New book by Tel Aviv historian uncovers “Land of Israel” myths

Shlomo Sand is a history professor at Tel Aviv University. His charismatic, readable style was evident in his previous book The Invention of the Jewish People, the English edition of which kicked up quite a controversy in 2009. The title alone seemed designed to shock.

But in fact Sand was arguing a fairly banal truism: there is no such thing as a unified, national “Jewish people.” As a globalized religious community (due to proselytizing before the rise to power of Christianity in the fourth century) there are instead multiple different Jewish communities across the world.

A Jew from Yemen would have no distinctive secular points of reference in common with a Jew from France, Russia or Poland. For example: before Zionist reinvention from the end of the 19th century, Hebrew was a purely liturgical language. Jews from different countries naturally spoke in local languages.

That book was a fascinating journey through centuries of Jewish history, much of it swept under the carpet by Zionist historiography. Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, is essentially a direct sequel, focusing on the nature of an idea central to Zionism: the “Land of Israel” — Eretz Israel in Hebrew.

Sand explains that in Israel, “in the Hebrew-language edition of foreign books, the word ‘Palestine’ is systematically replaced with the words Eretz Israel … Even when the writings of important Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Ber Borochov and many others [who also used ‘Palestine’] … are translated into Hebrew” (23).

Holy land or homeland?

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,’ and for this reason, among others, they never refer to it as ‘the Land of Israel.’” Most Israelis, Sand argues, are not aware that the term is not found in the the Hebrew Bible “in its inclusive meaning” of a wide geographic area (86).

Later Jewish religious law “does feature the debut of the term ‘Land of Israel’ ” but, Sand explains, this was a “holy land” rather than a “homeland” (102). Most Jews did not seek to live there. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, lived in Egypt — right next to Palestine. He could have moved to Jerusalem, since both regions were under Roman rule — but instead, like most people, he chose to live and die in his original homeland (96).

Furthermore this Eretz Israel was traditionally considered by mainstream Judaism to be so holy the devout were positively forbidden to move there (183). Even pilgrimage was a rare, and later phenomenon. Between the years 134 and 1099, “we know of no attempts by the followers of rabbinical Judaism to make pilgrimages to the holy city” of Jerusalem (123).

All this stands 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).

Ever-shifting borders

“Settlement Zionism, which borrowed the term ‘Land of Israel’ from the Talmud, was not overly pleased with the borders it had been assigned by Jewish law … extending only from Acre to Ashkelon … [it was] not sufficiently contiguous to serve as a national homeland,” argues Sand (214).

He then reviews the history of the ever-shifting definition in Zionist thought of where exactly its “Land of Israel” is — something undeclared till this day.

Early Zionists drew on God’s promise in the book of Genesis to give the mythical patriarch Abram’s children “this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” in modern day Iraq.

In 1897, the same year as the first Zionist congress, Israel Belkind (“the first practical Zionist”) drew a map: “ ‘The Jordan splits the Land of Israel in two different sections,’ asserted Belkind, whose assessment was subsequently adopted by most [Zionist] settlers of the period” (216).

For the future first prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion, these borders “were too expansive and untenable, while the borders of the Talmudic commandment were too narrow.” In 1918 he gave his own take: “In the north — the Litani River, between Tyre and Sidon [in Lebanon] … In the east — the Syrian Desert. The eastern border of the Land of Israel should not be precisely demarcated … the Land’s eastern borders will be diverted eastwards, and the area of the Land of Israel will expand” (217).

Not for nothing were the borders of the new state unmentioned in its declaration of independence (233).


Ben Gurion later scaled back this conception, but even mainstream Labor Zionist figure as Yigal Allon would still at times refer to the whole of historic Palestine as the “western Land of Israel” as late as 1979 (237).

There’s also a brilliant chapter on the origins of Christian Zionism in the protestantism of nineteenth-century British imperialists.

Sand stops short of calling for implementing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. His concluding chapter is a history of al-Sheikh Muwannis, the Palestinian village that Israel ethnically cleansed in 1948 and in place of which his own university now stands. Unfortunately, he counterposes removing the university, on the one hand, with the Palestinian refugees never being able to return en masse, on the other — as if those are the only two options (280).

It’s a useful book for debunking Zionist myths, which, due to the legacy of Protestant Christian Zionism in the west are surprisingly resilient. But as Sand’s slightly flaky post-Zionist politics demonstrates, a more realistic knowledge of history doesn’t necessarily translate fully to a rights-based understanding of the Palestinian plight.

Still, there is much to enjoy and learn in the evidence in the potentially incendiary material he assembles here.

Asa Winstanley is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, and a journalist in London who has also worked in Palestine.




Question: "But as Sand’s slightly flaky post-Zionist politics demonstrates, a more realistic knowledge of history doesn’t not necessarily translate fully to a rights-based understanding of the Palestinian plight."

Does not necessarily? Or am I missing an essential point here?

Asa Winstanley's picture

Typo corrected, thanks for pointing it out.


As Zionist propagandists attempted to attack Professor Shlomo Sand back in 2009 from this angle; everyone should now see Johns Hopkins University geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaik, Ph.D.'s recent genetic study completely supporting Professor Sand. Dr. Eran Elhaik "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses".


“Settlement Zionism, which borrowed the term ‘Land of Israel’ from the Talmud, was not overly pleased with the borders it had been assigned by Jewish law … [it was] not sufficiently contiguous to serve as a national homeland,"

Are a few isolated pockets not enough to form a viable state? Haven't I heard this argument somewhere?


Perhaps the phrase "Land of Israel" doesn't appear in the bible, but the "Land of X" appears many times (where X is a tribe of Israel). For example, see Deuteronomy 34. And the phrase "tribes of Israel" appears many times. So, the claim is disingenuous at best.

As it happens, the phrase "Land of Israel" does appear in the bible, in Ezekiel 38. However, the original Hebrew phrase is ADAMAT (אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל), which can be translated as "soil" or "earth," but the context is the same as "Land of Israel." Also used is the phrase "Mountains of Israel" (הָרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).

However, my main concern with this work is, who is he trying convince? He won't convince me and I'm as secular a Jew and as pro-Palestinian state as anyone. Can he even imagine for a micro-second any religious Jew contemplating this theory? All this theory will create is negative vibes, which are proven time and time again to be bad for the Palestinians (and the Israelis).


Mr. Kaboomnik, Zionists have been deluding Jewish people since they decided that they'd create "Israel" over and inside a well established country, where thousands of natives have been lived since pre-historical times. For colonizing that country, Palestine, they invented many myths, and one of them is that the land of Palestinians was given to Jews by Yaveh. That is the basis of their false argument for coming to Palestine, stealing the land, killing and expulsing Palestinian people, robbing their properties and all they have. Those crimes cannot be without punishment, and the work of Schlomo Sand shows the Zionist actions against Palestinians as it is: horrendous crimes. It doesn't matter that you, secular, or other persons, Jewish, don't believe in the historical researchs. It matters for us, Palestinians, and for our supporters, who now have a decisive argument for our fight against Zionism. It's one more crime to the extense list of those criminal Europeans who more than a century ago decided to colonize our land. The true about that criminal enterprise have been found along the years. Now it's the true about religion's time. We'll be on this with the same force we are about other injustices commited by Zionists against us. Perhaps not now, but one day people will understand how important Sand's issue is for us, for justice, for human rights and for the humanity -- because we cannot let that the injustices and crimes which have been imposing on us by Zionists since XIXth century happening to ayone, in anytime again.


Hi Baby (hope you don't mind me addressing you like that),

As we know, truth is entirely subjective, so yes, I agree truth is a nice ideal to achieve, but is it really achievable and at what cost are we willing to attempt it?

I am an atheist who believes that religion should be eradicated, but I know that isn't going to happen, because of the problem of human subjectivity.

At best, we can negotiate with human subjectivity, and hopefully achieve a relatively acceptable compromise.

This is also the way to achieve peace, but the approach of Sand (and many others of his kind) negates these efforts.

Just as I know any efforts I make to defeat religion will not only fall on deaf ears, but will increase the negative interaction between religious and secular, the same is true of the provocative approach to solving Israel-Palestine.

You cannot defeat Zionism (or Islamism) by showing their core fundamental beliefs to be fully or partially wrong. You can only achieve a compromise that is fully or partially beneficial to both sides.



Mr. Kaboomnik, let me desagree of some of your points. First of all, truth is not subjectif when related to facts. Facts are facts, even if we see them on different perspectives. And the fact is that the Torah isn't a history book -- the findings of mr. Filkenstein, the archeologist, are very important and show the truth (again): there is no correspondence between the mythical narratives and the history which archeology and historical documents tell us in Palestine.
It wouldn't matter if Torah wasn't used by Zionists and the ultra-orthodox for opressing and killing a whole people, the Palestinians, and for stealing their land. Zionists have based their criminal enterprise in Palestine on Torah since the earliest days -- the movement was created on the idea of a "coming back" to Zion, to Judea, to Israel -- a land, they say, Javeh gave to Jews. That is the idea behind all tragedy Palestinians have been facing since the XIXth century. That's why it's important to deconstruct the religious myths.
I understand your argument and think we can consider it carefully for political purposes. I also think that the ultra-orthodox Jews will revolt against those who contradict their belief. Those considerations, although, cannot hide the facts, the true, the academical research and the political fact that the Zionist colonialist enterprise in Palestine was based on myths.
There will be no peace without justice, and justice begins in the acknowledment of all the facts which lead to Palestinian drama. There will be no peace while the ultra-orthodox people keep the Torah as a justification to the ethnical cleansing of Palestinians and to all the violence they have been commiting to them. There will be no peace while the righst of the refugees continue to be denied because of the myths of the Torah. There will be no peace at all based on lies.
We know that Zionists don't want any kind of peace. As stakeholders of the military industry, as financists, as colonizers, their objectif is going on with their plans to take a great portion of the Middle East in order of controlling the natural resources of the region. Their eyes are on Africa too, and on Latin America, where I live. They have been buying lands in those two continents. Entering as tourists, the young soldiers from IOF have been making treinaments in Patagonia -- the major part of which is controlled by Zionists. See a copy of Haaretz's article about Zionists as the most harmful land-grabbers here:
We are not dealing with "amateurs". I'm afraid that perhaps Palestine is a "test balloon" to the purposes they have in other parts of the world, for dominating the most important resources on Earth. They intend not only making money with them but also controlling the life of many countries -- "do what we want or we'll cause your misery". They have been using that same method along the time. See what they did to the representatives of the nations in UN during the General Assembly which recommends the partition of Palestine in "Palestine and the Great Powers", by Michael Cohen or in the UN documents.
In that context, I think that deconstruct their myths is a way to show who they really are and what are their aims -- a very useful way to fight for our rights, the same rights Zionists and their collaborators are turning in simple trash.
My best,


Unfortunately Baby, while on one hand you claim "truth is not subjective when related to facts," but then you go on to say "I'm afraid that perhaps Palestine is a test balloon..." and so on, and in doing so you prove that truth is entirely subjective.


You're mixing the "truths". I'm refering to facts when I tell about true -- facts which Sand is bringing to light.
For the Zionist case: I've been studying Zionism the last 4 years. I know what they can do. That's why I'm afraid -- based on facts, not on nothing. Based on conclusions of my researches on them, their acts, their ideology. Very objective facts.


Just two comments before I forget about this conversation:

1. Anyone who believes in the complete objectivity of facts is profoundly naive. True objectivity doesn't exist and has never existed. Every so-called proven fact can be interpreted in different ways and challenged. I suggest you read Kuhn for a better understanding of this issue.

2. I know many people who study (including myself), and 4 years isn't very long - it is barely long enough to scratch the surface. Have you even been to Israel and spoken with an Israeli with a non-adversarial stance?

I will offer you some advice however that will aid your learning. Study writings from both sides of any conflict, not just the side with which you identify, and try not to seek the worst in people when reading the opposite side. And don't think that facts are objective - only the uneducated believe such things.


My last answer:
As a philosopher, I read Kuhn. And yes, facts are objectives. Based on that objectiveness we can get differents interpretations. Facts, de per se, are not subjectives.
To be in Palestine/Israel is not so important for researches and conclusions. In any case I lived in Palestine and have a lot of Israeli (include Jews) friends, to whom I use to talk in a regular way. And I'll come back this year.
Four years of study is few for philosophy and some matters, but not for Zionism studies. I keep studying, but what I've known until now is enough for the knowledgement that it is, and always was, a racist ideology, and that its members never hesitated in commiting atrocities for achieve their aims. See their own documents and writings.
Last, the problem with Zionism, to me, begins with the premise: to take a country in which another people have been living since the beginning of human times, and worst, based on myths and lies. As the logics teach us, if the premise is false, all the argumentation is false too. There is no justification for the Zionist's genocidal acts.
It was a pleasure to debate this issue with you, sir. Best wishes.


Agreed with you on all points Kaboomnik; alas, give his argumentation, I doubt you'll be heard.


Zionism-lite is still zionism-lite:
It's easier to expect turkeys endorsing Xmas than to expect zionist Jews to endorse the inalienable Palestinian Right of Return.


Another point I wanted to include. I have noticed since Professor Sand's last work (the bestselling, acclaimed, and award winning) "The Invention of the Jewish People" none of Sand's critics ever field any serious attempt a reply to Professor Sand's work itself! The main argument raised against "The Invention of the Jewish People" was certain genetic "research", which Dr. Eran Elhaik has now demonstrated to have been very spurious and to put it bluntly pseudo-scholarship and Zionist propaganda. As geneticist Dr. Eran Elhaik says on his Johns Hopkins University personal webpage (again see Dr. Eran Elhaik's recent, acclaimed, and explosive genetic study "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses") "Kirsh (2003) filled two pages with the bad practices of Israeli and Jews geneticists in their attempt to manipulate the data and the results so they will not conflict with the Zionist narrative. I didn't find it necessary to do a similar project because then I would run out of space. Instead, I focused on the supernatural element of the Rhineland Hypothesis and the fact that it was completely made up to support the narrative. " (a very telling quote by Dr. Elhaik there).

The only real "response" to Professor Shlomo Sand's work has been attempts at insulting him and of course pathetic attempts to try to claim that he is a supposed "Jew-hater" (or I guess in his case another alleged "self-hating Jew" in the view of the vapid Zionist propagandists). Other than that the only real "substantive" claim made is when some occasionally note that Professor (of History) Shlomo Sand, Ph.D.'s main area of academic expertise is the historical study of nationalism (and in particular French and European nationalism if I recall, think Rousseau, etc. etc.). But this attempted "charge" against Sand really comes to nothing as Sand's expertise in the study of nationalism actually makes him PERFECTLY suited to study Zionist ideology (especially as Zionism itself was invented in late 20th century CE EUROPE by Theodor Herzl to start with). And of course as a professional historian Professor Sand simply quotes the relevant experts in a wide array of fields, such as his first book (according to his own statement) being largely started by Sand himself reading the work of well-known historian Israel Jacob Yuval debunking the still often brought up myth of the supposed (aka NON-existent) "exile of the Jews" (that again Yuval and Sand note never happened) by the Romans in 70 CE. See Israel Jacob Yuval's work "The Myth of the Jewish Exile from the Land of Israel: A Demonstration of Irenic Scholarship" (irenic referring to Christianity here and denoting that this myth of the alleged "exile" was actually a European Christian invention used by them actually to insult Jews and which Judaism as a religion, and much later Zionism, adopted for their own different reasons and motives).

So again we are still waiting for any serious challenge to Professor Sand's masterful work!