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Old Claims

by Rabbi Berel Wein

The recent publicity given to the intent of an Egyptian academic professor to file a lawsuit against the Jewish people and the State of Israel for the return of the gold, silver, precious items and clothing taken by the Israelites when they left Egyptian bondage over three millennia ago caused me to think how ancient scores and claims are never really settled, at least as far as those against the Jews are concerned. The learned academic who claims to be filing this class-action lawsuit is perhaps unaware that this tactic was attempted before in human history - in fact it was employed over twenty-three centuries ago during the reign of Alexander the Great over both Egypt and the Land of Israel.

The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin relates that representatives of the Egyptian nation appeared before Alexander and asked that he demand from the Jews the return of all of the Egyptian wealth taken by the Jews when they left Egypt and slavery a millennium earlier. Alexander sent a notice to Jewish elders in Jerusalem to send a representative to him in order to present the Jewish side of the dispute. Of course after a thousand years, one would have imagined that some sort of statute of limitations would have taken effect and made the trial irrelevant. However, when dealing with claims against Jews as stated earlier, history has shown us that these claims are never quite put to rest but continue to fester down through the ages. The rabbis sent as their representative a man by the name of Gavha who was small in stature, a hunchback, but very clever in mind. His defense was that if one were to start down the slippery road of adjudicating ancient claims, then the Egyptians still owed the Jews enormous amounts of money as payment for the centuries of slave labor that they extracted from their millions of Jewish slaves over many centuries. Alexander, no fool himself, realized the morass that he had placed himself in by originally accepting, decided to dismiss the matter and let the status quo remain. So here we are again twenty-three centuries later with the same fatuous claim being advanced once more. Oh, for the wisdom and strength of an Alexander in today's world of moral equivalency.

A perusal of Talmudic, Midrashic and rabbinic literature over the many millennia of Jewish existence reveals that there has always been one constant claim advanced against the Jewish people by its many enemies and that is; "You have no right to have a Jewish state in the Land of Israel!" The Philistines, themselves then only a group of relatively recent immigrants to the land destroyed the wells that Isaac had dug to benefit the entire population of the land. The claim of the Philistines was that the "water is ours." The first comment by Rashi in his magisterial interpretation of the Torah, when discussing the necessity for the Torah to tell us the story of creation altogether, stresses the fact that there will always be nations and people that say to the Jews: "You have stolen the Land of Israel - it does not belong to you." We are painfully aware how that old false claim tragically has found so much resonance in our current world. It is ironic that the Jewish "old claim" to the Land of Israel is ignored while much more recent "old claims" are justified. Old claims are manipulated and often are used to justify current injustice. For example, in Zimbabwe, white farmers who have owned land there for almost two centuries are being dispossessed because of the claim that they “stole” the land.

If the Jewish people were to advance old claims against its oppressors throughout time, even Israel would not have sufficient lawyers to pursue the matter. Judaism therefore recognizes a logical and necessary self-imposed statute of limitations on ancient claims. That was the answer given to Alexander by Gavha - "If you open the long-settled past you will have truly opened the ultimate Pandora's box."

This Jewish attitude towards old claims from past, that they be allowed to rest, is based upon the Jewish belief that the Lord is an exquisite accountant, so to speak, and that His books eventually balance perfectly- always. Human judgment is always fallible and its value systems are ever changing. Judging matters thirty-three centuries old by current standards of civilization and societal mores is futile and wrong. Only God can balance claims, judge conflicting rights and make certain that eventual justice and fairness is accomplished. Our claim to the Land of Israel is based on God's will and His revelation of that will to us through the Torah. Eventually, that is the only "old claim" that can stand the test of time and history.

Reprinted with permission from



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