In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention. Now Sand tells us, in this second volume of what will be a trilogy, that even the “Land of Israel” was invented. Guardian readers who happen to be Jewish should brace themselves for the third volume: The Invention of the Secular Jew. All this takes considerable chutzpah.
The “Land of Israel” is barely mentioned in the Old Testament: the more common expression is the Land of Canaan. When it is mentioned, it does not include Jerusalem, Hebron, or Bethlehem. Biblical “Israel” is only northern Israel (Samaria) and there never was a united kingdom including both ancient Judea and Samaria.
Even had such a kingdom ever existed and been promised by God to the Jews, it is hardly a clinching argument for claiming statehood after more than 2,000 years. It is an irony of history that so many past Zionists, most of whom were secular Jews, often socialist, used religious arguments to buttress their case. Besides, the biblical account makes it quite clear (insofar as such accounts are ever clear) that the Jews, led by Moses and then by Joshua, were colonisers themselves and were commanded by God to exterminate “anything that breathes”. “Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you.” Imagine if the Amorites came back and claimed their ancient land. If they did, this is what Deuteronomy 20 has to say: “Put to the sword all the men … As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else … you may take these as plunder for yourselves.” Today, such an injunction would take you straight to the international criminal court.
The uncertainty as to what exactly constitutes the “Land of Israel” endures to this day. There is an internationally recognised state of Israel with clearly defined boundaries (the Green Line of 1967, itself the result of the enlargement following the 1948 war) and then there is the “Land of Israel” whose boundaries depend on who is talking: for some, it includes the whole of the West Bank, for others it extends to Jordan. It could be worse: God promised Abraham and his descendants “this land, from the river of Egypt unto the Euphrates”, which would include also bits of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
In traditional Judaism there is no injunction to “return” to the “land of Israel”. The ritual “next year in Jerusalem” that is part of the Passover Seder prayer was never a call to action, or to reconstitute a state.
By the 19th century, those who wanted Jews to “return” to the Holy Land were more likely to be Christian Zionists than Jews. Lord Shaftesbury, a compassionate Tory who contributed to improving the conditions of lunatics in asylums and children in factories (The Ten Hours Act, 1833), agitated endlessly for promoting a Jewish presence in Palestine. Sand describes him as an Anglican Theodor Herzl before Herzl; and with reason, since Shaftesbury appears to have even coined the famous line: “A country without a nation for a nation without a country.” He hoped, of course, the Jews would also convert to Christianity. Lord Palmerston, on the Liberal side, warmed to the idea, not because he cared in the slightest about Jews (or Christians), but because he thought that British Jews colonising a part of the Ottoman Empire would increase British influence.
At the time, few Jews were Zionists. When persecuted, as they were in the tsarist empire, they much preferred to flee to the new lands of immigration such as Argentina and the United States, than to the Promised Land. What made the “State of Israel” possible was not God’s promise of a return to a long-lost land, but the Holocaust and the western reluctance to provide a refuge for its survivors.
Much of what Shlomo Sand reveals is known to specialists. His achievement consists in debunking a nationalist mythology which holds sway in large sections of popular opinion. It also normalises Jews, since it challenges the belief in exceptionalism. The Holocaust was a unique event, but the basic nationalist litany is similar across nations – almost a literary genre in itself – for it is poised between a lachrymose sense of self-pitying victimhood and a vainglorious account of heroic deeds. “We”, so goes the story, have been around for centuries (1066, famously, in Britain; 966 in Poland; since antiquity in Italy and in Greece). Eventually, after centuries, we achieved our freedom, our independence, our happiness, and we, who are unlike everyone else, can finally be like everyone else: members and possessors of a country and a nation.
Demystifying what the French call le roman national seems to be today one of the major tasks of historians (once they used to write it). This can be an uphill struggle, yet it is to the credit of the Israeli book-reading public that Sand’s previous book, The Invention of the Jewish People became a bestseller. Truth-telling may be painful but necessary.