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The invention of the land of Israel

June 15, 2014 at 2:51 pm

  • Book Author(s): Shlomo Sand
  • Published Date: 2013-01-28 00:00:00
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Hardback: 304 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844679461

Deconstructing the mythological ‘right to land’ would prove a crucial requirement to achieve an understanding of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Shlomo Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel (Verso Books, 2012) immediately negates the idea of a Jewish homeland and commences to outline the existence of a Zionist, colonial elite which held on to a semblance of moral legitimacy in order to maintain expansion and territorial appropriation of Palestine.

Sand’s repudiation of the right to land is vividly portrayed in the first chapter, where he expresses astonishment at his friends’ disregard for territorial borders and later witnesses a brutal torture and murder of an Arab man in possession of American dollars – an example of the indifference which would characterise Zionist colonial occupation.

Arguing that definitions of homeland are subject to language and culture, which would then transform land into social property through a social consciousness leading to appropriation, Sand insists that Biblical narrative and references to homeland are void of the patriotism which is associated with the concept of nation. However, Zionists employed Biblical references in order to deconstruct ‘the promised land’ from a theological perspective to a historical motive. The promised land in Biblical narrative is equivalent to a loan and therefore conditional upon Jews obeying God’s law – a Jewish ancestral land never existed. Jewish tribes were spread in various regions. However, Ben Gurion’s promotion of the ‘Book of Joshua’ was hailed as implying a return of the people of Israel. As Zionism strengthened its stance by eliminating the foundations of historic Judaism, nationalism and colonialism became decisive in the formation of Zionist pedagogy.

While the narrative of nationalism established itself within Zionist circles, Sand argues that in reality there was no evidence of forced migration of Jews from Judea, or any attempt by Jews to return to the region. By the late 19th century fewer than 5,000 Jews were living in Palestine, in contrast to a population of two and a half million Jews worldwide. Theodor Herzl, founder of the Jewish nationalist movement, is considered to have set a precedent for Jewish right to national territory. While relocation of Jews to Uganda was discussed prior to establishing a national home in Palestine, Christian Zionists played an important role in furthering the possibility of a Jewish national home in Palestine, in accordance with the yearning to establish an imperial mandate in the Middle East. Colonel Charles Henry Churchill insisted on the settlement of Jews in Palestine and a British force dispatched for their defence. George Gowler’s view on restoring Jews ‘to their land’ was the means through which a safe zone for the British could be created between Egypt and Syria. The colonial agenda was embodied in Lord Arthur James Balfour’s words in 1919: “For in Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the land.” Balfour was pivotal in advancing the Zionist project in particular. As Arab protests against the Balfour Declaration became more vocal, the Zionists increased their rhetoric pertaining to the ‘right of ownership to a national land’.

“In Zionism, the Land replaced the Torah, and the sweeping worship of the future state replaced strong adherence to God.” Zionism’s disregard from tradition and commandments facilitated the task of locating a fictitious homeland in Judaism. The innovative rules of ownership reeked of colonial ideology, with Zionists insisting that Arabs ‘acknowledge the children of Israel’s historic right to the land.’ However, Zionists never clarified the ‘self-evident’ claims to Palestinian land. Affinity to land was regarded as inherent by Jews, therefore affinity was also perceived to create rights to a historic land.

The right to land was also adopted by the 1922 League of Nations, approving of an intentionally fabricated historical identity in relation to international law. This new consciousness played upon rights and misfortune. Jews were perceived as a nation prevented from reaching its national homeland despite an aspiration transcending generations. On the contrary, Palestinian self-determination was ignored, and Palestinians were deemed as not possessing ‘the unique attributes of a nation’. The UN Partition Plan in 1947 following the holocaust gave the Zionists the foundations from which they were able to declare the false yearning of Jews ‘in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland’.

Sand emphasises the importance of Zionist geopolitics in understanding the dynamics of expansion. The preliminary metaphor of ‘the desolate abandoned land’ was significant in maintaining the claim of a historical right to a homeland. As early as 1897, it was deemed that the ‘sacred land’ was insufficient to establish a national homeland. Further territorial mapping by Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi was intentionally inconclusive, as it was stated that “The Eastern Border of the land of Israel should not be precisely demarcated.” Expansion and appropriation were integral to Zionist consolidation of the national homeland, conveniently ignoring the fact that Judaism was independent of any territorial claim.

The historical narrative is insightful, in particular the graceful disintegration of Zionist historical right to homeland. The Zionist colonial enterprise is fragmented until the reader grasps the ethnic colonization of Palestine as a massacre of immense magnitude. Although the book mainly dwells on historical narrative, the culmination of imposed ownership is evident from the opening chapters. However, there seems to be a degree of hesitation in connecting this historical fabrication with the necessity of accountability. The question of rights for Palestinians is not simply a question of a colonising state bequeathing a reconciliatory gesture to the people it has massacred for decades. If the admission of fabrication of a national Jewish homeland is restricted to a historical study, the question of illegal occupation and the expectation that the State of Israel grants Palestinians their rights would amount to less than a fleeting statement. Without a process of accountability, the fabricated history retains its strength.