The Sand Syndrome

The Invention of the Jewish People (Heb. מתי ואיך הומצא העם היהודי‎, Matai ve’ech humtza ha’am hayehudi?, literally When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?) is a 2008-9 controversial study of the historiography of the Jewish people by Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University.

Question: "Is the entire history of the Jews nothing more than a wilful fabrication?" —Jonathan Wittenberg, The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, The Guardian, UK, 9 January 2010.

Summary. Sand began his work by looking for research studies about forcible exile of Jews from the area now bordered by modern Israel, and its surrounding regions. He was astonished that he could find no such literature, he says, given that the expulsion of Jews from the region is viewed as a constitutive event in Jewish history. The conclusion he came to from his subsequent investigation is that the expulsion simply didn't happen, that no one exiled the Jewish people from the region, and that the Diaspora is essentially a modern invention. He accounts for the appearance of millions of Jews around the Mediterranean and elsewhere as something that came about primarily through the religious conversion of local people, saying that Judaism, contrary to popular opinion, was very much a "converting religion" in former times. He holds that mass conversions were first brought about by the Hasmoneans under the influence of Hellenism, and continued until Christianity rose to dominance in the fourth century CE.

Jewish origins. Sand argues that it is likely that the ancestry of most contemporary Jews stems mainly from outside the ancient Land of Israel and that a "nation-race" of Jews with a common origin never existed. Just as most contemporary Christians and Muslims are the progeny of converted people, not of the first Christians and Muslims, Judaism was originally, like its two cousins, a proselytising religion. Many of the present day world Jewish population are descendants of European, Russian and African groups.
According to Sand, the original Jews living in Israel, contrary to popular belief, were not exiled following the Bar Kokhba revolt.[1] Sand argues that most of the Jews were not exiled by the Romans, and were permitted to remain in the country. Many Jews converted to Islam following the Arab conquest, and were assimilated among the conquerors. He concludes that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were Jews.[2] Sand writes that the story of the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. They portrayed that event as a divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel. Sand writes that "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."[3]

Jewish peoplehood. Sand's explanation of the birth of the "myth" of a Jewish people as a group with a common, ethnic origin has been summarized as follows: "[a]t a certain stage in the 19th century intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, 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."[1]
In this, Sand writes, they were similar to other nationalist movements in Europe at the time that sought the reassurance of a Golden Age in their past to prove they have existed as a separate people since the beginnings of history. Jewish people found theirs in what he calls "the mythical Kingdom of David". Before this invention, he says, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not a common ethnic background.[1]

Return from exile. Sand believes that the idea of Jews being obliged to return from exile to the Promised Land was alien to Judaism before the birth of Zionism, and that the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. On the contrary, for 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem because their religion forbade them from returning until the Messiah came. According to Sand, the ancestry of Central and Eastern European Jews stems heavily from mediæval Turkic Khazars who were converted to Judaism, a theory which was popularized in a book written by Arthur Koestler in 1976.[4]

Overall intent of the book. Sand explained during a newspaper interview his reasons for writing the book: "I wrote the book for a double purpose. First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism."[5] This, Sand explains, is "the tendency in modern Judaism to make shared ethnicity the basis for faith. […] I am trying to normalise the Jewish presence in history and contemporary life."[5]


As a work of history
Writing in The Financial Times, historian Tony Judt states that he is untroubled by the book's historical perspective, yet he adds that "Sand […] is telling us nothing we do not already know."[6] Eric Hobsbawm thinks Sand's book is both a welcome and, in the case of Israel, much needed exercise in the dismantling of nationalist historical myth and a plea for an Israel that belongs equally to all its inhabitants."[7] However, in a note published in Haaretz, Israel Bartal, dean of the Humanities Faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes that Sand's claims about Zionist and contemporary Israeli historiography are baseless. He calls Sand's work "bizarre and incoherent," adding that Sand's "treatment of Jewish sources is embarrassing and humiliating."[8] "No historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically 'pure'," writes Bartal, explaining that Sand applies academically marginal positions to the entire body of Jewish historiography and, in doing so, he "denies the existence of the central positions in Jewish historical scholarship […]. [Furthermore,] The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews' exile from their homeland is pure fantasy."[8]
In a review, Washington Post journalist David Finkel writes that the book's chapter on 'Mythistory' is "where Sand fully hits his stride. It is not so much Jewish history but rather historiography that's decisive."[9]
Another critic of the book has called it, in part, a recycled version of The Thirteenth Tribe, another book with a controversial thesis on the genesis of the Jewish people published in 1976 by Arthur Koestler. "'The Thirteenth Tribe' was received coolly by critics, and Mr. Sand's repackaging of its central argument has not fared much better," commented Evan R. Goldstein, adding that there is not enough evidence known about the 13th century demography of Eastern European Jews to credibly make as bold a claim as Sand's.[4]
Historian Anita Shapira criticizes Sand for regularly "grab(bing) at the most unorthodox theory" in a field and then stretching it "to the outer limits of logic and beyond" all along Sand's survey of three thousand years of history. She explains that Sand's political program makes the book an attempt to "drag history into a topical argument, […] with the help of misrepresentations and half-truths, to adapt it to the needs of a political discussion."[10] Furthermore, "Sand would like to promote a new Israeli agenda, striving for harmony between Jews and Arabs, to be based on the remodeling of Jewish identity. However positive the goals he is targeting may be in their own right, there is something warped and objectionable in the assumption that for Jews to integrate into the Middle East, they, and they alone of all the peoples in the region, must shed their national identity and historical memories and reconstruct themselves in a way that may (perhaps) find favor with Israeli-Palestinians. But reconciliation between peoples makes necessary a mutual recognition of truth, not an artificial analysis that presents a fabricated front, a quasi-mask that hides the real differences. What Sand is offering is this kind of artificial analysis."[10]
Carlo Strenger notes that Sand's book is "not a pure work of history" and argues that, "in fact, it has a clearly stated political agenda. […] It might come as a surprise to some who have not read the book that Sand's goal is to preserve Israel as a democracy with a Jewish character based on a Jewish majority."[11]

As an argument about Jewish identity
Writing in The New Republic, Hillel Halkin calls assertions made in the book "the exact opposite of the truth" and adds that "believing Jews throughout the ages have never doubted for a moment that they belonged to an am yisra'el, a people of Israel—nor, in modern times, have non-believing Jews with strong Jewish identities. It is precisely this that constitutes such an identity. Far from inventing Jewish peoplehood, Zionism was a modern re-conceptualization of it that was based on its long-standing prior existence. […] Sand, like other critics of Zionism, is wrong in believing that Israel cannot be both formally Jewish and functionally democratic, and that it must choose between the two. He is right, though, in regarding Israeli society’s refusal to assume full responsibility for the assimilation of the over one and a half million non-Jews in its midst--immigrants from the exSoviet Union, foreign workers and their Israeli-born children, Israeli Arabs--as one of its great failures. If Israel is going to be Jewish and fully democratic, it will have to find other ways for non-Jews to become Jews, or to identify with Jews, than the forbidding Orthodox conversion that is currently their sole societal option. A revival of historical interest in how, in certain times and places in the past, non-Jews have been successfully integrated into the Jewish people in large numbers, and without too many questions asked, might be a contribution to such a process. Shlomo Sand’s call for it is commendable. This is the best that can be said for an otherwise deplorable book.[12]
Historian Simon Schama, reviewing the book in The Financial Times, argues that Sand misunderstands Jews in the diaspora, specifically, that he thinks that "the Khazars, the central Asian kingdom which, around the 10th century, converted to Judaism have been excised from the master narrative because of the embarrassing implication that present day Jews might be descended from Turkic converts." Schama states that, on the contrary, when he was a child, "the Khazars were known by every Jewish girl and boy in my neck of Golders Greenery and further flung parts of the diaspora, and celebrated rather than evaded." Schama adds that "Sand's sense of grievance against the myths on which the exclusively Jewish right to full Israeli immigration is grounded is one that many who want to see a more liberal and secular Israel wholeheartedly share. But his book prosecutes these aims through a sensationalist assertion that somehow, the truth about Jewish culture and history, especially the 'exile which never happened,' has been suppressed in the interests of racially pure demands of Zionist orthodoxy. This, to put it mildly, is a stretch."[13]
Max Hastings states that "Sand produces some formidable arguments about what Jews may not be, but he fails to explain what it is they are."[14]

As an argument concerning Jewish History in Israeli universities
Sand admits that he is "a historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period…"[1] and says he has been criticized in Israel for writing about Jewish history, a field that is not his specialty. However, he notes, connecting both is otherwise no possible because the history departments in Israeli universities work in separatedly. Their isolation, Sand claims, 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. According to Sand, there is no department of Jewish Politics or Jewish Sociology at the universities. Only Jewish History is taught this way, and it has allowed specialists in Jewish History to remain isolated in a conservative world, untouched by contemporary developments in historical research.[3] Yet Sand himself worked all alone too.
According to Ofri Ilani, most of Sand's book deals with the question of where the Jews come from, rather than questions of modern Jewish nationalism and the modern invention —according to Sand— of the Jewish people.[1] Therefore, some critics and historians of Judaism reject Sand for dealing with subjects which he does not fully understand, indicating that he bases his book on works that he is incapable of reading in their original languages.

1. Ofri Ilani, Shattering a 'National Mythology', Haaretz, IL, 21 March 2008
2. Tom Segev, An Invention called 'The Jewish People', Haaretz, IL, 29 February 2008
3. Jonathan Cook, Book refuting Jewish Taboo on Israel’s Bestseller List, The National, Abu Dhabi, 6 October 2008
4. Evan R. Goldstein, Where Do Jews Come From?, The Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2009
5. Rafael Behr, Shlomo Sand: An Enemy of the Jewish People?, The Guardian, UK, 17 January 2006.
6. Tony Judt, "Israel Must Unpick Its Ethnic Myth," The Financial Times, 7.12.2009
7. Books of the Year, 2009, The Observer, 22.11.2009
8. Israel Bartal, Hamtza’at ha-hamtza’ah (The Invention of the Invention), Haaretz, 6 July 2008
9. David Finkel, Myths of the Exile and Return: The History of History, Solidarity, May–June 2010
10. Anita Shapira, The Jewish-people Deniers, The Journal of Israeli History, Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2009, 63–72.
11. Carlo Strenger, Shlomo Sand's 'The Invention of the Jewish People' is a success for Israel, Haaretz, 27.11.2009
12. Hillel Halkin, Indecent Proposal, The New Republic, 9 January 2010
13. Simon Schama, "The Invention of the Jewish People", Financial Times, 13 November 2009
14. Max Hastings, "The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand", Sunday Times, 15 November 2009.

Sand: "The Invention of the Jewish People", New York, 2011

Sand: "The Invention of the Land of Israel", London, 2013

As a conclusion

Samuel Bak, Loaded, 2008

"While he does not trouble to interrogate […] his own beliefs, Sand does reveal something about their origins. He is, he tells us in his introduction, the admiring Israeli-born grandson of an anti-Zionist Polish Jewish communist, and as a young man growing up in the 1960s in mixed Arab-Jewish Jaffa he dreamed of leaving Israel forever. […] After his army service, […] he went off to Paris to study modern European history, determined to "abandon everything" Israeli. Yet in the end, he writes, speaking of himself in the third person, "despite the alienation [that he felt from Israel], he was overcome by longing for the city in which he had grown up, and so he returned to the painful place where his identity was forged" (Halkin).

Samuel Bak, The Measure of Time, 2006

About the present post
Idea, research, design, text selection, notes and references, links, image selection, and general coordination: Mariano Akerman. A Spanish version of this post including some interpretative remarks about Bak's Measure of Time is available online as El síndrome de Sand.

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