Both ancient Israel and the early Zionism of modern Israel articulate and emphasize a different kind of land ownership; many who have only known the capitalist marketplace of their birth would consider this system to be fringe, utopian, or socialist, in a pejorative sense. Yet the shared emphasis of the egalitarian ownership of land and of other natural resources in the inception of both ancient and modern Israel is worthy of renewed attention.
Land in ancient Israel is democratized in an egalitarian tribal sense from its inception with the Jubilee, as well as in early Zionism due to thinkers such as Theodor Herzl, Emma Lazarus, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, and Franz Oppenheimer, all of whom espoused the economic philosophy of Georgism, named after Henry George, an economic philosopher who lived in the 19th century. Georgism holds that the economic value derived from land and other natural resources should belong equally to all residents of a community, and that people should own the value of what they create themselves.
The Jubilee, or Yovel, is a detailed biblical regulation which had special impact on the ownership and management of land in ancient Israel.
Leviticus 25:23 states:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me”.
According to biblical regulation, the ancestral family is the original family that entered the land of Israel when the land was divinely divided and allocated to all of the people of Israel. As described by Numbers 26:53-54,
“Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment”.
From this injunction it was evident that nobody, neither from within the family, nor from outside the family, could own the land in the sense that it could not be permanently sold. The most one could do was to sell the rights to use land for a specific period of time. The Jubilee year, or “Yovel”, occurred every 50 years and it returned all lands to their ancestral families. Implicit in the above biblical text is the understanding that every member of tribal Israel had an innate and inherent birthright to the sacred land and ecology. After all, the land belonged to God, and human beings were seen to only be sojourners. This biblical depiction is remarkably juxtaposed to our current impersonal housing market and our appropriation of natural resources, both of which are mediated not by an inherent belonging, but rather by a definitive sum of cash.
Henry George was an american political economist, journalist, and philosopher whose book Progress and Poverty (1879) outlined the Georgist philosophy and outsold every book other than the Bible during its time. The book’s main tenet was that people legitimately owned the value they created, but that natural resources, most significantly the value of land is rightfully owned in common by individuals in a community, rather than land titleholders. George said “Everything could go on as now,” but that all that needed to be changed was for “ the common right to land to be fully recognized by appropriating rent to the common benefit,” through, as it became known, a land value tax. George’s point was similar to the biblical regulations depicted in the Jubilee in that the value of land should be shared by “all”.
Like George, Theodore Herzl, a pivotal father of early Zionism, was a pragmatic utopian thinker. Therefore it came as no shock that he, along with other progressive Jews of his day such as Emma Lazarus, Louis Brandeis, Albert Einstein, and Franz Oppenheimer, desired to enact the founding principles of Henry George’s economic philosophy, specifically the call for a land value tax.
According to Henry George:
“The tax upon land values is, therefore, the most just and equal of all taxes. It falls only upon those who receive from society a peculiar and valuable benefit, and upon them in proportion to the benefit they receive. It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that value which is the creation of the community. It is the application of the common property to common uses. When all rent is taken by taxation for the needs of the community, then will the equality ordained by Nature be attained. No citizen will have an advantage over any other citizen save as is given by his industry, skill, and intelligence; and each will obtain what he fairly earns. Then, but not till then, will labor get its full reward, and capital its natural return.”
Herzl proclaimed in his diary entry on November 25, 1895:
“A good idea of his is to levy a progressive tax on land property. Henry George!”.
Herzl expounded on June 13, 1895:
“Our entire youth, all those between twenty and thirty years of age, will veer away from inchoate socialistic leanings and turn to us. They will go forth as preachers to their own families and among the people without my urging them. For the Land is to be theirs!”
(“Henry George and Zionism”, by Dusty Sklar).
Today there is neither ancestral land plots in the state of Israel, nor has Herzl’s dream been fulfilled regarding the collective ownership of natural resources such as land. In retrospect, there is also an ethnocentric moral dilemma in the narrative of both ancient and modern Israel. In ancient Israel the Jewish people conquered the land, and “cleansed” the original inhabitants who were not included in the distribution of “ancestral land”. Similarly, with modern Israel there is the ongoing Israeli Palestinian conflict, and fight over the land. Both ancient Israel, as well as modern Zionism are stained by this ethnocentric behavior, but so are most other countries—e.g. the United States, Australia, Canada, and Latin America, all of whom have conquered already inhabited lands from native people. “Manifest Destiny”, for example, is founded upon the violent acquisition of land.
In conclusion, however, we can—and still should—look to history to gain that which is valuable. The belief common to both ancient Israel and early Zionism that the land and its sacred ecology belongs to the collective is important. However, we need to expand who, exactly, belongs to the “collective”.
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