- No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest
academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel's bestseller list and
that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging
Israel's biggest taboo.
- Dr. Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation
whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding
of the state of Israel is a myth invented little more than a century
- An expert on European history at Tel Aviv University,
Dr. Sand drew on extensive historical and archaeological research to support
not only this claim but several more all equally controversial.
- In addition, he argues that the Jews were never exiled
from the Holy Land, that most of today's Jews have no historical connection
to the land called Israel and that the only political solution to the country's
conflict with the Palestinians is to abolish the Jewish state.
- The success of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?
looks likely to be repeated around the world. A French edition, launched
last month, is selling so fast that it has already had three print runs.
- Translations are under way into a dozen languages, including
Arabic and English. But he predicted a rough ride from the pro-Israel lobby
when the book is launched by his English publisher, Verso, in the United
States next year.
- In contrast, he said Israelis had been, if not exactly
supportive, at least curious about his argument. Tom Segev, one of the
country's leading journalists, has called the book "fascinating and
- Surprisingly, Dr. Sand said, most of his academic colleagues
in Israel have shied away from tackling his arguments. One exception is
Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, Dr. Bartal made little
effort to rebut Dr. Sand's claims. He dedicated much of his article instead
to defending his profession, suggesting that Israeli historians were not
as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr. Sand contends.
- The idea for the book came to him many years ago, Dr.
Sand said, but he waited until recently to start working on it. "I
cannot claim to be particularly courageous in publishing the book now,"
he said. "I waited until I was a full professor. There is a price
to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort."
- Dr. Sand's main argument is that until little more than
a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews only because they shared
a common religion. At the turn of the 20th century, he said, Zionist Jews
challenged this idea and started creating a national history by inventing
the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion.
- Equally, the modern Zionist idea of Jews being obligated
to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism,
- "Zionism changed the idea of Jerusalem. Before,
the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. For
2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem not because they could not
return but because their religion forbade them from returning until the
- The biggest surprise during his research came when he
started looking at the archaeological evidence from the biblical era.
- "I was not raised as a Zionist, but like all other
Israelis I took it for granted that the Jews were a people living in Judea
and that they were exiled by the Romans in 70AD.
- "But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered
that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends.
- "Similarly with the exile. In fact, you can't explain
Jewishness without exile. But when I started to look for history books
describing the events of this exile, I couldn't find any. Not one.
- "That was because the Romans did not exile people.
In fact, Jews in Palestine were overwhelming peasants and all the evidence
suggests they stayed on their lands."
- Instead, he believes an alternative theory is more plausible:
the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the
new faith. "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe
that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."
- So if there was no exile, how is it that so many Jews
ended up scattered around the globe before the modern state of Israel began
encouraging them to "return"?
- Dr. Sand said that, in the centuries immediately preceding
and following the Christian era, Judaism was a proselytizing religion,
desperate for converts. "This is mentioned in the Roman literature
of the time."
- Jews traveled to other regions seeking converts, particularly
in Yemen and among the Berber tribes of North Africa. Centuries later,
the people of the Khazar kingdom in what is today south Russia, would convert
en masse to Judaism, becoming the genesis of the Ashkenazi Jews of central
and eastern Europe.
- Dr. Sand pointed to the strange state of denial in which
most Israelis live, noting that papers offered extensive coverage recently
to the discovery of the capital of the Khazar kingdom next to the Caspian
- Ynet, the website of Israel's most popular newspaper,
Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined the story: "Russian archaeologists find
long-lost Jewish capital." And yet none of the papers, he added, had
considered the significance of this find to standard accounts of Jewish
- One further question is prompted by Dr. Sand's account,
as he himself notes: if most Jews never left the Holy Land, what became
- "It is not taught in Israeli schools but most of
the early Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion [Israel's first prime
minister], believed that the Palestinians were the descendants of the area's
original Jews. They believed the Jews had later converted to Islam."
- Dr. Sand attributed his colleagues' reticence to engage
with him to an implicit acknowledgement by many that the whole edifice
of "Jewish history" taught at Israeli universities is built like
a house of cards.
- The problem with the teaching of history in Israel, Dr.
Sand said, dates to a decision in the 1930s to separate history into two
disciplines: general history and Jewish history. Jewish history was assumed
to need its own field of study because Jewish experience was considered
- "There's no Jewish department of politics or sociology
at the universities. Only history is taught in this way, and it has allowed
specialists in Jewish history to live in a very insular and conservative
world where they are not touched by modern developments in historical research.
- "I've been criticized in Israel for writing about
Jewish history when European history is my specialty. But a book like this
needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical
inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world."
- This article originally appeared in <http://www.thenational.ae/>The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.