary loss of life. Thus, he declared that “If the heads of the army with the members of the government declare that lives will be endangered unless territories in the Land of Israel are relinquished, and there is the danger of an immediate declaration of war by the neighboring Arab [states],…and if territories are relinquished the danger of war will be removed, and that there are realistic chances of lasting peace, then it appears, according to all the opinions, that it is permissible to relinquish territories of the Land of Israel…[according to the principle of] pikuach nefesh. (In the same article, however, Rabbi Yosef also notes that military officers, government officials, and security experts are divided, and some have concluded that withdrawal from territories could increase the dangers, and that these views should also be considered.)
Rabbi Yosef has also been active in meeting with Arab leaders. In July 1989, Rabbi Yosef met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in May 1997 a Palestinian official said Yassir Arafat would welcome Rabbi Yosef’s help in renewing the then-stalled peace talks.
The members of the Meimad religious group, founded by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, also share this position. The Meimad movement began in protest to the 1982 Lebanon war and its aftermath, and some of its members were associated with Netivot Shalom, a small religious group parallel to the secular Peace Now movement, that provided an alternative to organizations such as Gush Emunim and the NRP. Meimad became a political party in 1988, but after a poor showing in the elections it was transformed into an ideological movement in 1992, and reconstituted as a party in 1999. Its founders included rabbis, observant academics, and other professionals who were disaffected with the religious establishment. For this group, policy decisions on issues of war and peace made by a democratic government take precedence over edicts of the religious leadership.
For Meimad, religious law does not require opposition to the “land for peace” formula. In contrast to the messianic interpretation, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder of the Meimad movement, declared that the “miracle of the  Six-Day War” was not primarily the conquest of the biblical Land of Israel. “People at the time were concerned about another holocaust, they were receiving letters pleading with them to send their children abroad. So when we won the war, it was a feeling of great relief, a feeling that God saved us from destruction. That was the miracle. It had nothing to do with Judea and Samaria.”
Based on this perspective, in 1993-94, Meimad supported the Oslo accords, and in the 1996 elections its leaders endorsed the Labor party and Shimon Peres. Similarly, in 1999, the leadership endorsed Ehud Barak for prime minister and entered the Labor party’s “One Israel” list. As a result, Meimad placed one member in the Knesset, joined the governing coalition, and Rabbi Michael Melchoir became a government minister responsible for Israel-diaspora relations. This process reflected the gradual increase in the relative strength of the approach that places the principle of pikuach nefesh above that of sovereign control over the Land of Israel.