Next Year in Jerusalem”: Bible, Identity, and Myth on the Web


David M. Gunn

Texas Christian University

In May, 2001, as many Israelis celebrated their “Jerusalem Day,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon assured his audience that Israel would achieve peace without relinquishing control of east Jerusalem. “Jerusalem,” he stated, “has been the capital of Israel for 3,000 years, and the Temple Mount is the heart of the Jewish nation and its center, forever united and indivisible” (AP report, May 5, 2001). In the United States it has become common to hear Jerusalem described by Israeli officials as “the eternal and undivided capital of Israel,” language that not only claims exclusive political possession but also implies divine (“eternal”) sanction.

Why do Americans not question this claim about a modern state barely fifty years old? One reason is that it is sustained by a powerful “foundation myth” or what Yael Zerubavel (1995) calls a “master commemorative narrative” about Israel which is linked to the Bible. By reciting a story that reaches back into the past, master narratives of this kind provide legitimation for present institutions and practices (see Müller, 156). In this particular case the narrative draws authority not only from its constant recitation as official history but also from its association with the Bible, a major “authorizing” text in the United States where large numbers of people hold the Bible to be holy scripture.

Over the past five hundred years European colonists developed a stock of language for legitimating their encroachment on the land of others. By the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century Zionists shared this repertoire of legitimating language, including, for example, the claim that they were transforming a “wilderness” and “making the desert bloom”(a claim with overtones from biblical passages such as Isaiah 35). Zionist rhetoric, however, includes one claim that is highly unusual in colonization, namely the claim to “return.” If the Jewish settlers are making the “wilderness” into a “garden” they are doing so in accordance with their role in a larger story. In this story, this “master narrative,” the settlers are not really colonists at all but rather returnees. In this story they are the true indigenous people of the land; they have always possessed the land; the land is their destiny, a gift from God.

In one form or another this settlers’ story – this “myth” or “master narrative” – runs as follows. The story starts by telling of the ancient presence of the Jewish people/nation in the land (Eretz-Yisrael); in this land the people along with their religion and culture have been born; this land (“the promised land”), the story goes, has been given them by God. From this basic situation the plot develops through a complication: The Jewish people are forcibly removed by the Romans and exiled from the land. The story now enters into a new phase, an episode which tells of a long period of exile: The people endure vicissitudes in far lands (oppression, but also sometimes prosperity). In this episode, the story goes, the people look always with yearning to their lost land. Then, after long centuries, the plot takes another turn, this time towards resolution, as the Zionist movement begins to forge for the people a return, an “ingathering of exiles,” to their ancestral homeland. The end of the story comes with the people’s return in order to “redeem” Israel/the land, establish law, and exercise justice and equity.

This narrative sounds very “biblical.” The first biblical story of exile and return is found in Genesis–Judges. This story tells of Israel’s ancestors leaving the “promised land” of Canaan under threat of famine and going to Egypt where they become enslaved. Eventually, however, under the leadership of Moses and at God’s direction, the people leave Egypt in a great “exodus.” They return to the “promised land” and take possession of it. A second story of exile and return is told in the biblical books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. This time, many generations after the first return, the people of Judah (called also “Israel”) are driven into exile in Babylon at the hands of the Babylonian army. The years pass and the Babylonians are displaced by the Persians. Once more the people of Judah return from exile and take possession of the land.

As Niels Peter Lemche observes (86-97), both these stories had become foundations myths for Jewish communities by the end of the first millennium B.C.E. at the time the Bible was beginning to take its present shape and rabbinic Judaism to emerge. With the Zionist narrative, therefore, we have a third, post-biblical, story of exile and return to take possession of the land. It is a story that borrows authority from the Bible not only by claiming that the Jewish settlers are “returning” to their “promised land,” the land of Israel of the Bible, but also by imitating the very structure of the biblical stories of exile and return. The present return is to be compared with the exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian captivity.

What the Zionist story suppresses, however, is the unstable nature of the biblical stories that are lending it authority. As told above, each story ends with return. However, when the stories in the Bible are read not separately but consecutively, as one ongoing story, the nature of the ending becomes less clear. A biblical story of exile and return followed by exile and return raises the distinct possibility that return is always subject to the possibility of further exile. That is why some Jewish writers have urged that the Zionist story cannot end until there is an establishment of justice and equity in the land. On this understanding of the Bible, return and possession of the land is always a provisional, never a certain, end. Exile is potentially only an injustice away.

As an entry point into the present discussion I go to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) website on the Internet. This site offers an “official” voice on the subject of exile and return seeking widespread circulation in the Anglophone world. Much of the material I cite is also available in a Ministry publication called Facts About Israel (1996). The web address is:

www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00080.

I find the Zionist story of exile and return repeated often. Indeed, one notable rendition of the narrative, to which others on the website make rhetorical allusion constantly and which may itself be found on the website (www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00k90), is the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” (May 14, 1948).

Quotations from the Bible are set out at the top of pages like religious proof texts, lending the authority of the Bible to the story being recounted. For example, the web page “Jerusalem: The Capital of Israel” (www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00w40) begins with a quotation from the Book of Kings about King David reigning in Jerusalem. The page claims that since that time “Jerusalem has stood at the center of the Jewish people’s national and spiritual life,” and, after speaking of the city as capital of Israel but of no other political entity through centuries of exile, ends with Jerusalem “re-integrated” as the nation’s capital in 1967.

Likewise, “Jerusalem: Through the Centuries” (www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00w50) begins with David and an expression of yearning in the biblical Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem . . .” and ends with the “reuniting” of the city in June 1967. Here, just as in the Bible and often in Jewish and Christian thought, the city Jerusalem (or Zion) is understood as representing the whole land, so that Jerusalem’s story represents the larger story of return to the land.

Jerusalem is also a key element in the narrative because it provides the motivation for return from exile. The “Holy City” page (www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00w60) tells us: “The many Jews who had been exiled after the Roman conquest and scattered throughout the world never forgot Jerusalem. Year after year they repeated ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem became the symbol [of] the desire of Jews everywhere to return to their land.” So the ancient liturgical phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” expresses “yearning for Jerusalem,” which in turn expresses “yearning to return to the land.”

In addition to Psalm 137, accounts of Jewish yearning for Israel usually also include reference to the words of the medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi writing of Jerusalem: “Could I but kiss thy dust / so would I fain expire. / As sweet as honey then, / My longing and desire.”

Such accounts of Jewish yearning in exile are common in Jewish writing about Israel (see, e.g., Benvenisti, 145; or Elon, 33-34) and are often impassioned. Meron Benvenisti writes that Jews for 2000 years vowed “Next year in Jerusalem”; time “did not diminish their yearning, and it burst forth with irresistible force when the political conditions necessary for its fulfillment were attained.” Amos Elon cites again “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem . . .” and “Next year in Jerusalem” as the cries of the wandering exiles over the centuries as they recalled “their great Capital of Memory,” and, like many other writers, Elon invokes the words of Yehuda Halevi (c. 1075-1141) to confirm “this devotion”to the city.

In the Zionist narrative, then, this language of yearning for Jerusalem appears as an integral part of the story’s episode recounting exile. Jerusalem is the object of the people’s desire; but the exigencies of exile in far lands prevent that desire from being attained. The story demands an end where the obstacle, exile, is overcome and desire is no longer thwarted.

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Such a story has great appeal to an American audience. Who is not going to be swayed by the expression of such deep and longstanding desire coming to fulfilment? “Yearning” not only drives the plot of return and rebuilding. At the same time, to an audience schooled in popular romance, it validates the outcome, namely possession of the yearned for, the beloved. Jerusalem is a woman, waiting for her lover’s embrace (the metaphor has a long rhetorical history).

The master narrative of exile and return arose in Europe in the context of nineteenth century romantic nationalism. Seeking a national literature Zionists preferred the Bible over the Talmud, which had been central to Jewish identity since medieval times. The Talmud tells no glorious story of a nation, has no warriors and heroes, and no “geography which arouses longing in the reader or a sense of connection to an ancient home” (Halbertal, 131). The Bible, on the other hand, could be understood in the terms of romantic nationalism as a national drama focused on possession and loss of the land of Israel. Zionists linked the biblical stories to Jewish traditions of longing to return to the ancient homeland (e.g., “Next year in Jerusalem”) and assumed that “an inherent bond between the Jewish people and their ancient land was a necessary condition for the development of Jewish nationhood” (Zerubavel,15). Hence the traditional language of longing was (and still is) understood by Zionism as the innate desire of an exiled people to become a fully fledged nation state. “Longing” became the motive power for a geopolitical venture in Palestine (“Eretz-Yisrael”) by those who, irrespective of their prosperity or oppression, construed themselves as “exiles.”

The medieval poet Yehuda Halevi is often invoked as evidence of an ancient desire by Jews to possess the land/Jerusalem which has found its fulfilment in the romance of Zionist settlement and state-building. But Halevi is writing in a quite other vein of romance, typical of twelfth century Spain. He is as adept at penning love poetry for his imagined lovers as for any far off holy city, perhaps rather more so. He is writing of yearning itself, and not simply of its object.

The language of yearning has a peculiar power which it draws from being situated in the time and space between desire and attainment, between passion (suffering) and consummation. That space “between,” where desire can flourish as longing, is also the condition of much religious yearning. Indeed the language of romantic love and religion often change places: the yearning lover “adores” and “worships” the beloved, while in the Middle Ages the yearning lover of the Song of Songs was understood to be the soul seeking the divine, or Israel yearning for God. When Halevi writes of yearning for Jerusalem he is writing in this literary context.

He did in fact set off on pilgrimage to Palestine We do not know if he arrived. If he reached the physical place, Jerusalem, did he find his yearning gone? Or did he find it simply displaced? Without yearning, what would have become of him, this poet of yearning? Whatever happened, his poetry lived because its admirers found that they could easily relate it to their own emotional and spiritual lives.

Many Jews (and Christians) through the centuries have understood “Jerusalem” metaphorically as a transcendent object of spiritual longing. Many Jews (and indeed many Christians) have regularly, over the centuries, understood “Jerusalem” metaphorically as a transcendent object of spiritual longing. Halevi himself was a master at constructing religious sensibility out of such conceits, as witness his beautiful poem on the Sabbath as beloved. The Zionist cooption of his language into a geopolitical program envisioning the conquest and physical rebuilding of Jerusalem by Jews is then a remarkable one. Indeed by the end of the nineteenth century the apparent abandonment of traditional spiritual, metaphysical, or messianic meanings of exilic longing in favor of geo-political/historical constructions prompted strong opposition to Zionism from Orthodox Jews (Evron, 54-55; Zerubavel, 14-16; and see further Prior, 152-56 and 200-208, for a broader account of this transposition of religion and politics).

The liturgical phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” is as problematic a witness to the Zionist understanding of traditional Jewish yearning as Halevi’s poetry. There are many ways of understanding the phrase, from its simply performing the end of the Passover service to indicating that it is time to book a passage on a ship. Given, however, that few of those who recited the phrase over many centuries ever did attempt to travel to Jerusalem it is reasonable to conclude, at the very least, that a literal meaning was uncommon.

More likely the phrase has been used to locate the speakers within a distinctive ritual space and time. “Next year” ritually constitutes the present as being in the not-yet-there time; “Jerusalem” ritually constitutes the present as being in the not-yet-there place. Paradoxically the ritual places a value upon one’s present time/place both as liminal, the in-between time, the not-yet-arrived-at place and at the same time as the place and time to which one really belongs. “Now and not-then” and “here and not-there” is what one repeats. Such a ritualized understanding of “where one is” may become a fundamental matter of identity. Attainment or possession of “Jerusalem,” then, entails serious risk to Jewish identity, as many Jewish thinkers well understood and argued in relation to Zionism in the years before the Holocaust radically shifted the grounds of the debate.

As the Ministry web-site’s epigraphs and texts make clear, it is of the essence of the foundation myth that it is biblically warranted. A few clicks takes us to a brief article in the journal Ariel on longings for Jerusalem in Jewish folk art of Eastern Europe (Vol. 102, 1996 = www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH010i0). Zusia Efron, too, is eager to claim this biblical stamp of approval. No less than one thousand times are longings for Jerusalem expressed in the Bible as well as in the Talmud, the writer tells us. But in fact the Bible’s expression of such sentiments is sparse, to say the least. We have already mentioned most of them, since most appear on the web site. Psalm 137 tops the list and Lamentations is frequently invoked. The latter part of Isaiah is full of calls to return (from the Babylonian exile) but curiously little “longing.” In the event, it is becoming clear that relatively few did return. Perhaps others decided to stay where they were and get on with their lives, all the while learning to “yearn” as a ritual condition of their identity as “exilic” people, people of the God of Israel.

Both Psalm 137 and Lamentations are themselves witness to the complexity of “longing” as a literary construct since in neither case is it certain that they are the direct product of “exile.” But whatever the case on that score, there is an obvious difference between the modern context (for example, the website) and the ancient literary context of the passages. These “longing” passages do not obviously specify political independence or sovereign “nationality” as objects of desire, whether past or future. But neither, for the most part, do the biblical texts to which they belong. Indeed, it is notable that the literature that touches most the theme of political sovereignty, the accounts of the Maccabean revolt in the second century b.c.e, is not accorded canonical status within early Judaism.

Hence, at least in this specific regard, the Zionist rallying song, “Hatikva” (www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00k90), does not recapitulate the biblical expression of yearning as transparently as one might at first suppose: As long as deep in the heart, / the soul of a Jew yearns, / and towards the East / an eye looks to Zion, / our hope is not yet lost, / the hope of two thousand years, / to be a free people in our land, / the land of Zion and Jerusalem. As “The Hope” would have it, to be a “free people” in the land is the summation of desire. That is a concept certainly not explicit in the oft-cited biblical passages of yearning. Certainly, too, the orthodox community of Jerusalem at the end of the nineteenth century did not look kindly on such a conceit. Nor do many of their spiritual descendants today. Where, they would ask, is the singing of God’s song?

Myths, master narratives, often mask structural social and ideological tensions. Many commentators share Boas Evron’s analysis of a secularist versus religionist divide at the heart of Israeli society, his sense of deep fractures in Jewish identity. I would argue that the myth of exile, yearning, and return attempts to mask this ongoing and bitter struggle over Jewish identity.

Let me go back to the web pages and ask, Who is the subject of yearning in this particular master narrative of exile and return? Who yearns? The answer, of course, is “the Jewish people.” So yearning not only motivates the plot’s transition from exile to return, it also constructs the narrative’s subject or main character. Without “yearning” the singularity and continuity of the subject would be less apparent.

As Zerubavel and others have argued, from its beginnings in the nineteenth century the Zionist myth has tended to make strenuous efforts to collapse all experience of Exile into the (unquestionably pervasive) negative of persecution and suffering. But it has proved difficult to erase from memory the manifold positive dimensions of Jewish life over many centuries. As seen in more recent, post-State, versions of the narrative (like the web site), the pressure of alternative memories of flourishing communities, distinctive ethnic customs, and rich cultural contributions, has begun to make inroads into the myth, straining the Zionist characterization of Exile as only disaster. Under the strain, the singularity of the subject – the “Jewish people who suffer in exile” – begins to break down. Yearning, on the other hand, unlike suffering, is an affect that unites the subject across all periods and places, and through the rough and the smooth. No matter what was happening, the myth could confidently assert, “the Jewish people” continually “yearned.”

Not that yearning has been wholly immune from contradiction. The Zionist movement has always had to struggle to persuade people to go to Palestine; most, even in the face of persecution, would rather have gone somewhere else, the United States most notably. Fifty years after the foundation of the State, however, this unitary, yearning (and/or suffering) subject is under even greater stress: as the website is forced to acknowledge, most of “the Jewish People” continue to live “in Exile” or in “Diaspora” or, as Zionist vocabulary would have it, in “voluntary Exile.”

So the story of yearning presents the “Jewish people” as a unitary subject. But the very website that recounts the myth of unity displays through text and pictures another story, one of vast diversity (see, e.g., “Culture” [www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00k90] or “Society” [www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00ky0]; cf. on Jerusalem, Benvenisti: 169-84.) As I view the (Ultra-Orthodox) men in black hats and dark suits “mingling with people wearing the spectrum of modern fashion,” as one of the web pages puts it, I see southwest Asian space being reconstituted as eighteenth or nineteenth century eastern Europe. I see late twentieth century western Europe or North America; or Russia or Ethiopia. The “Jewish people” is in reality a collective of myriad disparities – religious, ethnic, political, and cultural – sharing little in common. According to the master narrative, however, the members of this people share a name, a suffering, and, of course, a yearning. Yearning restores the people as it restores the national romance.

The rhetoric of yearning is powerful and slippery. Yearning’s passionate imaginings may indeed empower, yet blind the yearning subject to another subject’s very existence.

The great ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas pondered deeply on the indispensable place of the “other” person in our moral lives. Yet I find him writing in 1951 of the religious genius of the Jewish people coming to flower in the foundation of the State of Israel. “The Jewish people,” he wrote (Levinas, 218), “craved their own land and their own State not because of the abstract independence which they desired, but because they could then finally begin the work of their lives,” “a difficult and erudite work of justice.” “The masterpiece has now finally come.” Nowhere does he mention the dispossession of the Arab people of the land.

Likewise with the web site: it both hides and reveals these participants in the story. “Yearning” plays its part in the hiding. Indeed, in my view, it has overwhelmed Levinas’s sense of justice.

A narrative of yearning which ends with fulfillment, possession, may sustain its tellers and hearers for generations. But arrival always risks dissipating the power that the “longing” generates. Ironically, the master commemorative narrative of Zion, the more it becomes the narrative of the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel” – that is, the eternal political possession – the more it risks emptying traditional Jewish “yearning” of meaning. As it seeks to shore up Jewish identity it is at the same time subverting it.


I return to the website: www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH01y10 (= Ariel 102).

In 1967 Amos Oz, born and raised as a child in Jerusalem, found himself walking through the newly captured streets of the city:

Their eyes hate me. They wish me dead. Accursed stranger. . . .

I tried my hardest to feel in East Jerusalem like a man who had driven out his enemies and returned to his ancestral inheritance. The Bible came back to life for me: kings, prophets, the Temple Mount, Absalom’s Pillar, the Mount of Olives. . . . I wanted to belong, I wanted to share in the general celebrations.

But I couldn’t, because of the people.

I saw resentment and hostility, hypocrisy, bewilderment, obsequiousness, fear, humiliation and new plots being hatched. I walked the streets of East Jerusalem like a man who has broken into a forbidden city. City of my birth. City of my dreams. City of aspirations of my ancestors and my people. And here I was, stalking its streets clutching a sub-machine-gun, like a figure in one of my childhood nightmares: an alien man in an alien city. (Oz 1990)

Amos Oz, armed with his identity and an Uzi, had realized his people’s ancient yearning, had returned and taken possession of the “eternal and undivided capital.” Amos Oz had arrived.




Works Cited

Benvenisti, Meron

1996 City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem. Translated by Maxine Kaufman Nunn. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.

Elon, Amos

1995 Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory. New York, Tokyo and London: Kodansha International [First edn. 1989 as Jerusalem: City of Mirrors].

Efron, Zusia

1992 “‘If I Forget Thee . . .’: Longings for Jerusalem in the Jewish Folk Art of Eastern Europe.” Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters 102 [www.Israel.org/mfa/go.asp?MFAH01xx0].

Evron, Boas

1995 Jewish State or Israeli Nation? Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Halbertal, Moshe.

1997 People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press.

Halevi, Jehudah

1924 Selected poems of Jehudah Halevi. Translated into English by Nina Salaman, chiefly from the critical text edited by Heinrich Brody. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Israel Information Center

1996 Facts about Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Information Center/Hamakor Press.

Lemche, Niels Peter

1998 The Israelites in History and Tradition. London and Louisville, Kentucky: SPCK and Westminster John Knox Press.

Levinas, Emanuel

1990 “The State of Israel and the Religion of Israel.” In Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Translated by Seán Hand. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp. 216-220. [This essay originally published in Evidences, 20, 1951.]

Müller, Hans-Peter

2001 “History-oriented Foundation Myths in Israel and its Environment.” In Religious Identity and the Invention of Tradition. Edited by Jan Willem van Henten and Anton Houtepen. Assen, The Netherlands: Royal Van Gorcum. Pp.156-168.

Oz, Amos

1996 “An Alien City.” Translated by Nicholas de Lange. Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters 102 [www.Israel.org/mfa/go.asp?MFAH01y10].

Prior, Michael

1997 The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. The Biblical Seminar, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Zerubavel, Yael

1995 Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


Copyright 2001 © David M. Gunn


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8/28/2002