Facts and Myths

I am not a historian.  While I am fascinated by history — especially Jewish history — I do not claim any familiarity with the theories of how history is shaped, or general trends that have been accepted in any given historical period.  Thus, my knowledge of the movement of New Historians in Israel (hyperlink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Historians), for example, is cursory at best.  I was intrigued, therefore, to learn what Professor Shlomo Sand had to say in his new book The Invention of the Land of Israel, as reported in this review.  To be clear, the criticisms that I will lay out are only responding to the review, as I have not read the book.

I agree with the need of Sand and others like him who wish to uncover the mythical aspects of current Jewish or Zionist ideology.  Besides a natural curiosity about what more fine-grained historical analysis can tell us about the birth of such concepts as the Jewish People or the Land of Israel, I think that in order to one day solve the seemingly interminable Middle East conflict, we will all have to become comfortable with deconstructing our own thinking and announcing which aspects are — in part or wholly — mythical.

However, Asa Winstanley, in his review, makes it sound like Sand went too far, presenting facts as myths.  Winstanley states that:

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the geographic area roughly corresponding to the land of Palestine (between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea) is mostly called the “land of Canaan.”  The area “never served as a homeland for the ‘children of Israel.’”  Most Israelis, Sand argues, are not aware that the term is not found in the Hebrew Bible “in its inclusive meaning” of a wide geographic area (86).

First of all, when reviewing a book of Jewish history written by a Jewish historian, it is important to be familiar with his audience.  The term ‘Hebrew Bible’ is in fact the acceptable Christian term these days, as ‘Old Testament’ can easily be seen as offensively pushing a supercessionist ideology.  The term Torah or Tanach is preferred by Jews (rather than ‘Hebrew Bible’).  More importantly though, it seems that Sand himself is making the claim that the term ארץ ישראל (The Land of Israel) does not appear in the Tanach in it’s current meaning.  Yes, the land is called Cana’an as well — though this does not seem to me to constitute an argument against Judaism having a notion of a polity at its heart.  Most strikingly, though, the term ארץ ישראל does in fact appear in Tanach, apparently referring to a broad geographical region (again, if Sand disqualifies all of these examples in the book, consider me mollified on this point).

Shmuel (Samuel) I 13:17-19, in the context of a war between the Israelites led by King Saul against the Phillistines, states:

And the destroyers came out from the camp of the Philistines, in three groups.  The first group turned to the path of Ophrah, to the land of Shual.  The second group turned to the path of Beit Horon; and the third group turned to the path of the border, looking down on the valley of Tzvo’im in the desert.  And a smith could not be found in all the Land of Israel, because the Philistines said: ‘lest the Hebrews make a sword or spear’ (all translations and emphases mine).

The beginning of one of Yechezkel’s (Ezekiel’s) visions states:

After twenty-five years of exile, on the tenth day of the first month, fourteen years after the city was smote, on this very day the hand of Hashem was upon me, and It brought me there.  In the vision of Hashem, I was brought to the Land of Israel, and let me down on a very tall mountain, upon which was, so to speak, the building of a city, to the south (40:1-2).

Speaking of the righteous fury with which Yoshiahu (Josiah), son of King David, destroyed the idols during his reign, Chronicles II tells us:

And he broke the altars and the Asherim [a goddess] and the graven images into powder, and all of the sun-images he struck down, in all the land of Israel, and then he returned to Jerusalem (34:7).

I think that, while the notion of the modern State of Israel may indeed have expanded the notion present in the Tanach, it is equally clear that some notion of the land of Israel as a Jewish state existed at least as early as the time of Shmuel (c. 6th century BCE).

Winstanley argues that this lack of real historical depth to the Jewish claim to Israel as a state

[S]tands in stark contrast to the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence which claims that “the Jewish people…never ceased to pray and hope for their return.”  In contrast to this “mythos,” Sand writes: “most of the world’s Jews…did not regard Palestine as their land…they did not strive ‘in every successive generation to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland’” (175).

This gets to the heart of the matter, as presented by Winstanley, and I think it, too, obscures the facts.  There is no argument that, between 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed, and 1897, the year of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, very few generations of Jews strove to return to Palestine.  However, this in no way proves that Jews have not constantly prayed and hoped for that return.  Beyond looking at the very words of the prayers Jews have been saying, wherever in the world they happened to be, for much of that 2,000-year period, it should be clear that the lack of noted attempts at reclamation means little when the majority of that history saw the Jewish people as second-class, dis-empowered non-citizens, or worse.  Combined with the traditional belief (Bavli Ketuvot 110b-111a) that Jews would have to wait for the Mashiach (Messiah) to come in order to return to Palestine, and were therefore forbidden from trying to reclaim the land without divine assistance, it is no surprise that, until Jews experienced emancipation and were given rights as citizens in much of Europe, there was no concerted effort to reclaim Palestine en masse.

Clearly, the book must be read in its entirety.  However, it is also incumbent upon anyone presenting these ideas as publicly as Winstanley does to be cognizant of the fact that these myths — whatever portion of them turn out to be more myth than historical fact — deeply affect millions of people’s lives.  As such, the utmost care must be taken to do one’s due diligence before making claims that are almost guaranteed to anger many people, regardless of whether they are true.  If the primary good to be gained from such study is opening up dialogue — first within the Israeli and Jewish communities, and then with the Middle East and the world as a whole — then we must be diligent to avoid using this same scholarship to lead us in the opposite direction, to a place where such books are judged by their covers, and no one bothers opening them up due to the history of generalizations made, by the authors themselves and those who speak publicly about their works.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s