Desert | Israel

As fleeting as shifting dunes

With their sweeping horizons and emptiness, deserts have inspired religions, myths and inner-reflection. But ever since last year’s violence, Israel’s Negev desert has been linked to new and devastating images
A stony, dry path leads up a rocky hill. There are no plants to be seen anywhere, the landscape is completely barren

Rocky hills in the Negev Desert in Israel


It is well known that the God of the Jews is not a particularly likeable character. Anyone who reads the Bible can confirm that this God is prone to outbursts of anger or jealousy – and does not even shy away from acts of violence. But there are also moments of grace or even romance.

One of the most beautiful examples of this is a verse in the book of Jeremiah where God says to his people, equated here with a sinful woman: “I remember the faithfulness of your youth, the love of your bride, how you followed me into the wilderness, into the land without seed.”

The willingness to follow the deity into the desert is regarded as the ultimate proof of love. In this sense, the desert is far more than a geographical concept: it is a symbol, albeit a deceptive one – almost as fleeting as the shifting dunes that change place and form before our eyes.

“The willingness to follow the deity into the desert is considered the ultimate proof of love”

If someone is willing to follow us into our private desert, they want to accompany us to the desolate, barren place where we are helpless and lost. As a psychologist, I know that moment when a patient stands at the edge of her private desert and looks at me to check whether I have the courage to accompany them there. And I gratefully remember the loved ones who were willing to enter my desert with me and helped me through it.

But the desert is not just the ultimate test of love, a hell to be overcome. The desert is also a symbol of liberation from the everyday bonds of possessions and materiality.

The philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm writes: “The desert is the most important symbol of liberation. The desert is not a house. There are no cities in it. No possessions. It is the place of nomads who have what they need, and what they need is nothing but the necessities of life, no goods... Life in the desert is preparation for a free life.”

On an excursion into the desert near Eilat, I met one such nomad, a young man who had set himself the goal of travelling through Israel from the northernmost to the southernmost point. But when he reached the desert outside Eilat, two days away from the end of his three-month tour, he stopped. “I don’t want to arrive,” he told me.

“In Eilat the journey would be over, I would have to go to university, rent a flat, buy furniture and clothes. Right now, I only have my rucksack and I don't need anything.” I envied him his total liberation, but also thought that wanderlust could easily end in dependency, even enslavement.

“The desert is also a symbol of liberation from the everyday bonds of possessions and materiality”

The Israeli writer Meir Shalev sent the hero of his novel “In the House of the Great Woman” to the desert for a while. For the author, the desert is the antithesis to the bustling city, a place to reflect and dream, far away from the hustle and bustle of the noisy metropolis.

For Shalev’s exiled hero, the desert becomes a place of refuge, but also of encounter – the only place where the protagonist can meet himself.

The complete emptiness all around allows him, perhaps for the first time, to hear his inner voice, to talk to himself. And indeed, the Hebrew word “midbar” for “desert” is spelt in the same way as the word “medaber” for “(he) talks”.

If you walk in northern Europe, you can usually hear birds singing, a stream babbling, dry leaves on the ground or leaves rustling on the trees. Anyone walking through the desert hears none of this. In the absence of flowing streams, plants and trees, people sometimes walk for hours in complete silence. Indeed, perhaps the silence of the desert is so droning that travellers have no choice but to listen to God.

“Those who walk through the desert sometimes walk for hours in complete silence”

The Sinai desert, which the people of Israel travelled through after their exodus from Egypt, was the place where God revealed himself to them in word and deed. And it was also where the Ten Commandments were proclaimed to mankind. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this interesting choice of place in monotheistic mythology.

The Ten Commandments are the foundation of many cultures. They regulate the social and moral relationships that underpin many well-ordered human societies.

Yet these commandments were not proclaimed in the city, at the centre of civilisation, but in the middle of the desert, in the wasteland, perhaps to make it clear to us that these commandments, the whole ethic, are necessary prerequisites for being able to establish permanent homes and institutions, perhaps also to anchor their universal nature, which transcends any specific city or settlement.

In view of the firm anchoring of the Sinai desert in Jewish collective memory, it is remarkable how strongly the desert is also a place of forgetting.

“For years, the Negev desert was Israel’s backyard, extraterritorial territory”

Over a hundred thousand Bedouins live in the Negev Desert today, most of them are in villages that are not recognised by the state and are therefore not connected to the water and electricity network. You won't find these villages on Google Maps. The Google map only shows barren, deserted desert. But the Bedouins are there, under the guise of our displacement.

For years, the Negev desert was Israel’s backyard, extraterritorial territory. Funding flowed into the large urban centres, while the Bedouin and the inhabitants of the smaller towns were neglected.

Right now, after the terrible massacre by Hamas, human solidarity can be observed in the middle of the desert: Jews and Arabs came to the aid of the inhabitants of Bedouin villages that had been hit by rockets.

October 2023 marked another terrible chapter in the history of the Israeli desert. On the night of 6 to 7 October, in the light of the half moon, thousands of young people gathered for a music festival in the north-western Negev desert, at Kibbutz Reim.

They danced under the stars until the moment the stars came crashing down on them, when rockets were fired at the revellers and Hamas terrorists used their guns to massacre most of those who tried to flee. Hundreds of festival-goers were murdered. Worried parents, who received no response from their children, drove their cars south in search of their loved ones.

“The thriving luxury hotel in the middle of the desert has become a perpetual hell of waiting”

In the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of survivors of the attack were evacuated to hotels in Eilat and the Dead Sea. I met them there when I was sent with a team from the hospital to provide psychological support to those rescued.

The lobby of the hotel overlooks the mountains of Moab, full red sunsets can be admired from the dining room. The nature outside is in stark contrast to what goes on inside the hotel. These people are not here on holiday. They have fled for their lives.

The place that was their home has gone up in flames and now they are waiting for news of their loved ones who have been abducted to Gaza. The thriving luxury hotel in the middle of the desert is a constant hell for them as they wait to find out whether their loved ones are still alive.

From now on, these images will also shape our collective perception of the desert.