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'Israel does not understand anything but force' - an interview with Shlomo Sand

Jordan Skinner31 July 2014

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The renowned historian Shlomo Sand - author of The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israelwas interviewed by the French magazine Télérama in 2009. The recent re-publication of this French interview still contains powerful responses to the violence that we see in Gaza today. How can we still be asking the same questions 5 years on? Both then and now, Sand continues to be one of the few Israeli intellectuals – even on the Left – who has continued to condemn the bombardment of Gaza. 

Israeli public opinion supports the (2008-2009) Gaza War. You are a dissonant voice...

I have reached the peak of my academic career, I have nothing to lose and I am not afraid. Of course, yes, I do feel very alone. But do not forget that almost ten thousand young people demonstrated in Tel Aviv on 3 January. Even in 2006, at the beginning of the war against Hezbollah, there was no mobilisation of such an extent. It was a very politicised demonstration, with the far Left as well as the Israeli Arabs who live in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

The Left, and even writers like Amos Oz and Avraham B. Yehoshua, approved of these bombardments...

That is normal here. At the start of each war since 1973, Israel has enjoyed the full backing of the intellectuals who belong to the Zionist Left. You have to wait a few weeks before they change their minds. One person that we miss terribly today is the professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the great philosopher who died in 1994, who always fought against Israel's non-defensive wars and left behind a great moral void.

So Israel was not here fighting a defensive war? Rockets were falling on Israeli cities...

Of course, it is not normal that there are rockets falling on Israel. But is it any more normal that Israel has not yet decided what its borders are? This state that cannot bear these rockets is also a state that does not want to renounce the territories it conquered in 1967. It rebuffed the Arab League's 2002 offer fully to recognise Israel with its pre-1967 borders.

But Hamas does not recognise Israel.

Hamas, this brutish, undiplomatic movement, proposed an 'oudna', namely a long-term truce in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel refused because it wants to continue killing Hamas militants in the West Bank, indeed fifteen of them in October-November [2008] after months of calm. Israel thus bears some responsibility for the resumption of the rocket attacks. Instead of strengthening the moderate wing of Hamas, Israel pushes the Palestinians into despair. We have ghettoised an entire population and refuse to accord it its sovereignty, forty-two years on. Or, indulgent as I am toward Israel, let's say only twenty years on, since 1988, the date when Arafat and the Palestinian Authority recognised the State of Israel without winning anything in exchange. Let there be no misunderstanding: I do not accept Hamas's positions and least of all its religious ideology. I am a secularist, I am a democrat and am rather moderate. As an Israeli and as a human being I do not like the rockets. But as an Israeli and as a human being I cannot forget that the people who are setting them off are the children and grandchildren of those who were chased out of Jaffa and Ashkelon in 1948. I, Shlomo Sand, see this people of refugees on land that was once their own. I am not saying that I can give them this land back. But that each peace offer must begin from recognition of this. Anyone who forgets that will never be able to offer the Palestinians a just peace.

But, the partisans of these bombardments argue, Israel did withdraw from Gaza and yet the rocket attacks redoubled.

Absurd! Imagine that the Germans again occupied Northern France and not the South, as they did in 1940. Would you say that they were respecting the French people's right to self-determination? Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in order not to make peace with Arafat, and not to give up the West Bank. But the Palestinians have not demanded some sort of Indian reservation in Gaza! They demand an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

So all the wrong is on the Israeli side?

Sadly, Israel does not understand anything but force. The reason why it is impossible to reach a just peace agreement at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not the rockets, but the weakness of the Palestinians. Israel only made peace with Sadat in 1977 because Egypt had managed a half-victory in 1973.

The grand rabbi in France, Gilles Bernheim, says that Israel must not 'rush to its suicide in the name of fine sentiments'

But what does he mean? Who threatens our existence? We are the best armed and have the support of the world's leading power. The Arab world offers us a full peace based on the 1967 borders. The last war that threatened Israel's existence was thirty-five years ago [in 1973]! So maybe that's what this grand rabbi doesn't understand?

He is not the only one. Writing of the Israeli bombing raids, André Glucksmann argued that there is 'nothing disproportionate about wanting to survive'.

You are talking about a man who once admired Mao! These guys from '68 who supported all the horrors in China never mounted any self-critique, they never tried to understand why they once identified with totalitarianism. Today André Glucksmann just like Bernard-Henry Lévy is always on the side of the most powerful, this time meaning Jerusalem. They haven't changed...

But Bernard-Henri Lévy points out that the IDF telephoned people telling them to evacuate buildings before they were bombed, and that Israel did everything possible to avoid civilian casualties...

Oh, Israel rang ahead, Israel took precautions? But where were the Palestinian families meant to go? It is true, Israel takes many precautions. But for its own troops! Those kind of deaths really are worrying because we have become an individualist and hedonistic society, and our leaders are very concerned about being re-elected.

BHL also points to Hamas's use of the human shield strategy...

What hypocrisy! Has he forgotten what he learned from Mao? A resistance movement must be able to swim among the population like a fish in water. Hamas is not an army, it is a terroristic resistance movement that acts like all those that preceded it, from the FLN to the Vietcong. It is precisely because our leaders know this that they have the duty to privilege diplomacy and avoid committing massacres of civilians. We have proven that we have no moral restraint, no more than France did in 1957 when it destroyed entire villages in Algeria. What shocks me now more than ever before is that the state that I served as a soldier in two wars, and which from its 1948 Declaration of Independence defined itself as the state of all Jews, now belongs to Bernard-Henri Lévy more than it does to my university friends who live here and pay their taxes here but are of Arab origin. What does it mean to be a Zionist when you live in France, do not want to live under Jewish government, and identify with the worst of Israel's leaders' policies? It means feeding the rise of anti-Semitism.

Indeed, were you not shocked to see Israeli flags being burned during the demonstrations in Paris?

Of course that does trouble me. It is for that reason that it is important that Israelis who think like I do should be heard. To immediately put a stop to things turning in that direction. And to make sure that our leaders' policy is not confused with all Israelis, nor, of course, with all Jews, since I am certain that many French Jews outside of the establishment will share my point of view.

The Palestinians in the West Bank did not move...

This war has reinforced their despair. After the November 2007 Annapolis conference Mahmoud Abbas entered into all sorts of compromises that he thought might advance the peace process. He even imprisoned Hamas militants. And Israel thanked him by multiplying the checkpoints, continuing to build settlements, and building a wall on the territory of the future Palestinian state. What self-respecting Palestinian can support Abbas now?

And the Israeli Arabs, what is their state of mind?

I am in constant contact with my Arab students. It is terrible. They speak Hebrew, often better than I can. I see them every day becoming more Israeli from the cultural point of view, and ever more anti-Israeli from the political point of view. How can they live in a country that does not accept them as full citizens? I fear that their alienation will end up producing a Kosovo situation in Galilee.

You ask something enormous of Israelis, namely that they abandon any claims beyond the 1967 borders – beyond the Wailing Wall – but also that they create an Israeli Republic that is not a state for Jews alone. Is that realistic?

Many people in Israel do support my cause. My book was a bestseller for nineteen weeks and I made a dozen TV appearances. We may well be a racist and not entirely democratic society, but are also a deeply liberal and pluralist one. What objection can anyone raise against someone like me asking that Israel should be the state of its own citizens, be they Jews, Arabs or anything else? Especially since I will add that after Hitler you cannot deny the solidarity among Jews, and that the State of Israel must remain a refuge for persecuted Jews. But it should not automatically be the State of Bernard-Henry Lévy and all the Jews who do not want to live in Israel. 

Are you an anti-Zionist?

No, because to label oneself an anti-Zionist could mean being anti-Israeli. Yet I do defend the existence of the State of Israel, because I accept the fruit of Zionism's efforts and its history – Israeli society. But I am not a Zionist, since the thing that justifies my existence here is the fact that I am a democrat. That means that the state must be the expression of its social body, not that of the whole world's Jews. You might say that I am post-Zionist.

But would that not risk the Jews becoming a minority in the state that they created?

I do understand that fear. That is the reason why I am against a binational state, which would be an Arab majority state, and why I advocate Israel accepting the 1967 borders as quickly as possible, which would mean preserving its Jewish-Israeli hegemony. But not an exclusive hegemony. The Israeli Republic must be secular and democratic. That said, in my utopia, my imaginary world, the binational state would be the most just possible outcome...

Even if the Jews were in the minority?

Culturally speaking the distance separating me from my grandchildren will be at least as significant as that separating me from my own grandparents. That means that life in the Near East will be in symbiosis with Arab culture. Moreover, I would wish for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation immediately upon Israel's withdrawal behind the 1967 borders. It is racist nonsense to say, as Amos Oz does, that we have to divorce ourselves from the Arabs. With peace we will become a little more Arab, just as you French are becoming a little bit more European.

But faced with an Israeli society that is for the most part secular, Palestinian society has become more Islamist than it was thirty or forty years ago...

Arab youth in Israel is not becoming more religious, especially not women. Fundamentalism has crystallised in opposition to the Western world. This is not a victory for religion, but the failure of secular socialism, strengthened by the way in which you Europeans greet immigrant workers, the way in which the Americans wage their war in Iraq, and the way in which Israel treats the Palestinians. It is the fruit of conflicts, not of a natural historic tendency. Look at what has happened in Algeria: the rotten politics of the FLN gave birth do Islamism, but this was a development lacking in depth, and Algeria is heading toward modernity. Hamas, for its part, if dressed in Islamist clothes, has never stopped being a modern nationalist movement.

In your book you destroy Israel's founding myths – that is, the myths of the exiled people returning to its homeland. But what do you replace them with in order to legitimate this country's existence?

I was recently asked this question at the Palestinian university in Jerusalem. I responded in a rather dramatic fashion, saying that even a child born as the result of a rape has the right to life. The creation of Israel by Jews, many of whom were extermination camp survivors, was a rape perpetrated against the Arab populations of Palestine. It gave birth to an Israeli society that is now seventy years old, and that has developed its own culture. You do not put one tragedy right by creating another. This child has the right to exist. But it must be educated in order that it does not repeat its father's crime. Thirty years ago I could not even have said all this. But the Arab world has recognised Israel. The PLO, too, after the half-victory that was the intifada. Let's give Hamas a chance as well. Let's not forget – without excusing them – that the people firing on Ashkelon know that it was built on top of the large Arab village of Al Majdal, from which their fathers were expelled in 1950.

We are very far from Israeli policy, here...

Israel will only make peace if pressure is exerted on it. I wish, I hope, I beg, that Obama will be like Carter and not like Clinton. Carter forced Israel to make peace with Egypt. Clinton did not force it to make peace with the Palestinians. The risk is clearly that Hillary Clinton, who is close to the pro-Israeli lobby, will have too much influence over foreign policy. But I do not want to be a fatalist, I remain hopeful.

This interview appeared in France's Telerama in 2009. It was Translated for Verso's blog by David Broder.

Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People sparked passionate debate about the founding myths of Israel when it published. Read more about his books here.

Further Reading:

The Case for Sanctions Against Israel is now available to download for free on our website.   Read more on the horror of the Israel-Palestine conflict from Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand,  Naji al-Ali and Ghada Karmi on our reading list

Filed under: gaza, israel-palestine