Shlomo Sand on Zionism, post-Zionism, and the two-state solution

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This month we are offering readers who contribute $60 to our fundraising drive a copy of Shlomo Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland. The book follows on the critical international success of his last book, The Invention of the Jewish People (2010). In order to give readers a better sense of the book’s aims, I interviewed Sand by telephone at his home in Tel Aviv on December 8.

What’s  the difference between the goal of the first book and the second book?

I wrote the second volume because part of what the critics said who criticized me on the first one was that I didn’t try and explain the relationship and the affinity between Jews and the holy land. And because people asked me about this, I decided to write about it, about the metaphysical relationship of the Jews to the holy land. I always stress that this kind of relationship is not marginal to the existence of Jews in history. I knew that it was very important. I also knew that it was not Zionism. To understand Judaism, you can’t understand it without the holy land. But Zionism has brought about a different, modern relationship of Jews to the land.

Didn’t some critics accuse you of presumption in daring to write religious history?

The first book is not about Jewish religion and history. The book was and is about the Zionist historiography that deals with Jewish history. I didn’t write a Jewish history. Of course I cannot write about Zionist history without pretending that I am not writing about Jewish history. I’m not stupid. I am dealing also indirectly with the history of the Jews.  For the second book I read a lot about Jewish religion– much more than the first one.

The first one also considered the bible. I read a lot about the bible. And for the second book I tried to read again a lot of pages in the Talmud, to really try to understand the relationship of Jews to the promised land, and the holy land, and to understand that that relationship is completely different to the modern attitude of land, and ownership of land. I criticize the Zionist historiography, when it makes the continuation of the metaphysical concept, that very important aspect of the land that God gave the Jews and then took away—when they put the human subject in the middle of the action and say that the Jew has a total right to this land. I don’t think the religious affinity to the land gives you historical right. And after 2000 years, to pretend that the land is your land, if we continue with this logic, we can’t accept the right of the whites, blacks and Latinos to live in New York. It’s something dangerous, this idea.

I justify the existence of Israel not because of historical right, but because of the fact that it exist today and any effort to destroy it will bring new tragedies. Besides, Zionism created a new Israeli nation that has a right to exist.

I don’t define myself as an anti-Zionist. I define myself as a post-Zionist and non-Zionist because the justification of this land is not historical right. I understand it happened because of the tragedy of Europe. The majority of the emigrants didn’t want to come to Palestine. But the Zionist historians didn’t want to put that inside the narrative of how Israel was built.

I didn’t discover anything new. I put the historical material in a new order, and this makes them crazy, I mean the Zionist historians. I am radical historically. I don’t accept any compromise at the historical level. On the contrary, the political world is a world of compromise. I try to convince the Israelis that Al Aqsa belongs to the Muslims… and that is not easy with the Israelis. And what I say is not easy with the Palestinians sometimes.

Yesterday I was in a conference in Germany, and there were many Palestinians, and I got questions about the right of return. It’s not so easy to me to confront the reaction of a lot of Israelis, and a lot of Palestinians.

You said when you came to New York to promote your last book, the child of a rape still deserves to live. Did I hear your right?

You understood me very well. I think we raped a population. And not only a population– we destroyed this society, in constituting the Israeli state…  Every child has a right to live as much as a child of rape…But as I insisted in my first book, I am against any ethnocracy in the world. Israel has to be the state of Israelis. That is the only way we can continue to live in the mididle east.

I also believe that because of the tragic history of the Jews in the 20th century, Israel can continue to be a refuge to Jews who suffer from anti-Semitism. Though I am against the law of return. As I am against the right of return.

But how can it be a refuge for Jews if you eliminate the law of return?

I can propose a new law, to define Israel as the Israeli state. Because a quarter of the population is not Jewish. Making Israel as the Jewish state is like defining the United States as the Anglo-Saxon Protestant state. But because I know that history is not so simple sometimes, I think Israel can stay as a state of refuge for the Jews who are suffering from anti-Semitism but not a state that belongs automatically to Woody Allen or to Sheldon Adelson.

In the book you make comments about American Jews’ supporting Israel but not wanting to move there. Do you think it’s fair for me to confront members of the Israel lobby in the US who speak about a need for a Jewish state, Well, why don’t you go move there?

They don’t move there because people living together [as in the U.S.] have some cultural practice, a secular practice in common. They want to live with the others…. The Jews don’t want to live with me here in Tel Aviv, and I respect that a lot. I think the affinity they have with the Israeli state is justified. But affinity cannot be translated into national consciousness, or to the sentiment of possession of, or ownership of the land. We cannot see ourselves as a part of an imagined nation that is living abroad if we want to continue to live in the Middle East. We have a common past but we don’t have a common present and a common future, I hope.… Because my present is Israeli culture, and my future– I don’t know the future.

Are you religious?

No. Unfortunately I don’t believe in god … To understand the cosmos, the limits of the cosmos, or really the unlimits—it is very difficult to accept the shortness of life. It is very hard with my little brain to understand the shortness of our life in the unlimited cosmos, and I continue to think that the human being has to be the center of our action and reflection, and not the god.

If you’re not religious, then why do you valorize the religious myths of others?

The holy land is very important to religious people. That is different from possession…. And the fact that I’m not religious—still, I think that religion will stay in history much longer than nationalism. It was and it maybe will be more important than nationalism. Unfortunately I am not religious because I do not believe in god but that doesn’t mean that I will run away from religion [as a historian].

What do you think of Marxist and materialist scholars who deny the importance of religion?

The clever Marxists will agree with me. The stupid Marxists will not agree. Marxists in some way cannot understand religion– I agree with you. It is one of the weaknesses of Marxism, the way they treated religion after Marx. Religion can be opium, but it will never be only an opium..But I knew people that came from Marxism originally [who came to understand the] need of the human being with all his tragedies and suffering, for god. And the problem with religion is it creates not only love but also hatred. There is a relationship between religion and nationalism. [Religious nationalism is] much less liberal, much less democratic than the secular states, and than secular nationalism.

What about Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a clash of civilizations?

I don’t take seriously the Huntington thesis about a clash with the Muslim and western world… I can ask Huntington, where is the Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Bahrain in this clash– all these possessions of the west in the Middle East? All the most religious countries, where are they in the clash? They exist because of the western world. If I try to apply the theory of clash–it can be a clash between China and the west, it cannot be between Islam and the west. That I can’t imagine. But with China, because of the difference in culture, in attitudes of economy and society, I can imagine. The clash between Islam and the western world is a joke if you see the power difference between the two. The Egyptian army is in the hand of the United States. Because they can’t fight five or six days without the need for munitions from the States. Because of what happened in Iran [in 1979 revolution], we are thinking of the clash—but Iran is much more a nationalist movement than an Islamist movement. Iran, if you see what the children are studying, you  understand that it is not a general Islamic movement, it’s much more a nationalist movement with a religious clothes, religious appearance.

Let’s go back to the core idea of the book, and your description of the strict adjurations to religious Jews not to live in the holy land.

See, at the end of the nineteenth century when Herzl appeared in 1897 he invited rabbis, and nobody came, and the ones who did come were a very, very little, tiny minority. He wanted to organize a Zionist conference, the first one to be in Munich. Because it was an important city, with a Jewish community. It wasn’t Basel in Switzerland [where the conference was ultimately held]. The rabbis of Germany signed a petition, not to let Zionists make a conference on the land of Germany…. Judaism was against Zionism till Hitler. The organized Judaism was against it. Not only the orthodox, but the conservative and reform. Really a majority was against Zionism. They were afraid of the idea that the land will replace god. But also because of the Talmud. It was in the Talmud…that you cannot emigrate to Palestine, to the holy land as a collective.  I am not talking about the super Orthodox. The grandfather of the last Lubavitch grand rabbi was a real leader, and he was an extreme anti-Zionist. The nationalization of most of this movement, the process of nationalization of this Jewish current, is a new sentiment in history. This conference by Herzl in Basel, there were very few rabbis there, from little communities.  And till the 1967 war, the Zionist religious were very very moderate in the face of the idea of possessing the land. Politically they were on the left. There were exceptions like Rabbi Kook, he was an exception, but till ‘67, the Zionist religious were much more on the left of the Labor Party than on the right. In which sense of the left? Not socially or politically—but  they were against the idea that it was God’s will to possess land. They knew deep in their consciousness, that God gives, God taketh away…See, the concept of Eretz Israel, the theological concept, is not a homeland. In Judaism, like in Islamism, in Christianity, there is not a concept of homeland. I wanted to bring that back to the center of our thinking. Religion doesn’t have a homeland. Jews are not different physically from the Christians and Muslims. Muslims, Jews and Christians don’t have homelands.

How successful was the first book?

Well it was translated into 21 languages.

As a political intervention, was it successful?

You know I will repeat Hobsbawn… No forget Hobsbawn…. Books cannot change the world. But when the world starts to change, it looks at other books.

Politically there is not any function for the book for the moment, in Israel. I publish in Hebrew… My hope is to change Israel, not to change the world. But I don’t have any illusions. Israeli political culture is not on good terms today. I am afraid, I am very afraid. But… if the world starts to change, young people are looking for new books. I hope that will be the case with my book.

How was the book received?

Only in the United States was it attacked on the genetic angle. That was specific to American critics. Not the German, French, or English. They wanted to deal with it.

[Sand describes an Israeli who is working on the genetic question of Ashkenazi Jewishness–yesterday, his article was accepted by an important journal. Sand was willing to put me in touch with him, to give a kind of answer, from a geneticist. I said I wasn’t interested in that angle. He said Fine.]

Do you know Ami Ayalon [former director of the Shin Bet]?

Yes I know him well. I even gave him one of my books when I met him.

Ayalon spoke at J Street three years ago and said in essence, We gave the settlers one kind of myth about building Israel to get them to move into the occupied territories,  now all we have to do is give them a different kind of myth to get them to leave, this time about saving Israel. For me Ayalon’s comment was about the fluidity of religious myth– whether or not he is right about the possibility of withdrawing the settlers.

I think the… collective belief has a mythical part. I don’t want to be a myth leader, but it’s related to the other question. Not about books changing the world. But myths changing the world. The Republican myth, the democratic myth, the myth of the constitution—the U.S. was built on that, and the aura around the myth. In the 20th century, after the second world war, the myth of the United States [was employed] to change the relationship between black and white– when the real fight began between the civic and the racist, the fact of that myth of the building of this society was very important. We don’t have that here.

My books, I don’t hide—though I am a historian I have a vision of the world– and a liberal ethnocracy is not a real democracy. Because the state doesn’t belong to the citizens. The notion of citizens… Israelis don’t understand that enough.

Yes Ami Ayalon is right, and that is an area of politics. I want to be honest; I want that the Arab in Tel Aviv, my student, will live like you are living in New York. This is my target, not more and not less. This is the only chance that Israel will [be able to] exist in the Middle East. I am not speaking of occupied territory, but that the Israeli Arab will live in Tel Aviv like you are living in New York. If we can arrive at this, I feel that we have done something very important in life.

What about Ayalon’s belief in changing the myth to end the settlements?

I don’t believe that the myth will bring the settlers back to Israel. I think the Jewish lobby, or the pro Zionist lobby, to be much more careful, will. The only hope is that the US and Europe will start to make pressure for Israel to go out of the occupied territories. There is a kind of apartheid [there], it’s not acceptable from a moral point of view, there are people living without any political or civil rights under our power. It is militaristic apartheid, and the Israeli society is a kind of segregation– in Israel it is segregation, and in the Occupied Territories it is a kind of apartheid. I want to repeat one thing, in [1954] the Supreme Court in the United States said, you cannot be equal and separated [in Brown v Board of Education].  I think in Israel, I am living with a society where a Jew cannot marry a non-Jew, so it is a separation and it cannot be equal. This is my position. And that republican spirit in the United States, the civic myth—even with all the racism in the US, we don’t have it here.

When you spoke with those Palestinians in Germany, you are dealing with a political community that has been radicalized by endless occupation and more and more regards you as the pieds noir were seen in Algeria, a colonialist settler society that needs to go away.

Yes. We are more and more in a position to unify the Israeli Palestinian with the Palestinian [elsewhere]. But for the moment, the Israeli Palestinian citizens are different from the occupied territories. Most of them want to be Israeli. The nation building in the Palestinian camp is not perfect, and of course they don’t have a state. But if you are looking deeper in the consciousness of the Palestinian Israelis, they continue to prefer to be Israelis and not a part of a Palestinian state. It could be different in the future, because the younger guard is changing their view of looking at this.

Models in history help us but they also miss everything. I think the South Africa model of thinking made a lot of harm about thinking about Israel and Palestine. As the Bolshevik Revolution made a lot of harm in Europe. The wider solution of South Africa– thinking of the one state solution, has become very very popular in leftist circles. I think it’s not serious. To build a one-state solution, to fight for a one state solution, is based on the idea that you can wait for the consensus of the Jewish Israelis to accept it. But I am living in one of the most racist societies in the western world.

How can you kick out Israel from the occupied territories? I can agree with Sari Nusseibeh [president of Al Quds University] and say, Go away or give us citizenship. Between the go away and give us citizenship, go away is more possible than give us the citizenship.

I am for two state solution on the borders of ’67, taking out most of the settlers. I don’t think it will be a big problem. If I am thinking of Algeria, a million went away; then I’m not afraid that 500,000 will have a problem. ..

If I have continued to be for a two state solution, it is because I am a realist and pragmatic, I don’t think the two states can live separately. Amos Oz wrote a book, we need a divorce, we are two different families. Not at all. The two state solution has to combine a kind of confederation of the two of us because we are living so inside one another. The vision has to come after the two state solution. We don’t have to divorce, we have to live in the same apartment but two different rooms. So as to give expression to Palestinian sovereignty.

How are your relations with others at Tel Aviv U?

I am a full professor, nobody can really touch me. I cannot say that most of the professors like my book. Most of them don’t like my book. But you have to understand, it’s not the political side of my position—it’s that I’ve touched something very deep in their consciousness, [questioning the idea of] the eternal Jewish people, the eternal Jewish nation. I think also the success of the book disturbed some of my colleagues. Being translated into 21 languages. I imagine they could also be a little bit jealous. I have friends but it’s not easy to be in Tel Aviv University. In some ways I am a little bit of a pariah, but I cannot complain. Because I touched something not easy to them.

I am not a very courageous person. I chose this subject after I got tenure. I could not make an academic career in Tel Aviv with this kind of book. After getting a full professorship, I decided to take a risk and make a different effort at the truth. I knew that I cannot find the truth, but I have to look for it. …

You speak about your roles in the book as both an ethical human being and an agent of memory…

Every historian is an agent of memory. We get a salary to build narratives of the past. … Because the narratives don’t fit what I think is true, it was my duty to write this book. I don’t dissociate between my professional and moral aspects.

You say the US abandoned the Jews; some people might say that is a myth.

Because in 1924, the US closed the gate with the  anti-immigrant laws. Without the closing of the gate, I don’t believe we could have a right to have an Israeli state. My parents– I was born in a refugee camp. A displacement camp. I lived there for 2 years. My parents didn’t have a choice. They chose in ‘48 to go to Israel because no one wanted them in the world. There was no possibility for them to go to the US. This is the reason that I am Israeli.

But there are Palestinians who have been refugees for 65 years without exciting the sympathy of the powerful, and meantime your refugee experience so worked on Truman that he recognized the Jewish state in a couple of years.

This is the reason that I am writing my book. As somebody, a descendant of Jews who are refugees, this is the deep reason that I insist to write this book. You touch here one of the most important things in my moral life. I wrote an article during the war of Gaza, against Hamas, not to forget that 80 percent of the people in Gaza are refugees and descendants of refugees. I cannot accept the right of return, politically. But without acknowledging the Nakba and ‘48, no solution will be made.

[Sand explains this is why the Afterword of his book is about the former village on which Tel Aviv University stands, al-Sheikh Muwannis. He speaks of the importance of recognizing the Nakba and educating people about its history. This was after all a friendly Palestinian village.  And in the book he states that acknowledgment, recognition and compensation must answer the question of the refugees.]

I agree with you on the importance of acknowledgement. And compensation too. But let’s say that of 5 million refugees’ descendants, every one  accepts your idea but one of them says, Guess what, I would prefer to return to my house in Baka in Jerusalem. Shouldn’t he be able to do that?

The year that the refugees started, in 48, was tragic in the world. There were a lot of refugees, a lot of Muslim refugees in Pakistan, and Hindu refugees in India, there were Germans expelled from Sudetenland. Not all the children of the Nazis can be blamed.  The Palestinian question is the most difficult, because a national state received them in all the other cases, but in the case of the Palestinians, no national state accepted them to integrate them, and this question has stayed open. The first responsible party, Israel, we did create the refugee problem. We are responsible for  it. But it doesn’t mean that this guy who wants to go back to Jaffa– politically it can’t solve the problem. You can’t go back in history, but you can correct history. You have to pay. It is very, very expensive. I know one thing. Giving back the West Bank, Al Aqsa, Arab Jerusalem, the West Bank has another meaning than giving 5 million descendants the right to return to Israel.

I conclude with one thing, democratic and Jewish at the same time cannot be. Because it is an oxymoron; it can’t be defined. I think also that recognizing the right of Israel to exist and recognizing the right of return is also an oxymoron. 5 million refugees will have their right; that is the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel has to pay, has to recognize, what happened in 48, and be the champion of help to change the life of this population– and also symbolically to accept a number of Palestinians that will not be a menace to Israeli culture of today. Israel has to symbolically show that as a nonracist state it must accept the right of refugees, but you can’t give the 5 million that right. I’m sorry, I cannot make everything possible. To change your life, to try to make your life equal to my life, yes.

But in the two-state solution with the confederation, as you develop a confederation, there are stages. You continue to live in the middle east as a confederation, and one day there will be a free circulation between the two states. In 50 years, the two states can live together, and maybe, maybe you can build a kind of relationship that France had with the Germans. The Germans can come and live in Paris, no problem. I ask a little more imagination for everyone in order to live in peace.

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Nazism within fixed German borders would have died because it would have had no choice but to consume itself. An Israel with fixed borders would cause Zionism to die because it too would have no choice but to consume itself.

Thought Sand’s book was great, but I’m sort of surprised – albeit midly – at his thoughts about the right of return. He says he doesn’t want a jewish state, but uses israel’s jewishness to counter the right of return argument. It seems as though he’s saying, “fully equal citizenship for palestinians and other non-jews, as long as there’s not that many.” Not exactly a rallying cry. I undertand what he’s getting at, and I… Read more »

This was a very interesting interview. I think that Sand has a very pragmatic but moral approach to things.

There is a sense of unreality in Shlomo Sand’s take on the world: there is no reason to believe that Israelis won’t continue to migrate to the extreme racist and fascist right and to proceed with their grand project of building Eretz Yisrael. Then what? What is the most likely scenario that Sand sees unfolding? Sand is not addressing what is really going on. Certainly he can expect no help from “liberal Zionists” in the… Read more »

My prediction: Israel’s continuing drift to the hard ethno-religious nationalist right, with no meaningful opposition from “liberal Zionists,” will force Shlomo Sand to become either an ardent Zionist (like Benny Morris) or an ardent anti-Zionist (like Jeffrey Blankfort). He will not be able to sustain his moderate position as a lukewarm or “sort of” Zionist. Currently he is living in a dream world.