Discriminatory land policies that disadvantage the Bedouin run contrary to Jewish law and tradition. We are taught: “The rights of any other man to his property must be as important to you and as near to your heart as your own property rights.” (M. Avot 2:12)
From the commandments relating to the treatment of gerim, the strangers among us, we learn that “There will be one law for you and for the ger; it will be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the ger will be alike before God.” (Numbers 15:15)
In the description of the boundaries of the land of the tribes of Israel, the Book of Ezekiel says:
“This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the gerim who reside among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the ger an allotment within the tribe where he resides—declares Adonai God.” (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
A later prophet, the Prophet Zechariah, says that the words of God came unto him instructing him to “say to all the people of the land and to the priests:”
…Look, this is the message that God proclaimed through the earlier prophets, when Jerusalem and the towns about her were inhabited and tranquil, when the Negev and the Shephelah were inhabited.
And the word of God to Zechariah continued:
Thus said God, saying: Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another. Do not defraud the widow or the orphan, the ger or the poor. Do not devise evil against each other in your hearts.
But they refused to pay heed, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears, so that they might not hear. They hardened their hearts like an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the admonition that God had sent to them by the hand of the former prophets; therefore God issued a terrible wrath. (Zachariah 7:7-12)
The late Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn argued:
As we have gone through this bitter experience, this trauma of being “strangers” in a strange land, who were exploited terribly throughout, we were commanded in the Torah, not once but twenty-four times, to love the strangers living in our midst, not to exploit them and not to force them to engage in heavy manual labor, and to permit them to enjoy those benefits granted us…
And if at the time this referred primarily to the stranger who came from the outside, the stranger who found or who sought refuge among us from persecution, hunger, or any other type of distress, how much more must this be true with the people who were already living here when we came here.1
Respect for indigenous land rights can be derived from a teaching of the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) who wrote that whenever land is known to have belonged to a person, we presume that person is the owner even though the property is now in the possession of another person. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws Pertaining to Disputes between Plaintiffs and Defendants 11:1) Many Bedouin citizens of Israel have documents from the Ottoman Empire or other proof that their claim to land is long-standing and publicly known.
The Prophet Micah warned about abusing power to seize property and the impact it can have on a people: “And they covet fields, and seize them; and [they covet] houses, and take them away; thus they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.” As a nation of people that know all too well what it means to be an oppressed minority, Israel has a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable within its midst.
Jewish law goes to great lengths to protect the rights of property owners from theft, either by individuals or by the state. The Rambam classifies as theft a situation in which “a king seized a courtyard or a field from a resident of the land by way of violence,” and rules that the rightful owner can reclaim the stolen land from any subsequent purchasers. (Mishneh Torah 5:13) On this, the Maggid Mishnah (R. Vidal of Toulouse, ca 1300) comments “The Law of the Land is the law, but the theft of the Land (i.e. by the government) is not the law.”
The daughters of Zelophehad, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, mentioned in the Book of Numbers, provide us with role models who demonstrated the importance of protesting unjust policies, especially with regards to land ownership.
[Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah] stood before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against God, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
Moses brought their case before God. And God said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.’’” (Numbers 27:2-8)
This story teaches us the power we have to stand up to injustice and enact equitable policies toward those whose rights have been denied or ignored. We can draw inspiration from the daughters of Zelophehad as we advocate for the land rights of Bedouin citizens of Israel.