Moses: The Father of Nationalism

The Festival of Freedom – Passover – is not only the people of Israel’s most formative holiday, but also is the first national event in history – any history. In fact, the Passover story is the archetype of national thinking as we perceive it today.

The Exodus from Egypt created a foundational story from which we would later be able to define nations. Throughout history, entire populations have done so, in order to differentiate themselves from those surrounding them, and to provide for themselves cohesion and meaning.

At its core, the foundational story of the Exodus from Egypt is a simple one:

A leader approaches the slave population (Moses), unites them under one banner and one common designation (the people of the God of Israel) in order to rebel against the oppressors (Pharaoh) and to return to their mythological homeland (Israel), which is in turn the only way in which they will be able to fully and completely realize and exercise their common social and cultural life (as provided in the guide which they were given on Mt. Sinai).

In other words, the story of the Exodus from Egypt created a measuring stick. A population that believes that it was of common popular origin, and possesses a common historical memory, culture and language, as well as a common homeland (even in absentia) only in which it will be able to fully express its culture –  this is not just any population. It is a nation.

And therefore, Moses is the father of nationalism (Skeptics would say that he invented it. ).

Moses was not only the first among of the many leaders throughout history who have tried to perform the same heroic feat, but also  he was arguably the most successful of them all.

By contrast, Spartacus provides the reverse example. While also a leader of slaves who began a giant rebellion against their Roman oppressors, the analogy to Moses ends there. Following his first grand achievement – a collective and massive escape and release, Spartacus and his army of rebels simply turned around and chose to fight to the bitter end instead of continuing on to some coveted territory.

Spartacus failed not only because his population was a multitude of peoples, but rather because he had no vision for a life after achieving freedom. The unity of society that he created was based on the war, and therefore, in order to maintain cohesion – he was forced to return to the unifying reality of war.

Most of the nationalist movements throughout history have followed in the footsteps of Spartacus. They failed simply because they only knew how to fight. They did not have a true vision for a full, cultural life. It wasn’t life which they extolled or lauded. Rather, it was the banner of the rebellion itself. And that is not enough. Rebellion, once successful becomes the victim of that very success.

Ephraim Moses Lilien.
Ephraim Moses Lilien. (1908)

From this, it is easy to understand the secret of the most successful  nationalist movement of the past 100 years, a conspicuous success among a multitude of failures: Zionism.

The Zionist movement succeeded because its vision was a vision of life. It aspired to achieve a popular and cultural awakening in the only homeland the people of Israel have ever had. This was its aspiration, and not the struggle or the war. Its sole vision was one of a renaissance. Nothing more than the return of Zion, just the physical and mental release from the enslaving Exile.

But success has many enemies. As we approach Passover, we are once again witness to those who would rise up against us to destroy us, as the Haggadah tells us they have done since the days of Moses, against a background of a campaign of de-legitimization and dehumanization.

Beyond the physical empowerment and the belief and faith , we must grow stronger, spiritually, and coalesce around our common heritage. Our true heritage. Our winning heritage .


15 Nissan, 5775
Zion, Jerusalem


About the Author
CEO of Im Tirtzu, a grassroots Zionist organization advocating for Israel in Israel
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