December 21, 2023

Who Owns the Holy Land? Thoughts on Homeland, Rights, and Ownership

By Shaul Magid

A wide-shot landscape of the hills in the Shomron, the northern West Bank.
Outside Jericho, West Bank, Palestine. Photo by Ian Scott.

Author’s note: One cannot write, one cannot even think, about Israel without confronting the horrific day of October 7th, 2023 and its increasingly horrifying aftermath. The Hamas massacre on that day—the brutal murder of civilians, including many women, children, and elders, the torture and heinous sexual crimes, and the abduction of over two hundred hostages, including toddlers, children, and the elderly—struck Israel, and the Jewish people, to its very core. After a breach of its sovereign territory, and the murder of those who the state (like any state) was supposed to protect, the Israeli Defence Force responded, as it must. The military response has been devastating, and has resulted in the death and suffering of many innocent Gazans, including thousands of children, and the destruction of huge swaths of residential areas. This is not the place to explore the complexity and horror of mass death. Innocent Palestinians have certainly paid a high price for the savagery of Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response, and it is not a stretch to say that the movement for Palestinian national self-determination has greatly suffered as a result of these events. But still, amidst the mourning and devastation, when the fog of war lifts and the mourners rise from shiva or take down their mourning tents, the same dilemma will exist: competing claims for rights, claims of ownership, and the land, the land, the land. Thus, returning to examine this core problem of the ownership of the land is not a deflection from current events. We can think—we must think—a way out of the cognitive trap of exceptionalism and exclusivity, rights and victimhood, on both sides, and the illusion of seeing violence as a solution, whether terrorism or state violence, even if we must do so through tears of grief, of sorrow, and of pain.

In memory of the more than 1,200 souls, Jewish and non-Jewish, who lost their lives on October 7th, 2023, and the thousands of innocent Gazans who lost their lives in the war that followed.

“The Bible is our Mandate.”
—David Ben-Gurion before the Peel Commission (1937) 

“This land is mine, God gave this land to me . . . ”
—Pat Boone, “The Exodus Song,” theme song to the film Exodus (1960) 

“This is our deed to our land.”
—Danny Danon, holding up a copy of the Bible before the UN Security Council (2019) 

The Zionist project is a complex amalgam of interlocking political, cultural, and theological concepts and ideas. It also has to do with land—not any land, but the Holy Land. Who has a “right” to live there, and who has the legitimate claim to it? Some religious Jewish and Christian voices have proclaimed that exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel is a theological precept, even a necessary one, a precondition for the unfolding of the messianic era in Judaism and, in Christianity, for the return of Christ. On this reading, the land itself holds the key to the fulfillment of prophecy and the culmination of history. But who really owns the Holy Land?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I must clarify that what I’ve written below is not an anti-Israel argument. It does, however, suggest that in my view, Zionism is no longer a suitable ideology on which to construct a just, equitable, and viable state of coexistence in a land that no one owns; and that both Palestinians and Jews can legitimately claim as a homeland. My argument stems from a dual acknowledgment: of the land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the same land as the homeland of the Palestinian people. In this sense, what I argue below is a pro-Israel vision for the future of a state in the Holy Land, whatever that state’s name might be, of all its citizens. I thus seek to separate Zionism from the state of Israel to suggest that while Zionism as an ideology may have been necessary to create the state, it no longer serves the state as a way to cultivate the criteria of true and equitable co-existence. Put otherwise, Zionism has done its work. We have to think about Israel after Zionism. 

Messianism, Religious and Secular

In Judaism, messianism serves as a basis for much of contemporary religious Zionism, influenced in large part by the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (Rav Kook, 1865–1935). But this view, that the land holds the key to the messianic age, is not only the provenance of religious Zionists. As Arieh Sapoznik argues in his book Zionism’s Redemptions, the messianic idea has also been deployed by some secular Zionists who seek to maximize territorial control of the land for political reasons linked to security concerns, yet also as part of a redemptive process, a vision of “ending the exile” of the Jewish people. Although some Israeli politicians have acknowledged the immorality and implausibility of this exclusivist position, in the present political climate, exclusive ownership of the land seems to have become almost a dogma of Zionism. This idea is captured in what is called “proprietary Zionism,” a term coined by Zionist historian Chaim Gans in his book A Political Theory for the Jewish People. Proprietary Zionism argues that Zionism is founded on the notion of exclusive Jewish ownership of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Jews can decide to share that land, but their right of ownership means such a decision would be made primarily, even exclusively, on their own terms. This idea is not only the view of the right wing; many centrist and even left-leaning Zionists maintain this position in one form or another—some more stridently, others more subtly.

At the same time, there have been those on the left who made a case for sharing the land by appealing to a biblically based moral conscience and political humanism—what Martin Buber called “Hebrew Humanism.” One example is the organization Brit Shalom (the precursor to the political group Ihud), which formed in the 1920s and consisted mostly of German Jews, many of whom had witnessed the bloody nationalism of the First World War. Its members, which included important Jewish figures such as Buber, Gershom Scholem, Henrietta Szold, and others, were wary of the transition of the land of Israel from Jewish homeland to Jewish state. They promoted a more expansive rendering of the Jews’ relationship to the land that would enable a state to emerge for “two peoples” in one land. But these voices were easily drowned out by the ferocity of the Nazi genocide and the Jewish survivalism that grew in its wake, and later by the theologically driven agenda of the religious right, both Jewish and Christian. In addition, the increasing Palestinian resistance and later rejectionism to Jewish settlement (as it became clear that a state-building project was underway by the 1930s), made the bi-national option less and less realistic.

Zionism has done its work. We have to think about Israel after Zionism. 

My purpose in this essay is not to propose a solution to the complex problem of how the land of Israel is to be shared. But I do want to suggest that those who are concerned with the religious nature of this conflict on the Jewish side might explore an alternative theological model, one that played a part in an earlier iteration of Zionism, espoused by people such as Martin Buber. Many of the binationalists in Brit Shalom, and later Ihud, were not secularists, although not traditionally religious; rather, they were theologians in their own right, and as such, their theology was the basis for their progressive politics, as we will see below.

Biblical Ownership

One of the underlying ideas of proprietary Zionism is that once the Jews attain sovereignty in the land (with the establishment of a nation-state), the diaspora will not only lose its meaning and purpose, but will even become an impediment to Jewish flourishing. This idea was crystallized in the concept of the “negation of the diaspora” (shlilat ha-golah), an ideological strand of early Zionist thought that is foundational to proprietary Zionism, and as some would argue, Zionism more generally. This vision, in which the return to Zion is the historical and theological raison d’être of the Jews, the fulfillment of Jewish history, has become almost doctrinal to most iterations of Zionism today. Important early Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am and his followers opposed this concept, but it gained strength as the state came into existence. As Israeli historian Ben-Zion Dinur, one of the first Israeli ministers of education, once said: “All Jewish history is Zionist historiography.” In other words, the teleological lens of Zionism paints everything that’s ever happened to the Jews as leading up to this moment of return to their land of origin. Thus, one reading of Dinur’s statement is that Zionism is Judaism—meaning that Zionism supersedes and contains Judaism (rather than the other way around), or alternatively, Zionism is Judaism’s fulfillment. One could similarly argue that the Jewish claim of ownership over the land is written into Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 when it states: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped.” This claim became further instantiated into Israeli law with passage of the Nation State Law in 2018.

The return of the Jews to the land of Israel, after almost two millennia of exile, was viewed as reclaiming ownership over a rightful inheritance. But who owns this land—or, for that matter, any land? The Torah tells us that it is only God who owns land, “for all the land is Mine.”1 In other words, God may bequeath the land of Israel to the Jews and their progeny but that does not result in “ownership,” per se; at best, it results in conditional stewardship. It is referred to as an inheritance (morasha), but inheritances can be taken away, as the prophets warn,2 and as history has shown. The Torah makes this clear in painstaking detail: if the Jews do not fulfill their covenantal responsibilities, God will take the land away from them. And theologically (or perhaps historically, depending on your perspective), God has done so—numerous times. Thus, Jews can claim conditional “rights” to the land but not “ownership” of it. The former marks the land of Israel as a Jewish homeland but does not necessarily result in ownership. 

Silwan, East Jerusalem. Photo by Ian Scott.

It is certainly the case that according to some layers of the Hebrew Bible, there is an exclusive idea of one land for one people, and the land of Israel is the inheritance of the Israelites and their progeny. But that inheritance was always expressed conditionally in Scripture; the land is not owned by the Jews but rather, it is bequeathed to them by its rightful owner, God. Much of the modern discussion of Jewish “ownership” of the land of Israel is nominally grounded in the Hebrew Bible, but ignores the fact that the land of Israel is pointedly not Abraham’s own homeland (that would be Ur of the Chaldees). This fact animates much of the biblical narrative and is central to its themes. Abraham is a “sojourner” in the land—one who travels to the land from elsewhere—as it says in Genesis, “go forth from your land . . . to the land that I will show you.”3 Abraham even identifies himself as such (as a ger) to the Hittites when he asks permission to bury Sarah on their land.4 Additionally, the Book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites’ conquest of the land, when they came in as outsiders and were commanded to annihilate its prior population. 

“Even if the Jews were to win the war, its end would find the unique possibilities and the unique achievements of Zionism in Palestine destroyed. . . . The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people.” – Hannah Arendt 

It is also true that from the Torah’s perspective, as traditionally understood, those other nations only lived there until the Israelites arrived, and so are no longer relevant to this story. A similar perspective was common in early Zionism. Golda Meir (Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974) voiced this in the late 1960s, when she famously denied the existence of the Palestinians as a people. “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them,” Meir said. “They did not exist.”5 In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Israel formally recognized the Palestinians as a collective at all. This attitude has in some circles filtered down to the present, in which many Israeli Jews do not view the Palestinians as indigenous to the land but simply as nomadic “Arabs” who happen to have settled there. 

All this is to say that, if we want to use Scripture as a template for navigating contemporary politics (that is, if we are going to look to Scripture for guidance on these issues), it will not give us anything approaching moral or historical clarity in terms of claims of contemporary ownership. Describing the Zionist project, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, famously said, “the Bible is our Mandate,” but the Hebrew Bible does not give us sufficient justification in a modern context to make a claim of exclusive ownership over land where others happen to live. Israel’s inheritance remains conditional. The biblical account does not present land or peoplehood in a way that’s congruent with concepts of “ownership” in modern law or nationalism. We will therefore need to look beyond it to reach conclusions about justice in a modern context, a context in which more than one people makes claims to the same land. Yet still, many continue to treat the Bible as a legal brief of exclusive Jewish ownership of the land.

The Claim of Indigeneity

A similar dynamic is at play with the word “indigeneity,” a new term in discussions of Israel|Palestine. The claim of indigeneity is often used by Palestinians who argue that their families have lived on the land for centuries prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. But lately, some Jewish settlers have begun to use the same rhetoric to make counterclaims that Jews are the true “Indigenous” people, even though, until relatively recently, Jews had not lived there in large numbers for centuries.6 Today, many Jewish settlers argue that they are not in fact colonizers, but to the contrary, that they are decolonizing the land that the Arabs “colonized” during the early Muslim conquests in the seventh century.

Of course, this line of reasoning conveniently confuses conquest with colonization. Raek Zreik poses the question quite succinctly: 

When does a settler become a native? If it is historical, how much time needs to pass for the settler to become a native? If sociological, what changes must the settler go through to become a native? If ethical, what actions must be taken to become a native? If personal, what is sufficient for the settler to start feeling like a native?7

One thing is for sure: for the settler to become a native, they must first stop being a settler; that would mean abandoning territorial expansion, and shedding a political identity founded on the domination and dispossession of others. That is, to stop being a settler, the settler must abandon the privileges of the settler that come at the expense of everyone else who lived there before them.

As we can readily see, the question of indigeneity is a complex one, and there is a plethora of scholarly studies on what makes a people “Indigenous.” But the Jewish claim of indigeneity does not seem at all interested in the phenomenon as a conceptual category. Rather, the point is to use the term rhetorically and polemically to cast Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations as the true interlopers (instead of the Jews)—that is, echoing Meir, as nomads who temporarily settled in the land while the Jews were in exile. Those Jews who use the indigeneity argument are essentially co-opting the Palestinian argument and reversing it. This raises several questions (some already articulated by Zreik): How long must a people live on a land to become “Indigenous”? And can the claim of indigeneity remain after centuries of non-residence in any significant numbers? And if you claim that ownership of the land is a biblical mandate, why do you need the indigeneity argument at all? 

Indigenous studies scholars have recently begun to address these questions in Israel|Palestine specifically, focusing on Jewish claims of indigeneity there, as well as how political metaphors travel between identities in the contested landscape, and the problems that dual claims of indigeneity pose.8 The claim of indigeneity among Jews in the land of Israel (including the notion that Jews are decolonizing, not colonizing, the land) is quickly becoming a favorite line of argument among some in the religious Zionist camp, especially among settlers. What is so striking about this argument is that, although built on new concepts like “indigeneity,” it still utilizes portions of biblical scripture like those described above—texts that state very clearly that the Israelites were conquerors to whom the land was bequeathed by God, and expressly not indigenous to the land. The argument for Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel therefore seems to be caught in a paradoxical bind—the illogical notion of “indigenous conquerors.” 

The biblical account does not present land or peoplehood in a way that’s congruent with concepts of “ownership” in modern law or nationalism.

Rather than trying to read modern nationalism into an ancient text, I would like to try a different tack. Below, I explore the divine promise that stands at the center of the Jewish covenant as a resource for a Jewish alternative to proprietary Zionism that I call “counter-Zionism.” In this reading, the divine promise is not a promise of ownership, or a claim to indigeneity (which is arguably anti-biblical). Rather, it is closer to the promise of a homeland—but one that is not exclusive to the Jews. 

Divine Promise: Unconditional or Contingent?

In her 1948 essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” Hannah Arendt argues that the precariousness of founding a state under the complex circumstances of both Jewish and Arab collective trauma—the Jewish trauma of genocide and the Arab trauma of European colonialism—would be unwise not only on political grounds but also in relation to the notion of homeland. She writes, “The idea of Arab-Jewish cooperation, though never realized on any scale and today seemingly farther off than ever, is not an idealistic daydream but a sober statement of the fact that without it the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed.”9 As we know today, such cooperation never took place for a variety of reasons. But Arendt’s concerns run even deeper: 

Even if the Jews were to win the war, its end would find the unique possibilities and the unique achievements of Zionism in Palestine destroyed. . . . The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people . . . Political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war. . . . Under such circumstances (as Ernst Simon has pointed out) the Palestinian Jews would degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta. . . . Thus it becomes plain that at this moment and under present circumstances a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland.10

Arendt was both right and wrong in her prediction. She was obviously wrong about culture. Israel has in fact developed a robust Jewish and Hebrew culture, and while military strategy is still the centerpiece of its political and economic concerns, especially after the occupation began in 1967, globalization has also enabled it to expand far beyond that—even while introducing new problems of collective existence that Arendt could not have predicted. But Arendt’s prediction is also quite right. Over the course of Israel’s history, since its founding in 1948, the idea of the Jewish homeland was swallowed up by the demands of Jewish statehood, an institution that is built on exclusive rights to the territory in question. 

The question of the price to be paid for Israel’s success was obviously something Arendt was very concerned about. The raison d’être of the State of Israel seemed to require a majoritarian, sovereignty-centered ideology (what Ben-Gurion called mamlakhtiyut) founded, in many ways, on the claim of ownership of the land. In this ideology, the land belonged to the Jews even when they did not reside there, during the long period of exile. This ideology persists today, even among many moderates who are open to sharing that land. It was written into law with the 1953 Land Acquisition Law, which legislated that essentially all land uninhabited on a certain date in 1952 would be considered state land (that is, Jewish land). This law sets up the claim that the land is “ours,” and if you act appropriately, perhaps we will share some of it with you. Zionism, except in a few extreme cases that we will examine below, never quite abandoned this concept of the rightful ownership of the land by the Jewish state. But if we determine that the Jews do not “own” the land—that the land belongs to God who has bequeathed it to the Jews as an inheritance, conditioned on their fidelity to the covenant, then how is the state’s ostensible exclusivity to be determined? To answer this question, we turn to Martin Buber, who offers one of the most salient theological critiques of this concept of ownership of the land. 

Up until the Six-Day War silenced much of the Jewish religious left, there were Jewish theologians who argued that Jews were commanded to divide or share the land of Israel with others. The most well-known of these figures was Martin Buber, who called for a binational state of Jews and Arabs as part of the platform of Brit Shalom, before the founding of the state in 1948. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, Buber and his colleagues maintained their vision and fought for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees who had fled during the war. In his essay “Zion and the Other National Concepts,” developed from a lecture he gave in 1944 in Jerusalem, Buber notes the significance of the choice of the term “Zionism” for the modern movement that brought Jews en masse back to the land of Israel. According to Buber, “Zion” refers not to a land for people but rather to a unique place that is God’s alone. (He cites the famous passage from Psalm 48: “The Lord is great and much acclaimed in the city of our God, His holy mountain, fair-crested, joy of all the earth.”)11 From the outset, Zionism, an ostensibly secular political movement, was thus imbued with religious and spiritual significance. Buber did not mean this in any halachic sense; rather, he saw this “Zionism” as an act of inner religiosity or prophetic religion—what he elsewhere called “Hebrew Humanism.” 

For Buber, there are consequences to giving this national movement a name that carries such religious significance.12 He argues that in evoking Zion, “Zionism” casts the Jews as caretakers rather than owners of the land. “This land was at no time in the history of Israel simply the property of the people; it was always at the same time a challenge to make of it what God intended to have made of it,” writes Buber. This notion is aligned more broadly with Buber’s notion of “theo-politics.”13

The idea of the people of Israel as caretakers of the land is made explicit in the Bible. Speaking about the shmita—the sabbatical year when the land lies fallow—God warns the Israelites, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me.”14 Similarly, the biblical concept of the yovel, or Jubilee year, which is a kind of hyper-sabbatical year, follows the same logic; the biblical passage that describes it affirms that no one can own the Holy Land other than God.15 Buber argued that Zionism could be a distinctive national movement precisely because it has the potential to be based not on the rights of one people, or a myth of origins, but on the idea of dwelling in a land that belongs to no one people precisely because it belongs to God. 

But who determines who has a place in a land where, in the biblical worldview, the sole owner is God? Who determines that this place is only my place and, by definition, not your place—even though your people may have lived here for centuries?

A witness to the bloody First World War and the abuses of hypernationalism, Buber and many of his colleagues were acutely sensitized to the dangers of ethnonational territorial claims. Buber saw Zionism as an opportunity to transcend these concerns and the violence they inspired; he also understood the dangers of hypernationalism imposing itself on the Zionist project. For Buber, the Jews’ mission as caretakers of the land meant that they were tasked with making it a place that mirrors its true (divine) owner by making those who dwell on the land a people who reflect the Divine. Of course, this idea is not Buber’s alone; it is rooted in the Jewish textual tradition, as we saw above. Citing the Sifri to Leviticus, the great thirteenth-century biblical commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) interpreted the biblical phrase about the sabbatical year, “for the land is Mine,” as saying precisely this: “You are but strangers, resident with me. It is sufficient for a servant to be like his master. When it is [treated as] mine, it will be yours.”16 In short, dwelling in the land should be—must be—an act of imitatio dei. As the Hebrew prophets taught, to fail to embody that religious precept is to forfeit the right to dwell in that sacred place. This is one of the central tenets of the prophetic notion of exile: Jews were exiled from the land precisely because they failed to act in fidelity with God as sole owner of the land. Put otherwise, they forgot that they were not the land’s owners. 

Imitatio Dei as Relinquishing Claims of Ownership

Buber felt that Zionism had the potential to live out nationalism in a different manner than what he had witnessed in Europe. For him, the fact that the land was already inhabited by other people (as it had been for millennia) should not be seen as an obstacle but rather an opportunity to try to embody that divine call in the modern world. However, Buber recognized that the modern context of the Jews’ return to Zion required rethinking this divine mission. In this sense, Buber understood that the Hebrew Bible could not be the template for Jews returning to the land. Biblical calls to annihilate the preexisting population are simply no longer legitimate. Beyond the obvious reasons (i.e., modern concepts of universal human rights and international law, many of which were developed and enshrined on account of the Holocaust), in the Hebrew Bible, the sin of the people dwelling in Canaan/the land of Israel was worshiping false gods in that land, not inhabiting land promised to the Israelites. But today all of the dominant religions in the Holy Land originate in the scriptural tradition, so this command, even setting aside its immorality from a modern perspective, would not apply. 

On this topic, Buber goes on to say that the changed conditions of the modern era,

sometimes allow[ed] us to make amends for lost opportunities in a quite different situation, in a quite different form, and it is significant that the new situation is more contradictory and the new form more difficult to realize than the old, and that each fresh attempt demands an even greater exertion to fulfill the task; for such is the hard but not ungracious way of life itself.17

We should therefore not lament the absence of a divine call to annihilate “the other,” but celebrate the progress of the human spirit that enables us to “fulfill the task” with human generosity and a moral conscience. 

For this to work, morality and generosity are needed on both sides, to be sure. But to simply forego or nullify the religious precept because the other side has not yet reciprocated is shortsighted and self-serving, and more to the point, it is counter to the biblical “challenge” as understood by Buber. It is incumbent upon us to try to cultivate the conscience of the other by example. As the ancient sages teach in Pirkei Avot 2:5, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man (ish).” We can see here how, while Buber uses the Hebrew Bible to justify the claim that Israel is the Jewish homeland, he clearly deviates from certain aspects of the biblical “morality” (i.e., genocide as an acceptable means to an end) that had been used to support proprietary Zionism. Instead, he emphasizes other elements of biblical conscience to amplify the ultimate goal of imitatio dei, which, according to Buber’s reading, is really the only claim that the Jewish people have to dwell in (not to own) the Holy Land. 

For Buber, the Torah is a template for the ever-expanding potential of recognizing the Divine in creation, and God as creator. The covenantal responsibility is, in a sense, the creation of space, for oneself and for the stranger in one’s midst. Stewardship, not ownership, of the land is thus an act of imitatio dei. Any claim of ownership is an act of rebellion against God’s mandate. 

One could argue that those who resist sharing the land by claiming exclusive ownership, or exclusive rights, are not denying the Palestinians a place in general—rather, they are only denying them this place. But who determines who has a place in a land where, in the biblical worldview, the sole owner is God? Who determines that this place is only my place and, by definition, not your place—even though your people may have lived here for centuries? 

As Israeli historian Ben-Zion Dinur, one of the first Israeli ministers of education, once said: “All Jewish history is Zionist historiography.”

All that being said, there is of course still ownership in a strictly legal sense in the Hebrew Bible. While theologically, only God owns the land, it doesn’t mean that property cannot be bought and sold; even the Bible allows for this, albeit with numerous caveats, checks, and balances. And so, a series of early Israeli state laws made the caveat the rule, attempting to wrest land from its legal owners for the purposes of the state. The Absentee Property Law (enacted in 1950) transferred ownership of “absentee properties”—land not inhabited by its Palestinian owners, some of whom had fled or were expelled by Israeli forces during the war—over to the state. The Land Acquisition Law, passed in March 1953, then made it legal for the state to acquire any property that was “not in the possession of its owners” if the state had deemed it necessary for “development, settlement, or security.” In many cases, the state took Palestinian land whether the owners were “absent” or not. By denying deeds of ownership to Palestinians, the state acquired full rights—that is to say ownership, of the land. In this way, these laws made ownership no longer a product of purchase but a national right.18

עץ בודד בנופי הרי יהודה / A lone tree in the Judean Hills, 1950.
Benno Rothenberg / Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection / CC BY 4.0.

Buber pressed hard against these moves. He pleaded with Ben-Gurion and the Israeli government to allow Palestinians to return to their lands after 1948 if there was no real security threat to them doing so. But, as we know from history, his pleas went unheeded.19 Ben-Gurion, driven by pragmatism and the challenges of statecraft, was adamant that there was no place for a substantial Arab population in the Jewish state, even if that population did not overturn the majoritarian mandate. Buber’s argument, on the other hand, was based on the promptings of his moral conscience, and his belief that there is no real distinction between morality and true religiosity in Judaism. His position seems especially true in dealing with the fragile and volatile phenomenon of divine real estate. It is significant to note that about 75% of those now residing in Gaza are refugees (or descendents of refugees) from the war of 1948 who were not allowed to return to their homes after the war. By attempting to solve one problem, Ben-Gurion inadvertently created another one.

Buber’s argument presents a challenge to the theological claims made by both Jewish settlers and some Christian Zionists: that God gave this land to the Jews and thus the Jews have the exclusive right and authority to determine its status. In fact, that kind of proprietary argument is not a theological one at all; it’s a secular argument couched in theological language. Its essential claim is that nation-states (a secular political institution) own their land and thus are their sole proprietors. This claim in effect denies the biblical claim that the land (and certainly the land of Israel) is only owned by God and bequeathed to whomever God wishes. In fact, according to Rashi, this is the very reason why the Torah begins with the story of creation. On Genesis 1:1, Rashi writes, citing midrash Yalkut Shimoni 187: “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be God; God created it and gave it to whom God pleased. When God willed, God gave it to them, and when God willed, God took it from them and gave it to us.” 

This passage is often cited to claim Jewish ownership of the land. However, discussing this fragment from Rashi in a 1981 talk, Yeshayahu Leibowitz famously added a line from Ezekiel 33:25: “You will eat blood, worship idols, and spill blood. . . . You relied on the sword, you committed abomination—shall you then inherit the land?”20 His point affirms Buber’s argument: the land is only owned by God, and God gives it and takes it away from whomever he chooses. The Jews are no exception.

“A Nation Like All the Others,” or “Not A State Like the Rest”

Woven throughout the history of Zionism is the question of whether Israel should be simply another nation-state among others (“a nation like all the others,” as Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, put it), or if it should be something different (which was Buber’s claim). In comments made in 1949 to Ben-Gurion, Buber said, “I heard one more important thing from the Prime Minister this evening. He said: ‘Not a nation like all the others.’ Might not one add, ‘Not a state like the rest either’?”21 States act according to the raison d’état—national interest in the most narrow and strategic sense. As Buber pointed out, states “choose the path in which the good of the state seems to lie at that moment, no less and no more.”22 Buber had a different vision. He did not want Israel to be “a nation like all other nations.” He wanted Israel to model an exemplary form of prophetic nationalism, a corrective to what he had witnessed in Europe. Israel was, for Buber, a historic opportunity for the Jews to embody a “light unto the nations” by creating a new kind of state, not an ethnostate he witnessed in Germany during the First World War, but a state that embodied the Hebrew Humanism he advocated.

It may be true that, as Golda Meir’s character says in the 2005 film Munich, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” But each civilization must also constantly reassess those values, weigh the price of that compromise, and consider whether the compromise, in the long term, undermines the very mission of that civilization. 

A homeland is an expression of longing and an attachment to a place as the anchor of one’s collective identity. The land of Israel is a homeland for the Jews with or without a state; Jews have considered it such for millenia.

When the theological realm collapses into the political realm, the raison d’état is treated as a divine command. This is not a case of sanctifying the profane, as in the teachings of Rav Kook, but the opposite: profaning the sacred. We can see this inversion in the religious Zionist settler ideology today, for example, among some disciples of Rav Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. When the holiness of the land (a divine proclamation) becomes the holiness of the state (a human creation), we all too easily move in the direction of theocracy veiled as statism, in which the state itself becomes the embodiment of divine will. Such a move undermines the traditional notion of the land of Israel as the embodiment of God-as-“place” (ha-makom in Hebrew). A theological alternative to such state-worship begins with the notion that no people—neither the Jewish nor Palestinian peoples—has ever owned, or can ever own, the Holy Land. If the State of Israel and the Jewish people view themselves as caretakers of the land, the religious precept of imitatio dei commands us to share that space, even the city of Jerusalem (Al Quds), to make it a “divine place”—the place that God intended to have made of it. Not sharing from a stance of ownership, but sharing from the recognition of ownership’s impossibility. One could surmise that the label “holy” (kadosh/muqadas) requires just such a stance: not the exclusivity of place, but its unique character of expansiveness. Perhaps this is what the prophet Isaiah intended when he said that in the future, Jerusalem would be “a house of prayer for all peoples.”23 This arguably counters any view of proprietary Zionism and may undermine the notion of a “Jewish” state as it is currently understood and implemented. In fact, it may deny Zionism itself, all the while protecting the notion of a Jewish homeland. 

A homeland is an expression of longing and an attachment to a place as the anchor of one’s collective identity. The land of Israel is a homeland for the Jews with or without a state; Jews have considered it such for millenia. The mitzvah is to dwell in “the land of Israel,” not in “the state of Israel.” While the state certainly instantiates a homeland as a political reality, it needn’t deny the equal rights of others who live there, either theoretically or practically. Thus, the state of Israel needn’t be a Jewish state in order to be a state that functions as the Jewish homeland. This was Arendt’s point in her essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland.” As a state, created and curated by human beings, it should equally represent all who live there, a state of all its citizens, a place where all live with equal rights. Just as some see establishing the State of Israel as the great Jewish challenge of the twentieth century, perhaps decoupling the Jewish people, and even the Jewish homeland, from the state may be the Jewish theological challenge of the twenty-first century. Otherwise, the theological underpinnings of the Israeli state may collapse into the secular machination of “might makes right.” For people like Arendt, Buber, Leibowitz, and many others, such a reality would be not only a political failure, but a spiritual one as well.

This essay is a revised and updated version of chapter six of The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance (Ayin Press, 2023).


  1. Exodus 19:5.
  2. See Ezekiel 11:5–11:11 and 33:24–33:29.
  3. Genesis 12:1.
  4. Genesis 23:4.
  5. See Dov Waxman, The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending/Defining the Nation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 50.
  6. To cite one example, when Moses Nahmanides arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, he wrote a letter to his son saying there were not enough Jewish men in Jerusalem to constitute a minyan. 
  7. See Raef Zreik, “When Does a Settler Become a Native?” in Settler Indigeneity in the West Bank, R. Feldman and I. McGonicle, eds. (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2023), 222.
  8. See Settler-Indigeneity in the West Bank, Feldman and McGonicle, eds; and Mark Rifkin, “Indigeneity, Apartheid, Palestine: On the Transit of Political Metaphors,” Cultural Critique 95 (Winter 2017): 25–70.
  9. Hannah Arendt, “To Save The Jewish Homeland,” in The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 396.
  10. Arendt, 396–397.
  11. Psalms 48:2–3.
  12. The term Zionism was coined by Nathan Birnbaum, who later abandoned the movement.
  13. Martin Buber, On Zion: The History of an Idea, trans. Stanley Godman (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), xix. On theo-politics, see Sam Brody, Martin Buber’s Theopolitics (Bloomington, IN Indiana University Press, 2018). 
  14. The shmita is every seven years. Leviticus 25:23.
  15. The yovel is every fiftieth year; that is, after seven cycles of seven. Leviticus 25:10–18.
  16. Ramban on Leviticus 25:23.
  17. Buber, On Zion, xxi–xxii.
  18. ​​For more information, see Yifat Holzman-Gazit, “Expropriation of Arab Lands in the 1950s: Policy and Process,” in Land Expropriation in Israel: Law, Culture and Society (London: Routledge, 2016), 111–113.
  19. See Martin Buber, “A Protest Against Expropriation of Arab Lands,” in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 261–263.
  20. This is a quote (translated into English) from a public talk Leibowitz gave in the town of Ma’alot, 1981, which was recorded in the documentary Ma’alot [ישעיהו ליבוביץ במעלות] (1982) by Yigal Bursztyn.
  21. Buber, 243.
  22. Buber, 243.
  23. Isaiah 56:7

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