The love affair with homeland is the central drama of the Tanakh. Pursuing it requires the blind devotion of Abraham, fulfilling it takes the turbo-virility of Joshua, and mourning it taxes the shrill voices of the prophets. Acquisition and loss of the land contribute to the people's collective neurosis. In the absence of its soil, covenant, temple, and redemption are impossible. Seemingly, there can be no people of Israel without the land of Israel, no Judeans without the place of Judah. Yet the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire does not undo Israel as a people; Babylonian exile prompts the collation of traditions as Scripture; and the Temple's final destruction by Rome transforms Judeans into wandering Jews. Most of Jewish culture—characterized in different ways by reflection on this history—transpires outside of a homeland. Land becomes image, reference, and memory, without need of coordinates.
Of all the changes introduced by early Zionism, the relationship to land was perhaps the most dramatic. Prominent Zionist thinkers recast the sacred place that oriented Jewish prayer as national territory and interpreted Tanakh as an authorizing charter. In the absence of a tradition of Jewish cartography, biblical itineraries were projected on the landscape until, in 1921, the British imperial map set the limits of the Jewish conception of the modern land of Israel. The map became fully realized as national ground and occupied territory in 1967.
American sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israeli settler land grabs, and Palestinian protest contribute to the renewed urgency surrounding the question of Jewish territoriality. Answering the question with depth requires a look back at classical Hebrew writings and Jewish homes in lands not construed as homeland, as well as a look forward to future solutions such as two states, one state, federation, or regionalism. In this day and age, most answers meet with immediate opposition in a polarized field of discourse. Although not as yet evident, Jewish culture with its fierce dialectical tradition should be particularly able to accommodate such charged discussions. In order to locate this discussion squarely in a Jewish context, this issue juxtaposes traditional texts and contemporary controversies.
Nationalist and religious commitments to land are further bound up with economic factors. For example, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have been encroaching upon and seizing water springs. These localized actions cohere with the broader state agenda of controlling the significant water resources of the Mountain Aquifer, which runs through the West Bank. Along with the redistribution of resources, the occupation and conflict have driven up real estate prices throughout the contested land. How land functions as commodity and real estate is never far from its symbolic valuation.
Often lost in the overlay of national, religious, and economic claims, territory is also earth, necessary to sustain human life. At current rates of exploitation, scientists wonder how much longer the land can support human health and sustenance. An apocalyptic rhetoric sometimes accompanies the call for change. Like the prophets before them, ecologists envision extinction and transformation happening at the same place. They stress the basic and most vital features of the land as a source of food and stability and suggest that this perspective can connect people across national, religious, and even real estate borders. If the residents of a region recognize themselves as exercising collective power, then they might be able to preserve local control of resources and halt rapid privatization or militarization of their land. Treating the land as material rather than symbolic may have the power to realign national borders and challenge the increasing multinational corporate possession of land.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois at Chicago