May 23, 2024

Relocations: The problematic attempt to reconnect Jewish identity and the land

A map of the Holy Land.
February 24, 2023

Originally, their promised land belonged to their god just as Hebrews belonged to their god. Any attempt to separate that nexus of god, people and land would violate the founding covenant.

By Herbert Rothschild

The existence of people who identify ethnically as Jewish is an extraordinary historical phenomenon. Worldwide there are more than 15 million of us. Of those, somewhat fewer than half (6.9 million) live in Israel, which understands itself to be the Jewish homeland. The U.S. is a fairly close second. The rest are widely scattered.

Egyptians are still around, and they appeared in the historical record earlier than Hebrews, which is the name for “God’s chosen people,” until after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE, when Jews became the more common name. Persians and Greeks are still around, too.

All those other peoples, however, have lived continuously in a land. Ancient peoples who lost their land—such as the Canaanites, the Elamites, the Medes and the Parthians—no longer exist as distinct peoples. That same fate almost befell the Jews, but it didn’t. That’s what’s so extraordinary.

One way to read the Tanakh (aka the Old Testament) is that it records how Jews coped with vicissitudes over a period of some 1,000 years. As they did, their sense of themselves, their God, and the relationship between the two changed. This record can cast light on what is happening now in Israel.

The founding narrative of the Hebrews begins in one land and ends in another. “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come . . . but the land that you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains from heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:10-12).

The land belonged to their God just as Hebrews belonged to their God. Any attempt to separate that nexus of God, people and land, especially by engaging in the fertility rituals of other peoples already living there or by intermarrying with them, would violate the founding covenant.

The corollary of such understandings was that, by their very existence, other peoples posed a threat to Hebrew identity. To possess the land, the Hebrews had to dispossess those already living there. But it wasn’t enough just to make room for themselves. They had to make sure other peoples didn’t survive in place as a temptation to violate the covenant.

Thus, the Hebrews attributed to their God the commandment that they exterminate those peoples. Deuteronomy 20:16-18 is the most explicit statement: “However, of these peoples’ cities, which the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: The Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord, your God, has commanded you. So that they should not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods, whereby you would sin against the Lord, your God.”  

The Hebrews survived in their land, first as a tribal confederation, then as one state under Saul, David, and Solomon, then as two states (the Northern and Southern Kingdoms), for several centuries, because during that time there was a power vacuum in the Middle East. But when Assyria rose to dominance in Mesopotamia, later to be replaced by the neo-Babylonians, Hebrew existence was jeopardized. Assyria completed its destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 721 BCE and moved the population to other parts of its empire, where they “melted.” We call them the Ten Lost Tribes. The Assyrians failed to capture Jerusalem, capital of the Southern Kingdom, and probably settled for an annual tribute. In 586 BCE, however, the Southern Kingdom fell to the neo-Babylonians, who destroyed the temple and moved the nation’s leadership to Babylon.

But, astonishingly, those exiled Hebrews did not melt into the surrounding population. The composer of Psalm 137 asked, “How shall we sing a song of the Lord / on alien soil?” If they couldn’t sing, though, they could remember. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, / let my right hand wither; / let my tongue stick to my palate / if I cease to think of you.” And the way to remember is to keep the commandments, especially the Sabbath.

A radical re-understanding of the covenant had begun. It entailed a gradual loosening of the identity of the Hebrews and their God from the land. Ultimately it led to a belief that their God was the only God there is and is everywhere, and Jews can be Jews anywhere as long as they are faithful to the covenant. Intermarriage with gentiles still posed a threat to Jewish identity, but Jews could live among them and still be Jews if the gentiles would let them.

All too often they didn’t. Christians were the worst. Not so Muslims, and a tragic consequence of the founding of the modern state of Israel is the ruin of the relationship between Jews and Muslims. That isn’t the only tragic consequence.

Given the Russian pogroms in the late 19th century and the Nazi-led Holocaust in the 20th, it’s completely understandable that Jews wanted a homeland once again. It’s never easy to live at the sufferance of others, and at times it’s well-nigh impossible. People who live in security may fail to grasp what it must mean for those who have experienced such fear and grief to possess at last the power to secure themselves. But at what price?

The First Book of Samuel gives us an indication. It covers a period early in Hebrew history (11th c. BCE), during which the people reorganized themselves from a tribal confederacy into a kingship. Most Hebrews felt they had to. Their confederated forces were being bested by the Philistines, who lived on the coast. “There shall be a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us and go out before us, and fight our battles” (8:19-20). But that transition didn’t happen without resistance. One narrative strand of the several out of which 1 Samuel is woven is hostile to the centralized state. A grudging Samuel, the last head (“judge”) of the confederacy, supposedly is ordered by a grudging God to find the Hebrews a king: “Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them” (8:7).

For most of post-exilic history, “land” was the term omitted from the original Hebrew nexus of God-people-land, and God was God of all peoples. By re-introducing that term in the 20th century, did not Israel become “like all the nations,” a people in a land to be judged by international law?

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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