by Amotz Asa-El
What's so pretty abou this vista native Israelis so much adore?" my father once asked me in frustration, fanning his arm across the naked Judean Desert hills that rolled ahead of us, north of Jerusalem, all the way to the Dead Sea. Having grown up in interwar Czechoslovakia he never fully accepted the contrast between his native landscape's abundant lakes, rivers, forests, and snow-capped mountains, and his old-new homeland's Mediterranean climate and barren landscapes. Until his death, he quietly hoped that the arid land where his offspring were growing would someday be made to wear a gown of greenery much like the European vistas where his own parents initially thrived and ultimately perished.
And yet, despite his and many other Jews' lack of affinity to its desolation, heat and solitude, the desert has been, and reamins, a powerful metaphor for the Jewish nationa's improbable survival through the ages. Like nomads wandering through inhospitable lands, the Jews have historically sojourned from land to land, country to country, continent to continent. Ever since the Exodus from Egypt, whether they lamented its wrath, dembraced its solitude, or reached for its horizon, Jews could not remain indifferent to the desert, where their forefathers formed a nation while landless, impoverished, and in motion.
In fact, the Israelites' four-decade journey through the Sinai Desert's wilderness in a Sisyphean search for the Promised Land led anti-Semitic politcal economist Werner Sombart (1869-1941) to attribute the Jews' numerous migrations through history to the formative experience of roolessness as it was handed to them by Moses. In Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben, Sombart traced the Jews' famous geographic mobility and mercantile agility to their collective shaping as nomads in an infertile land. Sombart, who ultimately joined the Nazi Party, also conceded that the Jews were a positive driving force behind the rise of European capitalism. "When Israel appears upon the face of Europe," he wrote, "the place where it appears comes to life; and when it departs, everything which had previously flourished withers away."