Land‐Centred Nationalism and the State: A Re‐Evaluation of Jewish National Revival

Eyal Chowers. Nations & Nationalism. Volume 24, Issue 4. October 2018.

This paper examines the concept of ‘land‐centred’ nationalism and suggests that it is important for distinguishing among different types of nationalism and for better understanding the role of land and place in this ideology. In order to demonstrate what land‐centred nationalism actually means, the article examines Zionism as a case study, arguing that some of the leading, early intellectual schools of this national movement (cultural, socialist, and religious Zionism) tended to underscore the role of the Land of Israel in collective identity rather than the role of the political community. Despite many differences in their general outlook, these schools all celebrated the land’s spiritual role while neglecting or even opposing the idea of a Jewish state. This devaluation of the bond among citizens in favour of the bond of a people with their ancient land contributed to Zionism’s contemporary difficulties and manifests the dangers of land‐centred nationalism more generally.

‘Life in a common territory,’ writes Hans Kohn, ‘subject to the same influences of nature… produces certain common attitudes and traits, often called national character’ (Kohn, 9). Ideologies of nationalism, inspired by visions such as Rousseau’s call for the return to Nature, typically suggest that a people’s identity is attached to the distinctiveness of the environment and topography: to the smells, sounds, colours, light, and weather—to a beauty that may even be invisible to foreigners; indeed, to be of a place, to belong authentically to it, means to be susceptible to its beauty. But the aesthetic encounter of a people with natural surroundings does not stand by itself. It forms a part of a broader human experience in which land is seen as composed of meaningful locations: in this valley, a crucial battle took place; in this house, the national poet was born; over there, in the bay, a leader gave an important speech after disembarking from a ship. Without the land and the locations that people mark upon it, a nation’s link to its past might be severed; its sense of community and shared memories might fall apart. Hence, according to many nationalists worldwide, their respective nation can live in harmony with its past and therefore have a vision of the future, can be one with the natural surroundings and have a wholesome collective experience, only on its historical land. The land is not merely a site of beauty, but also a site that ‘addresses’ a people. It not only offers a physical refuge a nation can call its own, but also provides the ground, so to speak, where the nation can both be reminded of itself and become itself.

Some national movements go a step farther, seeing the land as ‘sacred,’ charged with a special aura and energy, possessing unique metaphysical qualities. Examples include nationalist movements in Ireland, Switzerland, India, Germany, and the United States. It is not merely collective identity that is at stake in these cases, but the ability of a people to be inspired by the land and to live on a higher existential plane. ‘In Ireland,’ writes W. B. Yeats, ‘this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart… Indeed there are times when the worlds are so near together that it seems as if our earthly chattels were no more than shadows of the things beyond’ (Yeats, 100). These kinds of spiritual bonds with the land invigorate the people there: they induce a type of dialogical existence with the natural surroundings that not only ameliorates loneliness or separateness, but also fosters greater creativity and purpose. Moreover, when the land is conceived of as actually sanctified by God, the relation to it is seen as involving obligations that a people, as a collective, have toward the divine and toward destinies of collective redemption (as we shall see in the Zionist‐Jewish case discussed below).

To be sure, the definitions of who the members of the nation are and where the boundaries of its ‘homeland’ lie are neither self‐evident nor fixed. Our understanding of the past and our ongoing political turmoil result in ever‐changing definitions: ‘In 1800 Europe comprised some five hundred political units, varying hugely in size and viability; by 1900 there were only about twenty’ (Reynolds, 5; Leonhard, 231-254). Indeed, while history suggests that the contours of a nation’s membership and land are highly unpredictable and subject to change, this flexibility does not diminish the commitment that nationalists display toward their homelands—and neither does it diminish their willingness to die for the sake of preserving what they consider to be its integrity. Nationalism involves not only imagining a community, but also picturing a coherent piece of land, a unit unto itself. Members of the nation are attached to ‘their’ land not merely as particular individuals, families, residents of a village or a town; rather, they are parts of a community that collectively owns and belongs to a territory that is whole and cohesive. Because of this powerful, symbolic connection that can arise for some people, places they have never even visited can become more important for them than the spots where they were born.

Probably all nations (and ideologies of nationalism) accord their native land a role in shaping collective identity. Yet, they do so in very different ways and to varying degrees, and current classifications of nationalism in the scholarly literature (as civic, ethnic, cultural, statist, and more) are insufficiently illuminating in our quest to understand this aspect of nationalism. Particularly important for study is the phenomenon of what could be termed ‘land‐centred’ nationalism: a nationalism that recognizes the distinctiveness of the nation, praises this collectivity above all else, demands some sort of autonomy and recognition—and sees the attachment to the (home)land as the heart of the nation’s identity and destiny. In this work, I examine such case of ‘land‐centred’ nationalism: the Zionist movement (or, rather, some strands of it). Because space is limited, I am unable to develop here a theoretical discussion of land‐centred nationalism in depth, only to sketch its main characteristic and to manifest both the allure and weight of this kind of nationalism in the case of Zionism—as well as to show its possible detrimental ramifications in the political sphere.

Land‐Centred Nationalism

Prevalent theories of nationalism put forward a few models for distinguishing between collective and individual identities. Some of these models are worth outlining again, for the sake of clarity:

Civic nationalists celebrate the identity of the human being as a citizen: a person bearing rights and responsibilities who takes part in a voluntarily joined political community. The activation of free will, rational thinking, and deliberations with fellow‐members mark these citizens; they preserve a strong sense of individuality but choose to join others in creating a shared world of norms, ends, and narratives. Ethnic nationalists, in contrast, conceive of themselves as deeply embedded in a preexisting context and are inclined to embrace tradition and time‐tested customs and practices; in other words, they see social roles and commitments as emerging from a pre‐political mode of belonging. Emotional bonds are essential to human existence, and ethnic membership, for these nationalists, allows the expression of certain emotions on a large scale; creativity and imagination are to be celebrated, especially when they are anchored in a certain tradition and language. Statist nationalists, alongside civic nationalists, underscore the political aspect of nationalism, but they consider the gist of nationalism to be the identification with and support for a sovereign state that promotes shared ends. Cultural nationalists—who are akin to ethnic nationalists but who downplay shared descent and therefore let outsiders join the nation—emphasize the roles of language and the arts, of mores and conduct, and of a way of living and experiencing that forms identity. These and other ‘ideal types’ of nationalism enable us to establish lines of continuity and to position particular cases of national identities along these continuums: predetermined vs. voluntary, communal‐organic vs. political, rational and norm‐based vs. emotional and experience‐based, and so on. However, one significant continuum is missing in these discussions: between a national identity that is ‘land‐centred’ and (relatively) ‘land‐detached.’ Let me explain:

Scholars of nationalism have always recognized the importance of land. Anthony Smith, for example, is correct in suggesting that ‘nationalism is about ‘land,’ both in terms of possession and (literal) rebuilding, and of belonging where forefathers lived and where history demarcates a homeland’ (Smith, 70); diverse works in literature and art, such as Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes or the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, provide powerful expressions of this point. The origins of this understanding concerning the powerful role of soil, landscape, and environment in shaping identity are perhaps old as the Greeks’ and Romans’ climatological theories. Recent scholarly literature, in fact, has paid increasing attention to questions of collective, territorial rights and to the relevance of cultural, ethnic, civic and (especially) national identities in this context (Kolers; Meisels; Miller, Moore). However, despite this new, scholarly attention to land from different perspectives, Moore has rightly argued that ‘territory is… one of the most undertheorized elements in political theory’ (Moore, 3).

In particular, theories of nationalism do not typically stress the highly significant point that, while land is important to all national movements, not all nations accord land a similar weight or do so for the same reasons. For some nations, identity is formed chiefly through the relations among the nation’s members and what they create jointly throughout their history, in arenas that are relatively independent of the land (e.g. in a shared public sphere or in the cultural sphere). For other nations, the land (including its humanization through human action and artefacts) comprises the source, mediator, and even the end of the relations among its members. For these latter nations, national identity is land‐centred because the nation’s members view their origin, memories, character, commitments, and aspirations as strongly attached to a specific terrain. This terrain has distinct natural characteristics and encompasses places that harbour singular meaning. This terrain—rather than the polity, culture, or even tradition—is the principal home, promising its occupants both self‐recognition and certainty of purpose. For this type of nationalism, the land has its own intrinsic value, and attachment to it is an end in itself—regardless of the usefulness it may hold in terms of security, prestige, economic development, population dispersion, and other such tangible considerations.

Where do other sorts of nationalists stand in relation to land? Cultural nationalists might see their culture and tradition as relatively mobile (as in cases of nationalism in the Middle East that spring from nomadic tribes), but they might also be land‐centred and see the land as the cradle of their language, a connection that they seek constantly to reproduce. Civic nationalists, echoing Aristotle, might see the land principally as a setting where the noble theatre of their shared political life occurs, or they might see the desired independent citizen as formed primarily in relation to nature (as did the American transcendentalists). In fact, each type of nationalism discussed earlier can be placed along the line of continuum of land‐centred and land‐detached; I will argue below, moreover, that attitudes toward and meanings ascribed to a particular land could be constitutive of and critical to national identity—just as this identity can be shaped through meanings ascribed to ethnicity, culture, citizenship, and other dimensions of national life.

This study explores the case of the Jewish nation, perhaps the prime example of a modern nation whose identity, based in its ancient roots, is land‐centred. One of the founding thinkers of nationalism, J. G. Herder, in fact, acknowledged this facet of ancient (and modern) Jewish nation. As he observed, Jewish poetry ‘has indeed greatly extolled this little corner of the earth [Palestine] and almost every mountain, brook, and valley is celebrated…. The land is a holy land, marked by the footsteps of God and the fathers, and their pledge of being the chosen people.’ ‘Even now,’ continues Herder, ‘the great mass of this dispersed race delude themselves with hopes drawn from this source, because the traditions of the race, its laws, its poetry, everything has relations to the promised land’ (Herder; Elliott, 235-236). Herder suggests that the Jews already comprised a nation while they were still organized in tribes, before they had united politically, in part because they shared a vision of the land as holy and of themselves as its guardians; while observing insightfully the power of the land in Jewish ancient times, however, he failed to see that it is precisely this power that would help cement the Jewish nation (or at least part of it) once again.

In modern times, Jewish national revival depended on various factors, including growing anti‐Semitism in Europe and the failure of emancipation, as well as worsening economic conditions for Jews in Eastern Europe. These coexisting factors probably wouldn’t have led to a Jewish national revival and to the ingathering of Jews in one place, however, had it not been for the pre‐existing power that the land of Israel holds in Jews’ faith, history, and imagination. For nearly two millennia, Jews yearned (to varying degrees) to return to the Holy Land. This yearning is encapsulated in the well‐known phrase ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ which is written in the Passover Haggadah and thus is spoken around millions of seder tables worldwide each year. To be sure, in contrast to Zionists’ mythology, this wish to return was not necessarily intense for everyone. And it did not exclude deep bonds to other places. [Consider, for instance, the heart‐breaking longing of the great medieval Jewish poet Abraham Ibn‐Ezra for Andalucía (3)]. Neither did it lead to action on a large scale until modern times; Jews often thrived in the Diaspora—culturally, socially, economically—and had no pressing reason to think of leaving their countries or uniting with Jews from other places. There were many Rabbis, in fact, who denied that redemption is dependent on a return to the holy land. Nevertheless, the idea of going back to the land of origin had the potential to grip and inspire the collective imagination, even more than the idea of re‐establishing a Jewish kingdom did; after all, God, in the Jewish tradition, promised Abraham the holy land, not political sovereignty, and surely not a democratic government.

A land‐centred identity, central for Jews in Biblical time, was also evident in early Zionism. We can see this clearly in the views of three writers, each of whom was among the founders of a major school of this national movement: Ahad Ha’am (cultural Zionism), A. D. Gordon (labor Zionism), and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (religious Zionism). These thinkers do not necessarily ‘represent’ Zionism, which is a heterogeneous movement that includes many ideological strands; nevertheless, they are widely acknowledged as leading, and path‐breaking figures in Zionist thought. Despite profound disagreements among them about everything from the importance of physical labor to the value of tradition, Ha’am, Gordon, and Kook all celebrate the role of land and nature in shaping individual and collective identities, and all underscore the land’s spiritual dimension. While the value that each accords to the land of Israel is recognized in the scholarly literature on Zionism, this value has not been examined as a cross‐school characteristic of the movement, and the political implications of this land‐centred nationalism have not been properly understood.

Land and State in Zionism

Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, was aware of the importance of Eretz Israel and of its place in Jewish history and religion. He made considerable efforts to establish a Jewish settlement in Palestine. However, he was also willing to consider other locations for that settlement and for a future state, such as Argentina or Africa. His well‐known position on this issue attracted much criticism in Zionist circles (Heymann); it is in fact doubtful that Zionism could have become a mass movement in any location other than Eretz Israel/Palestine. Regardless, Herzl’s flexibility concerning the location of the Jewish state stems from his pragmatism and is consistent with his political vision. For him, the state—as a set of institutions and norms and a community characterized by citizenship—was more important than the territory in which it happened to be located. ‘A state,’ he wrote, ‘is formed, not by pieces of land, but rather by a number of men [sic] united under sovereign rule…[moreover] the people is the subjective [persönliche], land the objective [dingliche] foundation of a State, and the subjective basis is the more important of the two’ (Herzl).

While the primary leaders after Herzl—such as Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Berl Katznelson, and David Ben‐Gurion—were wholly committed to the land of Israel, they also cherished the idea of a Jewish state. They believed in the creation of a nation state (in Palestine), a political body that would allow Jews to be secure, no longer dependent upon the good will of others, and to exercise self‐rule. The philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz perhaps best captured this understanding of Zionism when he famously said: ‘I define Zionism like this: we are fed up with Gentile rule over the Jewish people’ (Leibowitz and Shashar, 28). Indeed, the most important political leader of labor Zionism, David Ben‐Gurion, is perhaps the person most associated with the founding of the Jewish state and with recognizing the value of this political institution (Keder; Hazony, IV). Following the Peel Commission of 1937, he was willing to accept a minuscule Jewish state and noted that he was an ‘enthusiastic proponent of the idea of a state’ (Ben‐Gurion, 211; Teveth). This enthusiasm stemmed partly from his attitude toward the state as a means to other ends (especially to the end of ensuring the free immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel as Europe became increasingly hazardous for them) and partly from the value he accorded to citizenship and to the ability of the nation to determine its own fate. In general, Ben Gurion’s party, Mapai, attempted to find the right balance between Zionists’ vital interest in establishing a Jewish democratic state and the nation’s claims on and need for the Land of Israel; its ideology recognized the imperative of dividing Palestine between Jews and Arabs (Shapira, 83-128; Galnoor). (Labor Zionism also included leaders, such as Yitzhak Tabenkin, who insisted on the wholeness of Palestine).

Yet other important strands in Zionist thought (including what is considered the Left) pay little if any attention to the idea of the state while underscoring the importance of the land of Israel to Jewish national revival. Ahad Ha’am, A. D. Gordon, and Rabbi Kook each present a vision that does not regard the land as only a refuge for the Jewish people, or even as a cherished historical‐symbolic foundation necessary for the formation of an independent political body. Rather, they all exult in the attachment of the people to the ancient land, bestowing more spiritual and existential significance on this attachment than on the creation of a nation state and the common world it establishes among citizens qua citizens. Their ideas advance a prepolitical or even an apolitical understanding of the land—a land they don’t think of as contained by artificial and arbitrary borders or as subject to the earthly interests and calculations characteristic of raison d’État, such as preserving the integrity and legitimacy of the state and its ability to govern consenting citizens. (It should be emphasized that this does not mean that they advanced an expansionist understanding of Zionism, and surely not a militaristic vision of the movement.) It could be suggested, of course, that the three thinkers wrote before the creation of a Jewish state was feasible, and therefore this political expression of nationalism did not preoccupy them much.

This is merely a partial explanation, however, because national movements in modernity typically thought in terms of nation states, and as their writings attest, these thinkers were part of the (Eastern and Middle) European intellectual milieu—not to mention that Herzl, in his Der Judenstaat, set the context for the debate about the key ends of Zionism. Finally, it should be noted that Ahad Ha’am, A. D. Gordon, and Rabbi Kook are major figures in early Zionism; yet one could argue that they presented the most philosophical writings of the movement and hence ones of particular lasting impact. They demand our attention not only because they help us understand the origins of Zionism, but because their ideas continue to vibrate in Israeli culture and public life.

Cultural Zionism: Land, Language, and Spirit

Cultural Zionism, on the face of it, cannot be considered to have a land‐centred political philosophy. This school believed that the main challenge of modernity for Jews was not the growing anti‐Semitism in Europe or the economic deprivation of masses of Jews in the Eastern parts of the continent, but the challenge of preserving and redefining Jewish identity in a secular age. The main figure in this school was Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzburg, 1856-1927), whom many consider the ‘sage of Zionism.’ He was the most profound Zionist‐activist writer of his generation and was highly esteemed in the movement. The absence of reflection on the meaning and foundations of political community in his writings is not accidental: Ahad Ha’am believed that the Zionist revolution should aim primarily to revive the ruach ha’am (the spirit of the nation, or volksgeist). This spirit was being threatened, he thought, by the disintegration of communal life in the shtetl (the small Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe) and by the hopes of Jews, especially those in Central and Western Europe, to be smoothly integrated into the general culture and social life in their native countries. He saw the increasing secularization of Jews not only as a breakdown of faith, but also as a sign that tradition was no longer seen as relevant, even culturally, in the life of the modern Jew.

As has been true in other instances of cultural‐nationalism in Europe, such as those in Ireland, Poland, and Finland, Ahad Ha’am’s exhortations began with a call for reviving the language—in his case, Hebrew (Ahad Ha’am, 113, 403). During the nineteenth century, the reform movement in Germany had been suggesting that Judaism as a religion did not depend on Hebrew and that prayers could be performed in the German language without detracting from their status and power (Elon). Ahad Ha’am took the opposite approach, arguing that religion is not essential to Judaism; he understood religion as being a part of a national culture that preceded and would supersede it. Instead, he held that the Hebrew language and the literary‐based culture in this language are essential for Jewish‐Zionist identity. For him, language is not a mere tool, a neutral medium used to convey pre‐existing emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and so on; rather, language encapsulates and expresses the way in which a certain nation experiences the world—and in return, this language (its vocabulary and idioms, even its grammar and morphology) shapes the nation.

The revival of the Hebrew language, Ahad Ha’am suggested, would help to highlight the main characteristic of Judaism: a predisposition for abstract and reflective thought on human affairs (Ahad Ha’am, 97). According to him, emotional‐poetic expressions are not typical of Hebrew and of the Jewish people; nor are literary explorations of the soul and of individuality, or writings on the secrets of the universe and on humans as natural beings. Rather, Ahad Ha’am averred, Jewish thought (as perfected by Jewish religious writings but enduring into the secular age (ibid. 161) is distinguished by an ongoing preoccupation with ethical questions and dilemmas of justice. Although all nations have moral traditions, he noted, these traditions are unavoidably compromised by their possessing a nation‐state and an earthly interest in augmenting power and prestige. To Ahad Ha’am, it is precisely the long absence of a political body of their own that allowed the Jews to develop a tradition that presents the most complex and rich body of thought in matters of justice—one demanding the highest, most objective, and most disinterested moral standards. ‘There should be,’ Ahad Ha’am said, ‘one nation whose national attributes will prepare it for moral development, more than any other nation’ (ibid. 156; Gottschalk, Ch. 7; Zipperstein, Ch. 3). Ahad Ha’am stressed in particular that the Jewish spirit—as expressed in and developed through language—resists the use of violence: ‘ever since the days of the prophets, our fathers learned to scorn in their hearts the power of the fist, and respect only spiritual power’ (Ahad Ha’am, 88, 156). Therefore, Ahad Ha’am viewed with deep suspicion the Zionist political goal of establishing an independent Jewish state.

Ahad Ha’am never thought all Jews would or should immigrate to Palestine; he advocated the formation of a ‘spiritual’ or ‘literary’ center there and did not rule out a Jewish state after the spirit had been cemented and invigorated and could dominate the political sphere (Ahad Ha’am). In this center, he envisioned, Jews would live productively, with artisans, builders, farmers, and other workers supplying needed items and promoting Jewish life. But creating cultural resources in the Hebrew language would be the primary goal. Teachers, writers, philosophers, and scholars were among the professions he valued highly for this community. In this way, the ancient language and the contents of Jewish identity would be revived, influencing the lives of Jews everywhere, instilling new meaning and direction. A return to the Land of Israel, Ha’am wrote, is crucial to this project:

The predicament of our nation propels us to recognize the need to return and join the coalesced elements that have been divorced, the two critical pillars of our national life, both of which are so close to us yet so remote: our country and our language. By establishing a true literary centre in Palestine, we would marry them into a national horn of plenty, one that would overflow into all the countries of our dispersion (Ahad Ha’am, 379; Chowers, Ch. 4; Divine Robinson, 32-41).

Like Herder, Ahad Ha’am suggests that language is inseparable from the place where it first burgeoned, that the clima—the geography, weather, flora, qualities of air and light, scents, sounds, and more—shapes its language in the most primary and irreplaceable ways. Thus, the Hebrew language could regain its strength only in Palestine. Ahad Ha’am does not understand the land as a territory needed for a certain population because of its fertile soil, natural resources, geopolitical location, or the chance for survival it offers; he does not even present the land as imbued with the ancient memories of Jewish political independence or make demands for such independence in the future. For Ahad Ha’am, settlement in Palestine should not challenge traditional Jewish standards of justice as expressed in the Hebrew language; rather, it should reinvigorate them. The settlements in Eretz Israel must thus ‘renew our national unity all over the world by renewing our national culture in its historical centre. This center will not be a ‘safe haven’ to our people even then, but will become a healing place for its spirit’ (Ahad Ha’am, 428). It should be noted that on this point (as in many others), Ahad Ha’am greatly influenced members of Brit Shalom (Covenant for Peace, who supported bi‐nationalism) and key figures considered among the fathers of the ‘Left’ in Zionism, such as Gershom Scholem, Ernst Simon, Leon Roth, Yehuda Magnes, Shemuel Hugo Bergman, and Martin Buber (Buber, 227, 229). While this point cannot be explored here, it should be noted that the land‐centred foundation of cultural nationalism in Zionism (coupled with its scepticism regarding the idea of a nation state) diminished the ability of the Left in Israel to submit—after 1948 and especially after 1967—a rich and compelling political thought that would underscore the value of a democratic state of the Jewish people, and counter the high value accorded to the ancient land by other schools of thought who celebrated it because of religious, historical, and security reasons.

Labor Zionism: The Creation of Place Through Physical Work

The dominant forces in the Zionist movement in Palestine were generally not intellectuals from Hebrew University and the followers of Ahad Ha’am, but individuals and organizations identified with labor Zionism. This school of thought, for the most part, underscored the importance of a establishing a Jewish state (see section I). Nevertheless, even for some intellectual founders of labor Zionism, influence in part by the general neglect of the state in Marxist and socialist political thought, the main challenges of the new Jew did not necessarily require the formation of a state. These challenges were overcoming homelessness and an alienation from Nature and fostering an ethos of productivity without dependency on non‐Jews. This view originated with several thinkers, including the pioneer and writer A. D. Gordon (1856-1922), an exemplary figure of the Second Aliyah (Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel).

Gordon had an immense ideological influence on early labor‐Zionist circles, especially on those springing from the party Hapoel Hatzair (which was established in 1905, and promoted physical work by Jews living in Palestine in fields such as agriculture and construction). He believed that the Marxist vision of society is ‘mechanistic’ and soulless, and he opposed the division of the community into classes; he was certainly against class war and was a fierce, albite anti‐militaristic, supporter of organic nationalism (Sternhell, Ch. 1). Gordon was not interested in political sovereignty, in part because it did not cohere with his Tolstoyian ideas of nonviolence. ‘A nation should not go to combat,’ stated Gordon, ‘in the same manner [as] an individual is not allowed to murder’ (Gordon, 206). Yet he followed Marx in suggesting that the highest and most fulfilling activity for human beings is labor (I am using ‘work’ and ‘labor’ interchangeably as translations of the Hebrew word avoda), which he understood mostly as something done with one’s own hands and through interaction with Nature. Gordon was also attracted to the idea of democratic self‐rule in small communities, and the kibbutz (or kevotza) was his preferred form of living in concert.

Gordon viewed the traditional Jewish way of life—which valued texts, study, and the life of the mind—as suffocating the Jews, distancing them from their bodies and from their natural surroundings. Moreover, he argued, Jews were ‘parasitic’ on the labor of others, because of the professions they chose or were forced to choose: in the East, they were mostly small‐scale traders and producers, peddlers and moneylenders, journeypersons and shopkeepers; in Central and Western Europe, many were lawyers, doctors, journalists, bankers, entrepreneurs, and other white‐collar professionals. In the Diaspora, the Jews’ dependency on others commenced with the production of food and ended with culture and language; Jewish existence was therefore rotten and broken, he wrote, without hope of redemption. Any attempt at continuity in Jewish thought or modes of living was destructive. Even Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism, in Gordon’s view, did not seek to shape a new Jew but to cleverly revive the old one; it dreaded existential and temporal revolutions and desperately aspired for continuity with the ‘Judaism contained in books’ (Gordon).

In contrast to Ahad Ha’am, then, Gordon demanded a total revolution in Jewish life. He advocated that Jews ‘begin everything from scratch.’ ‘I begin my life from the first letters,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t change, I don’t fix, but rather do everything from the foundation up. And the first thing that opens my heart to life… is work’ (Gordon). To live as truly human beings is to experience (lachavot) the world in the most physical way, without subject‐object distinctions; work is the only way to overcome our alienation and distance from the world. Productive work is not merely a means for survival. To Gordon, it is an internal good, sought for its own sake, regardless of external advantages: ‘however much I continue to work, to toil, and to suffer,’ he wrote, ‘there is not even one drop of my blood, no part of my strength and mind, which are wasted for nothing—since any drop of blood… is a spark of light igniting my soul, which comes back to life’ (ibid.). Agricultural work, in addition to providing this existential transformation, would give Jews basic economic security, both individually and collectively as a nation; and not less important, was the notion that the independence created by such work would enhance Jews’ dignity and self‐respect.

Gordon’s celebration of work is one part of a larger vista that anchors men and women in space, Nature, and place. If Jewish life in the Diaspora sought continuity in historical time through a tradition based on memorizing, studying and commenting on texts, for Gordon, Zionism means the prioritization of the spatial dimension of human existence. Gordon suggests that work allows the Zionist get back ‘to space, to the limitless’ (Gordon, 9). In embracing space, however, humans should also seek to become an integral part of Nature, not its masters or aloof observers who view it as scientists and exploiters (Schweid, 98-139; Shimoni 16-208); they are creatures whose spiritual and existential survival demands that they work the soil and cultivate it with care, as one organism among many (Gordon). Jews should re‐establish intimate, barrier‐free relations with the natural surroundings. Like H. D. Thoreau, Gordon wanted to live in an open shack, existing in communion with his habitat.

Gordon’s ideas about work and Nature were intended to apply to a specific land, the land of Israel. In contrast to Marx, Gordon did not understand Nature in an abstract and uniform way: for him, work acquires much of its value because it binds us to a particular spot where the tangible fruits of our work are evident (e.g. in the form of buildings or cultivated fields) and because it allows us to become a part of the infinite cosmos via that spot we call our own (Gordon). Work creates sites that reflect ‘us’ as individuals and as members of a nation; Gordon’s combination of Marxist ideas and nationalism could be seen as involving a literal, active process of ‘place making.’ In his view, each nation has its own land and can create such places and a sense of home only there: this is due partly to historical fate and partly to an organic connection of living beings to their natural habitat. With respect to Eretz Israel, Gordon wrote that ‘we are renewing the earth and the earth renews our spirit’ (Gordon, 108), adding elsewhere that ‘the new spirit that we need in order to revive ourselves must be born here, in the Land of Israel, and be nourished from our lives here’ (Gordon, 141).

Gordon, moreover, marries his philosophy of work and place with a desire to restore and correct the past. He submits a redemptive vision—not in the Benjaminian sense of recovering the narratives of the oppressed (Benjamin, 64-253), but rather in actually changing the phenomenal world: The land of the nation had been destroyed, the Jewish people dispersed, and just as work revives the individual, it also revives the nation from its ancient ruins and heals collective traumas through re‐building (Gordon). (In this view, oddly and unfortunately, the villages of the Arabs in Palestine were not considered relevant.) For Gordon and many other pioneers of his time, then, Zionism is not primarily a political project aimed at restoring an independent Jewish political body and active citizenship, but rather an existential transformation involving resettling and fostering intimacy with Nature, constructing and making places, living fully in the present while healing the past. It should be noted that this vision of Zionism as primarily a revolution in respect to space and place had immense influence over many strands of the movement, including the settlers’ movement in the West Bank after the 1967 war (Harel); indeed leaders of labor Zionism (such as Shimon Peres), supported the construction of settlements, especially in the first decades after the war.

Religious Zionism: Land and Redemption

The centrality of the land in the two secular understandings of Zionism reviewed thus far is complemented by its role in religious Zionism. This school of thought sprang from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), who was among the first influential rabbis to relinquish the Jewish‐Orthodox attitude toward national revival, which forbids believers to ‘push the end,’ or to advance redemption by human efforts alone (rather than by messianic ones). Kook was deeply involved in the life of the yishuv (the pre‐state Jewish community in Palestine) after emigrating in 1904, first as chief rabbi of Jaffa and later as chief rabbi of Jerusalem and the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, among other positions. As a young man, Kook was a harsh critic of Herzl’s secular Zionism and of the minor role, both operative and symbolic, allocated to rabbinical Judaism in the movement; later, however, he changed his view. Rather than seeing the secular attitudes of the pioneers as threatening and viewing their emerging social and political institutions as an illegitimate heir to the authority of religious institutions, he sought to develop a philosophy that would embrace the pioneers and the world they were creating, integrating them within a larger theological vision of redemption that welcomes diverse views and paths (Kook, 15-17).

Kook sees human anthropology as the fruition of an historical dialectic between the ‘Idea of the Elohut [Divine],’ which demands moral, spiritual, and religious perfection, and the ‘Idea of Leumiyut [Nationalism],’ which involves earthly, social, and material aspects of human existence (Kook, Ch. 1, 6). Zionism, for him, is the beginning of a messianic, long‐awaited unity of these two Ideas. ‘The human spirit circles around,’ Kook wrote, ‘seeking its path through conflicting visions until the Idea of the Divine becomes alive in a national form of the proper height—in Israel’ (ibid., 104). Space does not allow me to elaborate here on Kook’s dialectics, but I will note its implications in respect to the land: while, in the Diaspora, the Idea the Divine and the dispersed people who embody and develop it are alienated from the physical‐material world, Zionism involves the return of the chosen people to Eretz Israel, which contains ‘holiness in Nature’ (Kook, 24). Thus the holiness of the people and the holiness of the land reinforce one another, establishing a harmony between the Ideas of Elohut and Leumiyut.

In this view, then, the cultivation of the land and the re‐building by individual pioneers (such as Gordon) did not simply set the stage for the messiah: these actions were a part of the messianic process and thus acquired sublime theological meaning (ibid., 34). Living in Eretz Israel and cultivating its land boosts the ethical and spiritual standing of each Jew, because the land ‘adjusts itself to… the life of every individual and individual from Israel—according to his worth, magnitude, and the essence of his being (ibid., 2).’ Yet the true meaning of the pioneers’ work is collective redemption, not individual redemption. Kook acknowledged that perhaps only lawless individuals (in his view, those who don’t follow the halacha, the Jewish religious law)—single‐minded nationalists totally immersed in the world of matter and in political struggles—could break the moulds of Jewish existence in the Diaspora and bring about the desired redemption. More specifically, the energetic deeds of the pioneers in Eretz Israel were setting the stage for a chazara (return) of the Jewish people in three senses: (1) a return to the holy land and its cultivation; (2) a return to the Hebrew language and its usage in the public sphere and in daily interactions; and ultimately (3), a full and all‐encompassing return to the Jewish religious faith and to a recognition of the Divine Idea at its highest, most purified level.

Among his Orthodox peers, Kook stands out in positioning the land as the foundation of a genuine and accomplished Jewish faith. His Kabbalistic worldview, which encompassed metaphysical and mystic elements, propelled him to depict the land in similar terms. For example, in a modern age characterized by the creative imaginations of individuals and nations, Kook suggested that a ‘genuine creation by Israel, in thought as well as in actual life, cannot be achieved save in the Land in Israel’ (Kook, 10). These words could be interpreted instrumentally, that is, as saying that the nation needs a piece of land to come together on, and that this ingathering, coupled with the historical‐cultural meaning of the soil, would generate a national outpouring of creative energies. But Kook became a harsh critic of this instrumental understanding of the Holy Land and of the attempt to downplay the religious meaning of settling in it (an attempt exemplified by the Zionist‐religious movement HaMizrachi). He believed instead that the human mind, and certainly the Jewish mind, becomes clearer and higher by living in Eretz Israel, that here the soul becomes more energetic and productive by virtue of the inherent qualities of the place (Kook, 134). Settling on the land is a prerequisite for the Jew’s perfection -creatively, morally, socially, politically, and religiously.

For Kook, in fact, the land is holy regardless of whether the people of Israel live on it. It is an entity with spiritual‐mystical characteristics of its own that no other place has, qualities that do not diminish with time, though their manifestations may alter (Davies, 18-20; Grosby, 52-91; Shilhav, 1-25). These qualities may be hard to discern, and they require a receptive subjectivity; in fact, Kook holds that Jews themselves embraced a superficial view of place, which was one factor that allowed the Diaspora to last so long. In the unfolding messianic age, however, clarity of mind and sight commence, and the land can entice the Jewish people to return. With Zionism, indeed, these people, as holy people, bear witness to the sublime and metaphysical qualities of the land, and express these qualities through their deeds and creations.

The full promise of the land and of the people, holds Kook, will become manifest with their destined reunion. ‘The Land of Israel has intrinsic meaning,’ Kook claims. ‘It is connected to the Jewish people with the knot of life. Its very being is suffused with extraordinary qualities… The singular qualities of the Land of Israel and the extraordinary qualities of the Jewish people are two halves of a whole’ (Kook, 1; Schwartz, Ch.4; Sharlo). Kook suggests, then, that Eretz Israel has the miraculous capacity to bring things into unity: matter and spirit, potentiality and actuality, imagination and mind, individuality and community, and so forth. (Kook’s son and pupil, and the spiritual leader of the settler’s movement—Rabbi Yehuda Hacohen Kook—is famous for taking the centrality of the land a step further: he underscored that settlement is the first stage of redemption, instead of the people’s complete adherence to the Torah and the religious law.) (Kook; Ohana, 101-130; Inbari, 15-36).

Kook did not ignore the idea of and necessity for a Jewish state. He suggests, for example, that ‘our state, the State of Israel, [is] the pedestal of God’s throne in the world’ (Ravitzky, 16). (This was written before the state was established.) Kook granted the state theological meaning, demanding that it conduct itself in light of the Torah and promote national and universal ends; without the independent political life it offers, he claimed, redemption cannot be completed. However, while Kook merely mentions the idea of a state in a few paragraphs (and surely does not comment on the need for democratic institutions and principles), he devotes volumes to the many faces and qualities of the land. In the theological vista he pioneered, the land is not considered within a general framework of a state’s utility and interests and the need to negotiate with the demands of reality—but instead is seen through the prism of metaphysical and messianic significance, about which, ultimately, one cannot compromise (Pedahzur).


The aim of this paper has been twofold. First, to demonstrate the land‐centred thought of major schools and thinkers in Jewish nationalism vis‐à‐vis the marginal role of the political sphere and the state in the work of these writers. Second, through Zionism, to suggest a reflection on nationalism and land more broadly, and to sketch different models through which nations became attached to their land, including processes of culture, physical labor and the transformation of space, and religious faith and visions of redemption. A few concluding remarks on each of these points are called for.

Nations that anchor their identity principally on their relation to a specific land, provide themselves with a solid foundation, so to speak: land is always there, surely more durable than fragile political institutions or shifting cultural norms. Land, in its silence, is also receptive: it allows for different and even conflicting ideological meanings to be allotted to it, thus establishing a ‘common ground’ between otherwise rival groups and parties within the nation. Moreover, land‐centred nationalism grants unique importance to certain locations and places—both natural and human‐made (such as specific buildings, squares, and monuments); places then become highly significant in shaping collective identity, because they concretely demonstrate the nation’s continuity in historical time and invite participation in it. Meaningful sites allow members to be ‘one’ with their material surroundings or at least to feel echoed in the world around them. Perhaps particularly in cases of diasporic nationalism (Gal, Leoussi, and Smith)—when independent political institutions do not exist yet or the current regime is perceived by those in the diaspora as hostile—the homeland could become a powerful pillar of national identity and hope, simply because its existence is tangible and reassuring, and because it is valued by all members of the internally‐conflicted nation.

The appeal of land‐centred nationalism, I have argued above, is exemplified by Zionism. This Jewish revival movement contains at least two revolutions: a political revolution that seeks to transform the Jew into a political being and a citizen in a sovereign Jewish state, and a revolution that seeks to ‘ground’ Jews in their (ancient) land, and render their identity place‐bound. These two revolutions point in diverging directions. Now, while it is being often suggested that the political revolution was the prime goal of Zionism, as we have seen some major writers and schools of Zionism in its early decades emphasized the critical role of the land for spiritual, existential, productive, religious, historical, and other reasons. It is the attachment to the landnot the idea of the statethat seems to bind the very diverse schools of Zionism together, because this attachment was able to incorporate even schools that were lukewarm about the idea of the state in the first place (or had very different ideas about the nature of this state).

To be sure, there is no direct link between the origins of Zionist thought examined above and the policies of the State of Israel toward the territories it captured in the 1967 war west of the Jordan River. Many Israelis resist relinquishing these territories because of security considerations, economic interests, and religious faith (as exemplified by Rabbi Kook). Nevertheless, the consensus among diverse currents of early Zionist thought regarding the essential role of the land in Jewish nationhood is highly relevant here. This consensus left even ideological schools opposed to the annexation and\or to the occupation of these territories vulnerable to arguments—based on their own intellectual traditions—which celebrated the importance of the land to collective identity. To date, no alternative, intellectual foundation for national identity has been proven powerful enough to challenge the predominance of the soil.