New book by Tel Aviv historian uncovers “Land of Israel” myths
Shlomo Sand is a history professor at Tel Aviv University. His charismatic, readable style was evident in his previous book The Invention of the Jewish People, the English edition of which kicked up quite a controversy in 2009. The title alone seemed designed to shock.
But in fact Sand was arguing a fairly banal truism: there is no such thing as a unified, national “Jewish people.” As a globalized religious community (due to proselytizing before the rise to power of Christianity in the fourth century) there are instead multiple different Jewish communities across the world.
A Jew from Yemen would have no distinctive secular points of reference in common with a Jew from France, Russia or Poland. For example: before Zionist reinvention from the end of the 19th century, Hebrew was a purely liturgical language. Jews from different countries naturally spoke in local languages.
That book was a fascinating journey through centuries of Jewish history, much of it swept under the carpet by Zionist historiography. Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, is essentially a direct sequel, focusing on the nature of an idea central to Zionism: the “Land of Israel” — Eretz Israel in Hebrew.
Sand explains that in Israel, “in the Hebrew-language edition of foreign books, the word ‘Palestine’ is systematically replaced with the words Eretz Israel … Even when the writings of important Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Ber Borochov and many others [who also used ‘Palestine’] … are translated into Hebrew” (23).
Holy land or homeland?
In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the geographic area roughly corresponding to the land of Palestine (between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea) is mostly called the “land of Canaan.” The area “never served as a homeland for the ‘children of Israel,’ and for this reason, among others, they never refer to it as ‘the Land of Israel.’” Most Israelis, Sand argues, are not aware that the term is not found in the the Hebrew Bible “in its inclusive meaning” of a wide geographic area (86).
Later Jewish religious law “does feature the debut of the term ‘Land of Israel’ ” but, Sand explains, this was a “holy land” rather than a “homeland” (102). Most Jews did not seek to live there. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, lived in Egypt — right next to Palestine. He could have moved to Jerusalem, since both regions were under Roman rule — but instead, like most people, he chose to live and die in his original homeland (96).
Furthermore this Eretz Israel was traditionally considered by mainstream Judaism to be so holy the devout were positively forbidden to move there (183). Even pilgrimage was a rare, and later phenomenon. Between the years 134 and 1099, “we know of no attempts by the followers of rabbinical Judaism to make pilgrimages to the holy city” of Jerusalem (123).
All this stands in stark contrast to the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence which claims that “the Jewish people … never ceased to pray and hope for their return.” In contrast to this “mythos,” Sand writes: “most of the world’s Jews … did not regard Palestine as their land … they did not strive ‘in every successive generation to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland’ ” (175).
“Settlement Zionism, which borrowed the term ‘Land of Israel’ from the Talmud, was not overly pleased with the borders it had been assigned by Jewish law … extending only from Acre to Ashkelon … [it was] not sufficiently contiguous to serve as a national homeland,” argues Sand (214).
He then reviews the history of the ever-shifting definition in Zionist thought of where exactly its “Land of Israel” is — something undeclared till this day.
Early Zionists drew on God’s promise in the book of Genesis to give the mythical patriarch Abram’s children “this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” in modern day Iraq.
In 1897, the same year as the first Zionist congress, Israel Belkind (“the first practical Zionist”) drew a map: “ ‘The Jordan splits the Land of Israel in two different sections,’ asserted Belkind, whose assessment was subsequently adopted by most [Zionist] settlers of the period” (216).
For the future first prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion, these borders “were too expansive and untenable, while the borders of the Talmudic commandment were too narrow.” In 1918 he gave his own take: “In the north — the Litani River, between Tyre and Sidon [in Lebanon] … In the east — the Syrian Desert. The eastern border of the Land of Israel should not be precisely demarcated … the Land’s eastern borders will be diverted eastwards, and the area of the Land of Israel will expand” (217).
Not for nothing were the borders of the new state unmentioned in its declaration of independence (233).
Ben Gurion later scaled back this conception, but even mainstream Labor Zionist figure as Yigal Allon would still at times refer to the whole of historic Palestine as the “western Land of Israel” as late as 1979 (237).
There’s also a brilliant chapter on the origins of Christian Zionism in the protestantism of nineteenth-century British imperialists.
Sand stops short of calling for implementing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. His concluding chapter is a history of al-Sheikh Muwannis, the Palestinian village that Israel ethnically cleansed in 1948 and in place of which his own university now stands. Unfortunately, he counterposes removing the university, on the one hand, with the Palestinian refugees never being able to return en masse, on the other — as if those are the only two options (280).
It’s a useful book for debunking Zionist myths, which, due to the legacy of Protestant Christian Zionism in the west are surprisingly resilient. But as Sand’s slightly flaky post-Zionist politics demonstrates, a more realistic knowledge of history doesn’t necessarily translate fully to a rights-based understanding of the Palestinian plight.
Still, there is much to enjoy and learn in the evidence in the potentially incendiary material he assembles here.
Asa Winstanley is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, and a journalist in London who has also worked in Palestine.