A Diverse Collection of Peoples

Daniel Lazare

  • The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand
    Verso, 344 pp, £9.99, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 623 1
  • The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland by Shlomo Sand
    Verso, 295 pp, £16.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 946 1

The Land of Israel 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. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

So says the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, issued in Tel Aviv on 14 May 1948. Shlomo Sand’s last two books have questioned the document’s assumptions: were the Jews ‘forcibly exiled’ or did they go abroad in search of new opportunities? If they ‘never ceased to pray and hope for their return’, why did so few bother to visit their homeland for centuries on end? How do we know that the people who ‘kept faith’ throughout the Diaspora were the same as the ones who headed out to begin with? Did they share the same genes? Or were they as far removed from the original Jews as, say, Polish Galicians are from the Galicians of Spain?

In The Invention of the Jewish People, Sand sought to demythologise his people’s identity. It was a bestseller in Israel and won the Prix Aujourd’hui in France. Eric Hobsbawm called it a ‘much needed exercise in the dismantling of nationalist historical myth’. Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, aims to trace the concept of a Jewish homeland from the vague territorial references of the Torah to today’s armed and embattled Jewish state. The concept has evolved over the years. While Genesis 15 promised that Abraham’s offspring would rule ‘from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’, the actual kingdom of Judah, from which the term ‘Jew’ derives, was never more than a hilltop duchy some thirty miles across. Yet today it is the coastal plain, formerly the haunt of the Philistines, that is in the hands of the Zionists, and Judah for the most part is in the hands of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. So what exactly is this ‘land of Israel’ that everyone argues about, what are its boundaries, and how did it come about?

Sand has set out to explicate the history of a land and a people – or, rather, the idea of a land and a people, since the actual population has changed so much. It’s an ambitious and tricky undertaking. While it’s still permissible to question this or that aspect of Israeli policy, criticism of Zionism as a whole is all too often declared off-limits, and not only by the Anti-Defamation League, so for many people Sand’s attempt to break down Zionism’s ideological assumptions goes beyond the pale. Yet with the Middle East reminiscent of the pre-1914 Balkans, going beyond the pale is not only permissible but de rigueur. Somebody has to figure out how the storm arose, and since Zionism is a big part of the story, there’s no reason for it to be shielded from criticism. The more some people try to bar the door, the more others can’t help wondering what they’re hiding.

Sand’s investigation is more than justified, and it would be nice to report that his effort is subtle, sober and perceptive, as wide-ranging as it is morally serious. But it isn’t. Hobsbawm and the rest notwithstanding, The Invention of the Jewish People was a messy polemic – helter-skelter, tendentious and ill-informed. The Invention of the Land of Israel is better and winds up with a discussion of Zionist territorial ambitions that places Israeli policy in a new light. But it is undermined by a shaky concept of Jewish history. Sand rightly insists on the relevance of the ancient past to contemporary politics, but his distortions are an obstacle to a full understanding of the modern Israeli-Palestinian predicament.

Sand’s problem is that he works from a photographic negative of Zionist ideology. If an idea ‘conforms with the Zionist meta-narrative’, as he puts it, then it must be false. If Zionists, like all nationalists, idealise the nation and insist that it is continuous, unbroken and eternal, then there must have been a rupture at some point between the Jews of the Bible and the so-called Jews of today. If Zionism preaches a glorious history going back to the days of David and Solomon, then that history must be a fiction cooked up centuries later for ideological purposes. If Zionism maintains that Jews longed to go home, then they must have been content to stay put. And if Zionists base their claim to the land of Israel on the Hebrew Bible, then the Bible must be an ‘anti-patriotic’ document that is silent on the question of a Jewish homeland. As Sand writes in The Invention of the Land of Israel, ‘the idea of patriotism that developed in the northern Mediterranean basin was barely known on its southern shores and known even less in the Fertile Crescent.’ The biblical basis for the Jewish state is nil.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in