Shlomo Sand, History, Tel Aviv University. Homepage: http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/faculty/sand_shlomo/
Historian Shlomo Sand argues that ‘Jewish peoplehood’ is a myth
7:00 am October 13, 2009 |
The key assumptions about Israel and the Jews are indelible. Forced from Jerusalem into exile, the Jews dispersed throughout the world, always remaining attached to their ancient homeland. Psalmists wept when they remembered Zion. A people were sustained by an unflagging determination to return to their native soil. “Next year in Jerusalem!” The triumph of Zionism—the founding of Israel—is the fulfillment of that ancient vow. The Israeli Declaration of Independence states it plainly: “Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish people… After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
Now suppose that none of it is true.
That’s the thesis of a new book, The Invention of the Jewish People, by Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand, who argues that the Jews were not in fact exiled from Israel, and that the bulk of modern Jewry does not descend from the ancient Israelites Rather, he claims, they are the children of converts—North African Berbers and Turkic Khazars—and have no ancestral ties to the land of Israel. Zionism is not a return home, Sand writes, it is the tragic theft of another people’s land. As such, Israel is not the political rebirth of the Jewish nation—it’s a complete fabrication.
Predictably, The Invention of the Jewish People generated a torrent of controversy when it was published in Hebrew last year. Sand’s arguments were hotly debated in newspaper columns and academic journals, with Tom Segev, the post-Zionist “new historian,” acclaiming it as “one of the most fascinating and challenging books” to arrive in Israel in a long time, while Alexander Yakobson, a professor of history at the Hebrew University, called it a “pack of lies.” In March, the French translation, which has sold 45,000 copies—a large number for an academic historian—received the prestigious Aujourd’hui Award, which is given to the year’s best non-fiction book.
But for many—including Sand himself—the real test of the book’s significance will take place October 19, when the left-wing publisher Verso Press brings out the English edition of The Invention of the Jewish People. Supporters and detractors alike are closely watching to see if the book becomes a mainstream publishing controversy or vanishes into the esoteric precincts of academe. “America will be the real battle,” said Sand, who arrives on these shores this month for a series of appearances in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
There is, perhaps, a precedent for this type of work. In 1976, the anti-Communist writer Arthur Koestler published The Thirteenth Tribe, a tendentious little book to which Sand owes a great intellectual debt. Koestler argued that the Jews of Eastern Europe are the descendants of Khazars, a Turkic people who dominated the Russian steppes from the mid-7th century to the beginning of the second millennium. Around 740, the ruling elite of Khazaria converted to Judaism. Koestler speculated that after the collapse of Khazaria those converts drifted westward into Poland, forming the nucleus of Eastern European Jewry. Lacerated by critics, Koestler’s book was nonetheless propelled onto the best-seller list for a few weeks. “Today,” Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, told me, “The Thirteenth Tribe is a combination of discredited and forgotten.”
But Koestler and the Khazar theory he advanced lives on in the fever swamps of the white nationalist movement, where Sand’s ideas have already stirred some interest. “Sand is not publishing this book at a dignified conference in Bern at which scholars of the Middle East debate the origins of the Jews,” said Goldberg, also a Tablet Magazine contributing editor. “He is dropping manufactured facts into a world that in many cases is ready, willing, and happy to believe the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Jews and to use those conspiracy theories to justify physically hurting Jews.” Goldberg views The Invention of the Jewish People as part of a growing body of work designed not only to discredit the idea of Jewish nationalism, but also the idea of Jews themselves. “It is nothing new,” he added, “We survived Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe; we can survive this.”
In a recent interview, Sand acknowledged that his reinterpretation of Jewish history might serve the interests of anti-Semites and other enemies of the Jewish state. “But as a historian my commitment is foremost to what I believe is the truth,” he told me.
But what is Sand’s truth? In the late 19th century, he argues, Jewish intellectuals like Heinrich Graetz, Moses Hess, and Simon Dubnow refashioned Judaism—a diverse religious civilization—into a homogenous collective. Sand writes that they “imaginatively constructed a long, unbroken genealogy” for the Jews out of fragments of religious memories. Prior to that, “world Jewry had been a major religious culture, not a strange, wandering nation.” This historical hoax was later embraced as a useful fiction by the Zionist movement: “To achieve their aims, the Zionists needed to erase existing ethnographic textures, forget specific histories, and take a flying leap backward to an ancient, mythological and religious past.”
“Judaism,” Sand said, “was a very important civilization, and still is in some ways. But the Jews are not a people because they are not bound together by a secular culture like other nations.” Israeli culture, he noted, is secular but it is distinct from Jewish culture in other parts of the world. “Israel does not have a Jewish cinema, a Jewish theatre, or a Jewish literature; it has an Israeli cinema, an Israeli theater, and an Israeli literature,” Sand said. Moreover, he thinks that few Jews living outside of Israel have a stake in Israeli culture, a disinterest amplified by their lack of Hebrew. “A nation is a people that want to be sovereign, but most Jews don’t want to live under Jewish sovereignty.” The idea that a cohesive national identity unites Jews in New York, Moscow, London, and Paris is what Sand called “an ethnocentric myth.”
Born in Austria in 1946, Sand spent his first two years in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. His parents, Polish Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Jaffa in 1948. “My parents did not come to Israel by choice,” he said. “For them it was a tragedy. All their life, they couldn’t accept it. And I don’t blame them. Most of the people who came to Israel did not choose to do so; they were not Zionists.” Sand describes himself as a post-Zionist, but his politics are eclectic. “I am not a Zionist because I am a liberal democrat,” he said. “It is not possible to have a Jewish and a democratic state. It would be like America defining itself as a Protestant state. It makes no sense.”
In the late 1960s, Sand joined Matzpen, a now defunct radical group that advocated the de-Zionization of the Israeli state. He left when the party line drifted from challenging Israel’s identity as a Jewish state to questioning whether Israel should exist at all. The experience impressed upon Sand the importance of tempering his politics with pragmatism. “Unlike a lot of other leftists I am not in favor of a one-state solution,” he said referring to the proposed incorporation of Palestinians and Jews into a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. When pushed, Sand will admit that he is not “morally opposed” to one-state but that it is merely a “dream,” not a serious political project. “To have one state for the two societies you need the consensus of both societies, and right now most Israelis don’t want that,” he said. The Invention of the Jewish People is dedicated to the “memory of the refugees who reached this soil and those who were forced to leave.” But Sand opposes anything more substantial than a token right of return for Palestinian refugees. “You cannot recognize Israel’s right to exist and recognize the right of return for six million Palestinians. It is an oxymoron,” he said.
While Sand is quick—and arguably disingenuous—to portray his personal politics as “very moderate,” he doesn’t flinch from describing his work on Jewish historiography and Israel as “radical” and “courageous.” Verso has used adjectives like “bold” and “ambitious” to promote his book. But Hebrew University historian Israel Bartal, among others, has pointed out that Sand’s politics have undermined the credibility of his scholarship. “Sand’s desire for Israel to become a state ‘representing all its citizens’ is certainly worthy of a serious discussion,” Bartal wrote in Haaretz, “but the manner in which he attempts to connect a political platform with the history of the Jewish people from its very beginnings to the present day is bizarre and incoherent.”
Some of Sand’s natural sympathizers fear that the inherent shock value of The Invention of the Jewish People will cause the American media to sensationalize Sand’s thesis. New York University historian Tony Judt, a proponent of the one-state solution who has battled vociferously with critics in the United States, worries that Sand’s book will be received here as just another polemic. “It’s a much more reasoned and thoughtful book than that,” Judt said in an interview. He credits Sand with “blowing open” the “core guiding myth of Zionism.” By demonstrating that Jews are in fact a complete ethnographic and national hodgepodge, Judt argued, Sand’s work normalizes Jewish history. “I hope the book will remove from serious conversation any mention of ancient rights, ancient privileges, or who was given what land by which authority—whether God or King David,” Judt said, adding that an understanding of Jewish history must give way to an honest accounting of contemporary Israeli problems. Such a possibility, Judt added, “is surely good news for everyone.”
But in the Israeli academy Sand’s book has not been received as good news. Yakobson, the Hebrew University professor, said that Sand’s interpretation of Jewish history “gives a bad name to flimsiness.” To him, even if Sand had made a compelling argument about Jewish origins, it would have no bearing on whether the Jews can be considered a nation. “In order to be a people in the modern sense you do not have to be a descent group,” Yakobson said. “What makes a people is their self-determination to regard themselves as a people.” Israel Bartal charged Sand with “intellectual superficiality” and “twisting the rules governing the work of professional historians.” Sand’s alleged sins include the use of misleading citations, disrespect for historical details, and a slippery tendency to present extreme theories as though they reflect the scholarly consensus. Anita Shapira, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, wrote what many believe was the definitive take-down review of Sand’s book for The Journal of Israeli History. In it, Shapira wrote that she found something “warped and objectionable in the assumption that for Jews to integrate into the Middle East they, and they alone of all the peoples in the region, must shed their national identity and historical memories and reconstruct themselves in a way that may (perhaps) find favor with Israeli-Palestinians.”
Yet this barrage of criticism has done little to dampen interest in The Invention of the Jewish People. Translations are underway in a dozen languages, including German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. Sand signed a contract with a Palestinian publisher to release an Arabic-language edition, but the translation was so sloppy that Sand halted publication. “I am very depressed about it,” he said. “I want to write in the preface that I am waiting for an Arab historian to have the courage to write about Arab history in the same way that I wrote Jewish history.”
But at the moment, Sand has his eyes set on America. “I know there are a lot of organized Zionists that cannot accept the sort of criticism I can voice in Israel,” he said. “But I want you to know I am not afraid of Alan Dershowitz.”
Evan R. Goldstein is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
||THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
||Tuesday October 13
||4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
|U.C. BERKELEY, 3335 Dwinelle Hall, University of California, Berkeley Free and open to the public
|TALKS BY PROFESSOR SHLOMO SAND,DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF TEL AVIV,ON HIS NEWLY TRANSLATED BOOK,THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE This may be the most important and surprising book on Zionism, Israel and Judaism written in the last fifty years. Nothing in the Middle East looks the same after reading it.
Shlomo Sand is a much published professor in the Dept. of History at TelAviv University specializing in the history of ideas. His most recent book is THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE. It is an extremely scholarly, very original, and often shocking work - the title is meant literally - with profound implications for Zionism and the ongoing conflict between Israel and its neighbors. I can't recall when last I - Bertell - learned so much about both nationalism and Zionism from any book. It was a bestseller and caused a huge scandal when it appeared a couple of years ago in Israel and another scandal when the French edition appeared last year. Sand will be in the U.S. for a week promoting the English edition of the book. For more, see reviews and interviews in English at http//inventionofthejewishpeople.com/. Sand argues, among other things:. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that of Israel and Palestine. Shlomo Sand's measured and analytical research intothe biblical origin of the Jewish people-their slavery, two exiles and(continuing) journey to the Promised Land-finds no record of any Jewish exile. Sand's explosive and inescapable conclusion is that without exile, there is noright to return. . Sand's investigation uncovers a false historiography based on surviving fragments of Jewish and Christian religious memory. He finds early Rabbis and 19th century Zionist Scholars responsible for the construction ofa continuous genealogy for the Jewish people. Israel, states Shlomo, has deliberately forgotten its history, and replaced it with a myth. "Thedisparity between what my research suggested about the history of the Jewish people and the way that history is commonly understood- not only within Israel but in the larger world-shocked me as much as it shocked my readers" he writes in the book's preface. . Sand's research attributes the Jewish diaspora to early Judaist evangelism across North Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East, not a biological lineage. The biblical narrative of Jewish exile and enforceddispersal already discredited, Sand finds present-day Palestinian Arabs to be the true heirs of the biblical Jews.
At NYU, devilish Shlomo Sand predicts the Jewish past and pastes the Zionists
by Philip Weiss on Mondoweiss, October 17, 2009
Of all the events I’ve covered surrounding Jewish identity and Israel in the last year, none has given me so much pleasure as the lecture last night by Shlomo Sand at NYU on the Invention of the Jewish People. Most events I go to are grinding, awful, heartrending, often with lamentations and pictures of mutilated children. This one was pure intellectual deviltry of the highest order by a Pavarotti of the lecture hall. And while it was fiercely anti-Zionist and included references to the mutilated children, it left me in just an incredibly elated mood. For I saw real light at the end of the tunnel, and not the horrifying dimness that surrounds almost all other events that deal with Israel politics here– for instance with the neoconservative Weekly Standard’s disgusting pursuit of J Street.
This pleasure was entirely Shlomo Sand’s achievement. He walked by me going down to the lectern and I noticed his physical vanity at once. He had expensive shoes on, designer jeans or cords, a zipup black jacket and a black shirt under that unbuttoned to the sternum. He is lean and mid-60sish, and behaves like a player. His beard is cut in an interesting manner, he wears designer glasses. I wondered if he dyed his hair. All glorious devil.
Sand has an excitable, self-referential style, and he began the lecture by breaking his guitar. “Jewish history is not my field.” No, but once he had discovered that the story of the connection of the Jewish people to the Holy Land was a myth, he decided that he would secretly explore the history but not publish until he got tenure for doing other work. Because if he published this first, “there would not be any chance of being a full professor. Not only in Tel Aviv. But at NYU too.”
Everyone laughed, but Sand said, “That is not a joke. I must write the book after I see that no one could touch me really.” More devil. Though Sand is right. This is no joke.
Sand studies European history, but Israel has a separate department in every school for Jewish history, and Zionists run these departments. “I have not a right to write about Jewishness.” The Zionist history holds that the Jews have an ancient connection biblically to the land, and were exiled from the Middle East in 70 AD, in what became the Diaspora. The Jews of New York and Warsaw. Sand began to question this story when he saw archaeologists’ work about the early Christian times and also when he saw scientific data. The exile is absurd. The Romans persecuted the Jews. They didn’t exile them.
At this point came the first interruption by a Zionist. A bald man in the third row or so called out, “What about Bar Kochba?” And: the Jews weren’t exiled because they were killed.
Sand seemed to live for this interruption. He walked up to the audience with his eyes gleaming, and congratulated the man for his knowledge of the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 AD, after the Second Temple destruction, and agreed with him, but also dismissed him. Yes many Jews were killed. And for the rest of the lecture Sand would dance toward this man and tease him that he was Jewish—he was—and urge him to buy the book to discover the gaps in his knowledge, or by the end of the lecture, say that he would buy the book for him himself, to improve him. More deviltry.
Back to the exile myth. The expelled diasporic Jews went in a straight line north to Europe, made a right into the land between the Caspian and the Black Seas, Kazaria, and also north to Russia and Poland; and when they got there in the 1800s they made a u-turn and started back to Palestine. The absurdity of the myth is that there were always Jews in the Middle East. The Jews were peasants and mingled with other populations. The Jews were not passive actors. They were at times a majority in the Holy Land and conquerors of the Arabian peninsula before the Arabs, and of North Africa too. For a time, they did not have a bar against proselytization. The Maccabees were the first to undertake forced conversion. In the 8th century the Jews and the Muslim Berbers were likely the invaders of Spain.
Sand offered very little by way of evidence. You will find that in his “boring” book, he said. This was an aria not a chalktalk. The Jews of the Middle East made several kingdoms over the years. One in Yemen, another in Babylon, another in North Africa, where they fought the Arabs. Sand said he loves the curly hair of the Yemenite Jews. More deviltry, with some concupiscence thrown in.
The Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe originated in Kazaria. They were hugely successful and founded a great city, Kiev. We can claim to have founded Kiev, but not Jerusalem, he said. Because the Jews who lived in the Holy Land stayed in the Holy Land. Many of the people we now call Palestinians were originally Jews. The chance that someone who lives in Hebron today and speaks Arabic is a direct descendant of a Jew in ancient times is 1000 times greater than the possibility that I am descended from a Jew, Shlomo Sand declared.
Let’s move on from the mythology to the issue of national identity. Identity is formed by many many associations. “I don’t deny Jewish identity. I’m not fighting against someone’s identity. There is identity of homosexuals. They are not a people. We are composed of a lot of identities.” Two Catholic share a religious identity, but again, that is not a national identity with a tie to land.
Nationalism took root in human political development in the 1800s. The Germans and French began the project by inventing the idea of a German and French people. The French history books declared outright in the first sentence that the Gauls were their ancestors. It was a way to valorize the nation state, which was an essential part of modernity.
What is a people? A people generally shares a way of life, a language, a food, a geography. There is no Jewish language. Shlomo Sand stumbles proudly in English, while of course many of the people in the audience were Jews speaking English. Food the Israelis have–stolen from the Palestinians—and still you must say that there is an Israeli people. But they are not the Jewish people. They are Israeli people, and the Palestinians are Palestinian people. Both made by Zionism.
The Zionist project began inventing the idea of a Jewish people in the 1870s as a reflection of other nationalisms. The Zionists turned to the Bible for the foundational myth. The biblical myths are taught in Israeli schools from before children are taught mathematics and language–taught about the biblical associations of Jews to this land. But the Exodus is a complete myth. “As a historian, I try and predict the past. I’m not a prophet.” And what are the true predictions of the past: at the supposed time of the Exodus, the Egyptians also controlled Canaan. The kingdom of David and Solomon was not a kingdom at all, but a small settlement around Jerusalem.
Sand had run over his 45 minutes. In the Question and Answer period, his passion and intellectual majesty announced themselves. He sought to engage with the Zionists in the crowd, and did so out of moral fervor. When Sand said that Israel was not a democracy, and a Zionist called out, “It is a flawed democracy,” Sand bellowed. No: a democracy is founded on the idea that the people are the sovereign, that the people own the state. That is the first principle of a republic going back to Rousseau. Liberalism and civil rights are not the core. Yes, Israel is a liberal society. It tolerates Shlomo Sand’s heresy, for instance, and puts him on TV. But it is a liberal ethnocracy.
Down the row from me were two Arabs. I recognized the man from other events I have been to. I noticed how fulfilled they were by the talk, how quietly approving, and it was in this connection that we saw Sand’s passion: on behalf of the Palestinians. This part of the lecture brought tears to my eyes, it was so forceful and unapologetic. The idea that Joe Lieberman has a right to move to Israel tomorrow and a Palestinian whose ancestors have lived there for centuries cannot is an outrage, Sand said. But for 50 years the Palestinian Israelis were afraid to speak out.
“They were afraid because of the Nakba. They were afraid because of the military regime. Today this is a generation of young Palestinian Israelis that stop to be afraid. They become more anti-Israel in their politics the more they become Israelis.”
Sand said that Gaza was just an intimation of the violence that might come when the Palestinians declare that they want a genuine democracy, a state of their own citizens in Palestinian-dominated Galilee. These are young Palestinian Israelis who don’t want to be part of the West Bank or of Gaza. They will be like the Kosovars of Serbia, who when the Serbs started to make an ethnic regime of the former Yugoslavia, did not want to be part of Albania, with whom they share religious connections, no they wanted to be their own country. (And got it, by the way, 60 years after the world falsely promised the Palestinians that they could have a state.) “They will build in Galilee a state of their citizens. That will start to be the end of Israel. Israel won’t let Galilee become a state of its citizens. It will be a mass murder, I’m afraid.”
Don’t we want to get past the idea of the nation-state? Of course we do, Sand said, but that is the era we are in. And tell that to the Palestinians. They want a state. Sand is for the two-state solution because the Palestinians ought to get a state after being denied it forever. As soon as the occupation, which has denied these Palestinians any civil or human rights for 42 years—more fire!—is ended, that is the day we throw ourselves into the project of making a confederation of Israel with Palestine and Jordan. The one-state solution is a utopia. “Utopia has to direct politics. Not replace politics. It’s too dangerous.” (Something like Hussein Ibish’s new book in that.)
When Sand spoke to Palestinian professors at Al Quds University, they told him to speak Hebrew, because they had all learned Hebrew in Israeli jails. And he told them that just because Israel had begun with a great crime did not mean that it had not begun. “Even a child that was born from a rape has a right to live. ’48 was a rape. But something happened in history. We have to correct and repair a lot of things.” The next day the Palestinian papers had his rape line in big headlines.
You have not talked about anti-Semitism, or self-hatred, said another Zionist, with a cap on. “I am anti-racist. And an anti-anti-semite,” he said. “But look at me, do you think I hate the Jewish?” More devil eyes flashing. “I don’t hate myself… I hate the Jewish people? But that doesn’t exist. How can I hate something that doesn’t exist?”
More Zionist claptrap from the claque: You say that a Jew can’t marry non-Jews in Israel, but two men can’t marry each other in this country! Sand laughed. Men should be able to marry each other here if they want to, and anyone should be able to marry anyone else in Israel. Why won’t the state recognize such marriages? Not because of the orthodox. No: the secular Jews gave the rabbis the power over marriage when they founded the Jewish state in ’48. They did so because “they were not sure of their identity, and needed religious criteria.”
What do you think of Israel Shahak, whose work says that ethnocentrism and chauvinism are built into the Jewish religion? Sand said that Shahak was a chemist and a man of tremendous moral force, but he didn’t know the material. (I say he’s right about this; all religious doctrines are interlarded with racism.)
Why are you not on Charlie Rose? asked a man with a beard. The man said, I watch Charlie Rose every night and I’m up to here with the Zionism on the show. He held his hand at his neck. Not just the Israelis, the American journalists who imbibe Zionism. Sand didn’t seem to know who Charlie Rose was. He has been on lots of Israeli TV shows. And been 19 weeks on the bestseller list in Israel. “Also in France.”
I thought, Why has Yivo not asked Sand to debate Michael Walzer? Two years back at Yivo/the Center for Jewish History, Walzer declared that the Jews are a people, a people like no other, without national borders. They have maintained a political community for 2000 years without geographical sovereignty, through a religious-legal structure. Interesting ideas. And it would be a fabulous debate. Where are you chickenshit Yivo, when these great ideas are bursting forth from the Jews who hate what Israel is doing to our identity?
I hope I am conveying something of the power of this event, and its incredible optimism and second sight. Sand challenged every Jew in the room to reimagine the future. “Most of the Jews [in the world today] are a product of conversion… I see the shame. And it is a shame. If you are born in the 20th century, and we were all born in the 20th century– to base your identity on biology.”
I thought as always of the American Jewish project: to end the Israel lobby and to end the myth of Jewish outsiderness. Sand had addressed this too. “The destiny of Israel. And the destiny of the Middle East depnds a lot on you, Americans.” This was a subject for its own lecture. But it was necessary for the Americans now to “save us from ourselves. I’m not joking about this.”
Do you fear for your life? someone asked.
“I’m worried in New York. Not in Tel Aviv. It’s not a joke. Really, I’m not joking.”