Views from the Left

A Eurocentric critique of the Jewish relationship with the Land of Israel and a wake-up call to those who claim that Israel is a liberal democracy.

CHURCH of the Nativity in Bethlehem 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
CHURCH of the Nativity in Bethlehem 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"When Heinrich Graetz wrote the first protonationalist history book in the mid-nineteenth century, he invented a Jewish people in the modern sense of the word and located the birth of this people in an exotic and mysterious Middle Eastern land," writes Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Land of Israel.
In his latest radical polemic, the Tel Aviv University lecturer sets out to prove that the concept of the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, as a national homeland of the Jewish people is primarily based on myth and semantics tied up in the Zionist movement.
Sand is an iconoclast who formulates the basis for his book on faith, declaring, “I believe neither in the past existence of a Jewish people, exiled from its land, nor in the premise that the Jews are originally descended from the ancient land of Judea.”
In a 2008 book, he laid out his theory for the “invention” of a Jewish people; in 2012, he set out to go one step further and undermine the notion of the Land of Israel as a homeland.
Sand calls the notion of Jews returning to the land similar to Native American “demands to assume territorial possession of Manhattan and to expel its white, black, Asian and Latino inhabitants.”
He scoffs at the view that the Jews have any connection to the former inhabitants of the Roman period, and considers that they have as little right as a “Buddhist people” would have to a country. Religious ties, he argues, do not constitute a right to live in a place: “The Crusaders had no historical right to conquer the Holy Land, despite their strong religious ties.” It is the Europeans, Sand argues, that created the anti-Semitic notion of the Jews as a different racial group.
The author mocks other notions as well, arguing that the Western Wall is not a part of the Temple Mount, that “it was not an internal wall but rather a city wall.” For archeological claims like this he provides no source, merely his own assertion and the condescending implication that Jews believe the Western Wall was part of the Temple. This is not, in fact, normative Jewish belief; Aren M. Maeir of the Israel Antiquities Authority has written that “the Western Wall is but one of the four monumental enclosure walls surrounding the Temple Mount.”
Sand’s argument is based primarily on the use of semantics to prove his point.
He claims that the term “Land of Israel” refers to the one given in the Bible to the 10 tribes that resided in northern Israel.
“The Land of Israel of biblical texts did not include Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem or their surrounding areas,” he states.
The author takes the view that “homeland” is primarily a modern concept, noting that the Hebrew term moledet “appears in the books of the Bible a total of nineteen times.” As proof of the notion that areas in modern-day Israel are not a Jewish homeland, he notes that “neither Abraham, the father of the nation, nor Moses, its first great prophet… were born in the land.” Evidently people may not migrate to a homeland.
Similarly he points out that important Jewish figures in history such as Josephus, Maimonides and the philosopher Philo chose to live outside Israel. He claims Jewish pilgrimage is mostly a myth, first undertaken only in 1140 by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.
“Only in the early twentieth century, after years in the Protestant melting pot, was the theological concept of the ‘Land of Israel’ finally converted and refined into a clearly geonational concept,” he adds.
ALL THESE radical notions are fascinating, but they are primarily based on the fallacy that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Sand’s book is a Eurocentric critique of Jews and their relation to the Land of Israel. He posits that since he could not find evidence in the Bible or European sources, therefore there was no conception of “homeland.” In this vein, he discusses the Greek concept of “homeland” and lumbers on about fatherlands and the German obsession with “living space.”
It seems the ideas of Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, North African Jews, Iraqi Jews and Indian Jews are not valid concepts because they were not expressing them in European languages, and in many cases we simply don’t have written evidence of their view of the Land of Israel.
Sand claims, for instance, that Maimonides’s “Epistle Concerning Yemen” from 1172 is evidence of advisement against “collective immigration to the Holy Land.” However, Maimonides was actually setting out to save the Yemenites who were being persecuted and had sought shelter in belief in false messiahs.
He advised against mass immigration because it would result in national suicide for his brethren, not necessarily because he didn’t think Jews should come to Jerusalem.
Similarly Sand ignores large-scale attempts by Jews to reach the land, such as the immigration of the Vilna Gaon’s followers in 1809. The author’s notion is that since the modern-day Jews are not racially related to the ancient Jews and since the Bible doesn’t mention the “Land of Israel” as it is known today, Zionism is therefore founded on false ideas. One wonders if this applies to other states such as Turkey – whose origins are not in Anatolia, but in Asia, and whose people are not all ethnically Turkish – or Pakistan, whose people were not originally “Pakistani”; or whether it is only the Jews who may not have a state anywhere.
YEHOUDA SHENHAV’S essay on Beyond the Two State Solution is of more interest, but many will find it equally radical.
Shenhav, a professor at Tel Aviv University, argues that the country’s left-wing intellectual and bureaucratic elite have for many years attempted to make 1967 a dividing line in Israel’s history.
“The Green Line defines a moral system according to which Israel was a moral and just democracy prior to 1967,” he writes.
He argues that authors such as David Grossman and Amos Oz are constructing a false utopia when they speak of the pre-1967 period: “The new nostalgia longs for a Jewish-Ashkenazi-secular Israel... upholding a violent, distorted political model which denied the ethniccleansing of 1948, the military regime,” and so on. He accuses Israel’s liberals of racist colonialism and argues that they “thought of Israel as a branch of white, liberal Europe.”
Shenhav thinks Israel must throw off this myth, “a language through which Israel is described as a liberal democracy, while the Arabs (and Mizrahi and religious Jews to boot) are described as inferior and undemocratic.”
He notes that increasingly the state has fractured, as Arabs vote in increasing numbers for non-Zionist parties and openly identify as Palestinians, and as some settler voices, such as Menachem Fruman, advocate a binational state.
However, the book is weaker in providing a practical solution to the myths he has sought to attack. “What matters, at this point, is not the details, but the general intention to change the way of thinking, under which we will be forced to revisit out basic premises,” he writes.
While both his and Sand’s books could be cast aside as radical ramblings devoted to undermining the foundations of the state, at least Shenhav offers a meaningful critique to the ideology that the state has become undemocratic only because of the Six Day War. Sand’s book is less insightful, since it is based so much on semantics and his own need to prove a thesis that is only provable under the conditions he has laid out for it.