‘It’s Not Your Homeland’: An Interview with Shlomo Sand

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.)

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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  1. I tink that Shlomo Sand should receive the PEACE NOBEL PRIZE for straightning up the History of Palestine and demystifying the very basis of the racist ideology known as Zionism!
    I also tink that the solution and the end of the Zionist project are coming sooner than later and resemble like two drops of wter are alike, the solution for the South African Apartheid system, i.e the giving up of the colonialist attitude by the immigrants.

  2. Zionism is an anglo saxon conspiracy to control the world. It was started in old England. Since they required a lot of money to achieve this, Jewish money (mostly Rothschild) was the obvious choice. The aim was take over America, as the British empire was waning during late nineteenth/ early twentieth century. Jewish money by then has mostly shifted to America. The Federal Reserve was created before the First World War to make sure the Jewish money is protected. It was also necessary to establish, though reluctantly, a Jewish homeland and as a distraction or attract other Jews into the game. They knew this will create a very difficult problem and will interfere with the main objective.

  3. What I have discovered about the “occupation” of Palestine , the sham UN Resolution 181 must be overturned,thus the entire country of Palestine is occupied by the Zionists.How about the idea of trading places with the displaced Palestinians and bring them back home,the survivors and their families, will come back to live where they they did sixty-five years ago. And the people, the occupiers, can live in there new promised land of the refuge camps.

  4. brave and honest man. But I don’t accept the contradictions of his argument. He fully acknowledges that Israel was built on stolen Palestinian land yet he denies Palestinians the right to return to their own land. This occupation didn’t happen 2000 years ago it is within living memory. If Palestinians want to go back to their land they should have that option (many probably wouldn’t as they would’ve built their lives elsewhere) and the fact this might make Jews a minority should not be taken into consideration. It is Palestinian land and they have every right to return if they wish to.

  5. I really admire Sand and have read “Invention of the Jewish People” , which though challenging is accessible if you highlight or annotate the text. I also think there is a contradiction in his argument that Palestinians should not have a right to return and that in a fair and democratic society, people of the Jewish faith should not fear being in a minority as they are in the UK. Can we not consider the idea that immigrants/colonists/settlers who have arrived in recent years be asked to leave? Can we also educate Jews living in the UK/USA /Europe that they have no right to go there, that their immigration is an act of theft?

  6. The Jews do not have legal historical right to the land, nor do the Palestinians. The history of the Israelite Monarchies is a proven reality. This gives the Jews the emotional tie to the land. The Zionist dream was to establish a state with Jewish political majority, as a means of a safe haven. The Zionists did not occupy a single dunam of land – all the Jewish land identified in the 1947 Partition Plan were payed for and legally owned.
    The current settlers is a problem. Gush Emunim theology is, agreeably false.
    A solution to the crisis could be found ONLY if the true powers on both sides decide so – Iran and its proxies on one side, and the Religious right on the other side.

    • Mr. Kossowsky, the Partition Plan was and is only this: a plan. The UNGA of November 29th 1947 only recommended the partition — as you probably know, the UNGA cannot take decisions, according to the UN Charter. The decisory instance in the UN is the Security Council, which never appreciated the recommended partition because, if it did so, it would have violated the UN Charter. The UN cannot create or partition countries because it’s not established in the UN Charter. So, yes, Zionists have been stolen Palestinian land since the XIXth century. They have not any kind of right to Palestine. The best they can do now is to apologize for the tragedy they have been causing and return to Europe.

  7. Firstly, I would like to thank you for getting this interview. Mr. Shlomo Sand’s book is also available in German for a long time (2010). The problem with the Israeli-Palestine conflict which exists at least since 1947 is that today, approx. 80% of the Knesset members are in favour of a Greater Israel. Furthermore, the Likud Party programme clearly says: there will be no Arab state between the Jordan River and the Medit., which is accepted by the USA, Germany and other EU member states. The biggest and very powerful stumbling bloc is the US Congress (House of Reps. and the Senate) who are in their vast majority against a “Two-State Solution” and are supporting Israel with US$ 3,billions annu

  8. Be it in London, N.Y.C. or (increasingly) Moscow, those who fund the Israeli political establishment don’t have to live with or witness what the blight they fund and perpetuate. They lobby, they write cheques, they pull strings, and the Palestinians and the average Israelis have to live the mess. Prof Sands is a courageous man to publish what so many Jews know to be true but daren’t utter publicly.

  9. The Roman Empire never attempted to expel Ancient Israel?

    The Sieges of Gamla, Yodefat, Massada, Jerusalem and a dozen other places never happened?

    Prof Sand is an expert in French Theatre – so perhaps he knows something about that.

    • He didn’t say the Roman never expelled jews, just that the Romans didn’t expel the entire population of the jews. The majority were farmers who worked the land and grew the crops that were sold to/or given to the romans as taxes. If the romans had expelled everyone then they would have had to re-populate the entire area and it would be decades before they could get any taxes or crops out of the territory. Sand has stated that this farmer class were tied to the land and eventually converted to christianity and then islam, because their whole identity was tied to the land that they believed God gave them. Oh and the area was called Judea. Israel had been destroyed 5 centuries earlier.

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