Shlomo Sand is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, with a specialization in Europe. In New York last week to promote the English-language edition of his book, “The Invention of the Jewish People” (Verso Press), he quipped that he would not have published his book before obtaining job security as a tenured professor. Although somewhat flawed in his English, he charmed a packed audience of the “Marxist Theory Colloquium” at New York University with his wit and devastating attacks on ideas that most Jews and Israelis hold dear.
The basic notion is that the people we know as Jews are a disparate collection of peoples who are descendants of converts, but not of the original inhabitants of the land of Israel, and that the Palestinian Arabs are actually descendants of the ancient Judeans to a much greater degree than today’s Jews. His basic points of argumentation include:
1. that the Romans never “exiled” the Jews from Judea and that most of them converted to Islam with the Arab conquest about 600 years after Rome’s suppression of the two great Jewish rebellions;
2. that Ashkenazi Jews are mostly descended from the Khazars — a Turkic people, originally from near the Caspian Sea, who largely adopted Judaism over 1000 years ago;
3. that Sephardic Jews are mostly descended from Berbers who had a Jewish kingdom that fell to the Arab-Muslim conquest of North Africa;
4. that Yemenite Jews are descended from a Jewish kingdom in Medieval Yemen;
5. that the idea of a “Jewish people” was “invented” by Zionist thinkers in the late 19th century.
If this were a dispassionate academic discussion of scholarly issues, there’d be less of a problem here. Instead, Prof. Sand presents his ideas in incendiary ways, to forums that are emotionally committed to thinking of Israel as automatically in the wrong in whatever it does and to a large extent unjust in its very existence. Sand engages more as an ideologue and provocateur than as a true scholar.
According to Wikipedia, Prof. Sand is a red diaper baby who belonged to an Israeli Communist youth organization and the anti-Zionist Matzpen group in the 1970s. I point this out only to indicate that his personal history predisposed him to a sharply dissenting viewpoint regarding Israel.
I lost my cool at certain points and shouted out brief comments protesting some of what he asserted as fact: for example, that Israel as a self-defined “Jewish state” cannot be a democracy. I indicated that Israel is a democracy since the word fundamentally denotes majority rule, but I would agree with critics that it’s a flawed democracy and in some ways not a liberal one. He actually shot back that Israel is liberal in many ways –its pluralism, its free press, etc.– and I would not disagree, but this leaves him arguing a contradiction: that Israel is both “liberal” and undemocratic. (Following the lecture, I explained to someone sitting near me, who had believed otherwise, that Arab citizens of Israel vote and are even elected to political office.)
In another of my interjections during his talk, I indicated in response to his #1 point that the Romans killed most of the Jews of ancient Judea/Palestine in the course of putting down the rebellions of the years, 66-73 C.E. and 132-135 (Bar Kochba’s revolt). He said that contemporary accounts always exaggerated numbers and that you have to discount them by “dropping a zero.”
But even if this were true, many if not most survivors were exiled as slaves; still, he dismissed the notion that the figures carved in Rome’s Arch of Titus, depicting men carrying menorahs and other Jewish artifacts, were exiled Jews– because their faces were shaven (and therefore Roman). Evidently, these figures were Roman soldiers carting off booty from the Temple; but the Roman Coliseum is understood to have been built by Jewish slaves. He is correct that Jews remained (he makes the point that rabbis there created the “Mishnah”), but their viability as a people with the numbers and means to sustain national independence was surely gone by then. There is certainly no dispute that Palestinian Jews compiled the “Jerusalem Talmud” after the Roman wars; but these points prove nothing other than how hard he’s arguing to minimize the extent of the catastrophe suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Romans.
During the Q & A, I calmly asked him how his ideas comport with linguistic scholars who see Yiddish as originating about 1,000 years ago from eastern French and western German dialects, and then moving eastward. He complimented me on the question, indicating that the answer is in his book; he takes the view of a scholar named Paul Wexler who contends that Yiddish developed in eastern German lands rather than the west. It took me a day or two to realize that this didn’t answer my question, because whether Yiddish originated in western German lands or a couple of hundred miles to the east, this doesn’t show why Yiddish, the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews, would be based on German and not on the Turkic tongue of the Khazars.
With regard to #5, I’ve already discoursed somewhat on this in an earlier posting: “The Zionist movement successfully remade the Jewish people as a nation in the land of Israel. It took a series of scattered religious and ethnic communities and – with the ‘help’ of pervasive and (eventually) genocidal antisemitism – gathered them up and transformed them. …”
Prof. Sand admits that there is such a thing as “Jewish identity,” apart from the religion. But he doesn’t seem to understand that all national identities are “invented.”
I blogged on this as well: “This is one of the lessons I drew from an insightful book by Prof. Rashid Khalidi: Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997). He makes the point that ‘National identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given….’ Khalidi proceeds to relate how Palestinians didn’t see themselves as a distinct people until well into the 20th century. Just as anti-Zionist writers and activists would never think of denying Palestinians their understanding of themselves as a people, they should not be denying the Jews their sense of peoplehood – a consciousness born of centuries of persecution, discrimination and worse, not to mention strong religious and cultural continuities.”
Early Reform Judaism, born in 19th century Germany and the US, attempted to recast Jewish self-definition into only a religious frame; classical Reform Jews were Americans or Germans of the “Mosaic” faith. The traditional or Orthodox view of Jews is of “Ahm Yisrael” — the people or nation of Israel (even among anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews). The left has generally granted people the right to define themselves, to “national self-determination”; only for the Jews does this seem not to be the case.
Sand proved that he knows little about Jewish religious practice in asserting that “Jews don’t read the Bible.” I don’t see the relevance of this to his thesis, but I assume that he was really thinking about the fact that observant Jews interpret the Bible in light of Talmudic and later rabbinic commentaries; but the Torah (the first five books) is read in traditional synagogues three times a week– Saturday, Monday and Thursday– supplemented by readings from the Prophets every Saturday, and the chanting of other Biblical scriptures on specific holidays (e.g., the Megillahs of Ruth on Shavuot and Esther on Purim).
We had a nice little discussion afterwards. We briefly got into some core political issues: when I indicated that I’m with Meretz USA and that the Meretz party believes that Israel should be a “Jewish state” that is also “of all its citizens,” he dismissed this as “an oxymoron.”
We both agreed and disagreed some on the 1948 war and the Palestinian-Arab “Nakba” (catastrophe): we agreed that it was not at all unreasonable for Palestinian Arabs to flee the fighting with the expectation of returning to their homes once the war was over, but that it’s too late for a Palestinian “right of return.” He hastened to add, of course, that he disapproves of Israel’s “Law of Return” (something that I see necessary as an insurance policy for Jews requiring a safe haven from persecution).
I see the Nakba as a Palestinian as well as Jewish responsibility in that it happened because of the violent Arab rejection of the UN’s partition plan. He harked on the fact that the smaller Jewish population was granted a larger share of the land — ignoring that the Jewish state was to have a large Arab minority and that many survivors of the Holocaust (stateless refugees in DP camps–as he was, ironically, as a child) were sure to move there.
He believes strongly in Israel as “an Israeli state,” rather than a Jewish state; while I agree that it’s only proper and healthy for Jews, Arabs and other Israeli citizens to forge a sense of common nationality as Israelis, I don’t see it as wrong that Israel also serves a special function as the one place in the world that Jews can call their spiritual homeland (whether or not it’s actually their ancestral home). Finally, Prof. Sand and I agree on the need for a two-state solution, for Israel and the Palestinians, and we’d both welcome a regional confederation some day, but we disagree profoundly on many other things, as I’ve indicated. Click here for a follow-up posting.