Through centuries of exile, Jewish hopes and prayers were focused on a small swath of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea, but for the most part, discussions about the Land of Israel were practically irrelevant. In modern times, Jewish thinking regarding the Land evolved, as mass Jewish settlement of the Land became a reality.
Classical Jewish Sources
In the Bible, Israelite peoplehood is inextricably tied to the Land. God promises the Land to Abraham and his descendants, though the gift is contingent on virtuous behavior.
Rabbinic sources debate whether the Land is inherently holy or whether it is made holy by the commandments practiced there. Regardless, the Land remained central in rabbinic thinking. Living in the Land atones for all sins, one source says; another claims that Jews buried there will be the first to be resurrected in the End of Days.
Anti-Semitism led some 19th-century Jews to see the establishment of a sovereign Jewish nation as the sole way to ensure Jewish survival. These Zionists met resistance from traditional Jews–who believed only God could initiate the return to the Land–and from liberals, who believed the solution lay in integration with liberal Western societies.
Early Zionists – like Theodor Herzl, who founded the political Zionist movement–considered different sites for a Jewish homeland but came to see the Land of Israel as the only option. Ahad Ha-am, the father of cultural Zionism, believed the Land should be cultivated as a spiritual and cultural arena, not a political homeland.
Though many traditionalists shunned Zionism, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook developed a theology laying the foundation for religious Zionism. Kook saw Zionism–even in its secular forms–as hastening the Messiah, which was imminent.
The modern state of Israel was founded by United Nations resolution in 1948. Created as a homeland for Jews, in the shadow of World War II and the near destruction of European Jewry, Israel’s populace comes from a multitude of religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Established by British colonial powers in a heavily Muslim, Arab region of the world, Israel’s geography and history have led to a constant need to defend itself.
Israel’s government is a parliamentary democracy. The Knesset,Israel’s parliament, has 120 members. The Likud (Unity) party—in general, economically, socially and militarily conservative–has been the most powerful party in most of the Israeli governments since 1977. Labor, historically the other major party in Israel, is, generally speaking, economically, socially and militarily liberal. (They disagree, for example, about whether trading land for peace is the best way to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.) In 2005, Ariel Sharon founded the Kadima party in order to support his disengagement plan. Moderate Likud and like-minded Labor politicians joined the party, and Kadima won the majority of seats in the Knesset in both the 2006 and 2009 elections. Smaller parties (including religious parties) are also important in Israeli politics as their support is necessary to form a coalition required to pass legislation.