We recently received a letter containing the following question:
When I reflect on the extreme loyalty to the Land of Israel displayed by the religious-Zionist camp, I cannot help but ask myself, "What is its source?" Does it spring from a sense of religious obligation, or is it the fruit of nationalism, and hence no different than the nationalist drives exhibited by other nations for which religion serves as a mere decorative veil. I understand that the religious-Zionist community recently organized a public fast in reaction to the government's willingness to relinquish parts of Eretz Yisrael. If the reason for your taking up the cause of Zionism is that it constitutes a religious obligation, why did you not first organize a public fast in response to the severing of our nation's spiritual limbs, i.e., the great ongoing desecration of Torah commandments in Israel today, a number of which are, in the words of our Sages, "equivalent to the entire Torah"? Does, in your eyes, the entire Jewish religion boil down to the Mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel?
Were our government to pass a law which, Heaven forbid, called upon the Israeli public to violate a Torah commandment - say, the observance of Sabbath, the performance of "Brit Mila" (religious circumcision), or some other practice - clearly we would all be obligated to oppose such a decision and to fast and pray for its speedy repeal. This is exactly what is taking place today with regard to the Land of Israel. The government wishes to prohibit the Jewish people from fulfilling the Mitzvah to settle Israel in profoundly meaningful parts of the country. This represents a general nullification of a Mitzvah and dissolution of the land's sanctity. In this respect, the commandment to settle Eretz Yisrael is incomparable to any other aspect of the Torah. True, as you pointed out, not everybody in Israel is Torah-observant today, but our government does not force these people to transgress Mitzvoth. In the case of Eretz Yisrael, the government is authorizing the relinquishment of portions of the Land of Israel, and this amounts to a decree to violate the Torah. Forfeiting land also involves a serious threat to human life. In summary, the struggle for Eretz Yisrael is a religious one, and it is indeed bewildering that there are learned and observant Jews who refrain from taking part in it.
You claim that your loyalty to the Land of Israel stems from religion. How can you rely on the position of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) regarding the obligation to settle the land when, in fact, the Ramban never said anything about the existence of a state? According to this eminent Torah scholar, fulfilling the Mitzvah to settle the land of Israel does not depend on the establishment of a Jewish state at all. This commandment can be fulfilled even under Arab rule.
In order to understand the Ramban's position, we need only examine his words (in Ramban's glosses on Maimonides' Sefer HaMitzvoth, Positive Commandment 4): "We are commanded to inherit the land that the almighty God gave to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to leave it in the hands of other nations or in desolation, as it says, 'Inherit the land and live in it, since it is to you that I am giving the land to occupy. And settle the land…' " (Numbers 33:53).
The Ramban continues: "And this implies what the Sages refer to as an obligatory war." This means that there is a Mitzvah to conquer the land, and that the land be in our possession and not in the possession of some other nation. In the words of the Ramban, "We are not permitted to leave it in their hands..." - i.e., in the hands of the seven nations; "…and not in the hands of other nations in any generation." Clearly the Ramban is referring to national sovereignty. He even reiterates a number of times the fact that we are "not to leave it in the hands of other nations." In other words, the commandment is to conquer and rule over the land. And the Ramban adds, "The commandment which the Sages so highly acclaim (i.e., the settling of the land of Israel), to the point where they say: 'Anybody who leaves [the Land of Israel] to live outside of the land is to be considered like an idolater,' is a positive commandment: We have been commanded to inherit the land and live in it." The language of the Ramban makes it unmistakably clear that the Mitzvah is to conquer and settle the land; the commandment is to rule over the land, and not to allow others to rule therein. True, merely living in the land of Israel is also a Mitzvah, even if not under Jewish national sovereignty. Nevertheless, the essence of the Mitzvah is that there be full Jewish rule over the Land of Israel, and only in this manner is it completely fulfilled.