As the nations of the world gather for the Olympic Games, flags wave proudly in the wind, representing the more than 200 participating countries. Every flag represents a country marked by borders which determine the athletes’ nationality.
Borders create national identity, not only in sports but in everything cultural and political; and yet they are artificially – and often arbitrarily – drawn by human beings, dividing one territory from another, sometimes using natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges and often resulting from a quirk of fate.
South Africa is one example: its present borders date back to 1910. Prior to that European colonialists had dispossessed the indigenous African population and established the Cape Colony, Natal, and the early Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. After the Anglo–Boer War, these all became one country called South Africa. Its northern border is the Limpopo river. If you live on the southern bank of the river you are South African, and on the northern you are Zimbabwean. What does the “South African nation” mean? It’s the same in across the world. Someone who lives on one side of the Niagara Falls is American and on the other is Canadian. What makes these nations different? Who drew up these borders in the first place? They were drawn up arbitrarily by force of circumstances; is that enough to form nationhood?
Evidently, it is: so much hinges on a border, which is merely an imperfectly – and often capriciously – drawn line. Indeed the arbitrary nature of international borders has caused many world conflicts. Some of the worst bloodshed in recent history has resulted from these borders. Rwanda and Iraq are classic examples of how European colonial powers drew borders on a whim and thereby created new countries, bringing together people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities and forcing them into a unitary state, the consequences of which were disastrous.
Among the many national flags at the Olympic Games, there is one that represents the most ancient of the nations, the only one which exists with its original land, language, religion, and values as it had when it was born thousands of years ago: Israel. It is also the only country on earth whose original borders are not artificially nor arbitrarily created by human beings but delineated clearly in the Bible, a book which came into the world more than 3330 years ago, authored by G-d Himself. As the Torah states (Numbers 34: 1-12): “G-d spoke to Moshe saying … this is the land that shall fall to you as an inheritance … your southern border shall be from the edge of the Dead Sea to the east … The border shall go around from Atzmon to the stream of Egypt. The western border shall be for you the Mediterranean Sea … This shall be for you the northern border … the border shall descend and extend to the bank of the Kineret Sea to the east. The border shall descend to the Jordan [river], and its outskirts shall be the Dead Sea …”
In 1948 the United Nations allocated a much smaller portion within these borders as the area for the modern State of Israel. Since the Six-Day War many countries have declared Israel’s presence in the West Bank an “illegal occupation.” One can argue that to achieve peace and for other socio-political reasons a Palestinian State should be established; but to call Israel a “colonialist occupier” is absurd. How is it possible that the only nation in the world whose borders are not arbitrary, and who has an ancient unbroken connection to its land is accused of illegal occupation?
It is a particularly bitter irony when young nations of the world, barely a hundred years old themselves, accuse the oldest nation of all of colonialism, and deny its right to exist within its ancient borders. Modern-born countries, such as South Africa and others, arrogantly seek to label goods from the “occupied territories,” and yet they were not even a faint glimmer on the horizon of human history when there was already a Jewish State in the Land of Israel. Thousands of years before the United States, or Britain even existed, ancient Israel was a thriving Jewish country with great cities such as Jerusalem, Shiloh and Hebron and many others which the world today classifies as the “West Bank” but which the Hebrew Bible calls Judea and Samaria. Since Joshua conquered the land about 3300 years ago there have been three Jewish commonwealths and an unbroken Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
The audacity of especially those who contest Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is historically bizarre and unconscionable. 3000 years ago the great capitals of today did not even exist; there was no London, Paris, Washington or Moscow – but Jerusalem was a Jewish city, and it was the capital of the Jewish State. Since the Roman conquest of Israel about 2000 years ago, Jews mention the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at every wedding and funeral; we pray for their rebuilding in every prayer service and every time we say Grace after Meals. If Jerusalem is not the capital of the Jewish people and the Jewish State, then the very concept of a capital city has no meaning.
The Olympic Games officially open on the 27th of July. It is remarkable that on the Jewish calendar this date corresponds to Tisha b’Av – the very day which, more than any other, demonstrates the eternal Jewish connection to Jerusalem and Israel. It is the fast day on which we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple some 2500 years and then again, almost 2000 years ago. (This year, due to Shabbat, the fast is postponed to Saturday night and Sunday.) Generation after generation, every Tisha b’Av, Jews mourn these and other calamities of Jewish history. On this day, synagogues throughout the world will be shrouded in darkness as the ancient Book of Lamentations, authored by the prophet Jeremiah, is recited.
The Sages of the Talmud teach us that the pain and mourning of Tisha b’Av contain the seeds of future redemption. It is not only a day of sorrow, but also of repentance and reconnection with the Divine moral mission and destiny of the Jewish People. There is a well-known legend of Napoleon Bonaparte walking into a dimly lit synagogue on Tisha b’Av night. He asked why the congregants were sitting on the floor reciting mournful prayers, and was told they were mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and their Temple some 1800 years before. Reportedly, Napoleon then said that a nation which remembers and is connected to its historic mission and destiny in such a way will one day regain its land, Jerusalem and its Temple.
Perhaps this year the kings, presidents and world leaders gathered in London for the Olympic Games will follow in the footsteps of Napoleon and find a synagogue to enter on Tisha b’Av. Maybe then they will finally appreciate the eternal Jewish connection to Israel, Jerusalem and the values of the Torah. Maybe then they too will understand the Divine mission that has sustained the oldest, most resilient and ever vital nation on earth, which has seen so many others burst onto the stage of history only to disappear forever. Maybe then they too will glimpse the truth of the world’s eternal nation.