Citizens International


by Chinmaya R. Gharekhan

– Historians probe the myths surrounding the founding of Israel

Al-Aqsa mosque, East Jerusalem

To Israel’s credit, almost simultaneously with its creation, historians of great integrity and courage have emerged there to offer to the international community alternative narratives of the events surrounding the new nation’s birth and its immediate aftermath. The first was Simha Flapan, whose book, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, created a huge stir in the country and his book remains out of print. He was followed by several others, such as Benny Morris, who debunked the official version of the refugee problem according to which the Palestinians were incited by their leaders to flee their homes and the Israeli authorities had not done anything by way of massacres, and so on to cause them to flee; Avi Shlaim, who wrote a gripping book titled The Iron Wall, which gave the lie to the official story that the Arab states simply were not interested in peace negotiations.

The latest in the genre of ‘revisionist’ historians is Shlomo Sand, a professor of history at the Tel Aviv University. While other revisionist historians have challenged contemporary official Israeli narratives following the creation of Israel, Sand is challenging the very basis of the founding of the State of Israel. In his first book, The Invention of the Jewish People, he questioned, through systematic and detailed study of available historical and archaeological material, the most basic concepts such as the exile of the Jews from the land of Israel, the notion that Judaism was never a proselytizing religion, as well as the Zionist narrative about the Jewish people pining for their homeland. In his recent book, The Invention of the land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland, he puts forward the thesis that there was, in fact, no such thing as homeland of the Jews. In a footnote, Sand states that the Western Wall in fact was not part of the original temple and that the ‘Star of David’ is an import from the Indian subcontinent.

Sand’s principal point is that the Bible is not history. The Bible as we know it was put together only towards the 1st century, that is, much after the events described in it were supposed to have taken place. The Zionists have claimed the Bible to be ‘the title deed to Palestine’, but the Bible itself contains no text to suggest that the ‘holy land’ was in fact ‘eretzisrael’, or the land of Israel.

Yes, the Jews always had a great spiritual and religious affinity for Jerusalem, but they never regarded it as their physical or territorial homeland. Indeed, Abraham, the patriarch, was born in Mesopotamia and had migrated to Canaan after he made the covenant with god. He did not want his son Isaac to marry a local woman and ordered his servant to his original land and bring a wife for his son. Isaac, in his turn, also obtained wives for his son from Mesopotamia. The immigrants were firmly opposed to their offspring marrying local, inferior persons. The Jews lived in Egypt for 400 years, before migrating to the land, the first stop being Jericho. Moses received the Ten Commandments in Egypt, not Canaan or Palestine. No wonder the diaspora Jews did not have any urge to migrate to Palestine. If they did, they could easily have migrated to it over the centuries. Some of the most significant persons in Jewish history, such as the philosophers, Philo and Ramban, lived in Egypt; they visited Jerusalem but chose not to migrate there, preferring instead to continue to live in Egypt which was a great cultural centre. There were no restrictions on such migrations. Indeed, even during comparatively recent times, there were absolutely no obstacles to Jewish immigration to Palestine during the Ottoman period, for example. The Jews did not even undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in large numbers. The number of Christian pilgrims was far greater than Jewish pilgrims. If anything, Christians had much more affinity for Jerusalem but they never claimed territorial rights over their holy land. Incidentally, the Christian Crusaders dealt with the local Jewish community much more harshly and cruelly than the Muslim rulers.

In more recent times, beginning with the middle of the 19th century, the Jews in Russia and east Europe, when the pogroms started, could have opted to go to Palestine, but their first and, in most cases, only, choice was to go to west Europe and the United States of America. Those living in west Europe were desperate to ‘assimilate’ with local surroundings and to prove their loyalty to the countries where they had settled. There was no ‘yearning’ to ‘return’ to the ‘homeland’.

Exposing the hypocrisy of the Western countries, Sand points out that for all their concern for the well-being of Jews, the ‘host’ countries were determined to block the immigration of Jews. This was the policy of England at the beginning of the 20th century. Lord Balfour, “the greatest benefactor of the Jewish people in modern times”, “had no great love for the Jews and did not want too many of them living in Britain itself’’. The US had laws forbidding the immigration of Jews from 1924 to 1948. Sand believes that if the Jews had unrestricted entry into the US, there would have been no State of Israel.

Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, was not a particularly observant Jew; he did not get his son circumcized, thus disobeying the most fundamental requirement of Judaism. But he was persistent and well connected. His perseverance first paid off when Chamberlain offered him, in 1903, Uganda as a possible homeland for Jews. Surprisingly, Herzl accepted the offer and persuaded the Zionist Congress to accept it too, against much opposition from many participants.

The campaign for the Jews to migrate to the holy land was initiated not by the Zionists but by Christian Zionists or evangelists. It was not as if they had special concern for the suffering of the Jews. They believed that the Christian redemption of the world would happen only if the Jews returned to Zion and converted to Christianity; only then would the world see the second coming of Jesus.

In the middle of the19th century, the seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, credited with coining the phrase, “a land without people for a people without land”, did not consider Judaism a legitimate religion. He did not believe that the Jews deserved a State of their own, but he was convinced that ‘restoration’ in the Middle East could do away with the Jewish faith and would pave the way for the redemption of the world.

Sand reminds us that whatever ‘right’ the Jews had to the holy land was derived as invaders and occupiers. Joshua, who brought his followers to Israel, occupied the land and presumably carried out the command to destroy all the autochthonous people. As mentioned earlier, Abraham and his descendants upto Joshua were immigrants and forcibly occupied the land. If occupation gives the occupiers the ‘right’ to the occupied land, Sand argues, the Arabs who occupied and lived without a break for several centuries in Spain would have at least an equal claim to that land.

The author’s other crucial point relates to the dogged determination of Zionists to deny the existence, let alone the rights, of the indigenous or autochthonous people, the ‘tillers of the soil’. Speaking of the ‘promised land’, god tells Moses that he would send an angel to accompany the returnees and that he would ‘blot out’ the Amorites, Canaanites and others who occupied it. Moses, ‘the former Egyptian prince’ makes a similar promise to the ‘children of Israel’. The Bible widely indicates that the land’s population was to be eradicated. Incidentally, Sand says that recent fieldwork has provided increasing evidence that the exodus from Egypt never happened nor did mass exterminations; the local inhabitants underwent a long and gradual process of transition from nomadic to agricultural life and evolved into a mixed population of Canaanites and Hebrews.

One exceptional Jewish intellectual, Yitzhak Epstein, who immigrated into Palestine in 1895,wrote in 1907: “Among difficult questions … there is one that outweighs all others: the question of our attitude towards the Arabs.” This question still awaits an answer and so long as it is not addressed fairly and justly, the ‘land of Israel’ will not enjoy peace.