Homecoming, between dwelling and settling

Inspired by Heidegger’s “Elucidations of Holderlin’s Poetry,”(1) the question to be asked is: What is meant by homecoming? How do people transform a place into a home? By possessing a land and settling, or by “coming to rest” through dwelling?

Arriving in one’s homeland, meeting with the countrymen there, those who are dwelling on the same native soil, should be handled with “care”. Heidegger insisted on a proximity between the poetic notion of the word “dwelling” and the word “care” as referred to the “care of homecoming”. Heidegger affirmed that dwelling and building are not the same! “Letting-dwell” means getting closer to the nature of something, with respect to the nature of the word HOME. The existence of human beings subsists in the nature of dwelling. To dwell does not mean to occupy a house or a lodge. Dwelling implies the mortality of human beings living temporally in the world to reveal the immortality of sky and earth. A life that dwells means to one that builds in keeping with a kind attentive modesty to the breath of past traditions, taking care for an approaching future.

The notion of homecoming as a refuge, a shelter as an urge for letting-dwell, is completely negated by the notion of the word “settling”. Mastering a land by erecting settlements that are not intended for cultivating and growing things, but only for the sake of declaring a Jewish presence and ownership of the land, stands in contradiction to what is meant by LETTING DWELL. Right from the beginning, Zionist settling was marked by “tower and stockade”(2) as the manifestation of an accomplished fact. The Zionist call for the REDEMPTION of the lands of Palestine was an aggressive abuse of a HOMECOMING. Lands belong to those who dwell there, therefore the use of the word REDEMPTION was vicious from the beginning. Redemption from what? From whom? Under the slogan of “making the desert bloom” Zionism defined the place as a desert and thus completely ignored the villages, towns and the people already living there.

The joy of return cannot be accomplished simply by the arrival on the shores of one’s tribal birth. A genuine homecoming should be echoed by the immeasurable shifts that the place had experienced. In his poem “Homecoming / to Kindred Ones” Holderlin reflects upon the burden of homecoming: “What you seek, it is near, already comes to meet you” but….one’s returning home has not yet been reached merely by arriving there. If a place is inhabited by one’s beloved people it is still hard to win…. Things get more complicated when what is “sought does not come to meet” when the inhabitants are differentiated by their past, present and future expectations, which do not conform with those of the one that arrives. But the minute those who arrive proclaim “to redeem” the land, and settle in their “promised possession” the place is destined to a disastrous, irresolvable, endless clash.

This phenomenon is not new. The whole history of humankind is crammed with colonial conquests, genocides, atrocities and violence perpetrated against natives of invaded lands. Our planet has always been full of homeless people, exiled refugees, and “asylum seekers”. So relating to the words Diaspora, exile and homelessness there is a need to make a distinction between the Jews and all other people that are dispersed from their homeland. What distinguishes the Jewish Diaspora from other dispersed groups is that while the latter were expelled from a homeland where they were dwelling, the Jews by their rootless nature were never really familiar with the experience of dwelling. Hence by being blind to what is meant by dwelling, the wandering Jews’ search for a refuge, or what they call a “national shelter”, is accomplished by mere settling. Jewish Zionists defend their colonization of Palestine by pointing at those dark chapters of other nations’ history. They remind us of the atrocities against the American Indians, or the wrongs done to the Australian Aborigines. True, to colonize a land, killing and shunning its indigenous inhabitants is evil, but to return to what is claimed as one’s homeland lacking the “care of homecoming” is a unique historical heartless and shameless phenomenon. Approaching one’s homeland with disrespect is worse than a malicious conduct, it is inhuman.

It is the one and only case in the whole of history that a tribe’s “homecoming” is followed by such an obsessive drive for the devastation of the whole texture of what is claimed to be its own native soil. It is not merely the oddity of the singular historical event, what is at stake is the despicable irreversible damage that the region and the world experience. In their fanatical enthusiasm to build a European spot in the heart of the Middle East they were determined to vandalize the landscape bringing into reality the apocalyptic verse: “the rugged shall be made level.”

For two thousand years “sat the Jews, by the rivers of Babylon, where they wept remembering Zion,” but it took them only 50 years to turn Zion into a polluted place, where the rivers are poisoned with industrial filth and the seashores are contaminated by sewage. A land where the old Holy city of Jerusalem is a wretched place deprived of municipal services and the new city is crowded with beggars, messianic lunatics, and poor ultra-orthodox living on charity, as if the old European ghetto had been transported to the heart of the Judea’s mountains. When the first pioneers, the “HALUTZIM” disembarked on the seashores of Jaffa they zealously compared their homeland to a beloved woman whom they promise to clothe with a dress of asphalt concrete and mortar. This drive to bury the Terra Sancta under a coat of concrete, to bulldoze and crack its mountains, to construct separation walls and to offend their next-door neighbors, manifests gross insensitivity regarding a homeland as a “gift” that should be treated with com-passion. A belongingness to a homeland denotes responsibility and commitment to its history, and not the other way round. People who are oblivious to the idea that a homeland is a gift of destiny do not deserve the gift. The Jewish occupation of Palestine is distinguished from all other White Man’s colonization, since apart from indifference to the place and its inhabitants, it epitomizes an oblivious attitude to their own History.

Just after the 1995 Oslo agreement, on the very day the Israeli Army evacuated Ramallah, handing it over to the full control of the Palestinians, the town was in a carnival mood, and the long-forbidden Palestinian flag was hoisted everywhere. In his impressive book “Strangers in the House”(3) the disillusioned Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh describes how in the same evening on his walking way home he saw “…in the distant hills to the west, just below the line of the glimmering lights of the coast, a single red light.” Wondering what it could be, he wrote, “A new house built on the vacant hills? But it was too remote an area …. A solo picnicker celebrating the liberation of Ramallah?” But then he realizes that the light is moving… that it is the rear light of a car driving through the “liberated zone”…. And this was the end of the carnival… Shehadeh realizes “…that it was a new bypass road being built to serve the settlers of Dolev and Beit-El, to connect them through an alternative road to Jerusalem.” and this was the burial of the Oslo agreement! “The hills where he used to go for walks and enjoy the changes brought by the different seasons to the land would become unsafe with armed settlers and soldiers traveling the new road.”

Seven years later the number of Jewish settlers doubled, “…their new houses are built on our flattened hills. They drive on straight wide roads that burrow through hills that have been cut in half. The scramble for land is ruining this afflicted landscape… while Israel prospers, our towns and villages continue to be squeezed.” The whole enterprise of Israeli settlers’ expansion is planned to disrupt the territorial contiguity of the Palestinians. What a shameful homecoming!

Recalling that it is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, let us be reminded that in Hebrew the word dwelling is LISHKON from the word MISHKAN that has the etymological link to SHAKHEN, which means neighborhood. And thus, dwelling and “thinking of your neighbor” are entwined.

People live in the place they dwell, people who build their houses in one place and go to work in another place, leaving their houses in the morning and coming back at night using bypass roads and avoiding their neighbors are not dwelling.

Dwelling is cultivating the land, sharing its natural resources, water and the opening landscape with the neighbors. “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build…” It is placing a house on the wind sheltered mountain slope facing the right direction. It is adjusting the building to the regional weather conditions, for a long winter place a overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and an arched building for living in a desert .(4) Ecology is not about dwelling. Building should be letting-dwell. Being a “friend of the earth” is not just protesting against pollution or trying to save nature by the conservation of “fauna and flora”. Being a “friend of the earth” means an awareness of our being a temporal stance in time and space, an episode in history of a place, a singular strand in the weaving of collective group memories. The ecological aspect is only a narrow facet of the wide theme concerning the man and earth relationship. Ecology and green politics is a materialistic, scientific, and calculative mindset about quantification of pollution and global warming forecasting the end of this planet. Ecology ignores homelands, history and traditions and it is blind to joy and grief of people as it calculates only the damage done to earth.

Palestine is the piece of earth where tribes from the desert met with men from the sea, where the wandering merchant and the nomad shepherd exchanged goods with the rural native, where prophets preached and denounced kings, where tribes were clashed in imperial conquests. Peace and prosperity were rare episodes in the history of Palestine. We can trace it in the biblical Jewish prayer for peace and tranquility "God who makes peace in heaven, may he make peace for us and for all Israel, and say Amen.”(5) But then we shall realize that this blessing is directed solely for the benefit of the children of Israel…. Hence, no wonder that the biblical promise of dwelling “to sit under one’s vine and fig-tree” is interpreted by the Israelis as bestowed to their own settlements. While they pray for peace under their fig trees they go for raids, bulldozing, burning and uprooting Palestinian olive plantations that are thousands of years old. The question to be asked is: how can homecoming be materialized by such a destructive drive for uprooting trees, destroying the habitat of people that dwelt in the region for so long? Only a people afflicted by detachment can be so inattentive to another people’s authentic wish to dwell. The problem with the Jews is that they refer to God’s covenant regarding the Promised Land in legalistic terms. Jews (secular as well as orthodox) refer to the Bible as a document of legal rights to the lands of Palestine. However law and justice can never be equated, but when a pseudo-legal attitude takes over, it is even worse, since it obstructs people from thinking and acting in an ethical way. This is why in the case of the Jews the prospect of dwelling is cancelled beforehand. To understand what history grants us is a virtue given only to those who have the ability to dwell. Right from the beginning the Zionist homecoming’s carelessness of the homeland’s own special nature, of its thrilling past was evident. There was a failure to grasp the homeland as a gift of destiny.

We can say that the mutual covenant between God and his chosen people does

not include “strangers”, and thus Gentiles are considered as non-beings. It is clearly declared in the 1967 victorious song of praise “Jerusalem of Gold”:

“Jerusalem of Gold, and of bronze, and of light

Behold I am a violin for all your songs

How the cisterns have dried

The market place is empty

And no one frequents the Temple Mount

In the Old City

And in the caves in the mountain winds are howling

And no one descends to the Dead Sea

By way of Jericho”

As if all the years before the Jews occupied the area, the people that were living there were non-entities. As if under the Jordanian rule the place was deserted. I would say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just a struggle over the same piece of land, it is a bitter battle between people that dwell and those who attempt to settle.

“Dwelling” means that prior to being “at home” there is the need to keep it preserved in its essence. Granting this feeling of “being at home” is the essence of a homeland.” (6) Homecoming should be founded on a thoughtful reflection of what being “at home” means. One needs a prior knowledge of what the home is like. What is its nature, what is the best in it. To romanticize the Homeland by repeating a myth is not enough. Idealizing the Homeland as the place of “milk and honey” is good for prayers but not as a guideline for erecting a state. The Zionists imagined Zion as a place where they will feel “at home” and thereby fulfill their destiny. They thought of cultivating it and turning it back into the land of Milk and Honey, but at the same time they lacked any knowledge about the place and its inhabitants. Right from the beginning, there was no intention of dwelling.

A homeland is not a geographic site we approach via the jargon of tourism or by folkloristic tales. Homeland is not nature in itself, not fauna and flora for itself, homeland means to dwell poetically. Thinking of homecoming poetically is to accept that: what comes near is still remote and concealed and that the nearness to the origin is something quite mysterious .(7) Dwelling in a Homeland should not be maintained by military power, street marches, parades of tanks and cannons. It should not be exhibited by F16 formation flights, or military jets causing supersonic blasts that shatter the windows of the neighbors in Damascus. Dwelling is not dominating the sky and earth but rather staying in peace with nature where sky and earth are facing each other.

Homecoming is a modest attempt to dwell as near as possible to the hearth of the homeland, and to get nearest to its origin. In the faithfulness to its origin neighborhood is grounded. By poetically dwelling, Heidegger means that without remembering the past of the homeland the poems are empty and shallow.

To dwell means to stay in a place. The thousands and thousands of Israeli Jews queuing at the doors of the Polish, Estonian and the Lithuanian Embassies begging for an EU passport, do they have the intention to dwell?

We may conclude that the aspiration of “Homecoming” does not stop people from being steeped in homelessness. The old role of the Wandering Jew being dispersed among the Gentiles is still awaiting those who do not dwell. By reading Heidegger we acknowledge that not every attempt to find a refuge, a shelter or a home is aimed at dwelling. Building a separation wall, concrete barricades, bypass roads, and settlements surrounded by barbed wire fence is an appalling example of how to survive in a land as long as you can without dwelling in it.


[1] Heidegger, M., (1996), Holderline’s Poetry (Humanity Books: NY)

[2] The system of building Jewish settlements in Mandatory Palestine.

[3] Shehadeh Raja (2002 ), Strangers in the House (Profile books)

[4] Heidegger, M., (2001), Building, Dwelling, Thinking, in: Poetry, Language, Thought (Perennial Classics) p. 158

[5] The last verse in the Jewish mourning prayer to the dead which appears in Job 25:12. Since the ’67 War this verse became the Hymn of the peace movement in Israel.

[6] Heidegger 1996, p.36

[7] ibid 41

Published at http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com/ on April 2, 2006; http://peacepalestine.blogspot.com/2006/04/ariella-atzmon-homeland-as-gift-of.html