Pillars of Sand
The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland
2012, $26.95, pp. 304
Shlomo Sand’s latest critique of Jewish identity focuses on the land of Israel. Just as his last book sought to uncover the Invention of the Jewish People, as was its title, the current book proposes to do the same with the physical territory that millions of Jews today, including Sand himself, call home. This is a daring goal: The connection to the land is the ideological basis not just for the West Bank settlement movement, which Sand despises, but for much of Zionism. To assert its ephemerality is halfway to making the whole thing go away.
Rarely does a scholar lay his motives so bare. In his introduction, Sand warns us that the “emotional foundation of [his] intellectual approach” grew from his traumatic experiences during and after the 1967 Six Day War. Born in Linz, Austria, and raised in espresso-fueled 1950s Tel Aviv, where he was “never truly a Zionist,” Sand was shaken by both the carnage of war and the sudden encounter with all the ancient places to which he felt no connection—Jerusalem, Hebron, Samaria—while everyone around him reveled and sang songs of return. He then witnessed the brutal interrogation of an Arab man caught in Jericho carrying a large amount of American currency. “I climbed down from the crate,” he recalls after seeing the interrogators’ tactics, “vomited, and returned to my post, frightened and shaking.” The Arab man died, and this “banal murder” became what Sand calls “a watershed in my life.” Thus began Sand’s career of national repudiation and opposition to what he calls a “sophisticated and unique regime of military apartheid” undertaken by Israel against the Palestinians.
Sand’s story fosters sympathy for his outlook. But it also reveals the origins of the anger that continues to distort his world. Instead of adopting a tone that is scholarly, exploratory or curious, his writing reflects the resentment he has harbored since 1967. If Zionism included unjust killing, then the whole movement was a sham, an “injection of violent, deceptive insanity” into the world. Too often, moreover, he deploys tiresome scare-quotes around terms such as “Jewish people,” “children of Israel,” “Land of Israel” and “ancient homeland.”
And then there is the problem of his research.
Because it is principally a work of spleen rather than scholarship, The Invention of the Land of Israel might be forgiven a few errors in fact. But there are too many, and they are too important.
In the book’s central chapter, “Mytherritory,” Sand undertakes to summarize thousands of years of Jewish deception about the land of Israel (an effort that has, among other things, the unintended effect of showing us how long Jews really have been talking about the Promised Land).
He correctly points out that while most ancient civilizations were built on autochthonous myths—stories of a people emerging literally from the womb of the land—the Bible explicitly made the Israelites’ connection to the land far more contingent and nuanced, with both Abraham and Moses first encountering God in a place far away, and with exile as a permanent threat hovering over the people. He also shows that the term “land of Israel” is of post-biblical provenance. But then he draws the bizarre conclusion from these that “in all the books of the Bible, the land of Canaan never served as a homeland for the ‘children of Israel.’” A thousand pages of biblical promises to the patriarchs, of threat and delivery of traumatic exile, of longing for Zion “by the rivers of Babylon,” and of a final call to return to the land are as nothing in the face of a blistering non sequitur.
Similarly severe lapses appear in his discussions of biblical archaeology and medieval rabbinic thought, all in an effort to show, implausibly, that the Jews never really were interested in the land of Israel. In the process, he has done more than just distort the historical record; he has replaced it with something altogether different.
But what is most troubling about Sand’s work is not its anger or its errors. It’s the underlying argument: That national or collective identity, once revealed for the racist scandal that it is, can be safely discarded for the sake of a better world.
First, there’s the straw man. Sand was amazed to learn, after 1967, that national identity is a mental construct rather than a genetic malady. But nobody today tries to hide the malleability of identity. Our public debates are filled with calls to deepen identity, to educate, to change attitudes. If identity—national, religious, or the term du jour, “peoplehood”—weren’t a mental construct, we wouldn’t worry so much about its deterioration among our children, or pour millions of dollars each year into strengthening it. Neither did the Zionists conspire to foist a millennial, biblically influenced identity on an unsuspecting populace. They spoke about it openly, wrote about it, debated it.
More important, however, is the fallacy that identity’s fluidity and volatility make it somehow false or wrongful. The truth is, most of us came away from all those scholarly assaults on identity from the 1990s largely unimpressed, for we intuit that we need our narratives—and we need to teach them to our children. They give our lives a richness, a view to common values, a sense of our place on Earth, a mental home—even if they inevitably involve a measure of exclusiveness, violence and wrongdoing. Content to “deconstruct” ancient commitments and lasting loves, Sand never once takes up the question of what is lost in the process—and whether we are really better off having our clothes stripped off our backs in this way.
While trying so hard to deny the Jews any claim to peoplehood in his last book, or to a place they can call their own in the present one, and while insisting that any other position is “morally blind,” Shlomo Sand ends up numb to the moral implications of his own claim: That the Jews as such, and they alone, have no right to be anywhere, no right to be anything. Shall we rejoice at the discovery?
David Hazony is a contributing editor at The Forward. His first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.