New Israeli Bestseller Argues That Need for Jewish State, Story of Exile Are Myths
By Jonathan Cook
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
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 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
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
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 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. 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, he added.
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
"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 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 history.
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
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 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.
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 The National, a newspaper in Abu Dhabi.
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October 13, 2008)