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An invented past would not matter so much if it did not lead to forgetting the righs of others
on 30 May 2014
In 2008 the Israeli historian Sand published “The Invention of the Jewish People” (see my Amazon review). Four years later he has followed it up with this volume which has much the same agenda: to destroy a myth which has been fostered by the State of Israel to give itself a legitimacy based on history. Whatever reasons there are for supporting the existence of the State of Israel, but historical legitimacy, according to this book, is not one of them:
He begins by pointing out that there is no reference in the Hebrew Bible to the Land of Israel: God promised the Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants; the kingdom of Israel referred to the northern kingdom and excluded Jerusalem; the title of the Hasmonean kings and of Herod when they ruled over the two old kingdoms and other lands was King of Judea; the New Testament refers to the area as Judea (except for one exception in Matthew 2:19-21 where Joseph is bidden to take his family from Egypt to the Land of Israel); later the area between the sea and the Jordan was referred to, even by Jews, as Palestine. Sand goes on to stress that Abraham, the four matriarchs, Moses and the Israelites who conquered and depopulated Canaan were all born outside the Promised Land.
The motives of the Jewish revolts in Judea and in Egypt were religious, not territorial. So was the spiritual attachment to Jerusalem of the diaspora Jews in the ancient world, and the same is true of the expression “the land of Israel” which we begin to find in the Talmud. One passage in the Talmud specifically warns Jews against collective migration to the Land of Israel, though another passage urges Jews to live there, and so did the Karaites. Those Jews who did go there - especially with the intention of being buried there - did so for spiritual, not territorial reasons. After Jerusalem had been conquered by the Muslims who put no obstacles in their way, Jewish pilgrims to the city were very few in number, nothing like as many as Christian or Muslim ones. “Next year in Jerusalem” was not “a call to action”.
The first territorial “Zionists”, calling for the return of the Jews to their Land, were not Jews, but 17th century English Protestants - not as refuge for oppressed Jews of the diaspora, but because of the curious belief that the Second Coming of Jesus would happen only after the return of the Jews to their Land and their eventual conversion there to Christianity - a belief that grew in strength among certain 19th century Evangelicals in Britain, led by the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and which is still held today by some Evangelical Christians in the United States.
According to Sand, the first Jewish figures who promoted Jewish immigration to the Land were Montefiore. The persecution of the Jews in Russia led to the advocacy of Zionist territorialism (Kalischer, Smolenskin, Lilienblum, Pinsker and then Herzl) and to the first Jewish settlements in Palestine. Herzl had to give up the idea of accepting the offer of Uganda because the majority of his followers would settle for nothing other than the Land. That this “invention of the Land Of Israel” became a reality was due to the Balfour Declaration, whose motives were, as Sand describes it, a mixture, to a small extent, of Christian Evangelicanism and, to a much larger extent, of Imperialism and of a wish to divert Jewish immigration away from Britain and towards Palestine.
Even then, in 1917, a very small minority of world Jewry saw Palestine as a territorial homeland which they were willing to support, let alone to which they felt the longing to “return”. (Many of the refugees who did go to Palestine and, later, to Israel did so because other countries would not receive them.) In Western Europe and the United States Haskalah and Reform Jews had insisted that their territorial home was the land of their birth. And the majority of orthodox Jews, from the Middle Ages until the second half of the 19th century, rejected the creation by human hands of territorial Zionism. For them the coming of the Messiah should precede rather than follow the establishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land. They opposed territorial Zionism in its early days, and some of them still exist today even in Israel itself, although they are now a small minority among orthodox Jews. The rabbis of Tsarist Russia, despite their congregations suffering so much from persecution, also firmly rejected territorial Zionism. All this makes Sand describe Zionism as the negation of Judaism. And he writes that territorial Zionism would never have won so many adherents if Western European countries and the United States had not, from the early 20th century onwards, put such serious obstacles in the way of the immigration of persecuted Jews. Many of these HAD to go to Palestine and Israel, and it is not surprising that they should have constructed for themselves a right to that Land (and to ignore the rights of the people who were living there).
The invention of territorial Zionism required also the invention that all Jews are the descendants of those Jews who were forcibly exiled from the Land (it was also important to stress that some Jews always remained in their Land under the foreign occupation of the Arabs) and that they are now returning to it - a myth which Sand has thoroughly exposed in his previous book. Zionist historians now produced histories based on these ideas, establishing the right of the Jews to the Land. Some Zionists adopted Biblical texts, like Genesis 15:8, that make the Promised Land stretch from the Nile to the Euphrates, and they regarded any borders less than that - such as those that the State of Israel had to accept in 1949 - as a necessary, but temporary compromise.
The Suez War of 1956 gave them the opportunity to seize the Sinai peninsula, though under American pressure they had to withdraw from it. They seized it again in the Six Day War of 1967, but again had to give it up after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But they were able to keep the other gains they made in the Six Day War: the Gaza Strip (which they kept for 33 years), East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The West Bank was not formally annexed, but many Zionists regretted that, feeling they had the right to annex what they called Judaea and Samaria. Short of that, ardent Zionists built settlements in the West Bank in pursuance of that same right which they invoked against those Israeli governments which initially vainly tried to restrain them, but which governments from 1977 onwards have supported. All this, of course, at the expense of the right of the Arabs.
There cannot be any doubt about Sand’s attitude to all this - but his Afterword drives it home by narrating the fate of the peaceful Arab village of just over 2,000 inhabitants, on whose obliterated site now stand Sand’s Tel Aviv University and the four museums on its campus which are devoted to the Zionist narrative of the Land of Israel.