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Shlomo Sand and shattering a national mythology

Shlomo SandShattering a ‘national mythology’ Shlomo Sand’s book is titled “When and How the Jewish People Was Invented?” and you probably will not find it stacked up on tables for sale in Barnes and Noble or Borders. I don’t expect it to be readily available for Colorado Springs librarian patrons either. Ask for it though.

The Haaretz interview:

Actually, most of your book does not deal with the invention of the Jewish people by modern Jewish nationalism, but rather with the question of where the Jews come from.

Sand: “My initial intention was to take certain kinds of modern historiographic materials and examine how they invented the ‘figment’ of the Jewish people. But when I began to confront the historiographic sources, I suddenly found contradictions. And then that urged me on: I started to work, without knowing where I would end up. I took primary sources and I tried to examine authors’ references in the ancient period – what they wrote about conversion.”

Experts on the history of the Jewish people say you are dealing with subjects about which you have no understanding and are basing yourself on works that you can’t read in the original.

“It is true that I am an historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period. I knew that the moment I would start dealing with early periods like these, I would be exposed to scathing criticism by historians who specialize in those areas. But I said to myself that I can’t stay just with modern historiographic material without examining the facts it describes. Had I not done this myself, it would have been necessary to have waited for an entire generation. Had I continued to deal with France, perhaps I would have been given chairs at the university and provincial glory. But I decided to relinquish the glory.”

Inventing the Diaspora

“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” – thus states the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. This is also the quotation that opens the third chapter of Sand’s book, entitled “The Invention of the Diaspora.” Sand argues that the Jewish people’s exile from its land never happened.

“The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of ‘the people of the Bible’ that preceded it,” Sand explains. Under the influence of other historians who have dealt with the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people is originally a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land – a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country. The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”

If the people was not exiled, are you saying that in fact the real descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians?

“No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-9], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled. Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ‘the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'”

And how did millions of Jews appear around the Mediterranean Sea?

“The people did not spread, but the Jewish religion spread. Judaism was a converting religion. Contrary to popular opinion, in early Judaism there was a great thirst to convert others. The Hasmoneans were the first to begin to produce large numbers of Jews through mass conversion, under the influence of Hellenism. The conversions between the Hasmonean Revolt and Bar Kochba’s rebellion are what prepared the ground for the subsequent, wide-spread dissemination of Christianity. After the victory of Christianity in the fourth century, the momentum of conversion was stopped in the Christian world, and there was a steep drop in the number of Jews. Presumably many of the Jews who appeared around the Mediterranean became Christians. But then Judaism started to permeate other regions – pagan regions, for example, such as Yemen and North Africa. Had Judaism not continued to advance at that stage and had it not continued to convert people in the pagan world, we would have remained a completely marginal religion, if we survived at all.”

How did you come to the conclusion that the Jews of North Africa were originally Berbers who converted?

“I asked myself how such large Jewish communities appeared in Spain. And then I saw that Tariq ibn Ziyad, the supreme commander of the Muslims who conquered Spain, was a Berber, and most of his soldiers were Berbers. Dahia al-Kahina’s Jewish Berber kingdom had been defeated only 15 years earlier. And the truth is there are a number of Christian sources that say many of the conquerors of Spain were Jewish converts. The deep-rooted source of the large Jewish community in Spain was those Berber soldiers who converted to Judaism.”

Sand argues that the most crucial demographic addition to the Jewish population of the world came in the wake of the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria – a huge empire that arose in the Middle Ages on the steppes along the Volga River, which at its height ruled over an area that stretched from the Georgia of today to Kiev. In the eighth century, the kings of the Khazars adopted the Jewish religion and made Hebrew the written language of the kingdom. From the 10th century the kingdom weakened; in the 13th century is was utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants remains unclear.

Sand revives the hypothesis, which was already suggested by historians in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to which the Judaized Khazars constituted the main origins of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

“At the beginning of the 20th century there is a tremendous concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe – three million Jews in Poland alone,” he says. “The Zionist historiography claims that their origins are in the earlier Jewish community in Germany, but they do not succeed in explaining how a small number of Jews who came from Mainz and Worms could have founded the Yiddish people of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe are a mixture of Khazars and Slavs who were pushed eastward.”

If the Jews of Eastern Europe did not come from Germany, why did they speak Yiddish, which is a Germanic language?

“The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words. Here I base myself on the research of linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University, who has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish. As far back as 1828, the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson) said that the ancient language of the Jews was not Yiddish. Even Ben Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography, was not hesitant about describing the Khazars as the origin of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and describes Khazaria as ‘the mother of the diasporas’ in Eastern Europe. But more or less since 1967, anyone who talks about the Khazars as the ancestors of the Jews of Eastern Europe is considered naive and moonstruck.”

Why do you think the idea of the Khazar origins is so threatening?

“It is clear that the fear is of an undermining of the historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us. Since the beginning of the period of decolonization, settlers have no longer been able to say simply: ‘We came, we won and now we are here’ the way the Americans, the whites in South Africa and the Australians said. There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist.”

Is there no justification for this fear?

“No. I don’t think that the historical myth of the exile and the wanderings is the source of the legitimization for me being here, and therefore I don’t mind believing that I am Khazar in my origins. I am not afraid of the undermining of our existence, because I think that the character of the State of Israel undermines it in a much more serious way. What would constitute the basis for our existence here is not mythological historical right, but rather would be for us to start to establish an open society here of all Israeli citizens.”

In effect you are saying that there is no such thing as a Jewish people.

“I don’t recognize an international people. I recognize ‘the Yiddish people’ that existed in Eastern Europe, which though it is not a nation can be seen as a Yiddishist civilization with a modern popular culture. I think that Jewish nationalism grew up in the context of this ‘Yiddish people.’ I also recognize the existence of an Israeli people, and do not deny its right to sovereignty. But Zionism and also Arab nationalism over the years are not prepared to recognize it.

“From the perspective of Zionism, this country does not belong to its citizens, but rather to the Jewish people. I recognize one definition of a nation: a group of people that wants to live in sovereignty over itself. But most of the Jews in the world have no desire to live in the State of Israel, even though nothing is preventing them from doing so. Therefore, they cannot be seen as a nation.”

What is so dangerous about Jews imagining that they belong to one people? Why is this bad?

“In the Israeli discourse about roots there is a degree of perversion. This is an ethnocentric, biological, genetic discourse. But Israel has no existence as a Jewish state: If Israel does not develop and become an open, multicultural society we will have a Kosovo in the Galilee. The consciousness concerning the right to this place must be more flexible and varied, and if I have contributed with my book to the likelihood that I and my children will be able to live with the others here in this country in a more egalitarian situation – I will have done my bit.

“We must begin to work hard to transform our place into an Israeli republic where ethnic origin, as well as faith, will not be relevant in the eyes of the law. Anyone who is acquainted with the young elites of the Israeli Arab community can see that they will not agree to live in a country that declares it is not theirs. If I were a Palestinian I would rebel against a state like that, but even as an Israeli I am rebelling against it.”

The question is whether for those conclusions you had to go as far as the Kingdom of the Khazars.

“I am not hiding the fact that it is very distressing for me to live in a society in which the nationalist principles that guide it are dangerous, and that this distress has served as a motive in my work. I am a citizen of this country, but I am also a historian and as a historian it is my duty to write history and examine texts. This is what I have done.”

If the myth of Zionism is one of the Jewish people that returned to its land from exile, what will be the myth of the country you envision?

“To my mind, a myth about the future is better than introverted mythologies of the past. For the Americans, and today for the Europeans as well, what justifies the existence of the nation is a future promise of an open, progressive and prosperous society. The Israeli materials do exist, but it is necessary to add, for example, pan-Israeli holidays. To decrease the number of memorial days a bit and to add days that are dedicated to the future. But also, for example, to add an hour in memory of the Nakba [literally, the “catastrophe” – the Palestinian term for what happened when Israel was established], between Memorial Day and Independence Day.”

15 thoughts on “Shlomo Sand and shattering a national mythology

  1. i thank schlomo sand a thousand time for his courage and dedicacion i am like him a polish jew who started as a sionist in my youth but has changed drastically my position vis a vis israel as a member of women journalists of the mediterranean i wish to help in the promotion of his book and viewpoint listened to him today with gerard mermet

  2. Prof. Sand is a man of great courage. I thank him for his commitment to scholarship which must come at great personal risk.
    The question is do other Jewish and non-Jewish scholars have the guts to provide unbiased review of his findings. Finally someone cries out that the Emperor Has No Clothes. Will others simply close their eyes?

  3. Prof. Sand is among the group of so-called New Historians in Israel whose agenda is to discredit Zionism and Israel. Such New Historians are not historians more than they are propagandists. Read the book Fabricating Israeli History, by Ephraim Karsh, a prominent London professor of Middle Eastern studies (Prof. Sand, admittedly, has no credentials in ME history) who convincingly debunks them. In Fact, Karsh was so effective in showing how New Historian Benny Morris manipulated statements from Ben Gurion about Arabs that Morris has since retracted such assertions and has conceded his efforts were misguided. I would take anything from Prof. Sand with a grain of sand.

  4. I see our self described ‘Arab American’ is telling people to take people like Shlomo Sand with a grain of salt. How ironic, but irony seems to escape liars more often than not. Your lies about yourself have already been well exposed here, ‘David’.

  5. What a pile of nonsense. To state that Yiddish has no etymological connection with German is like stating that Italian has no etymological connection with Latin. This man is an educated ignoramus. If one is going to write history, one needs to rely on the best available facts. On the question of the origin of the Jews, if one is going to make an argument on the basis of lineage, then the strongest evidence comes from genetics, not from Sands’s garbled invention of history. The characteristic pattern of Jewish migration from Palestine (which was very definitely expulsion in case he has not heard of Aelia Capitolina) consisted of male expellees who settled outside the country and married non-Jewish women. Jewish Y-chromosomes are predominantly of Middle Eastern origin while the mitochondrial DNA are much more mixed. But they are by no means predominantly or even significantly Khazarian. That myth has been debunked countless times. As for the Palestinians, even at the time of Jesus and earlier there were significant Gentile populations in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and on the coast (Greek Philistia goes back to the days of the Monarchy 3000 years ago). At the time of the Roman expulsion of the Jews, non-Jews were brought into the country to settle the vacated lands. The Palestinians derive from this mixture of Greeks and other Near Easterners, though there were undoubtedly some Jews in the mix. The Jews of Iraq derive from an even earlier expulsion unless Professor Sands wishes to take issue with Nebuchadnezzar. What is unfortunate is that there is a certain stratum of Jews who have so incorporated the negative cant uttered about the Jewish people by their adversaries that they adopt the language of their persecutors so as to feel more comfortable by aping their presumed masters. How pathetic. Even more pathetic is that a supposedly educated public takes these documented falsehoods at face value.

  6. Tony Logan, Mr. Haddad never stated that he was an Arab-American. Haddad is a common Syrian-Jewish surname. But the inappropriate tone of your hostile comment borders on racism and is grossly offensive. I also notice that despite all the leftist symbolism you strew over this website, there is not one black face anywhere. Since you bleed so profusely for the Palestinian Arabs, has it ever occurred to you that you are sitting on prime American Indian real estate which your Celtic and Britannic ancestors stole from them? Perhaps you would feel more at home back in Ireland.

  7. Mr. Sand points the inevitable conclusion, I am disappointed to see that some people here cannot let go of their zionist indoctrination and face the facts.

    If diaspora Jews are not physically discernable from the non-Jewish population in their origin country (I want to see anybody here can tell an Ethiopian Jew from a non-Jew Ethiopian, a Moroccan Jew from a non-Jew Morrocan, etc.), then there are two possibilities: one which is they originate from ancient Israel (as the zionist theme goes) but have intermarried so much that they no longer possess any of the genes of ancient Jews as much as to physically differentiate them from the local population, the other is that they never even originated in ancient Israel and as Mr. Sand suggest, were natives who simply converted to Judaism when monotheistic religions were spreading. The latter possibility is more plausible but either case, how can someone claim lineage to ancient Jewish tribes in Israel when their genes and physical traits are identical to the local population of their host country whether it’s in Europe or the Middle East?

    Mr. Sand has tremendous courage to research this sensitive issue which is at the foundation of the Jewish state and stay loyal to historic facts and documentation rather than myth and fiction. The Romans had historians who documented most of that Empire’s history yet there is no documentation of such mass exodus that supposedly left the Romans ruling over a land empty of inhabitants. In addition, there is documentation of the Eastern European Khazar Kingdom which converted to Judaism who inevitably form a large part, possibly mostl of European Jewry.

  8. Steve Sconosciuto: please carefully re-read the article, and you will realise that Sand does NOT say anywhere that Yiddish is not derived from German, and in fact states the opposite! “..linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University… has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish.” The German JEWISH language, not the German language!

    However, “The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words.”

  9. Not a very good book. Sand is an anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, so, his book, which contains numerous factual errors as well as historical biases, boils down to noting more than a vendetta.

  10. Is the 13th tribe a myth or it is an attempt to disconnect Jews from their heritage?

    http://new-angle.org/Isthe13tribeamyth.htm
    Numerous historians and Anti-Semites have looked into this issue and said that most of the Zionists are not descendants of the original Jews. Rather, most Zionists are “Ashkenazi Jews”; a race of people from Asia. The real, original Jews were physically and genetically similar to the Arabs, specifically, dark skin, dark eyes, and dark hair.

    Some anti-Semites picked up this theme and claimed that “the real homeland for the Ashkenazi Jews is near the Caspian and Black Seas, not Palestine. Their ancestors picked up the Jewish religion many centuries ago. Due to the widespread ignorance of people in that era, after a few generations they assumed that they were the descendants of the Jews that lived in Palestine.” The Jewish historian, Arthur Koestler, who died in 1983 helped propagate this idea.

    Many anti-Semites complain that modern Jews are not the descendants Biblical Jews but are descended from the Khazars. The Khazars converted to Judaism and thus modern day Jews, it is claimed, are imposters who have no claim on the Land of Israel. It is also interesting to note that the same anti-Semites who complain about the alleged contents of the Talmud, which was completed no later than 500 C.E. also claim that the Jews of today are “self-styled Jews” descended from the Khazars who converted to Judaism in 740 C.E. Some even claim that the “true” descendants of the Biblical Jews are the modern day “Aryans”. So according to this “logic” the Talmud which they complain about would actually be an “Aryan” book and not that of the modern Jews!

    Myth Supporting Literature

    The Jews of Khazaria, Jason Aronson Inc, Brooks, Kevin Alan, (New Jersey, 1999): This book aims to capture the history of Khazaria, a Jewish state near the Caspian sea that reigned between the 7th to 11th centuries, starting as a small tribe and growing in size and in power. The book is primarily based on archival and linguistic discoveries. The author starts in 650 AD when migration patterns westward and wars with the Muslim forces from the south brought to the fore of history the Khazar empire. Khazaria was located roughly between present day Hungary from its east and Persia on its west. The Khazars, originally nomads known for their fierce fighting tradition, defended their region and became a loose state about mid 6th century. The Khazar state was unique in its dual sovereign system: a Kagan, a king, with ceremonial power and not much contact with the citizens, and a bek, a general or executive director that managed the day to day business of the country. Supposedly, this form of government originated in the Khazar state and was then emulated by the two dozen subordinated states that “paid tributes” to the Khazar Kagan. The Khazar state saw its first influx of Jewish “immigrants” in 723 in a wave that continued to the early 10th century (944 AD). In 860, the Khazar Kagan adopted monotheism instead of shamanism, and was hospitable to Muslim and Jewish scholars. In 861 king Bulan converted to Judaism and by extension, his entire kaganite became Jewish. It is important to know, however, that Khazaria was a multi-cultural state and tolerated Islam and Christianity to a great degree.
    2. The Khazar Empire And Its Heritage by Arthur Koestler: This book traces the history of the ancient Khazar Empire, a major but almost forgotten power in Eastern Europe, which in the Dark Ages became converted to Judaism. Khazaria was finally wiped out by the forces of Genghis Khan, but evidence indicates that the Khazars themselves migrated to Poland and formed the cradle of Western Jewry. . . The Khazars’ sway extended from the Black Sea to the Caspian, from the Caucasus to the Volga, and they were instrumental in stopping the Muslim onslaught against Byzantium, the eastern jaw of the gigantic pincer movement that in the West swept across northern Africa and into Spain. In the second part of this book, “The Heritage,” Mr. Koestler speculates about the ultimate faith of the Khazars and their impact on the racial composition and social heritage of modern Jewry. He produces a large body of meticulously detailed research in support of a theory that sounds all the more convincing for the restraint with which it is advanced. Yet should this theory be confirmed, the term “anti-Semitism” would become void of meaning, since, as Mr. Koestler writes, it is based “on a misapprehension shared by both the killers and their victims. The story of the Khazar Empire, as it slowly emerges from the past, begins to look like the most cruel hoax which history has ever perpetrated.”

    Is it a myth?

    [Science News, October 3, 1998] Wider genetic studies of diverse present day Jewish communities show a remarkable genetic cohesiveness. Jews from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and European Ashkenazim all cluster together with other Semitic groups, with their origin in the Middle East. A common geographical original can be seen for all mainstream Jewish groups studied.

    This genetic research has clearly refuted the libel that the Ashkenazi Jews are not related to the ancient Hebrews, but are descendants of the Khazar tribe — a pre-10th century Turko-Asian empire which reportedly converted en masse to Judaism. Researchers compared the DNA signature of the Ashkenazi Jews against those of Turkish-derived people, and found no correspondence.

    [Dr. David Goldstein of Oxford University] “For more than 90 percent of the Cohens to share the same genetic markers after such a period of time is a testament to the devotion of the wives of the Cohens over the years. Even a low rate of infidelity would have dramatically lowered the percentage.”

    The DNA tests results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.

    Jewish law tracing back almost 2,000 years states that Jewish affiliation is determined by maternal ancestry, so the Y chromosome study addresses the question of how much non-Jewish men may have contributed to Jewish genetic diversity. Despite the Ashkenazi Jews’ long residence in Europe, their Y signature has remained distinct from that of non-Jewish Europeans.

    Written By: Albert Talker

  11. Sand is a pseudo-historian whose specialty is the French cinema and who knows nothing at all about Jewish history. He is also a hardcore Stalinist. His “theories” about the Jewish people are recycled myths he has copied from Neo-Nazi groups and web sites.

  12. Noam Chomsky specializes in linguistics, and he makes it fairly obvious professors can know about a lot more.

    Can you tell us Eliezer for argument’s sake, what’s even one thing that Prof. Shlomo Sand doesn’t know about Jewish history?

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