You know Israel is a Jewish country, and you know it’s a big part of your identity as a Jew. And if you’re exposed to the current discourse in the media (which, let’s face it, is hard to avoid), you also know there is debate online and IRL about Israel, Zionism, anti-Zionism, and everything in between. But you might also want to know - what is it about Israel that makes it so darn relevant to us as a nation?
First and foremost is the fact that as an ethnic group, the Jewish people’s roots lie in the general area that is now called Israel (originally Canaan). Evidence-based knowledge of a Jewish claim to the land of Israel goes beyond the Biblical stories of Abraham’s travels to settle in the land, and his descendants re-conquering it following the exodus from Egypt. Research has shown that Jews worldwide show more genetic similarities with each other than they do with Gentile neighbors, and roots have been traced back to the Levant (the general area of today’s state of Israel). Additionally, over 80% of Jewish males and 50% of Jewish females can track their ancestry back to Middle Eastern regions.
Historically speaking, Jewish sovereignty in Israel can be traced back to approximately 1,000 BCE, during the rulerships of King David and King Solomon over the land of Israel and Judea, which would put the current historical link to the land at 3,000 years. In fact, the Jews have been the only group who can claim to have established their own independent sovereignty over the land of Israel. While the region has been conquered and ruled by a large number of ancient empires (Babylonian, Persian, and Roman, just to name a few), various Muslim empires, and the British, the ancient and current Jewish leadership of Israel is unique in its history for that reason.
Such data points are the basis for the claim that Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. Defined as “Originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; inhabiting or existing in a land from the earliest times or from before the arrival of colonists,” Jews are indigenous to Israel in a similar manner that Native Americans are indigenous to the USA.
Study Jewish history, and you’ll study a long and sad pattern of Jewish settlement, expulsion, and displacement throughout the ages. While the ancient kingdom of Israel lasted for over 200 years (just about the amount of time the United States has existed, to put it in perspective), the Jews were invaded and ousted from the land by the Babylonians in 586 BCE in the era of the destruction of the First Temple. They were allowed back 70 years later, when they rebuilt the Temple, but this time their reign was short-lived: They were again expelled by the Romans in 70 CE. It was during that time period when Jews settled in all parts of the world, starting in North Africa and Germany and France, and eventually spreading across Europe and the Middle East. As Jewish communities in the Diaspora continued to flourish, diminish, and rebuild, there was consistently a Jewish presence within the area of Israel throughout its complex history of changing ownership. A continual Jewish population in Israel reinforces the fact that the Jews are forever linked to the land.
While living amongst the nations of the world, Jews have experienced both the best and worst of times. “The Golden Age” for Jews in Spain, and periods of tremendous prosperity for Jews in Poland and beyond. More often than ages of flowing goodness, however, were times of pain and despair, persecution and disbursement. Throughout history, Jews have been targeted against and expelled by almost every country they’ve inhabited. Time and time again, Jews have been reminded that the lands in which they reside are not their homelands. The one exception? Our real homeland, Israel, has been a constant for the Jewish people, no matter the amount of hardship it took to live there. Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, it has been a haven for persecuted Jews including those from the former Soviet Union, Arab countries, Iran Europe, and Ethiopia. This welcoming approach remains necessary as Israel continues to provide a sanctuary for Jews escaping violent anti-Semitic circumstances today.
Of course, beyond just an ethnic and cultural group, Judaism is a religion, and the basis of Israel’s significance is religious in nature. In Genesis, Abraham was promised the land of Canaan for his descendants by God. In the generations that followed, Abraham’s great-grandchildren left Canaan and traveled to Egypt due to famine. Years later, as recorded in the book of Exodus, the Israelites left Egypt and headed back to the Promised Land of Israel, where they arrived 40 years later (after making stops in the Sinai desert, including at Mount Sinai where the Torah was received). The first Biblical command to inhabit the land of Israel is when God tells Moses: “Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53)
Why is a piece of land, and particularly the land of Israel, so central to a religious belief? The answer goes beyond its importance as the birthplace of Judaism (although that is not to be overlooked). The late Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, explained that Judaism is a religion that believes spirituality does not belong just in heaven. Spirituality, in Judaism, happens in our day-to-day lives, encompassing not only our personal interactions, but those of politics, economics, and sociology. Israel is the only country in which a society based solely on Judaism operates, including the spoken language, the annual calendar, and the political environment. The Jewish beliefs, social norms, and culture is what Israel is made of.
This poses a unique solution to ensuring a strong Jewish future. In Israel, one does not need to be religious to feel Jewish. When federal holidays are Jewish holidays and the national language is one that belongs to Jews, Judaism is a natural way of life. In Israel, national pride is Jewish pride.
Israel holds significant importance for the Jewish people on ethnic, historical, and religious levels. Its survival and Jewish survival are inextricably linked, as the country’s role as a homeland, a cultural and religious hub, and a sanctuary for Jews in need deem it essential to the identity of the Jewish people. Why do the Jews need Israel, you asked? Israel is the foundation of Judaism, and without it, we’d be on very shaky ground, indeed.