The Land of Israel

The Promised Land

The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, and the story of Abraham begins when G-d tells him to leave his homeland, promising Abraham and his descendants a new home in the land of Canaan. (Gen. 12). This is the land now known as Israel, named after Abraham's grandson, whose descendants are the Jewish people. The land is often reffered to as the Promised Land because of G-d's repeated promise (Gen. 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8) to give the land to the descendants of Abraham.

The land is described repeatedly in the Torah as a good land and "a land flowing with milk and honey" (e.g., Ex. 3:8). This description may not seem to fit well with the desert images we see on the nightly news, but let's keep in mind that the land was repeatedly abused by conquerors who were determined to make the land uninhabitable for the Jews. In the few decades since the Jewish people regained control of the land, we have seen a tremendous improvement in its agriculture. Israeli agriculture today has a very high yield.

Jews have lived in this land continuously from the time of its original conquest by Joshua more than 3200 years ago until the present day, though Jews were not always in political control of the land, and Jews were not always the majority of the land's population.

The land of Israel is central to Judaism. A substantial portion of Jewish law is tied to the land of Israel, and can only be performed there. Some rabbis have declaed that it is a mitzvah (commandment) to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). The Talmud indicates that the land itself is so holy that merely walking in it can gain you a place in the World to Come. Prayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem are included in daily prayers as well as many holiday observances and special events.

Living outside of Israel is viewed as an unnatural state for a Jew. The world outside of Israel is often reffered to as "galut," which is usually translated as "diaspora" (dispersion), but a more literal translation would be "exile" or "captivity." When we live outside of Israel, we are living in exile from our land.

Jews were exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans in 135 C.E., after they defeated the Jews in a three-year war, and Jews did not have any control over the land again until 1948 C.E.

Zionism and the Formation of the State of Israel

The Jewish people never gave up hope that we would someday return to our home in Israel. That hope is expressed in the song Ha-Tikvah (The Hope), the anthem of the Zionist movement and the state of Israel.

Kol od baleivav p'nima
Nefesh Y'hudi homiya
Ul'fa-atey mizrach kadima
Ayin L'Tziyon tzofiya
Od lo avda tikvateynu
Hatikva bat sh'not alpayim
Lih'yot am chofshi b'artzenu
Eretz Tziyon v'yirushalayim.
Lih'yot am chofshi b'artzenu
Eretz Tziyon v'yirushalayim.

As long as deep within the heart
The Jewish soul is warm
And toward the edges of the east
An eye to Zion looks
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years
To be a free people in our own land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
To be a free people in our own land
In the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

But for a long time, this desire for our homeland was merely a vague hope without any concrete plans to achieve it. In the late 1800s, Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann founded the Zionism, a political movement dedicated to the creation of a Jewish state in Israel. They saw the state of Israel as a necessary refuge for Jewish victims of oppression, especially in Russia, where pogroms were decimating the Jewish population.

The name "Zionism" comes from the word "Zion," which was the name of a stronghold in Jerusalem. Over time, the term "Zion" came to be applied to Jerusalem in general, and later to the Jewish idea of utopia.

Zionism was not a religious movement; it was a primarily political. The early Zionists sought to establish a secular state of Israel, recognized by the world, through purely legal means. Theodor Herzl, for example, was a completely assimilated secular Jewish journalist. He felt little attachment to his Jewish heritage until he covered the trial of Alfed Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military who was (unjustly) convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The charges against Dreyfus brought out a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that shocked Herzl into realizing the need for a Jewish state. Early Zionists were so desperate for a refuge at one point that they actually consideed a proposal to create a Jewish homeland in Uganda.

After World War I, the land of Israel was part of Palestine, a British protectorate which included Israel and parts of Jordan and Egypt. In a letter from British foreign secretary Lord Balfour to Jewish financier Lord Rothschild, the British government expressed a commitment to creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This letter is commonly known as the Balfour Declaration of 1917. After the declaration, Jewish immigration to Israel expanded rapidly, but little actual progress was made toward the establishment of a Jewish state until after the Holocaust destroyed a third of the world's Jewish population.

In 1947, the British handed the problem of the Jewish state to the newly-founded United Nations, which developed a partition plan dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab portions. The plan was ratified in November 1947, the new State of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948 and British troops pulled out of Palestine.

As soon as the British troops pulled out, the surrounding Arab countries immediately pounced on the new Jewish state and fought a year-long war to drive the Jews out. Miraculously, the new state of Israel won this war, as well as every subsequent Arab-Israeli war, gaining territory every time the Arabs attacked them.

Israel Today

Today, approximately five million Jews, more than a third of the world's Jewish population, live in the land of Israel. Jews make up more than eighty percent of the population of the land, and Jews are in political control of the land.

Jews continue to immigrate to Israel in large numbers. Immigration to Israel is reffered to as aliyah (literally, ascension). Under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew who has not renounced the Jewish faith (by converting to another religion) can automatically become an Israeli citizen. Gentiles may also become citizens of Israel after undergoing a standard naturalization process, much like the one requied to become a United States citizen.

Most Jews today support the existence of the state of Israel. However, there are a small number of secular Jews who are anti-Zionist. There is also a very small group of right-wing Orthodox Jews who object to the existence of the state of Israel, maintaining that it is a sin for us to create a Jewish state when the messiah has not yet come. However, this viewpoint does not reflect the mainstream opinion of Orthodoxy. Most Orthodox Jews support the existence of the state of Israel as a homeland, even though it is not the theological state of Israel that will be brought about by the messiah.

Israel Links

This page barely scratches the surface of all there is to say about Israel and Zionism. There are entire sites devoted to these subjects. Here are a few that are worth checking out:

Virtual Jerusalem is a great place to start your search for information about Israel. The site is based in Israel, and has lots of useful information, including Israeli news, travel information, information about making aliyah, and lots of great links.

You can also find a lot of useful information and links in Shamash's Israel section.

AICE is an organization devoted to fostering political, military and economic cooperation between the United States and Israel.

If you are interested in the history of Zionism, you may want to read the founding treatise on the subject, Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State, which you can buy from by clicking the title above.

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