When a Leading ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Urged Begin to Trade Land for Peace

Ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni unveils letter penned by Rabbi Eliezer Schach in 1978, in which he supported territorial concessions

Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat at the start of the Camp David peace talks in 1978.
Moshe Milner / GPO

One of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the last half-century wrote a letter in 1978 declaring that there was no problem in giving up land for peace from the standpoint of religious law.

The letter, written by the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach and sent to then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was released on Tuesday by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism).

Schach spent decades as the unchallenged leader of Israel’s non-Hasidic Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, often known as the “Lithuanian” community. He also founded the Degel Hatorah party, one of the two parties that comprise the United Torah Judaism joint ticket.

The letter was sent to Begin in 1978 when he was negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt that involved territorial concessions. In it, Schach said that Jewish law didn’t prohibit trading parts of the biblical Land of Israel for peace and urged Begin not to listen to opponents of territorial concessions.

Schach based his support for territorial concessions in part on the fact that the Jewish sages of the Talmud “forbade us to rebel against the nations of the world and storm the wall, because they sought the welfare of our people. They, thanks to divine inspiration, knew that the nations’ hatred for the nation of Israel is an eternal, permanent hatred, so they shouldn’t be provoked even if justice is on our side, because this will pile hatred on top of hatred.”

In line with the standard ultra-Orthodox view that a Jewish state wasn’t supposed to be established until the Messiah comes, Schach also said the Holocaust didn’t happen “solely because we didn’t have a state ... The state is no guarantee of our existence.”

He then urged Begin “not to insist on the issue of the settlements” and stressed that “a concession made solely for the sake of peace isn’t a concession,” adding that when God so chooses, “everything will return to us.”

“And I don’t hesitate to say that according to Jewish law, there’s no barrier to conceding part of the Land of Israel for the sake of peace,” he continued. “Throughout history, we’ve suffered more from European countries than from Arab ones.”

Schach hinted that he wrote the letter in part to counter the influence of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, who was considered close to Begin and who held that giving up any part of the Land of Israel was forbidden under religious law.

“I get the impression that Your Honor is too impressed by the views of people who haven’t properly delved into this serious and responsible matter,” he wrote, urging Begin “not to be impressed on this issue by famous people whose world views don’t stem from eternal Jewish law and knowledge of the Torah.”

In conclusion, Schach acknowledged that “it’s hard to make concessions at odds with one’s emotions, especially when this emotion is ostensibly a religious emotion, but it’s incumbent upon a responsible person who’s deciding on an issue of life and death to rise above emotions and calculate his moves solely according to common sense, which is sense based on knowledge of the Torah.”

Gafni revealed the letter’s existence during a panel discussion at a camp organized by the Or Baruch yeshiva. Such camps are held every year during the yeshiva world’s thee-week summer vacation and frequently feature panel discussions on various religious topics.