*Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD  

During the eighteen centuries of Jewish life in the Diaspora, the connection to the Land of Israel played a key role in the value system of Jewish communities and was a basic determinant in “their self-consciousness as a group.” Without the connection to the Land of Israel, the people who practice Judaism would simply be a religious community, without national and ethnic components. Jews were distinct from the Muslim and Christian communities in which they lived, because of religious beliefs and practices, and the eternal link to the land of their forefathers. That is why Jews considered themselves—and are seen by others as “a minority in exile.”[1].


“Israel enables us to…sense a ray of God’s radiance in the jungles of history.” [2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary explained, “This…is an intimate ingredient of Jewish consciousness, at the core of Jewish history, a vital element of Jewish faith…For the Jews and for them alone, this was the one and only Homeland, the only conceivable place where they could find liberation and independence, the land toward which their minds and hearts had been uplifted for a score of centuries and where their roots had clung in spite of all adversity… It was the homeland with which an indestructible bond of national, physical, religious, and spiritual character had been preserved, and where the Jews had in essence remained—and were now once more in fact—a major element of the population.” [3]

Wherever Jews lived, they did not publicly challenge the occupation of the land by the empires of the East and West. They did so in their homes, sanctuaries, books and prayers. Religious rituals were instituted to remember the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile. During times of joy and sorrow, Zion is always part of a Jew’s thoughts and liturgy. At least three times a day, observant Jews pray for the redemption of Zion and Jerusalem and for her well- being. [4]

Jews believe the land was reserved for them at creation not only because of it being the most striking and bountiful of lands, but because of its spiritual character. A unique sanctity permeates the land making living there intrinsically of the uppermost importance, overshadowing all the other Biblical commandments. Anyone who lives in the land of Israel is certain to have a place in the world to come, while an individual who leaves permanently “is like a man who has no G-d.” It is a land that is “unique and irreplaceable,” and cannot be exchanged for any other. [5]

Moses Maimonides (Rambam), the Sephardic Jewish philosopher and one of the most influential Torah scholars, said the land became sanctified when Jews remained there. The late Eliezer Schweid, professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained “it is the relationship bound up with the national possession of the land based on the Torah that sanctified it to the people of Israel and none other.” Joshua’s conquest sanctified the land for a period of time, but when the Jews were forced into exile in Babylon, this ended the sanctity. The sanctity was restored by the Jews once again by the

Jews who returned to the Land of Judah after the first exile in 538 BCE, the Jews in Babylon were allowed to return to the Land of Judah, due to Persian Cyrus the Great’s decree. [6]

“The Jew must live among his sovereign people in order to fulfill the commandments—this is Maimonides’s basic assumption, and the sanctity of the land is founded on it….” This duty, Schweid said, is that “Political considerations demand that living in the land be obligatory when sovereign Jewish kingdom stands upon its soil, for it is in relation to the Jewish community as a whole that the obligations of the individual are determined.”[7] The agricultural laws found in the Torah are expressly connected with cultivating the earth of the Holy land. Animal sacrifices were confined to the Temple in Jerusalem. Cities of refuge for those guilty of manslaughter could not be built anywhere but in the land of Israel. Leaving the country became a religious transgression laden with remorse. Those living outside of the Holy Land were considered unwilling accomplices in idolatry. [8]

“A decisive factor” in determining the “character and position” of the Jews in their ancestral home, asserted former Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Herzog, depends on how they act. If they appear to abandon their Jewish birthright, they “cannot defend our right to the Land of Israel.” If Jews discard the concept of Jewish uniqueness in human history, it is very difficult to counter those who oppose the right of the Jews to the land. But if they acknowledge the uniqueness, then the response is not only a religious Jewish one, “but which has a place in the world outlook of the 20th century—no less than in any previous century.” [8]

A People That Dwells Alone

Herzog reminds us that three thousand years ago, Balaam the Prophet, portrayed the Jews as “a people that dwells alone.” This unusual turn cannot be understood as part of the mythology in the ancient world. Yet this is how most of humanity views Jews. Whether this perception indicates a privilege—“not an escape from society as a whole, but a unique role within it is an anomaly—which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history.” [9]


[1] Shlomo Avineri, The Making of Modern Zionism: The Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State (New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1981), 3.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York: The Noonday Press, 1965), 115.

[3] Ibid. 57.

[4] Ibid.55, 61-67.

[5] Eliezer Schweid, The Land of Israel: National Home or Land of Destiny (New York: Herzl Press, 1985), 39,41.

[6] Ibid. 62-63.

[7] Ibid. 64,67-68.

[8] Abraham S. Halkin, Ed. Zion in Jewish Literature (New York: Herzl Press, 1961),39-40.

[9] Yaacov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1975), 128-129.


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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.