Book Review: The Invention of the Land of Israel


Book Review: The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland by Shlomo Sand. 2012. 295 pages. Verso Books, London and New York. English translation from the Hebrew by Geremy Forman.


ISRAELBy William Willers


In his 2009 book, The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand, a “post-Zionist” historian at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, effectively exposed the “Exile” of Jews from Palestine and the 2000-year “Diaspora” as fictions that, along with biblical myths construed as authentic history, provided justification for the takeover of Palestine and the dispossession of its native population. Rather than a “wandering” Semitic people, Jews were depicted by Sand as a diverse genetic mosaic resulting from conversion of non-Semites outside of Palestine, with the Zionist initiative succeeding thus far due to a rewriting of history and the actions of a politically powerful international network.

That 2009 book elicited such a host of critics who justified Zionist colonization of Palestine in the name of “historical rights” to “ancestral lands”, that Sand responded with this 2012 book as a “modest addition” to the earlier one, so as to “fill in some gaps”. One gap he fills early on is mention of five other sites of conversion (i.e., other than Khazaria, the source of Eastern European Jewry) in Africa, the Middle East and India.

The main thrust of the book deals with the legitimacy – or lack thereof – of Jewish claim on Palestine, also referred to so variously as “Land of Israel” (as opposed to the State of Israel of 20th Century outline), “The Promised Land”, “Canaan”, “The Holy Land”, and “Eretz Israel”, as to be confusing to contemporary readers used to state lines on maps. Such sharp divisions are a relatively recent creation, and the ancient lands referred to were regions without hard outlines or definite political boundaries, as an Internet search for their “maps” reveals. Understanding boundaries has varied from one group to another. Sand recalls his fellow soldiers in 1967 looking across the river Jordan into the nation of Jordan as if it were a part of God’s promise to Israel. If one considers, as many do, Eretz Israel to be the land between the Nile and Euphrates rivers, it would incorporate Lebanon, Jordan and portions of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. One such group refers to this expanded understanding, perhaps somewhat ominously, as “Future Israel”.

Central to Sand’s thesis is that the story of the world’s Jews “yearning to return” to an “ancestral land” while “wandering” for two millennia is simply untrue and primary to Zionist revision. Jews, over the centuries, were not inclined to “return” to Palestine or to make pilgrimage. To the contrary, Sand cites Talmudic “adjurations” against collective immigration. Certainly Jews had centuries to go had they wished, but they chose not to. By the late eighteenth century, when two and a half millions Jews lived in the world, there were more than 250,000 Muslims and Christians in Palestine but only 5000 Jews. And by 1917, when the Earl of Balfour declared Britain’s support for a Palestinian homeland for Jews (“… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine …”), there were 60,000 Jews compared to 700,000 Muslims.

Sand argues that the Holy Land for Jews was primarily a spiritual entity that over time “became increasingly symbolic and distant … The need for a holy place in which perfect cosmic order existed never equated to a human desire to actually live in it or to be always in close proximity to it.”  “Judaism”, Sand writes, “refused to be shackled to a piece of land”, and “The essence and raison d’etre of rabbinical Judaism was the Bible and associated commentaries, and so from this perspective, it would be no exaggeration to characterize it as largely, fundamentally, and consistently anti-Zionist.” In connection with this, Sand refers to Hebrew (in which he wrote the book) as a sacred language appropriate for prayer and theological discussion, but not for the secular world of business, state and military concerns.

The nineteenth century was marked by a surge in ethnocentric nationalism throughout the West, and this led in some areas to the marginalization of Jews. These two elements promoted the Zionist movement that formed in the late 19th Century (The first Zionist Congress was in 1897). Sand stresses that the founders of Zionism were secular rather than religiously observant Jews, and that the reaction from Judaism generally, and from prominent rabbis everywhere, was distinctly negative. Nationalism, as a concept, was considered to be “chauvinistic” and therefore offensive to Judaism, a religion independent of time and space and universalist in spirit. Some Jews viewed Zionism as a “cult”, while Zionists considered mainstream Jews as “a fossilized people that needed to be rehabilitated”. Sand cites Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as identifying the United States as the appropriate “place of refuge” for Jews, not Palestine.

Ironically, Christian Zionism predates by decades the main Zionist movement by secular Jews. However, the motivation behind it was radically different, in that its premise had to do with fulfilling prophesy regarding the second coming of Christ. It contained an underlying assumption, perhaps not outwardly discussed now, that the “return” of Jews to the Holy Land would entail their conversion to Christianity, and it did not reflect a particular love for Jews. In fact, Sand writes that many Christian Zionists shared attitudes similar to those of judeophobes.

Zionists considered Palestine to be open for colonization despite its having been occupied primarily by Muslims for centuries, because the natives, according to Zionist opinion, “did not possess the unique attributes of a nation and never claimed self-determination.” Through the construction of a “new past” (Sand’s words) and “complex moral rhetoric”, Zionists justified their takeover, and that takeover has been facilitated by “the consistent support and funding of the Zionist establishment”. In all, this multifaceted “system”, with its international financial, political and media connections, Sand refers to as Zionism’s “superweapon”.

Zionism, according to Sand, replaces the Torah as that of principal importance for its supporters. And although the Zionist aim to colonize Palestine as a place of refuge for Jews was not widely accepted within Judaism until after the Second World War, the terror caused by the Holocaust changed that. Sand is blunt: “[W]ith the terrifying assistance of history, Zionism defeated Judaism”.

Sand describes Zionism as a “victory of mythos over historic logic” and the attitude of Zionists toward others as a “mixture of contempt and fear”, due to their own “fictitiousness”. He is clearly troubled by the destruction of hundreds of ancient Palestinian villages to make way for Zionist colonization, and he dedicates the book to the villagers of al-Sheikh Muwannis, the community that once existed where he now lives. His anger shows through frequently, as when he heads a subsection of the book derisively: “Gifted Theologians Bestow A Land Upon Themselves”. Because Palestinians have been reduced to such a level of subjugation, he sums up the contemporary situation in Israel as a “typical plantation colony”.

For anyone familiar with Sand’s 2009 book, this one adds little to a basic understanding of his interpretation of Jewish history. It is more rambling and repetitive than the earlier book. It is highly detailed, heavily footnoted, and most appropriate as a reference work for students, journalists and historians.

As an aside, and regarding the divide between Zionism and traditional Jewry, one could hardly do better than the statement made in a few minutes by an orthodox rabbi addressing Iranian President Ahmadinejad in 2007.

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That such a meeting was “overlooked” by Western media is itself a comment about Zionist influence on Western opinion and the disturbing fact that, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s word’s, “America is a thing you can move very easily”.

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