Israel’s homeland narrative

When I was fourteen, I discovered a “South Carolina Israelite,” Barry Farber, who hosted a nighttime radio talk show. One topic in particular riveted me: Yes, the Jews must have a safe place to live, but why must it be situated among their enemies? Farber wondered aloud at the foolishness of the Zionists who had turned down the fabulous mineral wealth of Uganda, insisting on one very specific– and dangerous—parcel of land. His own suggestion was to locate the Jewish state in the midst of friends, in a place so unpopulated that no one could complain of being displaced: Wah-Oh-Min! Why didn’t the Zionists petition the United States for the nearly empty state of Wyoming?

The answer, of course, is that the Zionists were not merely interested in a “space” for Jewish settlement; what they sought was more than safe shelter. The land that includes Hebron, Jerusalem and the Galilee is a place. “Space” becomes “place” when it acquires meaning: The Zionists wanted this particular space because of the meaning bestowed on it by the Jewish narrative. When Israel insists on the Palestinians recognizing the “right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” it is insisting on the Jewish narrative, the story that gives this particular space meaning for Jews.

But the Palestinians have a narrative of their own. Certainly, disputes over Palestinian return and jurisdiction over Jerusalem—as well as the impossibility of sorting through the areas that are now Jewish settlements—had much to do with the collapse of two-state talks earlier this year. However, even had those issues proved resoluble, the issue of conflicting narratives would have made a two-state solution impossible between two peoples so fervently insistent upon the stories on which their national identities depend.

On this winter’s annual sojourn in Israel, I traveled along the Palestinian side of the “separation wall” with a Palestinian guide. I carried with me, as well, Ari Shavit’s exquisitely rendered and profoundly researched “My Promised Land.” From both sources it appeared that the Palestinian narrative is not based solely in anti-Semitism, nor is it about a demand for Israel to recognize all religions equally within its border. Those are related issues, but the real issue is this: It is undeniable that the Palestinians were driven off farms and out of homes that had been passed down within their families for generations. That property–much of it now luxury condos, industrial parks and universities—cannot be converted back into the farms Palestinians remember. All the Palestinians can reasonably hope for at this point is control of the narrative!

What the Palestinians would give up by recognizing Israel “as a Jewish state” is the narrative that says, “This was once our land and it was taken from us by force.” If they agree to accept a smaller portion of the land in exchange for “peace,” they want history to officially note that they did so under protest. And it is impossible to deny the historical truth of this narrative. The British—and then the U.N.– “gave” the Jews something that was not theirs to give. It is enough, say the Palestinians, that we are forced to share our land with you; do not humiliate us further by requiring us to accept your narrative.

Many urge Israel to forego the niceties of narrative and focus instead on such concrete matters as the drawing of lines. Narratives, they argue, are luxuries that Israel can ill afford. Besides, once your borders are secure, you can tell whatever story you like. John Kerry was among those urging Israel to negotiate borders and let go of The Narrative. But Netanyahu spoke for most Israelis when he insisted upon the Israeli narrative. Refusal to see what is plainly there, says Shavit throughout his persuasively argued book, is an old Israeli habit, an old Israeli mistake.

Perhaps it is at last time to revisit the Israeli narrative, the story that is precious to Israeli identity because it originates in the Torah and is the story of how the Jews became “a people.” According to this story, the evolution of a ragtag mob of exiles into a morally mature nation is tied to a divine promise for this one very specific parcel of land. The Jewish narrative, as the story of Jewish coming-into-peoplehood thus binds Jewish personal identity as well as Jewish national identity irrevocably to this one particular place on the planet. If this is, indeed the Torah narrative of Jewish identity, it is understandable that Israel could never concede The Narrative.

But what, exactly, is that Torah story that identifies the land of Israel with the Jewish people? Some of the Torah story is, of course, myth–origins stories like the ones about Adam and Eve and Noah. But some of it purports to be history, an account that begins with the Passover story of oppressed people fleeing their oppressors and, over forty years, taking for themselves a deity with whom they have a unique relationship, and a set of laws that bind them to one another as a singular people.

What marks the Torah narrative from the outset to its very end in the Book of Deuteronomy is the fact that the Jews are always on the move, always on the way. They are, at every point in their story, a people who must fight to take land that belongs to others. The narrative of the Torah is, in a nutshell, the story of a homeless people in search of a place to call home. Chapter after chapter, the Torah recounts the many skirmishes and larger battles the Israelites waged because they were, themselves, without property; it tells of conquests and losses, of rethinking strategies and reconstituting armies until a fierce, warrior tribe emerges. At last, in Deuteronomy, when this army looks upon the land that is promised to them, God warns them not to be seduced by the temptations of milk and honey and dancing girls and false idols that they will encounter among the people who already live in that land. Then they cross the Jordan and take the land by force, and that is the end of The Narrative supplied by the Torah.

Thus the Torah narrative is an often bloody story of people forging on toward what was, at the time, one of the dandiest pieces of real estate in the region: fertile valleys, abundant lakes, cool forests, and a length of seacoast on the promising Mediterranean. The filet of the neighborhood. But it is most important to note that, wherever they go, the Jews are the only people who have no land of their own! They have a very personal god, a god who has singled them out as his exclusive people, but they have no land. And the land they eventually settle in has, until their arrival there, belonged to others, to people with gods of their own whom the Israelites are cautioned to shun.

Now, all the folks the Jews meet up with in the course of The Narrative –Moabites, Sodomites, whomever—also have gods who are exclusive and special to them. These gods dwell in and protect the lands these people inhabit. They guard it against natural disasters, ensure good harvests in its fields and protect its inhabitants from enemies outside its borders. Like covenants placed upon real estate by owners, the gods of the ancient tribes “run with the land.”

In the course of their progress toward their promised land, everyone the Israelites encounter belongs to a nation-cum-god. To be one of the people who reside in a particular land is, ipso facto, to come under the protection of the god who dwells within that land and can be found physically located a temple situated upon that land. Throughout the Torah narrative, only the Jews have a special god but no land in which that god can dwell, no land which that god is sworn to protect. The god of the Jews is a homeless deity, a god for a homeless people!

There is, of course, another narrative, the account validated by recent archeological findings. This research reveals that the “Israelites” were not a single group of people who “left Egypt.” Rather, there was a time throughout Mesopotamia, around the time of the Exodus story, when climatic crises produced serious agricultural and economic failures throughout the region. Monarchies lost power and crumbled and, in the ensuing chaos, oppressed minorities were able to flee their miserable conditions. It is theorized that many as twelve different tribes of escaping slaves, all in quest of the freedom and equality they had been denied by the despots who had ruled them, entered the desert from various directions.

A significant discovery turned up by this recent research is a place in the Sinai where, it is thought, people traveling from many directions may have met up; the local god in this region, according to carvings found on stones there, was known as Yahweh. It is interesting to speculate that these twelve tribes, sojourning together in this region, pooled their resources and formulated a set of laws to insure peace among themselves. To forge an even stronger bond, they took for themselves a common god, the local god, Yahweh.
Certainly it would be understandable if, to promote an even greater sense of unity, these tribes devised a common “origins story” to the effect that they were all descended from a single line of ancestors–Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The twelve tribes were, on this account, really one big family. Perhaps they told their children that there was a better life ahead in a land that would belong to them so that they would not have to continue wandering in the wilderness forever. We might imagine that their children, being children, demanded to know how their parents knew that this land would turn out to belong to them, and that their parents replied, “Well, dears, Yahweh promised us that it would be ours.” A more secular, science-based “narrative,” but it comes out in the same place as the religious Torah version.

Had these twelve tribes been satisfied to remain in the wilderness, they might have absorbed the original Yahweh worshippers and become, like other tribes in the region, a people with a land and an in-dwelling protective deity. But, as they chose to continue on their journey, the Yahweh that became their god could not be like the other gods in the region, physical objects meant to occupy particular spaces, idols to be enthroned in temples. Because they were itinerants, lacking a land of their own, the Jews could not have a god that could be domiciled in any particular location. And so, the Jewish Yahweh does not occupy space. The Jewish deity is a god of all spaces and of none. He does not dwell anywhere; He is everywhere and nowhere. See, e.g., Burning Bush, Pillar of Smoke. But see, most significantly, the Second Commandment!

Every schoolchild learns that the Hebrews’ greatest contribution to civilization was monotheism. But even among the many gods of the Egyptians, there was always one C.E.O., a unifying entity that stood atop the pyramid, as it were. This is true of most polytheisms; it reflects the pervasive human need to organize experience into a single, unified whole, the same impulse that drives science toward a single coherent theory.

The truly exceptional Jewish contribution to civilization is not the First, but the Second, Commandment. In Number Two, God lets us know that it is impossible to see or even to imagine Him with images drawn from sense experience. The Second Commandment presents us with a deity that defies representation; God in the Second Commandment is an abstraction, and we are forbidden from considering any spatial characteristics as applying to Him.
A God with no physical characteristics, no empirical qualities, is incapable of being placed in any particular location. The God of the Hebrews is thus not a God that can occupy particular temple or any particular land. Jewish identity was constructed by a people on the hoof, a group of tribes who were always traveling. It should not surprise us, then, to discover that their deity is a portable one. The conception of God as a placeless abstraction reflects the Jewish view of their identity as essentially homeless.

The Jewish concept of the divine thus represents an enormous intellectual advance over previous tribal notions. For the first time, God is a sophisticated metaphysical idea, infinite and unimaginable, a radically new idea. The Second Commandment says, “You will never find Me in any place you look with your eyes; you can only discover Me inwardly, by taking leave of your five senses and making a leap of faith.” The revolutionary new idea conveyed in the Second Commandment, it turns out, is the very notion of faith!

Whether we look to the Torah or to archeological research—whether our approach is through traditional religion or secular science– we are led to the same conclusion: The Jewish notion of divinity attests to placelessness as the very essence of Jewish identity.
So, what are we to make of the other story in the Torah, the one that not only identifies Yahweh as having chosen the Israelites as his exclusive tribe, but also attests to Yahweh promising them a specific parcel of land, a parcel that He will not only give to them but will dwell in with them, protecting it as other tribal deities protected their lands from poor climate and enemy invasions? And what are we to make of the later narrative in which the Jews consecrate a temple to Yahweh, a specific site within that unique parcel of land?
I think what we must make of this is that the God of the Second Commandment is a radically modern—perhaps Enlightenment—deity, a metaphysical entity reachable by way of man’s powers of self-transcendence, whereas the Jewish interpretation of those sections of the Torah that speak of finding a place in which to situate their god reflect a more naïve, typically ancient, resistance to the Second Commandment’s insistence on faith. Once the real power and meaning of the Second Commandment becomes clear, it is impossible to consider the Jewish god as having a specific place. What we are left with, then, is a story about a promise to give the Jewish people a land of their own, but the idea that the Jewish god dwells in this place seems heretical.

The Narrative of a promised land does not, therefore, lie at the heart of Jewish identity, either personal or national. It remains simply a story like others in the Torah, a story that drives the narrative of journeying. This is a narrative of a forty-year desert sojourn of a homeless people who, from the agony of their homelessness, invented the idea of a portable, abstract deity and thereby created the idea of faith.

Of course, in ancient times, no one owned anything in the sense of provable title. Land belonged to whomever worked it and, ultimately to whomever could defend it. You “owned” your land for as long as you could keep it: Might made right. The mightier deity manifested his power in the outcome of the battle. Which brings us to the modern-day Jewish Narrative.

Ben Gurion wanted to make certain that when the music stopped, the Jews were sitting on as many chairs as they could possibly occupy; the West Bank settlers today keep pushing their Wall closer to where the Palestinians are actually sitting for this same reason. When the music stops, whoever is in this chair will have the better claim to it and will keep it for as long as he can defend it. And that is why Israel owns the bomb. As both Ari Shavit and Simon Schama conclude in their recent books, Israel will exist in the future, but not because of The Narrative.

The Narrative– the chain of reasoning that ties Jewish identity to a promise for a specific parcel of land—is, in fact, a sort of heresy; at the very least it ignores the best idea the Jews gave to the world. Kerry, Shavit, and others who continue to urge Israel to abandon The Narrative are absolutely right: Israel should stop fussing over The Narrative and get down to dividing up the space, laying claim to so much as it can readily defend.

The writer is a Philosopher who teaches Aesthetics at Boston Architectural College. She lives in Sag Harbor, New York.


About the Author
Susan Pashman was an attorney at Cravath, Swaine and Moore; and at The Proskauer Firm. She now teaches Aesthetics at Boston Architectural College and elsewhere. She received her PhD in Philosophy from Stony Brook University. She is the author of a novel, "The Speed of Light." Her political articles have appeared in; her short stories and essays appeared in The Indiana Review, The Texas Review, Arcadia Magazine and others.