Zionism turned the Land of Israel into the stage for the great modern drama of Jewish history, giving its physical form a starring role. For thousands of years the land had played a crucial role in the Jewish consciousness; for almost two millennia, however, its image had taken on mythical proportions in the minds of Jews around the world becoming increasingly distanced from the contemporary reality. One of the great contributions of Zionism to the Jewish people was the restoration of the real land to the center of the historical stage and its reclamation as the physical heritage of the nation. When the early Zionists made Aliyah, one of their most important acts was to strengthen their physical connection to the land: they came here inspired by the concept of the land and stayed to embrace its reality.
Throughout the millennia of Diaspora life, Jews had largely become distanced not just from the Land of Israel but also from nature in general. Rabbinic ideology had sought to subordinate nature to the world of the text. Some had considered observation and appreciation of the glories of the natural world as time taken away from Torah study. In a sense, therefore, the early pioneers’ embrace of nature upon their return to the Land of Israel was a double revolution. They reclaimed nature as a legitimate human sphere for Jews just as they reclaimed the physical land as part of their heritage.
Early Zionist literature reveled in physical descriptions of the land. Because many of these were written in Europe by people who had never seen the place they were ostensibly describing, they carry the unmistakable aura of an idyll. The romances of Avraham Mapu, considered the first modern novelist of Zion, are influenced as much by the Song of Songs as by contemporary reality. Haim Nahman Bialik’s early poetry of Zion (written in Eastern Europe) was much more realistic in its observations of nature, but it was the natural landscapes of Russia that he was describing. Slowly, however, works came to be published by writers with an intimate knowledge of the land that they were describing. Among the writers and poets of Palestine and Israel, a completely different mood was felt: they were now showing the real land, as opposed to the mythical land of the imagination. Writers like Avraham Shlonsky wrote paeans of praise to the Jezre’el valley, which almost took on a life of its own in his capable, imaginative hands. Today, Meir Shalev continues that legacy in a rather more sober vein. S. Yizhar wrote descriptions of the land with adjectives and adverbs rolling and tumbling breathlessly after each other in long flights of dizzy physical description.
Visual artists were also central in this process. Artists such as Reuven Rubin and Nahum Gutman played a significant part in this process, using different techniques – including combinations of documentary art and playful idealized primitivism – that were, and remain, very popular. As art moved away from primitive forms of realism and tended increasingly towards the more abstract, it may be argued that its ability to convey the emotional power of the land decreased, although many painters continued to use primary land colors as a central element in their work.
Similarly, the sense of place is very strong in Israeli literature and popular music. Many poems and songs celebrate specific locations, as if to strengthen the physical ties with the land that had been lost for so many years. Much poetry captures in great detail a particular view, a perfect example being Rachel’s poem Sham Harei Golan (There Are the Mountains of the Golan). It describes a slice of a physical landscape in such detail that it is possible even now – eighty years later – to find the exact spot in which she stood when she wrote the poem.
There were those who moved from idealization of the land to what some perceive as an ‘idolatrous’ approach. These were the writers and artists of the ‘Canaanite movement’, which reached its peak in the late 1940s. This movement focused around a group of intellectuals seeking to break away from the country’s Diaspora roots and look for connections only in the soil of the land in which they lived. They ‘worshipped’ the land with the intensity of paganism. Drawing their models from the distant past of the Land of Canaan, they produced some interesting and important artistic statements about their new allegiance. The most famous of these is the work of the sculptor Yitzhak Danziger, and especially his sculpture Nimrod, his depiction of the pagan hunter-hero.
Photography also celebrated and strengthened the tie between people and land, in both stills and film. However, this art form developed simultaneously in two directions. Some photographed images develop a mythical picture of the landscape – either deserted and barren or fruitful and renewed. Several of the old semi-documentary films of the 1930s – such as Zot Hi Haaretz (This Is the Land) and Avoda (Labor) – develop both angles. They show the transition from deserted wilderness to plentiful flowering, overflowing with water, in almost messianic terms, with soundtracks of heavenly choirs in the background. On the other hand, photography – still and in films – showed the physical reality and caught the real flavor of the land and its people.
With the passage of time, there has been a clear trend away from myth-making toward a real appraisal of the land, although some artists occasionally have taken different directions. Probably the most significant of these developments occurred after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Jerusalem and the Biblical heartland of ancient Israel came under Israeli control. As Israeli citizens poured ecstatically into the new areas, an irresistible process of myth-making arose. It was as if the very names and sites of ancient Israel had the power to unlock the deepest emotional reactions of many Israeli Jews. The effect on Israeli society was deep and widespread. This will be discussed in more detail in the section on religion (Section 10).
One last subject that should be briefly mentioned in this context is the Israeli reaction to archaeology. In the early years of the State, many perceived it with a kind of faith akin to religion. The passion for uncovering the past of the land far transcended the academic interest that archaeological digs usually produce. It was clearly connected to the Israelis’ existential need to strengthen their ties to the land and to ‘prove’ that their roots were really here. In contemporary Israel, this passion has cooled. There is still great interest in archaeology and archaeological sites, and museums continue to attract many domestic visitors; but the modern Israeli’s search for roots is weaker than that of the previous generation.