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In his much acclaimed book The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argued that the idea of ‘the Jewish people’ was a contradiction. Most Jews did not originate from ancestors who lived in Judea and Samaria. Rather, Judaism was a highly successful proselytising religion in the centuries shortly before the rise of Christianity and for some centuries after. Jews were united by religious belief rather than a common ethnicity; most of them always lived in ‘the diaspora’. There simply was no mass exile in 70 CE. The idea of ‘the Jewish people’ is no less problematic than that of ‘the Christian people’ or ‘the Buddhist people’.
But Zionists see the Jewish people not just as a nation, any old nation, but a chosen one, with a homeland given to it by a jealous God in far-off times. Even secular Zionists appeal, in some sense or other, to the bible and historical right as a legitimation for today’s Israel as ‘the Jewish state’. This is the subject of Sand’s second, equally iconoclastic volume of demystification, as he now dissects the invention not of the people as such but of its homeland.
The core of the Zionist dream as expressed today is for Jews to ‘return’ to Eretz Yisroel, the Land of Israel. Sand is unsparing in showing how the ambiguities of the term are exploited ideologically, for this term is found nowhere in the bible before the new testament and only emerged, hesitantly, in the rabbinical tradition after the final incorporation of Judea into the Roman Palestina. It developed as a theological concept, referring to a certain sacred space, never a geopolitical area.
Something like modern day Zionism was a Christian evangelical notion before it was a Jewish one, and the idea that real Jews should actually go to live in Palestine was condemned by rabbinical Jewry, even as a yearning for Zion featured as a centrepiece of the Jewish religion. How this was transformed, and how the war between nation-state Zionism and traditional Judaism was played out is told in great detail by Sand in this fitting complement to his first volume.
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