When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.

—Psalm 126

Though it is commonly said that those delegates from around the world who gathered in Basel for the First Zionist Congress in 1897 were the people who created the Zionist movement, that is not entirely true. The participants in the First Zionist Congress launched Zionism as a politicalmovement. But the dream at the core of their movement, the yearning to return to their ancestral home in the Land of Israel, had originated much earlier. It was a dream as old as the Jewish people itself.

The Jews were not the only ones who understood that on one’s ancestral land, one could flourish in ways that were possible in no other place. More than twenty years before the First Zionist Congress, George Eliot (the pen name for Mary Ann Evans), wrote—without even mentioning the Jews—about the power of the love a people can feel for a land.

A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection.1

To understand today’s Israel—its dreams, its successes and disappointments, and the ways its citizens respond to the challenges it faces—one needs to understand the ancient story that the Jews have long told about themselves, and the centrality of the Land of Israel in that story.

For Jews, memories of Zion were “inwrought with affection” because of the Bible, the book they had seen as a kind of “national diary.” To be sure, for religious Jews, the Bible was God’s revealed word, filled with commandments about how they were to live their lives. For secular Jews, the Bible was one of the greatest works of literature of all time. For all, though, the Bible was the book that told the story of their people: what they had loved, where they had lived, how they had succeeded, and when they had failed. It was the story of their family. And central to the story of that family was the Land of Israel, the land to which Theodor Herzl was now urging them to return. There could be no Jewish nation, and no Jewish family, their “diary” intimated, without their land at the center of the story.

THE LAND OF ISRAEL is part of the Jewish people’s story from its very first moments. When the Bible describes the moment at which the Jewish people was born, it states: “The Lord said to Abram,* ‘Go forth from your native land . . . to the place that I will show you.’”2 Abram obeys, and shortly later, God says to him, “I will assign this land to your offspring.”3 The notion of the “Promised Land” emerges precisely at the moment that the Jews’ story begins.

That land will remain central to the people’s story, throughout. Abraham makes Canaan (as it was then known) his home, but occasionally (especially during famines), he and his offspring have to travel to neighboring lands to ensure their survival. The book of Genesis (the first of the five Books of Moses, collectively called the Torah) is, in many ways, about the land. It is about building cities and digging wells, purchasing burial caves and dividing the land among the family. It is about leaving the land and returning to it. Genesis is fundamentally the story of Abraham’s complex family, but central to that story is the land on which they have been told to live.

When the Book of Genesis has concluded and the curtain rises on the Book of Exodus, Abraham’s descendants are no longer merely a family—they are now a people. Now called the Israelites, they are trapped in Egypt, slaves to Pharaoh. Pharaoh intuits, though, that keeping the Israelites as slaves is going to be impossible, for at their first opportunity, they will seek to return to their land. Pharaoh says to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us, and they will go up from the land.”4 At their first opportunity, Pharaoh understands, the Israelites will rebel not so that they can take his throne, but so that they can go home. There is, Pharaoh senses, a magnetic attraction between a people and its land. And peoples will always struggle to return to their ancient homelands.

That is precisely what happens. A new leader arises, determined to end their enslavement. Moses frees the people from bondage and leads them out of Egypt. The rest of the Torah unfolds as the Israelites make their long trek to the Promised Land. It was, as the Bible tells the story, a forty-year journey through the desert, punctuated by thirst and battles, doubt and rebellion. Thousands of years later, the Zionists understood what the Torah was saying—the road to true freedom would be long and difficult. In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites finally reach the land to which Abraham himself had journeyed, but the essential point—that getting home would never be easy—had been made eminently clear.

The biblical narrative had another point to make about establishing a national home: even after the Israelites arrived, remaining in their homeland would be no simple task. According to the biblical account, the land was occupied by seven different nations, and others menaced from the outside.5Wars were frequent, and several models of Israelite political leadership failed. Eventually, weary from the never-ending struggle to stay secure in the land, the Israelites—composed of twelve different tribes—demanded a king.

The Israelites’ first king, Saul, was deeply flawed, and the young David soon replaced him. Seemingly small and self-effacing at first, David became a skilled military commander and established a stable monarchy and vast kingdom. (See Map 1.) Though David, too, was flawed (he could be ruthless, for example), the Bible tells a story in which he embodied vision, power, spiritual sensitivity—he was described as a leader as close to the ideal of perfection as a person of flesh and blood could be. Is it then any wonder that at the First Zionist Congress, when one of the delegates sought to express the grandeur that they felt in Herzl’s presence, he wrote:

Before us rose a marvelous and exalted figure, kingly in bearing and stature, with deep eyes in which could be read quiet majesty and unuttered sorrow. . . . [I]t is a royal scion of the House of David, risen from among the dead, clothed in legend and fantasy and beauty.6

Part of the magic and the power of the First Zionist Congress was that it seemed to its participants the beginning of the restoration of a previous glory, a glory the Jews had experienced thousands of years earlier, a flourishing that they had known before—in the Land of Israel.

David passed the kingdom on to his son, Solomon, who built the First Temple in Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE. The Temple became the epicenter of Israelite religious life. It was there that sacrifices were offered and to there that Israelites made pilgrimages three times a year. Jerusalem and the Temple also served, for all intents and purposes, as the capital of the Israelite world. The Temple Mount, on which the Temple was situated, would become sacred not only to Jews, because both the First and Second Temples stood there, but to Christians and Muslims, as well. To Christians, it was the place where Jesus preached against corruption in the Temple and expelled moneychangers. To Muslims, the Temple Mount’s sanctity would stem from the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which would be completed there in 691–692 CE to commemorate the site from which Muslim tradition asserts that Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Solomon’s building projects came with steep costs, though, and in order to finance them, he raised taxes. As a result, the tribes grew restless; those in the north, in particular, felt neglected by Solomon, whom they perceived as favoring the southern tribes. Despite the political unrest, Solomon managed to keep his coalition together. His son, Rehaboam, however, was not as skilled a politician as his father, and in 928 BCE the monarchy disintegrated into two often-quarreling states: a kingdom in the north, the Kingdom of Israel (composed of ten of the twelve Israelite tribes), and a kingdom in the south, Judea (composed of two of the twelve tribes).

Thus entered yet another theme in the narrative that the Jews told about themselves—the danger of disunity. In the case of the two Israelite kingdoms, the split spelled disaster. Power struggles devoured the northern kingdom; in the space of two centuries, no less than nineteen different dynasties ruled the kingdom. Worse, the two separated kingdoms also often battled each other viciously.

Still another central dimension of Israeli life today was introduced thousands of years earlier in the Bible. As had always been the case in that region, and still is—the kingdoms were surrounded by powerful enemies. To the north lay the Assyrian Empire, situated in what today is northern Iraq. (See Map 1.) A brutal military power, it threatened many of the states to the west of the Euphrates River, Israel and Judea among them. In addition to Assyria, the north was home to yet another menacing power: Aram. Due east lay Babylonia, an empire that also often joined the warring fray. Complicating matters even further was the massive Egyptian empire to the south. Any power that sought to control the region needed to conquer the land on which the kingdoms of Israel and Judea were situated. In many ways, the Jewish kingdoms were damned no matter what the outcome: whichever power triumphed would eventually subjugate them.

That, too, is a lens through which contemporary Israel sees its own challenges. Even then, the Middle East was a complicated region. Even then, survival was a constant struggle.

DESPERATE, THE ISRAELITE KINGDOMS did whatever they could to hold on. They forged alliances and paid tribute. In the long run, though, none of those tactics worked. In a story filled with numerous twists and turns, treaties and rivalries abounded, and the two kingdoms grew continually weaker. It was only a matter of time before they could no longer survive, both because of their own infighting and because of the massive threatening armies surrounding them.

From 733 to 732 BCE, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III annexed the Galilee and Transjordan, deporting a large portion of the inhabitants. In so doing, he introduced a new tactic into the Middle East—and one that would be repeated even in the modern era—the forced deportation of masses of people. In the case of the Israelites, this deportation had several effects on their religious life. Until then, Israelite identity had been tied in large measure to the particular tribe to which one belonged. But tribes’ identities were derivative of the land they inhabited. Once Israelites were exiled from their land, tribal identity was almost impossible to sustain.

Suddenly, because of circumstances not of their own choosing, the Israelites would have to reimagine what it meant to be part of their people. On more than one occasion in the millennia that followed, that would be the very challenge that Jews (and Zionists) would face in an ever-changing world.

The Bible does not tell us what happened to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom who were dispersed. The story of the exile highlights the dangers—to any people—of forced migration, which both Jews and Arabs would endure again in the twentieth century. Whatever had happened to those lost biblical tribes, as the Bible tells the story, Judea’s two tribes were all that remained of the Israelites and the eventual Jewish people.

BECAUSE THE SOUTHERN KINGDOM still faced massive powers to both the north and the south, the challenge of survival was far from over even for the remaining two tribes. Assyria’s military strength declined, but Babylonia rushed in to fill the vacuum. In the south, the still powerful Egyptian Empire menaced. Judea’s leaders then made a series of costly mistakes that significantly worsened their position. Believing, incorrectly, that the Babylonians were weakened, the king of Judea decided to stop paying tribute to the king of Babylon. Outraged, Babylon invaded Judea in 598 BCE, killed the Judean king, and soon thereafter, plundered the Temple and took some ten thousand people (mostly soldiers and craftsmen) captive. Taking a page from the Assyrian king before him, the king of Babylon used the power of dispersing a people to attempt to break the Judeans’ national will.

A new Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, then invaded Judea once again after the Judeans proved rebellious and refused to acquiesce to Babylonian rule. This time, to squelch the Jewish rebellion once and for all, the Babylonians decided not just to expel and disperse the population, but also to destroy the symbol of Jewish life in the land of Israel. In 586 BCE, they burned Solomon’s Temple to the ground.

Now, Judea, too, was gone. Jewish independence had ended. The Babylonian exile had begun. And never again would the entire Jewish people live in the land of Israel.

GIVEN THE CENTRALITY OF the sacrificial cult and priestly leadership to Israelite religion, the destruction of the Temple, and with it the sacrificial rite and the power of the priests, might well have meant the end of Israelite life. With sociological and religious genius, however, the Israelites’ leaders begged their followers not to see this loss as the end, but to maintain hope even in the face of catastrophe.

Jeremiah, a prophet who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and who then prophesied during the exile, insisted that the brutal turn of events did not have to spell the end of their people. “Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that you may be increased there, and not diminished.”7 Jeremiah was advocating both hope and patience; the covenant between the Jews and their God, he insisted, was not over, but they had to wait until powers greater than themselves returned them to Zion.

Yet there was a very different view, as well, represented in the Bible by the prophet Hananiah. He insisted that the Babylonians would rule for only two years—and not seventy. The Israelites need not get accustomed to exile, he intimated. They could go home much sooner than Jeremiah thought.

This debate between the figures of Jeremiah and Hananiah—should the Jews become accustomed to life in exile, or insist on getting back to their land as quickly as they possibly could—would persist in Jewish life for centuries. It raged between Herzl, who desperately sought to create a Jewish state, and his religious opponents, who wanted to leave their fate in the hands of God. It was reflected in the later debates between Israel’s early leadership, who hoped that Jews from around the world would make their way to Israel, and the leadership of American Jewry, who insisted that in the United States—outside the Jews’ ancestral land—American Jews had found their ideal home.

Ultimately, the exile lasted for a few decades. But the dream of returning to Zion, their ancestral home, did not dim. The exiled Israelites focused their collective memory on the land from which they had left, the land they still considered home. The Book of Psalms offers glimpses into what must have been the worldview of many. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept, as we remembered you, Zion,” says Psalm 137.8 They wept, but they also dreamed of returning to the land they had lost. Another psalm spoke not of tears at the memories of Zion, but of dreams of a much better day still to come:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.

Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us,

and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,

like streams in the Negev.

Those who sow with tears

will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

carrying seed to sow,

will return with songs of joy,

carrying sheaves with them.9

For centuries, Jews would sing this psalm. They had never seen the land, and knew that they, themselves, might not live to go back. They knew not much about the place to which they hoped to return, but deep in their souls lay a promise that they were sure would be fulfilled—one day, they would go home. And until they did, dreams of Zion would remain a central pillar of their spiritual and national lives.

IN THE CLOSING WORDS of the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus, King of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE, informed the exiles that they could return home and rebuild the Temple. “Any of you of all [God’s] people . . . let him go up [to Jerusalem].”10 We do not know precisely what portion of the exiled community chose to return to Zion and to rebuild the Temple, but it was apparently a small percentage.11

The story that the Bible weaves, however, focuses not on those who chose to remain in exile, but on Cyrus’s exhortation that it was time to go home. The Jews’ national story that had opened with God telling Abram to go to the “place that I will show you” (the Land of Israel)—concludes with the Bible’s very last words, “Let him go up [to Jerusalem].”

Instructively, the biblical story begins with the promise of home and concludes with the Jews returning to the Land of Israel. The Bible tells the story of a people always yearning, never giving up on the promise that one day it would go home.

THOSE WHO HEEDED Cyrus’s decree and returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon found themselves in a region that was volatile—much as it remains today. Eventually, the small minority who did return managed to rebuild the Temple, though initially it was only a shadow of its former self. The Second Temple would stand for roughly six hundred years, but Jewish sovereignty would be intermittent.

After the rise and fall of the Persian Empire, the region was conquered by Alexander the Great. Greek rule was harsh at times, with religious freedom often viciously curtailed. Though there were many Jews who embraced the Hellenistic culture that surrounded them, there was a minority—in a pattern that would repeat in Jewish life in centuries to follow—that insisted that foreign cultural and religious influence had to be resisted. It was not enough, they believed, simply to live in their ancestral homeland. Living there would have meaning only if it were shaped by the ideals, beliefs, and commitments that had always been central to Jewish life.

In response to Greek suppression of Jewish religious liberty, Jewish resistance groups took up arms in what would become the most significant Jewish display of power since the Kingdom of David. In 164 BCE, a small band of Jews known as the Maccabees initiated a successful revolt against the Greeks. The Maccabees managed to create the first autonomous Jewish state in the Land of Israel in more than four hundred years, and Jews would forever celebrate that success through the holiday of Hanukkah.

The Jews were sovereign for about a century, however, after which they became a vassal state once more, this time to the Roman Empire. At first, life under Roman rule was fairly tolerable. Rome was far from Judea, and daily life for those Israelites living in the Land of Israel was not a crucial issue for the Roman leaders. Israelites were mostly left to their own devices, though like all subjugated peoples of that era, they were obliged to pay heavy taxes. With time, though, that changed. Roman rule grew increasingly oppressive—the Romans raised taxes and gradually erased Jewish religious autonomy. In 6 CE, Rome instituted direct rule of Judea, ending even the illusion of Jewish sovereignty.

Once again, the Jewish yearning for sovereignty led to rebellion. A small group, this time known as the Zealots, advocated military uprising against the Romans. At first, when rebellion actually broke out in 66 CE, the rebels forced the Romans to retreat. The Romans, however, were a massive power, and the rebelling Judeans were no match for them. By 70 CE, the Romans were ready to storm Jerusalem. The army besieged the city, allowing nothing to enter or exit. Food supplies ran out, and the population began to starve; soon thereafter, the Romans broke through Jerusalem’s walls. They razed the city of Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple to the ground. The Romans massacred much of the Jewish population, and exiled many of the region’s remaining Jews, inaugurating a two-thousand-year-long exile.

The Second Jewish Commonwealth had come to a brutal end. Jerusalem was no longer. The drive not to succumb to Roman rule was so impassioned, however, that a few pockets of resistance remained. The best known, the Zealots’ outpost on Masada (a fortified mountain on the western edge of the Dead Sea), held out the longest. But they, too, were doomed to defeat; Rome was simply too massive, and the Zealots knew it. The Romans eventually surrounded them, but rather than let the Romans kill them—or worse, sell them into slavery or prostitution—these last Jewish fighters decided to take their own lives. A few people killed almost all the women, children, and most of the men, until one remaining Zealot killed himself; of the almost one thousand Jews on Masada, only two women and five children were found alive.12

The long war against Rome had exacted a horrific price. Josephus, the historian who provides most of the information we have about that period, notes that hundreds of thousands of Jews died in the war, while many others were sold into slavery or forced to work in Roman mines.

Astonishingly, even the devastating defeat at the hands of Rome did not snuff out the Jewish longing to restore their sovereign rule over their ancestral land. In 130 CE, some sixty years after the Second Temple was destroyed, the emperor Hadrian announced plans to rebuild Jerusalem. Rather than restoring Jerusalem to its former Jewish glory, however, he renamed it Aelia Capitolina and planned to place a pagan altar there. He began referring to the region as Syria Palestina, the origin of today’s name, Palestine.

At that provocation, Simeon Bar Kokhba, with the support of the aging sage Rabbi Akiva, plotted a revolt. Hundreds of thousands of fighters joined him. The revolt began in earnest in 132 CE, and as had been the case in 66 CE, the Jews at first managed some victories against the Roman forces. Bar Kokhba captured Jerusalem and large swaths of additional territory. In each place that he liberated, he instituted autonomous Jewish rule. Modern archaeologists have found numerous coins with the Hebrew inscriptions “the redemption of Israel,” “the freedom of Israel,” or “the freedom of Jerusalem” from that period, products of Bar Kokhba’s short-lived sovereignty.13

As it had in the past, however, the massive power of the Roman Empire vastly exceeded that of the rebels. Hadrian’s military over-powered Bar Kokhba and his fighters, forcing them to retreat to a city south of Jerusalem named Betar. In 135 CE, the Romans put down the last remnants of the three-year-long rebellion. Ancient accounts claim that some 580,000 men were killed, while many more were sent to the slave market.

Judea had fallen for a third time. Once again, Jewish sovereignty ended. This time, there would be no quick recovery after seventy years, no rebellion sixty years after the loss. This time, it was really over.

FOR ALMOST TWO MILLENNIA—1,762 years, to be precise—the Jews would live without political autonomy. They would make their homes in lands ruled by others, hosted by people who would treat them better at times, worse at others. For the most part, there would be no serious attempt to restore Jewish sovereignty until 1897, when Theodor Herzl gathered his delegates in Basel at the First Zionist Congress. Herzl’s message was a call to push back, to restore the glory of ancient Israel, to end the long, corrosive exile. No longer should Jews live at the whim of those who ruled the countries in which they found themselves. It was time, he insisted, for the Jews to take history into their own hands.

WHEN THEODOR HERZL STOOD at the podium at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Jews had sustained their dream of returning to their ancestral land for almost two millennia. How had they done that? How had they been able to keep alive memories of a place they had never seen? How had they, to use George Eliot’s language, managed to “give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference” even when they had never lived there or even visited, and probably never would?

What the Jews had done, to some degree in planning for the day in Basel that they dreamed might someday come, was to cyclically relive moments in history, even if they themselves had not experienced them. The genius of the Jewish tradition was that in their liturgy and holidays, the Jews invoked the past in a way that made it seem present and real. No matter what they did, said, or thought about, the Land of Israel remained their central focus. When they prayed, three times each day, they faced Jerusalem. For century upon century, they fasted on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which tradition has it that both Temples were destroyed. When they sat in Spain or in Poland, reciting their Grace-after-Meals, they included a blessing that read, “Praised are You, Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem in mercy.” At the conclusion of the Passover Seder, Jews all around the world—in Africa and in Europe, in Yemen and in Iraq—sang “Next year in Jerusalem.” At Jewish weddings, the groom traditionally breaks a glass, reminding the celebrants that even in their hour of joy, they ought to recall Jerusalem destroyed. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other Jewish religious practices that kept the dream of Zion (Jerusalem) alive for generations of Jews who had never seen it and knew that they never would.

It was that strategy for preserving Jewish memory that explains how, when Bialik published “To the Bird” in 1892, it fell on such receptive ears. The words of the poem were new, but the dream to which it gave expression was not. Bialik was in some ways simply a continuation of what Jeremiah, Hananiah, and the Book of Psalms had all said—Jews might live in many different places, but only one place would ever truly be home.

The magic worked. As Europe turned on the Jews at the end of the nineteenth century, as nationalism swept across the continent and as many Jews sensed that Europe could not be their home for much longer, they instinctively knew that they had a home elsewhere. Religious and secular, intellectuals and not, eastern European and western, they had been raised in a tradition with so much reference to the dream of Zion that when Herzl wrote The Jewish State, it spoke of a dream that to the Jews sounded intimately familiar. Herzl’s ideas spread so rapidly largely because they were not entirely new; he was bringing to life a dream that the Jews had harbored for many centuries.

We should therefore not be surprised by an observation by one of the delegates to the congress in Basel that “Everyone sat breathless, as if in the presence of a miracle. And in truth, was it not a miracle which we beheld? And then wild applause broke out; for fifteen minutes the delegates clapped, shouted and waved their handkerchiefs.”14 After all, to those Jews who had despaired of Europe, to those Jews for whom Zionism was the beginning of a renewed dream and a renewed hope, Herzl was Abraham, who first wandered “to the place that I will show you.” He was Moses, leading his flock to the Promised Land. He was David, with the promise of renewed Jewish sovereignty. He was Bar Kokhba, insisting that the time had come to push back against the forces of history. Almost single-handedly, Herzl had brought an ancient dream to life, restored hope, and given Jews the inspiration to imagine for themselves a very different future.

After the First Zionist Congress, political Zionism was aloft, but it was, in many respects, nothing new. It was, quite simply, an ancient dream revived.

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