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Zionism and the Other National Concepts

By: Martin Buber

It is impossible to appreciate the real meaning of "Zion" so long as one regards it as simply one of many other national concepts.

We speak of a "national concept," when a people makes its unity, spiritual coherence, historical character, traditions, origins and evolution, destiny and vocation the objects of its conscious life and the motive power behind its actions. In this sense, the Zion concept of the Jewish people can be called a national concept. But its essential quality lies precisely in that which differentiates it from all other national concepts.

lt is significant that this national concept was named after a place and not, like the others, after a people, which indicates that it: is not so much a question of a particular people as such, but of its association with a particular land. Moreover, the idea was not named after one of the usual descriptions of this land-Canaan or Palestine or Eretz-Yisrael--but after the old stronghold of the Jebusites, which David made his, residence, and whose name was applied by poets and prophets to the whole city of Jerusalem, not so much as the seat of the royal fort, however, but, as the place of the sanctuary… Zion is "the city of the great King" (Ps. 48:3), that is; of God as the king of Israel. The name has retained this sacred character ever since. In their prayers and sorrows, the mourning and yearning of the people in exile was bound up with it; the holiness of the land was concentrated in it; in the kabbalah it is equated with an emanation of God himself. When the Jewish people adopted this name for their national concept, all these associations were contained in it.

This was inevitable, for in contradiction to the national concepts of other peoples, the one described by this name was no new invention, not the product of the social and political changes manifested by the French Revolution, but merely a continuation, the restatement of age-old religious and popular reality adapted to the universal form of the national movements of the nineteenth century. This reality was the holy marriage of a "holy" people with a "holy" land, the point of location of which was named Zion.

It has been one of the disastrous errors of modern biblical criticism to attribute this category of the Holy, as applied in the Scriptures to the people and the land, to the sacerdotalism of a later age, for which the claims of public worship were all-important. On the contrary, it belongs rather to the primitive conception of the Holy as we find it in tribes living close to nature, who think of the two main supports of national life; man and the earth, as endowed with sacred powers. In the tribes which united to form "Israel," this concept developed and became transformed in a special way: holiness is no longer a sign of power, a magic fluid that can dwell in places and regions as well as in people and groups of people, but a quality bestowed on this particular people and this particular land because God "elects' both in order to lead his chosen people into his chosen land and to join them to each other. It is his election that sanctifies the chosen people as his immediate attendants, and the land as his royal throng, and which makes them dependent on each other. This is more political, and theopolitical, than a strictly religious concept of holiness: the outward form of worship is merely a concentrated expression of the sovereignty of God. Abraham builds altars where God has appeared to him but he does so not as a priest but as a herald of the Lord by whom he has been sent; and when he calls on the name of his Lord above the altar, he thereby proclaims his Lord's royal claim to possession of the surrounding land. This is not the transforming interpretation of a later age, but has its roots in primitive language, analogies of which are to be found among other early peoples, but nowhere in such historical concreteness as here. Here "holiness" still means to belong to God not merely through religious symbols and in the times, and places consecrated to public worship, but as a people and a land, in the all-embracing range and reality of public life. It is only later that the category of the Holy becomes restricted to public worship, a process with advances the more the sphere of public life is withdrawn from the sovereign rule of God.

That it is God who joins this people to this land is not a subsequent historical interpretation of events; the wandering tribes themselves were inspired again and again by the promise made to their forefathers, and the most enthusiastic among them saw God himself leading his people into the promised land. It is impossible to image a historical Israel as existing at any time without belief in its God or previously to such belief: it is precisely the message of the common leader that unites the tribes into a people. It is no less impossible to image this belief as existing before and outside Israel: it is an absolutely historical belief, the belief in a God leading first the fathers and then the whole people into the promised land at historically determined times for divinely historical purposes. Here is no "nation" as such and no "religion" as such, but only a people interpreting its historical experiences as the actions of its God.

This belief in divine leadership is, however, at the same time the belief in a mission. However much of the legislation that. has come down to us in the Bible may be attributed to later literary accretions, there is no doubt at all that the exodus from Egypt was bound up with the imposing of a law that was taken to be a divine charter, and the positive nucleus of all later developments was essentially the instruction to establish a "holy" community in the promised land. For these tribes, divine leadership certainly implied an ordinance concerning the future in the land, and from this basis a tradition and a doctrine were evolved. The story of Abraham, which connects the gift of Canaan with the command to be a blessing, is a most concise resume of the fact that the association of this people with this land signifies a mission. The people came to the land to fulfill the mission; even by each new revolt against it they recognized its continuing validity; the prophets were appointed to interpret the past and future destiny of the people on the basis of the people's failure as yet to achieve the righteous city of God for the establishment of which it had been led into the land. This land was at no time in the history of Israel simply the property of the people; it was always at the same time a challenge to make of it what God intended to have made of it.

Thus, from the very beginning, the unique association between this people and this land was characterized by what was to be, by the intention that was to be realized. It was a consummation that could not be achieved either by the people or by the land alone, but only by the faithful cooperation of the two together; and it was an association in which the land appeared not as a dead, passive object, but as a living and active partner. Just as to achieve fullness of life, the people needed the land, so the land needed the people, and the end which both were called upon to realize could only be reached by a living partnership. Since the living land shared the great work with the living people, it was to be both the work of history and the work of nature. Just as nature and history were united in the creation of man, so these two spheres, which have become separated in the human mind, were to unite in the task in which the chosen land and the chosen people were called upon to cooperate. The holy marriage of land and people was intended to bring about the union of the two separated spheres of being.

This is the theme, relating to a small and despised part of the human race and a small and desolate part of the earth, yet world-wide in its significance, that lies hidden in the name of Zion. It is not simply a special case among the national concepts and national movements; the exceptional quality that is here added to the universal makes it a unique category extending far beyond the frontier of national problems and touching the domain of the universally human, the cosmic, and even of Being itself. In other respects, the people of Israel may be regarded as one of he many peoples on earth, and the land of Israel as one land among other lands; but in their mutual relationship and in their common task, they are unique and incomparable. And in spite of all the names and historical events that have come down to us, what has come to pass, what is coming and shall come to pass between them, is and remains a mystery. From generation to generation the Jewish people have never ceased to meditate on this mystery.

When the national movement of this people inherited the mystery, a powerful desire to dissolve it arose in spite of the protests of the movement's most important spiritual leaders. It seemed to belong to the purely "religious" sphere, and religion had become discredited for two reasons: in the West, because of its attempt to denationalize itself in the age of Emancipation; in the East, because of its resistance to the Europeanization of the Jewish people on which the national movement wanted to base itself. The secularizing trend in Zionism was directed against the mystery of Zion too. A people like other peoples, a land like other lands, a national movement like other national movements--this was and still is reclaimed as the postulate of common sense against every kind of "mysticism." And from this standpoint, the age-long belief that the successful reunion of this people with this land is inseparably bound up with a command and a condition was attacked. No more is necessary--so the watchword runs--than that the Jewish people should be granted the free development of all its powers in its own country like any other people; that, in fact, is what is meant by "regeneration."

The certainty of the generations of Israel testifies that this view is inadequate. The idea of Zion is rooted in deeper regions of the earth and rises into loftier regions of the air, and neither its deep roots nor its lofty heights, neither its memory of the past nor its ideal for the future, both of the selfsame texture, may be repudiated. If Israel renounces the mystery, it renounces the heart of reality itself. National forms without the eternal purpose from which they have arisen signify the end of Israel's specific fruitfulness. The free development of the latent power of the nation without a supreme value to give it purpose and direction does not mean regeneration, but the mere sport of a common self-deception behind which spiritual death lurks in ambush. If Israel desires less than it is intended to fulfill, than it will even fail to achieve the lesser goal.

With every new encounter of this people with this land, the task is set afresh, but every time it is rooted in the historical situation and its problems. If it is not mastered, what has already been achieved will fall into ruin. Once it is really mastered, this may become the beginning of a new kind of human society. To be sure, the problem proves to be more difficult every time it is tackled. It is more difficult to set up an order based on justice in the land if one is under the jurisdiction of a foreign power, as after the return from Babylon, than if one is comparatively free to determine one's own way of life, as after the first appropriation of the land; and it is still more difficult if one has to reckon with the coexistence of another people in the same country, of cognate origin and language but mainly foreign in tradition, structure, and outlook, and if this vital fact has to be regarded as In essential part of the problem. On the other hand, there seems to be a high purpose behind the increasing difficulty of the task. Even in the life of the individual, what has once been neglected can never be made up for in the same sphere and under the same conditions; but one is sometimes allowed to make amends for lost opportunities in a quite different situation, in a quite different form and it is significant that the new situation is more contradictory and the new form and more difficult to realize than the old, and that each fresh attempt demands an even greater exertion to fulfill the task--for such is the hard but not ungracious way of life itself. The same process seems to be true of the life of Israel.