Land of hope and story

Interview Shlomo Sand: Simon Rocker meets a controversial Israeli academic concerned to debunk foundational Jewish ‘myths’


Five years ago, Shlomo Sand published one of the most contentious Jewish books of recent times. In The Invention of the Jewish People, which appeared in English translation in 2009, the Tel Aviv University history professor debunked the idea of Jewish peoplehood.

Jews were not the descendants of ancient Israelites exiled from their homeland because there was no mass exile in the Roman era, he argued.

They were a diverse group of religious communities rather than a nation, often descended from diaspora converts and sharing a set of beliefs rather than a history.

Now, the 66-year-old academic, who was born in Austria and arrived in Israel in the year of its independence, has placed his dynamite under what he regards as another national myth: the “Land of Israel”, which is more sacred space than a historic homeland.

Its definition was always hazy, he argues. The Talmud sees it as “a holy place from Acco to Ashkelon”. The Torah refers to the Land of Canaan. Some of the Zionist patriarchs — and not only the right-wing — coveted the East Bank (Jordan) as well as the West.

Just as Jewish peoplehood was the product of 19th-century nationalism, so too was the Land of Israel, he says. “Just as the Christians or Muslims didn’t have a homeland before modernity, the Jews also didn’t have a homeland before modernity.”

Taking up Simon Schama’s accusation, in a review of The Invention of the Jewish People, that Sand sought to break the link between Jews and the Land of Israel, he says: “I never tried to cut the deep, long, religious affinity between Jews and the Holy Land. But the concept in Judaism for one thousand, five, six or seven hundred years wasn’t a patriotic concept. The Promised Land of God was never a homeland for the Jews.” The relationship was “metaphysical, very deep and important. But Jews by and large “didn’t want to go to live there”.

That spiritual connection, moreover, did not confer the right to colonise it, in his view. But, he says, “in the kingdom of politics, we always have to look for compromise”. The clock cannot be turned back, he concedes, and the state of Israel is an established fact.

For that reason, Professor Sand considers himself “post-Zionist”, not “anti-Zionist”, since the latter term implies repudiation of Israel’s existence. Hence his support for a two-state, rather than one-state solution.

But Israel should be the state of all its citizens, not of the Jewish people. “Jews today in London, their homeland is Britain,” he points out. They can have solidarity with Israel, but “it’s not their homeland”.

Just as he is opposed to Israel’s Law of Return for Jews, so he is, too, to any Palestinian “right of return”.
While promoting his book here, he told a UK-born Palestinian: “You never were in Palestine, you can’t pretend [it] is your homeland.”

Sand makes a somewhat rigid distinction between religious and ethnic notions of Jewishness and perhaps does not fully address the argument that Jews may be the cultural, if not biological, heirs of ancient Israelite civilisation. But his writing is not confined to theoretical argument: in the new book, he describes an incident he witnessed as a soldier just after the 1967 War when the body of an elderly Palestinian, who had been tortured, was put on a truck to be dumped in the Jordan.

Israel cannot relinquish its hold on the West Bank because it has been seduced by the “mythic pretension” of redeeming the Land of Israel. To Britons and British Jews, he says: “It’s your job to throw Israel out of the Occupied Territories.”

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