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Shlomo Sand: ‘“The Zionist Left has never been less colonialist than the Right”

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On the eve of the Israeli parliamentary elections, L’Express interviewed the historian Shlomo Sand. He looked back to the use of religious reference points by Israeli politicians ever since the creation of the State of Israel, holding this contradiction to blame for the failure of the Israeli Left.

'The Zionist Left has never been less colonialist than the Right'

The parliamentary elections to be held this Tuesday looked certain to confirm the Israeli electorate’s turn to the Right. On the eve of the vote, L’Express interviewed the historian Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Land of Israel: from Holy Land to Homeland. He looked back to the use of religious reference points by  Israeli politicians ever since the creation of the State of Israel, holding this contradiction partly to blame for the failure of the Israeli Left.

You explain, in your book, that Jews have no historic right to ‘the land of Israel’…

To say that the ancient Hebrews are the ancestors of the Israelis, is like saying that the Gauls are the ancestors of the French. This is to use historical memory for political ends. You can’t have historic rights over a territory two thousand years after the event. Any more than Serbs can claim a historic right to Kosovo on the basis that their ancestors lived on that land many centuries ago, or than Germans have historic rights to Alsace Lorraine, or Arabs to Andalucia… The myth of returning to the ancestral lands has been the sine qua non condition of Zionist colonisation.

You also stress the paradox of secular politicians making use of religious reference points…

Yes. The founding fathers of Israel, all of them secular, used the Bible to justify the colonisation of Palestine. However, Judaism never clearly evoked this ‘right to return’ to ‘the land of Israel’. This myth of the return is not Jewish, and is only recent. It dates to the nineteenth century at the earliest. For Judaism, ‘God gave, and God took away’. The notion of ‘the land of Israel’ previously had only a theological meaning, not a political one. Every child in Israel begins to study the Bible at six years of age, several years before beginning history classes properly speaking. All education in the State of Israel, ever since its creation in 1948, inculcates in us that this land belongs to Abraham and Jacob, which means a tabula rasa of its Palestinian inhabitants.

This contradiction has political consequences…

It is important to understand the relation between the myth of ‘the land of Israel’ and the fact that the Zionist Left faces a permanent state of failure. The Left speaks of its desire for peace with the Palestinians and of settling for a State within the 1967 borders,  at the same time as basing itself on this myth of the Biblical lands. But the sites of Biblical myth are mainly located in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron – that is, in the West Bank – rather than in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Natanya. The Zionist Left, which says it does not want to colonise the West Bank, thus finds itself in utter contradiction.

Are you also putting into question the myth of the Jewish people’s exile from Israel?

In my previous work The Invention of the Jewish People, I explained that there was no Jewish ethnos, a genetic link connecting Jews across the whole world to the ancient Hebrews – contrary to the vision of anti-Semites and certain Zionists. The idea of the exile of the Jewish people, forced out by the Romans in 70 AD, is a myth. There is, moreover, not a single volume on this exile by any historian. Judaism was, at the outset, a religion of proselytism, dynamic and propagated by conversion. Jews defined themselves by their religion. You cannot speak of a ‘Jewish people’ any more than you could speak of a ‘Hindu people’. We can, instead, speak of an ‘Israeli people’. But the purpose of using this ethnic theme was in order to justify conquest.

People will accuse you of raising question-marks over the existence of the State of Israel…

They would be wrong to do so. I am not an anti-Zionist. Equally, I do not compare the Holocaust and the Nakba (the Palestinian exodus of 1948). But the Holocaust – I prefer the term ‘Judeocide’ – is not an excuse for colonisation. I do not deny the right of today’s Jewish Israelis to live in the State of Israel. To go back on the creation of the State of Israel would but mean a fresh tragedy. I was very pleased when I heard Yasser Arafat announcing, in 1988, that he accepted the existence of the State of Israel. But I wish that this state would grant the same democratic rights to all its citizens, whether Jews or Palestinians; that a Palestinian in Tel Aviv could feel like a Jew does in Paris.

Doesn’t the acceleration of settlement-building in the West Bank pose an obstacle to the two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel?

I believe that the two-state solution is the only solution allowing for the survival of the State of Israel. At a moral level, a binational state would be the best solution. But at a political level, this idea, a commonplace among the radical Left, is infantile. A binational state would mean the Jews becoming a demographic minority in their own country. They would never accept this: Israeli society is today one of the most racist in the Western world.

Isn’t it too late already, now that more than 42 percent of land in the West Bank has been colonised?

History shows that if there is the will to bring an end to an untenable situation, then it can be done. France displaced a million pieds-noirs [white colonists] to put an end to the war in Algeria. There are 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and the Arab part of the Jerusalem region. It is possible to bring these settlers back within Israeli borders.

The right-wing movement of Israeli society is not developing in that direction…

Personally, I would prefer the coalition uniting Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the Yisrael Beiteinu party to win the parliamentary elections. If the parties of the centre take a narrow victory, with a very strong right-wing opposition, then they will be paralysed, unable to take the slightest initiative against the settlements. The main centrist parties –Shelly Yachimovich’s Labour Party, Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah – are incapable of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Labour Party, notably, waged an electoral campaign that totally avoided addressing this question.

Even Yitzhak Rabin, architect of the Oslo negotiations, did not touch a single settlement, even after the massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. The Zionist Left has never been less colonialist than the Right. People in Israel say that the main difference between the Zionist Left and Right is that, while for the Right, God is not dead, for the Left, God is dead… though before dying, he promised them the land of Israel.

Up till now, only the Right has reined in the settlements: Menachem Begin, in the Sinai in 1982, and Ariel Sharon in Gaza in 2004 – even if, in these cases, they did so with the intention of holding on to the West Bank.

What is the meaning of the advance of the rising star of the religious Right, Naftali Bennett?

He represents the new symbiosis between religion and nationalism. This began in 1967. At the same time, the fusion of nationalism and socialism has failed. This phenomenon has taken place in Israel just as much as in the region generally, where the failure of the secular parties has cleared the way for the Islamists – whether in Arab countries, Iran or Turkey – and for Hindu fundamentalists in India. Contrary to appearances, this phenomenon is very much a modern one. It is not at all a return to the religion of the ancients.

In my view, Bennett occupies the same place on the Israeli political chessboard as did the kibbutznik leader Yigal Allon in the 1960s and 1970s. He was very much on the Left, at the same time as favouring further annexations.  The kibbutzniks had a symbolic weight greatly superior to their Knesset representation, fittingly, on account of their role in the colonisation of this famous ‘land of Israel’. Today, the settlers represent just 4 percent of the population of Israel, but they – like the kibbutzniks before them – bear a considerable influence over Israeli society.

This hardly lets us foresee a negotiated way out of the conflict…

I am pessimistic but not a fatalist. For me, the only hope for some advance would be for Barack Obama, helped by his next Secretary for Defense Chuck Hagel, as well as European leaders like François Hollande, to bear pressure on Israel so that it will negotiate. Without outside pressure, there will be no change within Israel itself. We do not have the De Gaulle figure for that [i.e. following the example of De Gaulle ending the Algerian war]. There is, in Israel, a very strong depoliticisation among Israeli citizens. All the same, the majority of Israelis are not obsessed by ideology; they are materialists, hedonists. If there were strong pressure from outside the country, I believe they would accept the change and the sacrifices which that would necessitate.

To let Israel continue down the road of colonisation is, ultimately, to contribute to its destruction. There will be no military solution to this conflict. As I see it, negotiation is the only course that will allow for the survival of the State of Israel.

Translated from French by David Broder. Visit L'Express to read the article in French.

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  • Thanks for posting this, Onehundredflowers. I'e read great reviews of Shlomo Sands' book The Invention of the State of Israel. The key points in that book seem summed up here.

    "To say that the ancient Hebrews are the ancestors of the Israelis, is like saying that the Gauls are the ancestors of the French. " I love that pithy statement. It's sad that objective ethnographic investigation should be controversial, but it sometimes becomes so. (It is certainly the case in Japan, where some would like to posit the Japanese as a "pure race" rather than a mix of Jomon, Yayoi, and various Korean tribes or tribes arriving through Korea.) The idea that the Jewish people are not a single gene pool originating in what is now Israel around 2800 years ago, and driven out by the Romans in 70 CE, whereupon they maintained their ethnic purity (as descendents of Abraham and Jacob) throughout Europe, the Middle East and beyond, such that when they established the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews were "returning home," is total nonsense, as Sands points out. "You can't claim historic rights to a country two thousand years after the event."


    "The idea of the exile of the Jewish people, forced out by the Romans in 70 AD, is a myth. There is, moreover, not a single volume on this exile by any historian." In fact tens of thousands were driven into exile and/or enslaved, but many Judean peasants remained. There was never a total explusion of the Judean population, which already was living alongside Syrians, Greeks, Romans and others in the Roman province. Most of these Judeans probably later converted to Christianity (especially from the later fourth century, when Jews were allowed to practice their religion (it was the only one other that the now-official state religion of Christianity tolerated) but subject to financial hardships and humiliations that probably caused many to convert. Then maybe re-converted to Islam later.

    Anyway the Diaspora (really, three waves of dispersion, from 70 CE, then from 117, then 125) did not necessarily empty Roman Judea of Jews. And meantime the Jews of Europe were, as Sands notes, proseltizing among Gentiles, welcoming them into their synagogues, and intermarrying. This is why St. Paul, "apsotle to the Gentiles," visits synagogues in Greek cities like Corinth where he tells mixed audiances that you don't have to follow the old Laws of Moses, including the dietary laws and requirement of circumcision (which made many non-Jewish males interested in conversion hesitate). Anyway while Judaism is not today a mssionary religion at all, it once did actively recruit, at least in the cities of the Roman Empire where there were large communities of Judaeans BEFORE the Diaspora.

    The conversion to Judaism of the elite of the Khazar kingdom around the Black Sea region in the 9th century (which involved establishing a fictional link between the royal house and the patriarch Abraham), followed by the conversion of much of the population of this Turkish kingdom, added to the gene pool. Many Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe undoubtedly have Khazar genes (as Sands points out in his book).

    But this ethnic notion of "birth right" that rests upon a rejection of genetics also requires the embrace of religion. Sands jokes that the right wing Zionist being religious says God gave us this land, while the left secularist says God is dead, but before dying gave us the land of Israel. Either way the powerful biblical images are invoked: the Promised Land, seen from the mountaintop by Moses, conquered by Joshua who at God's command put all the earlier inhabitants to death, ruled wisely by Kings David and Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem, plundered by Assyrians who destroyed the Temple and who subjected some Israelites to the Babylonian Captivity, etc.

    It's very difficult to discuss Israel in this country without having to deal at some point with the nefarious influences of this religious-mythological narrative. It is good that Sands constantly rebuts it.

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