Jewish Nation, Diaspora Are Myths
By Ofri Ilani
Of all the
national heroes who have arisen from among the Jewish people over the
generations, fate has not been kind to Dahia al-Kahina, a leader of the Berbers
in the Aures Mountains. Although she was a proud
Jewess, few Israelis have ever heard the name of this warrior-queen who, in the
seventh century C.E., united a number of Berber tribes and pushed back the
Muslim army that invaded North Africa. It is
possible that the reason for this is that al-Kahina was the daughter of a
Berber tribe that had converted to Judaism, apparently several generations
before she was born, sometime around the 6th century C.E.
According to the Tel
historian, Prof. Shlomo Sand, author of "Matai ve'ech humtza ha'am
hayehudi?" ("When and How the Jewish People Was Invented?";
Resling, in Hebrew), the queen's tribe and other local tribes that converted to
Judaism are the main sources from which Spanish Jewry sprang. This claim that
the Jews of North Africa originated in indigenous tribes that became Jewish -
and not in communities exiled from Jerusalem
- is just one element of the far- reaching argument set forth in Sand's new
In this work, the author attempts to prove that the Jews now
living in Israel and other
places in the world are not at all descendants of the ancient people who
inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple
period. Their origins, according to him, are in varied peoples that converted
to Judaism during the course of history, in different corners of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent regions. Not only
are the North African Jews for the most part descendants of pagans who
converted to Judaism, but so are the Jews of Yemen (remnants of the Himyar
Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century)
and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe (refugees from the Kingdom of the
Khazars, who converted in the eighth century).
Unlike other "new historians" who have tried to
undermine the assumptions of Zionist historiography, Sand does not content
himself with going back to 1948 or to the beginnings of Zionism, but rather
goes back thousands of years. He tries to prove that the Jewish people never
existed as a "nation-race" with a common origin, but rather is a
colorful mix of groups that at various stages in history adopted the Jewish
religion. He argues that for a number of Zionist ideologues, the mythical
perception of the Jews as an ancient people led to truly racist thinking:
"There were times when if anyone argued that the Jews belong to a people
that has gentile origins, he would be classified as an anti-Semite on the spot.
Today, if anyone dares to suggest that those who are considered Jews in the
world . . . have never constituted and still do not constitute a people or a
nation – he is immediately condemned as a hater of Israel."
According to Sand, the description of the Jews as a
wandering and self-isolating nation of exiles, "who wandered across seas
and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of
Zionism, made a U-turn and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland,"
is nothing but "national mythology." Like other national movements in
Europe, which sought out a splendid Golden Age, through which they invented a
heroic past -- for example, classical Greece or the Teutonic tribes - to prove
they have existed since the beginnings of history, "so, too, the first
buds of Jewish nationalism blossomed in the direction of the strong light that
has its source in the mythical Kingdom of David."
So when, in fact, was the Jewish people invented, in Sand's
view? At a certain stage in the 19th century, intellectuals of Jewish origin in
influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves
the task of inventing a people "retrospectively," out of a thirst to
create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish
historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that
had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and
went back to its birthplace.
Actually, most of the 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."
Sand, an expert on 20th-century history, has until now
researched the intellectual history of modern France (in "Ha'intelektual,
ha'emet vehakoah: miparashat dreyfus ve'ad milhemet hamifrats" — "Intellectuals,
Truth and Power, From the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War"; Am Oved, in
Hebrew). Unusually, for a professional historian, in his new book he deals with
periods that he had never researched before, usually relying on studies that
present unorthodox views of the origins of the Jews.
Experts on the history of the Jewish people say you are
dealing with subjects about which Sand has no understanding and are basing his
views on works that he 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."
"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
If the people was not exiled, is Sand 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
How did Sand 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
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 it was
utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants
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
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
Why do you think the idea of the Khazar origins is so
"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
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 Sand is saying that there is no such thing as a
"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 Sand has 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 Sand
"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."
This article appeared in a recent issue of Haaretz.
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