- Dr. Shlomo argues that the idea of a Jewish nation is
a myth invented little more than a century ago.
- TEL AVIV -- 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 Shlomo 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 ago.
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, called the book "fascinating and challenging".
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. Paradoxically, he dedicated much of his article
instead to defending his profession. He suggested that Israeli historians
were not as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr.
Sand contends. The idea for the book had come 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, he added. 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 messiah came
- 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 proselytising religion,
desperate for converts. This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the
time. Jews travelled 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 Sea . 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
of them? 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
- Jewish history was assumed to need its own field of study
because Jewish experience was considered unique. "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".
- *Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth,
Israel. His latest books are " Israel and the Clash of Civilisations:
Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and
"Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair"
(Zed Books). His website is <http://www.jkcook.net/>www.jkcook.net