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The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to homeland

John Rogerson

RSand.jpgShlomo Sand (Translated by G. Forman)


Shlomo Sand teaches history at the University of Tel-Aviv. The aim of his book is to put into historical perspective two widely-held beliefs that are assumed to make the claim of the Jewish people to the right to live in the land of Israel (however 'land of Israel' is understood) more compelling than the claim of any other group. These two widely-held beliefs are: one, that Judaism is closely bound up with the land of Israel; and, two, that the presence of Jews in the land for over 2,000 years, and the emotional attachment which Jews have to the land, are not to be found among any other nation.

He begins by arguing that the phrase 'land of Israel' in the Bible refers only to the northern kingdom covered, for most of the biblical period, by Samaria. He quotes from the Talmud to show that some Jewish teachers regarded immigration to the land as the violation of a divine commandment, and argues that Judaism must be thought of as the religion of the Torah and not as a religion of the land. He points out that during much of the last two millennia, Jews were not particularly inclined to want to settle in the land, and that such famous figures as Maimonides, who visited the land, showed no inclination to want to live there.

The book charts the history of the rise of Zionist longings for a return to the land, and the processes that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. As he acknowledges in his text and notes, he is dependent on the researches of others: for example, the work of Barbara Tuchman, who showed how important Christian Zionists in Britain in the 19th century were (they believed that the return of Jews to Palestine and their conversion to Christianity would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus). The main contribution of this part lays not so much in its originality as in the breadth of its coverage. The author draws a distinction between western Jewry which was concerned to remain distinctively Jewish within a process of assimilation, and eastern Jewry which, especially in the 19th century, experienced the kind of persecution that fuelled hopes for settlement in a land free from such coercion. There is also an interesting discussion of the claim that the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, which enabled Jews to return to western Palestine, in effect short-changed them because Palestine should have included both sides of the river Jordan.

The book is dedicated to the former inhabitants of the Palestinian village of al-Sheikh Muwannis, on whose land the University of Tel Aviv stands, and whose existence is never acknowledged in the official literature of the university. Indeed, one of the features of the work is the author's criticism of Orientalism in the sense of Edward Said, the ignoring of the existence and the rights of peoples deemed to be inferior. There is a nice dig at the attitude of the British Empire in the first part of the 19th century: 'While Britain was forcing its way into every possible corner of the earth without being invited to do so, it changed from being a liberal country that granted protection to refugees to being a territory that was almost completely impenetrable to others, even if they were being persecuted'.

The book has been translated from Hebrew, and I have not been able to see the original. On the whole, it reads well, but the translation 'houses of worship' sounds strange in English and should be 'places of worship', while the treatises or tractates of the Talmud are referred to as 'orders'.  A major defect of the book is that it has no bibliography, and it is therefore impossible for readers who, like me, might want to follow up some of the references to recent books and articles in Hebrew. Also, the method of referring to Rabbinic texts is irregular, and there is no indication of what editions of the texts are being used. For example, the important reference to the Talmud Tractate Ketuvot on page 107 is given as 13:111, when the standard form of reference should be 111a.  An examination of this important passage shows that the evidence quoted by the author is more extensive, and more equivocal than he suggests. This leads to my main criticism. I think that the author has underplayed the extent to which the land of Israel is important within Judaism, including in its worship and prayers. Also, although at times the continued presence of Jews in the land, particularly Galilee, was minimal, it certainly existed; one cannot read the Hebrew poetry of people such as C. N. Bialik and Rahel Blubstein without noting the deep longings and connections between the Jewish people and the land. I was surprised that more was not made of the importance of Odessa in the 19th century as a centre for Yiddish and Hebrew literature that expressed the aspirations of those who were under persecution. Whether all this constitutes a right to possession of a land is a different matter. There is deeply-moving Palestinian poetry.

This is a humane, informative, and generous book, and one can be grateful for the concern of the author for the people who once lived where he now works and who seem to have been entirely forgotten. This act of generosity will no doubt earn him less favourable reviews than the one that appears here.


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