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Inventing Israel

Historian Shlomo Sand argues that ‘Jewish peoplehood’ is a myth

By Evan R. Goldstein

David Ben Gurion reads the Israeli Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948.

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.

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