Zionist Nationalist Myth Of Enforced Exile
Israel deliberately forgets its history
September 06, 2008 By Schlomo Sand
Source: Le Monde diplomatique
An Israeli historian suggests the diaspora was the consequence, not of the
expulsion of the Hebrews from Palestine, but of proselytising across north
Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East.
Every Israeli knows that he or she is the direct and exclusive descendant
of a Jewish people which has existed since it received the Torah (1) in
Sinai. According to this myth, the Jews escaped from Egypt and settled in
the Promised Land, where they built the glorious kingdom of David and
Solomon, which subsequently split into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
They experienced two exiles: after the destruction of the first temple, in
the 6th century BC, and of the second temple, in 70 AD.
Two thousand years of wandering brought the Jews to Yemen, Morocco, Spain,
Germany, Poland and deep into Russia. But, the story goes, they always
managed to preserve blood links between their scattered communities. Their
uniqueness was never compromised.
At the end of the 19th century conditions began to favour their return to
their ancient homeland. If it had not been for the Nazi genocide, millions
of Jews would have fulfilled the dream of 20 centuries and repopulated
Eretz Israel, the biblical land of Israel. Palestine, a virgin land, had
been waiting for its original inhabitants to return and awaken it. It
belonged to the Jews, rather than to an Arab minority that had no history
and had arrived there by chance. The wars in which the wandering people
reconquered their land were just; the violent opposition of the local
population was criminal.
This interpretation of Jewish history was developed as talented,
imaginative historians built on surviving fragments of Jewish and Christian
religious memory to construct a continuous genealogy for the Jewish people.
Judaism's abundant historiography encompasses many different approaches.
But none have ever questioned the basic concepts developed in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Discoveries that might threaten this picture of a
linear past were marginalised. The national imperative rejected any
contradiction of or deviation from the dominant story. University
departments exclusively devoted to "the history of the Jewish people", as
distinct from those teaching what is known in Israel as general history,
made a significant contribution to this selective vision. The debate on
what constitutes Jewishness has obvious legal implications, but historians
ignored it: as far as they are concerned, any descendant of the people
forced into exile 2,000 years ago is a Jew.
Nor did these official investigators of the past join the controversy
provoked by the "new historians" from the late 1980s. Most of the limited
number of participants in this public debate were from other disciplines or
non-academic circles: sociologists, orientalists, linguists, geographers,
political scientists, literary academics and archaeologists developed new
perspectives on the Jewish and Zionist past. Departments of Jewish history
remained defensive and conservative, basing themselves on received ideas.
While there have been few significant developments in national history over
the past 60 years (a situation unlikely to change in the short term), the
facts that have emerged face any honest historian with fundamental
Founding myths shaken
Is the Bible a historical text? Writing during the early half of the 19th
century, the first modern Jewish historians, such as Isaak Markus Jost
(1793-1860) and Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), did not think so. They regarded
the Old Testament as a theological work reflecting the beliefs of Jewish
religious communities after the destruction of the first temple. It was not
until the second half of the century that Heinrich Graetz (1817-91) and
others developed a "national" vision of the Bible and transformed Abraham's
journey to Canaan, the flight from Egypt and the united kingdom of David
and Solomon into an authentic national past. By constant repetition,
Zionist historians have subsequently turned these Biblical "truths" into
the basis of national education.
But during the 1980s an earthquake shook these founding myths. The
discoveries made by the "new archaeology" discredited a great exodus in the
13th century BC. Moses could not have led the Hebrews out of Egypt into the
Promised Land, for the good reason that the latter was Egyptian territory
at the time. And there is no trace of either a slave revolt against the
pharaonic empire or of a sudden conquest of Canaan by outsiders.
Nor is there any trace or memory of the magnificent kingdom of David and
Solomon. Recent discoveries point to the existence, at the time, of two
small kingdoms: Israel, the more powerful, and Judah, the future Judea. The
general population of Judah did not go into 6th century BC exile: only its
political and intellectual elite were forced to settle in Babylon. This
decisive encounter with Persian religion gave birth to Jewish monotheism.
Then there is the question of the exile of 70 AD. There has been no real
research into this turning point in Jewish history, the cause of the
diaspora. And for a simple reason: the Romans never exiled any nation from
anywhere on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Apart from enslaved
prisoners, the population of Judea continued to live on their lands, even
after the destruction of the second temple. Some converted to Christianity
in the 4th century, while the majority embraced Islam during the 7th
century Arab conquest.
Most Zionist thinkers were aware of this: Yitzhak Ben Zvi, later president
of Israel, and David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, accepted it as
late as 1929, the year of the great Palestinian revolt. Both stated on
several occasions that the peasants of Palestine were the descendants of
the inhabitants of ancient Judea (2).
But if there was no exile after 70 AD, where did all the Jews who have
populated the Mediterranean since antiquity come from? The smokescreen of
national historiography hides an astonishing reality. From the Maccabean
revolt of the mid-2nd century BC to the Bar Kokhba revolt of the 2nd
century AD, Judaism was the most actively proselytising religion. The
Judeo-Hellenic Hasmoneans forcibly converted the Idumeans of southern Judea
and the Itureans of Galilee and incorporated them into the people of
Israel. Judaism spread across the Middle East and round the Mediterranean.
The 1st century AD saw the emergence in modern Kurdistan of the Jewish
kingdom of Adiabene, just one of many that converted.
The writings of Flavius Josephus are not the only evidence of the
proselytising zeal of the Jews. Horace, Seneca, Juvenal and Tacitus were
among the Roman writers who feared it. The Mishnah and the Talmud (3)
authorised conversion, even if the wise men of the Talmudic tradition
expressed reservations in the face of the mounting pressure from
Although the early 4th century triumph of Christianity did not mark the end
of Jewish expansion, it relegated Jewish proselytism to the margins of the
Christian cultural world. During the 5th century, in modern Yemen, a
vigorous Jewish kingdom emerged in Himyar, whose descendants preserved
their faith through the Islamic conquest and down to the present day. Arab
chronicles tell of the existence, during the 7th century, of Judaised
Berber tribes; and at the end of the century the legendary Jewish queen
Dihya contested the Arab advance into northwest Africa. Jewish Berbers
participated in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula and helped establish
the unique symbiosis between Jews and Muslims that characterised
The most significant mass conversion occurred in the 8th century, in the
massive Khazar kingdom between the Black and Caspian seas. The expansion of
Judaism from the Caucasus into modern Ukraine created a multiplicity of
communities, many of which retreated from the 13th century Mongol invasions
into eastern Europe. There, with Jews from the Slavic lands to the south
and from what is now modern Germany, they formed the basis of Yiddish
Prism of Zionism
Until about 1960 the complex origins of the Jewish people were more or less
reluctantly acknowledged by Zionist historiography. But thereafter they
were marginalised and finally erased from Israeli public memory. The
Israeli forces who seized Jerusalem in 1967 believed themselves to be the
direct descendents of the mythic kingdom of David rather than - God forbid
- of Berber warriors or Khazar horsemen. The Jews claimed to constitute a
specific ethnic group that had returned to Jerusalem, its capital, from
2,000 years of exile and wandering.
This monolithic, linear edifice is supposed to be supported by biology as
well as history. Since the 1970s supposedly scientific research, carried
out in Israel, has desperately striven to demonstrate that Jews throughout
the world are closely genetically related.
Research into the origins of populations now constitutes a legitimate and
popular field in molecular biology and the male Y chromosome has been
accorded honoured status in the frenzied search for the unique origin of
the "chosen people". The problem is that this historical fantasy has come
to underpin the politics of identity of the state of Israel. By validating
an essentialist, ethnocentric definition of Judaism it encourages a
segregation that separates Jews from non-Jews - whether Arabs, Russian
immigrants or foreign workers.
Sixty years after its foundation, Israel refuses to accept that it should
exist for the sake of its citizens. For almost a quarter of the population,
who are not regarded as Jews, this is not their state legally. At the same
time, Israel presents itself as the homeland of Jews throughout the world,
even if these are no longer persecuted refugees, but the full and equal
citizens of other countries.
A global ethnocracy invokes the myth of the eternal nation, reconstituted
on the land of its ancestors, to justify internal discrimination against
its own citizens. It will remain difficult to imagine a new Jewish history
while the prism of Zionism continues to fragment everything into an
ethnocentric spectrum. But Jews worldwide have always tended to form
religious communities, usually by conversion; they cannot be said to share
an ethnicity derived from a unique origin and displaced over 20 centuries
The development of historiography and the evolution of modernity were
consequences of the invention of the nation state, which preoccupied
millions during the 19th and 20th centuries. The new millennium has seen
these dreams begin to shatter.
And more and more academics are analysing, dissecting and deconstructing
the great national stories, especially the myths of common origin so dear
to chroniclers of the past.
Shlomo Sand is professor of history at Tel Aviv university and the author
of Comment le people juif fut inventé (Fayard, Paris, 2008)
(1) The Torah, from the Hebrew root yara (to teach) is the founding text of
Judaism. It consists of the first five books of the Old Testament (the
Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
(2) See David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Eretz Israel in the past and
present, 1918 (in Yiddish), and Jerusalem, 1980 (in Hebrew); Yitzhak Ben
Zvi, Our population in the country, Executive Committee of the Union for
Youth and the Jewish National Fund, Warsaw, 1929 (in Hebrew).
(3) The Mishnah, regarded as the first work of rabbinic literature, was
drawn up around 200 AD. The Talmud is a synthesis of rabbinic discussions
on the law, customs and history of the Jews. The Palestinian Talmud was
written between the 3rd and 5th centuries; the Babylonian Talmud was
compiled at the end of the 5th century.
(4) Yiddish, spoken by the Jews of eastern Europe, was a Germano-Slavic
language incorporating Hebrew words.
Translated by Donald Hounam