Shlomo Sand. (Photo: Olivia Grabowski-West)
By Lewis Turner
Shlomo Sand shot to prominence and controversy with his 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People. His follow-up, The Invention of the Land of Israel, examines a nationalist mythology of land which forms a crucial part of the Zionist story of, and justification for, the Jewish State. In this interview Shlomo talks to Lewis Turner about his journey re-discovering his country’s history, his hopes for Israel’s future and the role of historians in social change.
What has the reaction been like to the second book within Israel?
First of all it was a bestseller for ten weeks. Secondly, a few weeks after it was a bestseller one of my colleagues, a historian from Haifa University, attacked me very strongly, but it wasn’t serious so I decided not to respond. I was covered nicely by Ha’aretz, in a long interview. But it’s not so easy for a lot of people to read these books, I know that. I respect them, but I don’t respect the fact that people don’t want to accept what I think is true about the past and true about the present. I started this voyage five years ago, when I decided that I have to deal with Zionist and Israeli history because it was too easy for me to be occupied only with European history. But when I started to touch Jewish history, some people became crazy. Historians today in Israel, I can compare them to British historians a hundred years ago.
You have to know I wrote [Land of Israel] because I was criticized by a lot of Zionist historians, and to give you one example, because I started the book with it, is your Simon Schama. In the Financial Times he accused me of wanting to cut the relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel. This wasn’t my purpose in the first book. I tried to read over again Jewish history to see if what I learned in school was right, and I discovered an unbelievable thing, as an Israeli citizen, as a historian – I can tell you that 10 years ago I believed that Judean society was exiled by the Romans. Discovering that it’s a myth, it was shocking for me.
What was it that made you go looking for that information?
In the framework of the Masters Studies program at Tel Aviv University I invited a very famous researcher on the Bible. This is the first time that something started to move inside me. This very, very careful guy gave a lecture and he said that the exodus from Egypt never happened. He said that the kingdoms of David and Solomon are myths. I decided to write a book about this discovery, to compose the Bible as a historical book, because Shlomo Sand and all the children in Israel are studying the Bible as a historical book, not as a theological book. Now, after Simon Schama accused me, and he wasn’t the only one, I understood also that the insistence of Zionism, of Zionist historiography, Zionist politics about the concept of a people, has to do with the fact that people have territories. And then I understood that I have to move into understanding what is a homeland, what is a national territory; and that is the second book.
I went back to the ancient times like always, and I could find the political concept of modern homeland only in two cases in the past in western civilization: the Greek one, and the Roman one before the empire, in the republic. In Judaism there isn’t any traditional patriotism, any tradition of homeland. Palestine, Judea, it wasn’t the homeland of the Jews. And I discovered that the Christians were much more attached physically to the land. And very quickly I discovered that the first Zionists were not Jews; they were your [British] ancestors.
Is there any acknowledgement of these first British Zionists within Israeli debate?
No. I am not the first one to discover it; it is mentioned by historians, but in footnotes. There were articles in very, very specialized reviews. But a student who is studying Europe, and the Shoah, couldn’t discover all of this.
Thinking about Israel today, where you see the incredible power of the settler movement, despite them being a minority, do you think that in order to defeat this movement Israel needs to re-understand its own history?
I have to say no, I lost hope. Most of Israeli society doesn’t care to continue to live in a colonialist situation, but the very weak resistance of the Palestinians, and the very strong support of the USA are the two conditions which make me believe we cannot solve the problem from goodwill of the Israeli power. The majority of the Israeli society, and also the historians, continue to live on their myth.
From 1967, most of the intelligentsia, the intellectuals, in Israel, were against the occupation. At least in 1948, Israel gave citizenship to the Arabs that stayed, but from 1967 there was an entire population without any rights. They didn’t feel good because they are liberals, socialists, Zionist liberals, Zionist socialists, but they continue to claim the historical right of the Jews on the land because 2000 years ago they were expelled from there. I never, never, even before writing the two books, believed in the historical rights of the Jews on the land after 2000 years. Now, they treated the Land of Israel, not the land of the state of Israel, as a homeland. But the real homeland, the mythological homeland, in the schools, in the educational system is not Jaffa, it’s not Tel Aviv, it’s Jerusalem: Arab Jerusalem. It’s Hevron [Hebron], it’s Bethlehem and Jericho. This is the real mythological homeland.
By the way, you have to understand I am not against the existence of the Israeli state, in the 1967 borders, but Tel Aviv is for me a homeland without historical justification. Not even the Shoah, it’s not an excuse. The fact is we exist. We have to look for a compromise. I believe that the interest of the Israeli society is to go back to the 1967 borders, to give the Palestinians a state to exist beside Israel, and to change Israeli society to a democratic republic. But you have to know that the state will be the state of all its citizens, and not the state of Simon Schama.
Which means taking away the law of return [by which any Jew can take up Israeli citizenship]?
For example. You know because I am a very moderate person, politically not historiographically, I say yes. I also cannot accept, politically, the right of return of the Palestinians. Not that I think that they don’t have rights over all of Palestine. I mean morally it’s very difficult to say that I cannot accept the right of return of the Palestinians: I am living on their land that wasn’t paid for.
A lot of leftists in England and the USA condemn me, for I am not for the one state solution. I think that it is, morally, the best solution, but you cannot propose that the most racist society in the western world, Israeli Jewish society, become a minority in their own state. What is important from my point of view is not to divorce from the Palestinians – we cannot live in the Middle East without the Palestinians.
As a historian what role do you think you can have, and writers in Israel and Palestine can have, in trying to bring about social change? Or is change totally dependent on outside forces?
No, there is a role. My students, for example. The fact that the book was a bestseller. The letters that I got, and get. It’s fantastic. It’s a minority, a Tel Avivian minority, but it’s very important. Even writers send me letters, but not publicly; they don’t have a full professorship like me. It’s not so easy.
Two days ago in Bristol, a young Brit of Palestinian origin said to me that Palestine is his homeland. He was nice, not aggressive. I asked him if he lived there. He said he had never lived there. And I said that the notion of a homeland started from an emotional construct, that you have a relationship with some physical world that you grow up in. But you were not in Palestine. I think that you have rights on this land as a descendant of Palestinians. We have to educate Israelis that it was your land. But it’s not your homeland. It’s my homeland. Unfortunately. I am sorry. I want to live with you, but the solution is always a compromise. Historiography is not.
(Shlomo Sand’s latest book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, is published by Verso.)
– Lewis Turner is a London-based writer. He has spent time as a journalist in Palestine and Egypt. (This article was first published in Review31 – review31.co.uk – and was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.)