Zionism and the Myth of Motherland

By Assaf Sagiv

In adopting a modernistic approach to the land of Israel, Zionism’s fathers passed up Judaism’s unique relationship to the land.

Is the land of Israel truly the motherland of the Jewish people? To those who take at face value the opening claim of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that “in the land of Israel the Jewish people was born,” the question may seem strange. That the land of Israel is the motherland of the Jews, where the nation was born and its spiritual and cultural identity forged, is an axiom of the Jewish national consciousness. Yet the Bible, our major source for ancient Jewish history, appears to refute the premise outright. The father of the Israelites, Abraham, was not born in Israel; the transformation of his descendants’ families into a nation took place during their sojourn in Egypt; and the Tora, which was to define the religious and moral character of the nation, was given to this people in Sinai, outside the bounds of the promised land.
“Motherland” is one of the most potent words there is, and the most important term in the lexicon of nationalism. Wherever patriotic feelings are found, this word (or its variants, “homeland” and “fatherland”) evokes both longing and commitment. Its emotional force draws upon primordial, mythic sources. In the broader cultural context, “motherland” signifies not only the place a person was born, but the birthplace of an entire nation. It implies an earthly rootedness, a commitment to the land, which itself is understood to be a living entity, nurturing and abundantly fruitful.
The myth of motherland resonated throughout the ancient world, but its best-known rendition is to be found in Greek culture. Citizens of Athens regarded themselves as the original occupants of their land, proudly calling themselves “autochthons,” after mythical creatures of the same name. Half-human, half-serpent, these creatures symbolized the Athenians’ connection to their earthly origins. According to Greek mythology, the first king of Athens, Cecrops, was such a one. And this conception was not exclusively Athenian: The nobility of Thebes, for instance, considered themselves descendants of the teeth of the dragon the mythological hero Cadmus had sown into the earth. Owing to the Greek usage, the term “autochthonous” came to describe the connection between a native people and the land from which it is believed to have been born.
Unlike the birth of the biblical Adam from the earth, which signifies a universal provenance for all humanity, the autochthonous myth represents a connection between a given people and a particular land. Hence the importance modern nationalisms give to this type of primeval relationship, as the basis for a kind of “organic” nationalism—one which is tied to the land and draws its strength from it. In other words, the autochthonous myth is a historical one, whose basic purpose is to establish a people’s historical legitimacy in its land.1 Forming a kind of collective memory, the autochthonous myth helps an ethnic group develop its identity, deepen solidarity among its members, and defend its territorial rights against competing claims. Today such beliefs still form a central argument in the territorial claims of various groups, in places such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Australia.
In the modern West, however, autochthony is not the only way a people can relate to its land. If autochthony represents a mythic approach to man’s relationship with nature, the opposite approach—the modern technological one—views the material world simply as a resource, devoid of any value other than its utility. In the West, this technological view of the world, anchored in rationalist thought, exists in relation and in opposition to the mythic view of the human experience. The outstanding study by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, presents the Enlightenment and rationalism as expressions of Western man’s rising up against the threat posed by the primeval forces of nature, as an attempt to develop tools that will enable him to control these forces and strip them of their mythological aura.2 The result is the glorification of science and technology as ends in themselves—and the justification of an instrumental, rapacious attitude towards nature.
“The West,” then, is to a large extent built upon two conflicting ideas: Technology and myth, the aspiration to dominate nature and the longing to unite with it. In essence, each of these contradictory impulses reflects a basic schism, an irreducible divide between man and the world. The formative experience of the mythical world, and subsequently of the modern industrialized world, is also its own fundamental, inescapable outcome: Man as the abused child of the earth, or as its pitiless master.
The cultural heritage of the West oscillates between these two poles, between what can be regarded as rationalist, technological “maturity,” indifferent and at times even hostile to nature, and autochthonous “infantilism,” romantic and anti-technological, which yearns to return to the original grace of natural pagan life. This oscillation affords no peace to Western thinkers pondering the relationship between man and the world, for calamity beckons from both extremes: At one end lies the systematic despoliation of the world, together with destruction of the human essence itself, by a ruthless industrial technology which becomes a value in its own right (as happened, for example, in the Soviet Union); at the other is the savagery of a society that has shed the veneer of cultural refinement and replaced it with a cult of nature and myth (as did Nazism). Thus it would be a mistake to reduce either autochthonous thought or its rationalist-technological opposite to the function of merely boosting national legitimacy. Instead, they should be understood in a broader sense, as reflecting the way a national culture envisions the place of man—and the nation to which he belongs—in his natural setting.
Contemporary Israel, in this sense, is a typical Western society with regard to its approach to its natural environment. Its leaders and representatives pride themselves on the success of Zionism in establishing a state which is at the forefront in science and technology. No doubt this technological advantage is of great importance; it often seems, however, that its instrumental character is overlooked. Technological progress is invariably depicted as the cure for all of society’s ills, but the price of its dominance is high: Relentless pollution and destruction of nature and, concomitantly, the alienation, apathy and detachment characteristic of modern society. Against these, one finds the awakening of the “green” groups, champions of the environment, that respond to exploitative-technological forces with their own romantic vision, which glorifies every field, spring and abandoned tract, calls for an end to construction and development, and aspires to a mystical union with nature.
Just how Jewish is the dominant technological impulse in Israel today? To what extent does the Israeli ethos reflect the Jewish path in history, which it claims to represent and continue? Does Jewish thought offer an alternative to the Western notion of man’s place upon the land?
The attempt to examine how Jewish thought in its incarnations understood the relation between man and nature is an ambitious undertaking. Nonetheless, a number of general features of the Jewish approach to the natural, earthly and worldly can be discerned by focusing upon one aspect of that approach: The Jewish view of the autochthonous myth, as an expression of primordial existence which determined the fate of Western consciousness, even as it attacked it. By analyzing the Jewish response to autochthony, we may identify Judaism’s own, unique understanding of man’s place in nature, and how this understanding finds expression—or fails to find expression—in the modern project of Zionism.
The natural starting point for an examination of Judaism’s view of autochthony is the Bible, which has shaped the Jewish consciousness throughout the generations. Not only is the Bible’s account of the relationship between the Israelites and the promised land not autochthonous, it consistently rejects such an outlook. Unlike other peoples of the ancient Middle East, who saw themselves as the original offspring of their land, or at least tried to blur the problematic nature of the issue, the people of Israel always maintained an awareness of the fact that they were not indigenous to the land they inhabited.3 This fact is stressed repeatedly in the Tora: The book of Genesis describes how the seventy original nations were dispersed “each with its language, according to their families and their peoples,” though the people of Israel was not yet among them.4 The birthplace of the Israelites’ founding father, Abraham, is explicitly stated to be Ur of the Chaldeans (in modern-day Iraq), which God commanded him to leave: “Go forth out of your land, out of your motherland, out of your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”5 At a time when the other nations were already dwelling in their lands, the Hebrews were landless, wanderers in foreign realms. Accordingly, in the Tora’s prescription for the ceremonial offering of the first fruits, the Jewish farmer, tiller of the soil, is obligated to mention that his father Abraham was a “wandering Aramean”—a nomad.6 

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