Sand strikes again

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Sand strikes again

Screw that land of Israel nonsense too.

The concept of homeland is one of the most amazing and also, perhaps, one of the most ruinous of the modern era, says Prof. Shlomo Sand. In his new book, “When and How Was the Land of Israel Invented?” ‏(Kineret, Zmora-Bitan Dvir, Hebrew&rlmEye-wink, Sand examines the attitude of the Zionist movement toward that territory since its inception. More particularly, he is out to discover how Zionism adopted the idea of the “historic right” to that land, and consolidated an ethos based on the memory of an ancient people whose ancestors were Hebrews who lived in the Kingdom of Judah in the First and Second Temple periods. According to Sand, the Land of Israel was not the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

“Zionism plundered the religious term ‘Land of Israel’ [Eretz Yisrael] and turned it into a geopolitical term,” he says. “The Land of Israel is not the homeland of the Jews. It becomes a homeland at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th − only upon the emergence of the Zionist movement.”

Sand’s previous book, “The Invention of the Jewish People” ‏(Verso, 2009; translated by Yael Lotan&rlmEye-wink, stirred a furor. Sand rejected the existence of a Jewish people that was exiled two millennia ago and survived. The majority of the Jews of Eastern Europe, he maintained, are descendants of societies or of individuals who were converted to Judaism on European soil. This concept flagrantly contradicts Israel’s Declaration of Independence, according to which “Eretz-Israel ‏(the Land of Israel, Palestine&rlmEye-wink was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books” [source: Israeli Foreign Ministry]. Sand argues that for 2,000 years the Jews did not constitute a people and that only religion, belief and culture united them.

It was to be expected that “The Invention of the Jewish People” would not be greeted in Israel with great acclaim. However, its author admits that he did not imagine the book “would fall with the impact of a bomb.” The negative reactions have been diverse. Some rejected outright the principal conclusion and the historical facts on which it was based, while others dismissed the research and claimed there was nothing new in the book, that everything was known and accepted, at least by historians. ‏(For a slightly different reason he was also disappointed when the Arabic-language edition of the book was published in Ramallah: Sand was not invited to the book launch, though he was hosted at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem by the institution’s president, Prof. Sari Nusseibeh.&rlmEye-wink


That was about four years ago, but the hostility toward him seems to be intensifying. Recently, he says, he has been receiving more hate mail and getting obscene phone calls. Last week, he received an envelope in the mail that contained a white powder and a letter branding him an “anti-Semite” and a “Jew hater,” together with a promise that his days were numbered.

“The Invention of the Jewish People” was on Israel’s best-seller lists for 19 weeks and has been translated into 16 languages. Editions in Chinese, Korean, Indonesian and Croatian are in the works. In March 2009, he received the Aujourd’hui Award, presented by French journalists for a leading nonfiction political or historical work. Previous winners of the award include renowned scholars such as Raymond Aron and George Steiner.

Sand also racked up a lot of flying time en route to lecture on the book in France, Britain, Canada, the United States, Belgium, Japan, Russia, Germany, Slovenia, Morocco, Bulgaria, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Italy. His desk drawer and inbox contain hundreds of letters from around the world, from both Jews and adherents of other religions, taking issue with him.

Sand teaches political ideas and cultures in the history department of Tel Aviv University. When he walks down the corridors of the Gilman Building, which houses the Faculty of Humanities − where he was a student 40 years ago and afterward returned as a lecturer following 10 years in Paris − he feels a growing sense of loneliness. Colleagues who were once his friends and invited him to their homes pass him by as though he were invisible. “They are just envious,” Sand snaps.

Do you feel pleased to be at the center of a controversy in which so many scholars have attacked you?

“A man of my age who decided to write these books and became a pariah of the academic community in Israel gets no enjoyment from it. I would rather be liked, and not squabble. I am liked better abroad. Scholars from Tony Judt to Eric Hobsbawm ... told me the book is groundbreaking. I have an ego like everyone else, and maybe a little more, and without such appreciation I could not have written the new book. I imagine that people will find a few mistakes in it, too. It is impossible to cruise across civilizations and cultures over that span of time without making mistakes. In the previous book, the most vituperative review found four mistakes, which have since been corrected. But if someone were to prove that the book’s basic theses are totally unfounded, that would crush me.”

Are you aware of the fact that some of your critics hold you in contempt?

“They are not contemptuous, they hate me. [Historian] Anita Shapira accused me of ‘denying the Jewish people,’ but added that the book is brilliant. [Historian] Israel Bartal, who assailed me and ‘The Invention of the Jewish People,’ is living off me by appearing on all kinds of academic platforms around the world and arguing against the book. I understand that the book generated considerable distress.”


“If my thesis is correct, and 500 years ago there was no French people, Russian people, Italian people or Vietnamese people − and, by the same token, no Jewish people − and the story of the exile of a Jewish people in the first or second century C.E., in conjunction with the destruction of the Second Temple was imagined − the implication is that historians from the departments of the history of the Jewish people have been dealing with brara [Hebrew slang for rubbish] for years. Their departments have no legitimization. You will not find a department of the history of the English people at Cambridge University. Along comes Sand, from the Department of General History, and claims these people are working in a department that is a myth and whose existence is unjustified, because there was no Jewish people of a single extraction. If I am right, they are standing on water.”

Nationalizing the Bible

“And all the congregation of Judah, with the priests and the Levites, and all the congregation that came out of Israel, and the strangers that came out of the land of Israel, and that dwelt in Judah, rejoiced.”
− 2 Chronicles 30:25

The idea for the new book, Sand says, was sparked by the criticism of “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

“The pro-Zionist British historian Simon Schama wrote that my book had failed in its attempt to sever the connection between the land of the forefathers and the Jewish experience. Other critics wrote that my intention had been to challenge the Jews’ historic right to their ancient homeland, the Land of Israel. I was surprised. Not for a moment did I think the book challenged that right, because I never thought the Jews had a historic right to this land.

“I never imagined,” Sand continues, “that at the beginning of the 21st century there would be critics who would justify Israel’s existence through arguments based on patrimony thousands of years old. Since I have been aware of myself, I have defended our presence here owing to the plight of the Jews, from the end of the 19th century, when Europe spewed out the Jews and the United States shut its gates at a certain stage, and not because of national yearnings or historical right.”

Were you persuaded that “Invention” is a flawed book?

“I realized that the book was not sufficiently balanced and that I had to add what was missing by means of another study, about the modes of invention of the Land of Israel as a territorial space of the Jewish people. This refers to the concept of the Land of Israel in Zionist historiography, focusing on territory and on the settlement process that has been going on here for the past 120 years.

“I applied my theoretical assumptions both in regard to the emergence of nations and peoples, and with respect to the term ‘homeland.’ I examined when this place became a national territory for the Jews and why it was necessary to adhere at any cost to the narrative of a people with one origin, who left its homeland 2,000 years ago, wandered and wandered, reached the gates of Moscow, made a U-turn and decided to return to its native land.

“The second myth that needed to be deconstructed is that the Land of Israel was always the property of the Jewish people and was promised it by God, who even gave his emissaries a deed of title, namely the Bible, which Zionism, despite its secularity, nationalized and turned into a salient work of history.”

In this year’s Bible quiz, at Pesach, Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar said, “We believe with all our heart that the actualization of settlement is a return to the land of our forefathers and that this right is intertwined with the Jewish people’s right to national security ... The patriarch Abraham and the patriarch Jacob came to Beit El and Hebron almost 4,000 years ago, long before they were the subjects of media interest.”

“There is no such thing as national territory that has belonged to the Jewish people since the biblical period, and I prove that in the book. That is a mythic statement which is characteristic of national leaders in the modern history of the last 200 years. The territorial myth has worked well since the start of the 20th century. Zionism is not the only case. To create nations in the present and with a view to the future, ‘eternal’ peoples are created with a view to the past. Seventy years ago, every Frenchman was convinced that he had been a Gaul, just like the Germans in the first half of the last century, who believed they were the direct descendants of the Teutons. That [sort of perception] generally disappears amid the philosophy and thought and everyday life of the Western Europeans. Here, though, it remains implanted within the historical-political consciousness of many Israelis.”

Many studies cast doubt on the Bible’s historical truths. In his new book, “Ha-Shem: The Secret Numbers of the Hebrew Bible and the Mystery of the Exodus from Egypt” ‏(Hebrew&rlmEye-wink, Prof. Israel Knohl, who is religiously observant, challenges the Mount Sinai event as it is described in the Torah, and maintains that the Exodus from Egypt has no connection with reality.

“I have a higher regard for studies by archaeologists such as Israel Finkelstein and Ze’ev Herzog from Tel Aviv University, and for the Bible scholar Nadav Na’aman, but I do not agree with all of them. I am far more persuaded by Bible research conducted by non-Israeli and non-Zionist scholars, like Niels Peter Lemche, Philip Davies and Thomas Thompson. I rely on them and have adopted their approach that the Bible was written more or less between the fifth century B.C.E. and the third century C.E. It began to be written after the political-intellectual elite was exiled from Judah to Babylon. The books of the Bible were apparently composed only after many of those who had been in Babylon came to Jerusalem with the agreement of the Persians. There is no doubt that the talented authors knew the meaning of exile first-hand: It resonates like a concrete threat throughout the Torah and the books of the prophets.

“Researchers such as Thompson view the Bible as theological fiction: In the same way that Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ is not informative in regard to the ancient period of imperial Rome, the Bible cannot teach us historical facts. The stories in the Bible are the basis of Western civilization and also the basis for the New Testament and the Koran. They are astonishing literary texts, but the last thing they are is history books − which is why I, as a historian, ignore them. Finkelstein and Herzog found that the Exodus from Egypt never happened and that the land of Canaan was not conquered swiftly; not to mention Abraham, who is a mythological figure. In short, I think that modern Jewish nationalism − Zionism − took theology and turned it into history.”


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Jews stole the land. The owners want it back. That is all anyone needs to know about Israel. That is all there is to know about Israel.