Desert in the Promised Land
Yael Zerubavel



LEAVING HIS HOME IN THE SOUTHERN TOWN of Arad for an early-morning walk in the desert, Israeli writer Amos Oz notes, “The desert begins here, at the end of my street.” While walking, he observes the beauty of the landscape, the fleeting figure of a Bedouin in the distance, the smell of the land that evokes the memory of biblical times. The sight of a rusty, discarded bombshell disrupts his meditative walk, but he brushes it off and continues his solitary hike in the wilderness. Upon returning to town, Oz is confronted by the din of cars, his neighbor’s agitated talk about peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and a radio news report of another terrorist attack. As the day proceeds, the earlier openness of the desert gives way to its oppressive presence. The blinding light, the rising heat, and the dusty wind force Oz to shut his home’s windows and pull down the shades.

Oz reflects on the achievement of establishing the town of Arad in the heart of the desert, attributing it to the town planners’ vision and the successful carrying of water from the north of the country to the remote desert. His own garden, he notes, was made possible by a layer of fertile topsoil that was poured over the arid land, which he likens to the dressing of a wound.1

Oz’s brief and evocative description of his interaction with the desert environment raises some of the central themes that Desert in the Promised Land sets out to explore. Arad is located in the Negev desert, but the desert and the town are constructed as distinct spatial categories—the “desert” begins where the “town” ends—and moving from one to the other introduces an abrupt shift in scenery and experience. His experience of the desert is changing and multifaceted, revealing its complex character. The desert is the open vista where one may find the serenity and solitude so missing in the urban environment, but it is also the space associated with the aggressive elements of nature that threaten to invade one’s home territory. The arid desert land presents obstacles to the settlement process, yet vision, ingenuity, and persistence help transform it into an urban space and open the possibility of “making the desert bloom.” The desert landscape evokes the memory of biblical times and offers a link to the ancient Jewish roots in the land; but it is also the territory where Israel has fought some of its fiercest wars and where the visible presence of the military serves as a reminder of a still-unresolved national conflict.

Desert in the Promised Land explores the complex and contradictory meanings of the desert within a broad historical framework, tracing their development in the Hebrew culture of the late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine and, after 1948, in Israel. Following Henri Lefebvre’s approach, this study examines the understanding of space through the lens of its cultural production.2 The study’s point of departure is not the geographical desert but the cultural construction of the desert as a symbolic landscape.3 It therefore examines the ways in which Zionist Jews perceived, conceived, encoded, and reshaped the land they considered their ancient homeland. The study of the discourses and practices that contributed to this process highlights the interplay among the physical, mental, and social dimensions of space.4 The analysis of the role of language and the use of metaphors further highlights the cultural foundation of the desert as a symbolic spatial category.

Studying the desert as a symbolic landscape is particularly interesting within the context of the Zionist movement and its emphasis on the vision and agenda of settlement.5 Zionist immigrants to Palestine pursued the vision of establishing new settlements and rebuilding a new society that would develop its own national identity and culture. In the distinct “spatial code” that emerged in the Zionist Hebrew culture in Palestine, the “desert” and the “settlement” constituted key symbolic landscapes, defined by their opposition as well as their interdependence. Yet while Hebrew culture underscored the importance of the Jewish settlement, it considered the desert as the background against which the settlement was constructed. Desert in the Promised Land reverses this perspective. Going against the grain of the cultural emphasis on the settlement, the present study foregrounds the desert and examines the settlement in its relation to it. This perspective reveals the ambiguities and tensions that underlie the different approaches to the desert that are obscured by the traditional privileging of the settlement.

The lexical development of the Hebrew terms that designate these key categories—midbar for desert, and yishuv for settlement—reveals their intertwined meanings and supports the conceptual framework that this study presents. In the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word midbar refers to an uncultivated area that was primarily used for grazing and marked by its contrast to settled, inhabited space.6 In modern Hebrew, midbar has become the standard term used to denote a highly arid land with little or no water and limited vegetation, enjoying wider use than other biblical synonyms. English editions of the Hebrew Bible have traditionally translated midbar as “wilderness,” yet the broader semantic scope of the latter also encompasses landscapes (such as wild forests) that do not correspond to the Hebrew term. I therefore follow the translation of midbar as “desert,”7 including in references to the biblical text.

The Hebrew term for “settlement,” yishuv, originally designated space that was noted for its civilized and social order, in comparison to the desert or the sea. Medieval Jewish literature expanded the meaning of the term to refer to a Jewish community living among a non-Jewish population,8 thus implying a symbolic equivalence between the desert and the non-Jewish population surrounding the yishuv. In modern Hebrew, the term yishuv refers to the process of settling the land (yishuv ha-aretz) as well as to the settlement as its product.9 The significance of this concept is best evident in its use to refer collectively to the Jewish society of Palestine as ha-Yishuv, i.e. “the Settlement,” even prior to Zionist immigration. The addition of the definite article with no further markers to describe it underscores the privileged status of this Jewish society compared to others, in the same fashion that the reference to “the Land” (ha-aretz) indicates the privileged status of the Land of Israel.10 The “Yishuv period” similarly became a historiographical term referring to the period from the beginning of the Zionist immigration to Palestine in the 1880s through 1948.11

Desert in the Promised Land is divided into two broad parts, ordered chronologically. The first part of the book addresses the divergent interpretations of the desert as a symbolic landscape during the formative years of the Hebrew culture of late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, and the second part examines the construction of desert-settlement relations since 1948. The first part focuses on the perception of the landscape outside the Jewish settlement as a symbolic desert; the second part shifts the focus to the concrete desert of the Negev and explores the competing visions constructed in various discourses and practices after the establishment of the state of Israel.


1. Amos Oz in Ma’ariv, December 2, 1994, reprinted in Amos Oz, All Our Hopes: Essays on the Israeli Condition (Jerusalem: Keter, 1998), 251 [Hebrew].

2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space [1974] (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).

3. On the cultural construction of landscapes, see Donald W. Meinig, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 2–3; Denise Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1985), 13, 17–18; for the concept of “expressive space,” see E. V. Waters, Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 215. See also Neil Evernden, The Social Construction of Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

4. Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 11–27.

5. Beginning in the nineteenth century, several projects focusing on alternative, if limited, territories for Jewish settlement were pursued, in locations including Grand Island in New York, Angola in eastern Africa, Kenya and Madagascar in western Africa, Tasmania in Australia, and Surinam in South America. In 1903, in response to the so-called Uganda crisis, the Sixth Zionist Congress rejected the idea of alternative territories and affirmed its commitment to the Land of Israel. In 1905, those who did not accept this approach split from the Zionist Congress and established the Jewish Territorialist Organization. See Shmuel Almog, “People and Land in Modern Jewish Nationalism,” in Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira, eds., Essential Papers on Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 50–54; Adam Rovner, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (New York: NYU Press, 2014); Gur Alroey, Zionism without Zion: The Jewish Territorial Organization and Its Conflict with the Zionist Organization (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

6. For the evolution of the term midbar, see Yehuda Gur (Grasovsky), The Hebrew Dictionary (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1955), 478 [Hebrew]; Avraham Even-Shoshan, The New Dictionary [Ha-milon he-hadash] (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1988), II, 630 [Hebrew]; and Nogah Hareuveni’s extensive discussion in Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage (Lod: Neot Kedumim Press, 1991), 26–36 (English edition). See also the extensive discussion of midbar in Shemaryahu Talmon, “The ‘Desert Motif’ in the Bible and Qumran Literature,” in Alexander Altman, ed., Biblical Motifs: Origins and Transformations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 39–44.

7. Other biblical terms for “desert,” such as tsiya and yeshimon, represent a higher literary register in modern Hebrew. The biblical scholar Shemaryahu Talmon similarly argues for the translation of the biblical midbar as “desert,” as being more accurate than “wilderness.” See Talmon, “The ‘Desert Motif,’” 39.

8. For the evolution of the term yishuv and related terms, see also Ron Kuzar, “The Innovations of yishev, yishuv, and moshava in early modern Hebrew,” in Yehouda Shenhav, ed., Zionism and the Empires (Jerusalem: Van Leer & Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2015), 37, 45–46 [Hebrew]. See also Even-Shoshan, The New Dictionary, II, 512; Gur, The Hebrew Dictionary, 379. The medieval concept of a “communal ban” similarly draws on yishuv (herem ha-yishuv). The phrase “member of the yishuv” (adam min ha-yishuv) refers to a Jew and, by extension, to a cultured person. See Gur, The Hebrew Dictionary, 379; Even-Shoshan, The New Dictionary, II, 512. For the Zionist settlers’ distinction of their society as the “new Yishuv” as compared to the older community of Palestinian Jews, see also note 11.

9. Various other terms related to the settlement process and the particular forms of settlement developed from the same linguistic root. See Kuzar, “The Innovations of yishev, yishuv, and moshava.”

10. On the significance of the unmarked as privileged, see Eviatar Zerubavel, Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

11. This historiographic concept is further underscored by the reference to pre-Zionist Jewish society in Palestine as the “old Yishuv.” For a historical reevaluation of the contrast between the “new” and the “old” Yishuv, see Yehoshua Kaniel, In Transition: The Jews of Eretz Israel in the Nineteenth Century (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2000), 21–34 [Hebrew]; Israel Bartal, “Old Yishuv and New Yishuv—Image and Reality,” Exile in the Homeland: Essays (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1994), 74–89 [Hebrew].