As a Tikvah Fellow at the Wall Street Journal, I’ve spent the last 9 months researching the world of pro-Israel advocacy in the campus space — namely what works, what doesn’t, and how to make it better. What I’ve discovered in part is that we as a community don’t understand what Zionism actually is. We reduce this philosophy — to which there have been many contributions from an array of philosophers and thought leaders — to discussions about UN resolutions and media bias. But this is not the sum and substance of Zionism; the ideas at the core of Zionism have nothing to do with the BDS movement or other anti-Israel campaigns. Instead, Zionism is defined by concepts that inform the way we as human beings create meaning in our lives and shape a sense of identity. These tendencies are found in every society and are, in addition to being particularly Jewish, profoundly human. My comments below explore just how much the Zionist idea is found in the way we express ourselves in today’s popular culture.
When discussions about Israel arise in our inner circles, we often take the concept of “homeland” for granted. We reduce “homeland” to something that exists purely for political purposes — something to be divided or retained as Oslo, or American policymakers see fit.
Yet a homeland is not simply a pile of dirt and dust that exists to do the bidding of foreign diplomats. It is a physical space that plays a prominent role in the flourishing of a community. It satisfies that community’s need for rootedness — a concept central to the productive development of one’s identity. In many cultures, a homeland should not be held in high esteem merely for the sake of utility, (the production of goods and services), but for the cultivation of the community ontologically speaking, and for the sanctity of the individual who understands that he or she belongs to something: A place, A people, a history, and therefore a purpose and a destiny.
Curiously enough, though we as a society take the concept of the sanctity of a homeland for granted, we explore and extol this idea in many of the television shows, music compositions, and other artistic expressions we gravitate towards.
For example, the idea of rootlessness and its consequences were explored through the character of Don Draper in the critically acclaimed drama series Mad Men, which ran on AMC from 2007 to 2015. Because he grew up in a broken home — and, for those of you who haven’t watched the series, I’m being kind; He grew up in a whorehouse — Draper struggled with the insecurities and anxieties that accompany being homeless — in both the literal and existential sense of the word. Draper isn’t even his real name, as he changes it from “Dick” to hide the shame of his past. Attempting to create a new, meaningful identity for himself, Draper fails abysmally — and he deals with the dilemma of living an unsettled life by seeking solace through a string of extramarital affairs and alcohol.
Another series that explores the role that homeland plays in an individual’s life is Game of Thrones (GOT). Here, the importance of protecting one’s own identify with a specific piece of land and the rituals performed in said land is not only the traditional thing to do, but also morally required. “My name is Arya Stark of Winterfell,” says Arya to Jaquen, the acolyte of the “many-faced God,” who demands that his disciples shed all forms of personal identity. Yet, as Arya announces to him after defeating an enemy, she is someone and she is “going home,” and GOT fans around the world including yours truly cheered as this self-affirming line was uttered.
Why? Because not only is Arya not “nobody,” it is repugnant to act as though becoming “nobody” is something virtuous. She is somebody and being that somebody requires being in a place that gives expression to who she is. We identify with Arya’s rebellious act of insisting that she belongs to a place and to a people because we as human beings exhibit those same feelings of affection with where we come from and the family we call our own.
Legendary singer-songwriter Bob Marley also famously expressed his belief in the importance of homeland in many of his songs. For example, In Exodus, Marley depicts a picture of exile-and-return with references to the Biblical Exodus, an ancient story parallel to the plight of his own people who wanted to return to Ethiopia. “Send us another brother Moses,” he sings. “Movement of Jah people, From across the Red Sea!” Throughout much of Marley’s body of work, the importance of the land of Africa — and the culture, traditions, and heritage that sprung forth from Africa — is heavily influential.
An analysis of the central role that homeland plays in culture would be incomplete if the Bible was not mentioned. The concept of the sacredness of land and the way it allows for the creation of one’s identity plays a prominent role in Torah. Though there are countless examples, the importance of different homelands for different peoples plays out especially in the story of the Tower of Babel.
As the story goes, the people of the earth attempt to build one singular tower “whose top may reach unto heaven.” They are subsequently sanctioned by God, but as Professor Daniel Gordis explains in his essay, “The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood,” not for reasons traditionally given. He explains,
Human beings, we have learned, ought to scatter. Yet the people of Babel reject this ideal, refusing to allow for the territorial, cultural, and linguistic diversity so essential to the new humanity envisioned by God.
This, then, is the real sin committed by the builders of the Tower of Babel, and not, as is commonly suggested, their hubristic aspiration “to make a name” for themselves. For, after all, who among us does not seek to leave behind a name of sorts? Who does not hope that his or her legacy — be it large or small — will be remembered for a generation or two? There is nothing terribly sinful about the desire to achieve greatness and recognition. God himself promises Abraham the very same thing in the next chapter: “I will make of you a great nation… I will make your name great.” The real transgression of the Babel generation thus cannot be ambition as such, but the determination to evade humanity’s destiny to ‘be scattered all over the world’…
This biblical vision is especially pertinent today, when the nation-state is commonly rejected as a thing of the past, and national identity as a prejudice humanity must learn to transcend. Israel, specifically, is reviled as a chauvinistic anachronism; the Jewish state, once a paradigm of the struggle for liberation and self-determination, is now associated with colonial conquest and the violation of human rights. Such a view has become increasingly popular even among Jews themselves, many of whom regard Israel’s national particularism as a moral aberration and an abandonment of Judaism’s universal values. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The insistence on the importance of the ethnic-cultural state lies, we have seen, at the very core of the Hebrew Bible. When the Zionist movement set out to found a Jewish state, it, like [John Stuart] Mill (and countless others), was simply following the dictates of Hebraic political thought. From the initial call for humanity to “replenish the earth” to the final exhortation for Jews to “rise up” (the concluding verse of II Chronicles), it is the story of the Jewish nation that the Bible tells. And it is that same story we continue to tell today, a reminder to peoples everywhere to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
To wit, the core ideas expressed in Zionist philosophy are reflected in the zeitgeist of today. From Game of Thrones to Bob Marley, echoes of the Jewish desire for rootedness and a sense of belonging can be heard in the very mechanisms we construct to entertain ourselves. We root for Arya and sing with Marley precisely because they give expression to the impulses we find within ourselves.
At the same time, this need to belong and the fulfillment of that dream that comes through being connected to a homeland represents a repudiation of the idea of wanton aimlessness also expressed in our culture — perhaps most famously by John Lennon’s iconic Imagine.
“Imagine there’s no countries,” he sings. “It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for; And no religion too.”
While such an existence may appear euphoric on the surface, the logical progression of Lennon’s song is the subsuming of diversity and, consequently, the sense of purpose that comes with knowing who one is. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached in a sermon titled But If Not, “if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live…” He continued to say that, “…somewhere along the way you should discover something that’s so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthful [sic], that you will never give it up.”
Dr. King’s message lies at the heart of Zionism and the Jews’ aspiration to return to Israel: That thing so precious and dear to the Jews. they are unwilling to give it up. There is meaning in difference, and what often gives expression to difference is the physical territory in which expressions of that difference arise. As Rav Soloveitchik once put it, “there is no identity without uniqueness.” And without identity, there is no purpose.
That Zionism at its core is universally relevant should come as no surprise. Human beings instinctively gravitate towards these concepts. We do not want to shed our uniqueness but instead, yearn for the permission to showcase it. Though we may hum his tune we realize that Lenon’s Imagine portrays an absurd nightmare that each of us as individuals would want desperately to wake from.
Zionism, then, is not only about self-actualization, but the ritualized affirmation of a people’s identity which can only come about through existing in a very specific place beloved by that people.
Thus, there is a tragic irony in that many individuals, both within and without the Jewish community seek to separate Jews from the soil that made the body of work produced by the Bob Marley’s of the world even possible. That soil, of course, is Judea and Samaria.
Critics would likely consider themselves lovers of these great works of art, but do not know the sum and substance of the ideas behind them — ideas formed in a very specific place, by a very specific people, and which could not have been formed unless that people had been there in the first place. Lauryn Hill, for example, could not have contemplated naming her son “Zion,” and the Europeans could not have conceived of Michelangelo’s David if those concepts and characters had not first been developed in Judea and Samaria. Yet both Lauryn Hill and many Europeans are vociferous opponents of Jews living in that land.
Thus, the relevant question what to do to Jews living in Judea and Samaria is not merely political in nature, but existential. As Shakespeare once wrote, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” Jewish identity has been shaped by a land, and, as has been demonstrated in this essay, the Jewish desire to remain in Judea and Samaria — the birthplace of its civilization — is an instinct every human being can relate to.
It follows that the ultimatums that some wish to impose on Israelis, which take no account of the importance that the concept that homeland plays in the lives of a people make for a poetically just paradox: These vociferous critics of the Zionist project are themselves deeply Zionist since they extoll the virtues of Zionist ideas in their own artistic cultural expressions.
How tragic would it be to find then, that by calling for the erasure of Jewish communities in the West Bank, they consequently erase themselves?