Shlomo Sand and the De-Mystification of Jewish History

By Ran Greenstein

Ariel: You ever heard of the Masada? For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers. They chose death before enslavement. The Romans? Where are they now?
Tony Soprano: You’re looking at them, asshole.
— “Denial, Anger, Acceptance,” The Sopranos, Episode 3 (1999)

Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009)
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (London: Verso, 2012)
Shlomo Sand, How I Stopped Being a Jew (London: Verso, 2014)

In a recent article in The Guardian, an extract from his latest book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand made a controversial statement: ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew’. This did not reflect a wish to distance himself from some sort of disreputable identity or a sense of embarrassment about his heritage. Rather, in a more analytical vein, Sand was making a point about the meaning of Jewishness today. What used to be a religious identity, uniting all those who shared the same daily rituals wherever they resided, is no longer so. Observant Jews continue to adhere to a set of centuries-old beliefs and practices that is in essence no different from that of their ancestors, but what about secular Jews? What makes them a ‘group’ sharing an ‘identity’?

Sand’s response is simple: nothing. Secular Jews, in his view, are not a cultural or ethnic group: they do not share language, food, music, family customs, culture, or any other characteristics associated with ethnicity or nationalism. Rather, there are many groups of secular Jews differentiated by their specific geographical and socio-political locations. US secular Jews are part of general American culture, with a slight twist perhaps, and they have very little in common with secular French or Argentine Jews. Israeli secular Jews are another group yet again, probably more distinct in culture than all the other dispersed communities.

Having lost the unifying religious elements in the course of the 20th century, these communities do identify as being Jewish but lack meaningful common cultural or ethnic content. Whatever features they do have in common are largely the legacy of the Yiddish Nation, the massive demographic concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. This group acquired national characteristics – its own language, culture, and territory: the western parts of the Russian Empire and the eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But, it was depleted by mass migration into Western Europe and – primarily – the Americas, followed by the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry. Jewish migrants and their descendants usually kept trace folkloric elements – some linguistic expressions, certain holiday-time dishes, family traditions – viewed with nostalgia, but these became marginal to the most important process: cultural assimilation in their new places of residence.

Because descendants of the Yiddish Nation form the bulk of secular Jews in much of the global Diaspora, their common roots continue to shape their identity in the present to some extent, and this gives the illusion of Jewish secular cultural unity (similar humour, social attitudes, family patterns, and so on). But the shared historical roots cannot disguise the growing integration into different host societies experienced by younger generations, which makes them culturally much closer to their non-Jewish neighbours than to Jews in other countries.

Israel presents a different case, as the only place where Jewish migrants did not assimilate into the existing culture but set out from the start, even as a small minority, to create a new society from scratch based on cultural exclusivity and minimal borrowing from the indigenous population. (Not only Arabs but even indigenous Jews – both of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi traditional origins – were marginalized by the emerging Israeli culture.)  At the same time, we must realize that the crucial role played by Eastern European immigrants in the initial formation of Israeli society did not translate into simple extension of Yiddish culture into the new territory. The distinguishing feature of Israel under the impact of early Zionism was the active rejection of what was referred to as the ‘Diaspora mentality’, and the conscious attempt to create a new territorially-based culture, rooted in local conditions of land settlement, military conflict and nation-building.

To the extent that the new culture drew on Jewish historical legacy, it was a manufactured legacy, remote in time – going back to the Biblical period – and alien to actual Jewish religious traditions as they had developed over centuries in the Diaspora. Ideologically, Zionism sought to create a direct link between the generation experiencing ‘revival’ in the historic Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) and their ancestors who crossed the desert, conquered the land of Canaan in a storm, and established their kingdom, led by epic rulers such as David and Solomon. Having lost their independence due to repeated onslaughts by stronger forces – Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans – the Hebrews/Jews were sent into exile, dispersed all over the world, and remained stateless for millennia, though they retained a distinct national identity. They only managed to reconstitute themselves as independent political subjects with the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, starting a process that culminated with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

From a Zionist perspective, the 1800 years that passed from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Masada, followed by Exile, to the rise of Zionism, were no more than an interim period, in which Jews dreamt about and prayed for the restoration of the ruined homeland. Little that happened during that period merited much attention from the perspective of the Zionist present, which regarded Jewish political sovereignty as the only meaningful form of existence. The 19th century, which saw a rapid growth in nationalist sentiments among minority groups in the multi-national Eastern and Central European empires, made it possible for Jews as well to rekindle their national spirit and to put the quest for renewed independence on practical footing. The never-severed historical link with the ancient homeland was crucial in giving the quest a clear territorial focus under conditions of dispersal. Jews moved from place to place over the years but only a return to the Land of Israel changed their position from that of helpless minorities to a nation fully in control of its own destiny.

Sand’s first book in what became a trilogy, The Invention of the Jewish People, was dedicated to challenging the foundations of this Zionist approach, with a focus on the invented or imagined nature of Jewish nationhood. The great interest in the book and its unexpected commercial success prompted him to write his second, The Invention of the Land of Israel, which sought to debunk the centrality of Palestine/Israel as a concrete geographical entity – as opposed to a sacred space – in Jewish history. The third book is more of a personal exploration of issues related to Israeli and Jewish culture and politics today, without making claims to engaging in historical scholarship.

It is precisely such claims in the earlier books (especially the first one) that made Sand’s work controversial, and him both reviled and celebrated beyond the walls of academia, to which most scholarship is normally confined. What was it that raised people’s interest and ire? To understand that, we need to locate his intervention in a political-academic context.

Since the late 1980s a new wave of critical scholarship has become prominent in Israeli academic life. Dozens of historical and sociological studies have addressed core issues of Israel’s formative period that had been off limits until then, and examined old questions from new perspectives. These studies facilitated discussion of the role of intra- and inter-ethnic exclusion and discrimination in the formation of the Israeli labour market, the centrality of ethnic cleansing, above all the 1948 Nakba, in creating a Jewish demographic majority in Israel, the cultivation of a militarist culture as the foundation of Israeli internal politics and external diplomacy, the oppressive nature of the post-1948 regime both in relation to Palestinian citizens and Mizrahi immigrant Jews, the development of colonial-type practices and social relations in the post-1967 occupied territories, and the growing transformation of Israel into a society bearing strong family resemblances to apartheid South Africa.

All these studies had a clear focus on present conditions and their immediate historical background, going back to the early 20th century. In their own ways, they opened up for public debate issues and events that were still within many people’s living memory and to which they could relate directly through their personal experience or that of their parents. With his first book on the invention of the Jewish people Sand went further back in time. With a ‘blast from the past’ he reached for processes and events centuries and even millennia old, which resided in the realms of legend, sacred myth and foundational truths. However, while his challenge to such basic ‘truths’ was disconcerting, it was also comforting. It was disconcerting because he raised doubts regarding core beliefs about Jewish origins (in Israel and elsewhere), but it was comforting in a way that the notorious New Historians and critical sociologists were not. While they examined the foundations of Israeli society, offering an analysis that potentially threatened people’s social and political positions, Sand’s challenge dealt with matters of no immediate concern.

Did the Romans forcibly exile the Jews of the Land of Israel or did Jews emigrate from there in search of better economic opportunities long before the Destruction of the Temple, as Sand claimed? Were Jews always ‘a people that dwells alone’ or did they embark on successful mass campaigns to convert pagans? Were Ashkenazi Jews of German origins as everyone assumed, or did they have Central Asian ancestors in the shape of the Khazars as asserted by Sand? All these are fascinating historical questions indeed, but the answers to them were of very limited relevance to current social and political realities in Israel or to the conflict with Palestinians. Sand’s answers were radical, even heretical, but they did not pose a threat to the status quo: there was no real price to pay for the new truths he provided to the reading public.

His fellow scholars were less comfortable with his work. Their common response pointed out that some of the new truths were not ‘new’ and others were not ‘truths’. That the Romans did not force the mass of Jews into exile, except perhaps for a thin layer of political and religious leaders; that Jews had already spread voluntarily into a diaspora long before the Roman conquest, in Babylon, Egypt, North Africa, and Greece; and that the bulk of ordinary Jews remained in the country and later adopted Christianity and then Islam, were well-known facts to historians, the critics argued, and Sand did not reveal anything new here.

That before Christianity acquired its dominant position Jewish rulers and employers had encouraged some of their subordinates to convert to Judaism was also known, though the scale and spread of that practice is disputed. Critics accuse Sand of inflating its scope by transforming conversion – forcible or voluntary, individual or group-based – from one among many contributions to Jewish demographic growth into the primary factor, without grounding such claims in solid empirical evidence, using instead meagre, fragmented and contradictory sources. That Sand is not a historian of antiquity or the Near East (his disciplinary specialization is modern France), does not help his case among professional colleagues. He is regarded by many as an ‘intruder’, who pursues a political agenda and, in the process, fits the evidence to a pre-conceived argument.

The best known but perhaps least documented case invoked by Sand is that of the Khazars, who supposedly converted en masse to Judaism in the 9th century and subsequently moved from their homeland between the Black and Caspian seas into Eastern Europe, and formed the core component of what became Ashkenazi Jewry. The thesis is not new – it has been around since the 19th century – and evidence for it is flimsy. If indeed the Khazars were the ancestors of present-day Ashkenazim, why did they not leave any unambiguous trace of their culture, language and religious practices or any historical memory of this relationship (in a culture in which literacy – for men – was common)? Khazar converts may have joined to the Ashkenazi population but there simply is no evidence to show what their contribution was, if any.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Sand is right about the Jewish past. What difference does this make for claims made in the Jewish present? The answer depends on how we understand the political claims made in the name of the linkage between ancient and modern Jews.

From a religious point of view, the link is spiritual in nature, based on people’s beliefs and practices. Their genetic origins are irrelevant. If the Khazars adopted the Jewish religion, they became indistinguishable from other Jews and share entitlements and liabilities equally with the rest.

From a mainstream Zionist point of view, the claim to Palestine as a Jewish homeland is based on historical attachment to the Land of Israel, which makes it the only viable destination for mass immigration aimed to resolve persecution in the Diaspora. If the Khazars and their descendants adopted this sense of history and suffered persecution like all other Jews, they are equally entitled to ‘return’ to the homeland. Genetic origins are irrelevant.

It is only from a racial-biological point of view that the genetic origins of the Ashkenazim matter. If they are not really descended from the original Hebrews or residents of Judea in Roman times, the validity of their claim to return is lost. But which Zionists base their political claims on biology? Sand makes it appear as if it were the standard position, and it may indeed be a common assumption at the popular level, but most political and religious thinkers in the history of Zionism have based their claim on other grounds, those of religious beliefs and values, historical consciousness, ethnic identity, and present-day needs. Such claims can also be criticised, of course, but this can be done effectively only when their actual arguments are addressed.

It is true, as Sand argues, that genetic research and ‘evidence’ that all Jews share common ancestry and can trace their origins – at some undefined remove – to ancient Palestine, has become popular in the last two decades but its role in political debate is marginal and it is largely confined to the scientific community (with occasional forays into popular culture). What this means then is that whatever the truth about the Khazar component in Ashkenazi origins is, its political implications are weak to non-existent.

Setting aside the inflated claims above, Sand’s main argument is clear and convincing: the majority of Jews today are not direct descendants of the residents of 1st-century Judea, and the majority of the descendants of those residents of Judea are not Jews; most likely they are present-day Palestinians, as some early Zionist leaders – Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi – speculated. There is little doubt that this is historically correct. The notion of “The Jewish People,” as a singular entity moving through space and time in an unchanged form, retaining its core being intact, is an ahistorical ideological fiction. Jews throughout history consisted of diverse and dispersed communities of people unified by their religious practices. They did not live together in a single place ruled by a state to which all of them owed allegiance. There is no possible ‘return’ to a state of being that never existed. Zionism, with its notion of reconstruction of the ancient glory of pre-exile Jewish political independence, is seeking to create something entirely new in the name of a fabricated past.

The real Jewish history is a combination of expansion, inter-mixture, and assimilation, together with social isolation and the keeping of self-imposed as well as externally-imposed boundaries. These tendencies have co-existed in a state of tension for centuries, with a different balance between the components, depending on specific time and place. Following the great historian Salo Baron, we must abandon ‘the lachrymose conception of Jewish history’, which sees in it nothing beyond blood and tears, isolation, humiliation, persecution, and misery. Instead, we should celebrate the periods of fruitful cultural and social integration and cosmopolitan creativity (in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the Islamic Abbasid and Fatimid Empires, the Spanish Golden Age, the Ottoman period, and the Atlantic world from the early modern period to the present). This could serve as a much-needed correction to the tribalist versions of Jewish history advanced by Zionism, and also as a model for putting Jewish identity today on new foundations.

In a similar manner, there is little doubt about the validity of Sand’s main claim in The Invention of the Land of Israel, that it only became a target for plans of immigration, settlement and political control in the 19th century. Sand attributes that change to the interest in Palestine shown by English Protestants at the time. But, of course, we must add to this explanation the spread of European colonial rule over Asian and African territories, and the development of new transportation and communication technologies, which were crucial in making the mythical quest feasible as a concrete task – in the here and now – for the first time.

Before that, Palestine was regarded as sacred space, invoked in prayers and seen as the location for the long-anticipated messianic redemption, but not a concrete geographical space to which people could move in practice. ‘Next year in re-built Jerusalem’ is a traditional Passover Seder incantation, but it was never meant as a call for action. The portrayal of Jews as ever-ready for return to the Holy Land, if only conditions were ripe for that, has nothing to do with the real aspirations of Jews in the Diaspora or with logistics: even Jews living nearby, say in Cairo, Beirut or Damascus, had never shown an interest in the actual Land of Israel before the 19th century, preferring to stick with its mythical representation in prayer and ritual.

Re-inventing the Land of Israel as a geo-political territory involves more than identifying it with the physical extent of Israeli military control. It has two related internal dimensions: highlighting sites in it that can be linked to the history of the Jewish People and hiding from view what cannot be so linked, especially if it evokes the Islamic and Arab heritage. While Christian sites are acknowledged – it would not be wise to do otherwise for reasons of diplomacy and tourism – the Palestinian, Arab, Islamic past challenges exclusive claims to ownership advanced by Zionist ideology. This applies in particular to hundreds of villages and towns that remained abandoned as a result of the 1948 Nakba, when their Palestinian residents were prevented from reclaiming their homes. Most were destroyed and their names erased – literally – from the map. In many cases new Jewish settlements were built on these sites and given Biblical or Talmudic names as a way of annexing them retroactively to the eternally-Jewish Land of Israel.

If Jews were never forcibly exiled from the Land of Israel, and do not come from there originally, they had no historical right to return to it, let alone claim it exclusively as their own. If Palestinian Arabs are the true descendants of the ancient Judeans, their dispossession by Zionist-led settlers makes even less sense and is even more devoid of justification than it otherwise might be. And yet, Sand is careful to avoid two potential political errors:

(1) His argument does not hinge on biology or genetics as a reason to accept or deny the logic of Zionism. Although he rejects the notion of biological continuity between ancient and modern Jews, this does not serve him to ignore the intensity of religious feelings or the validity of nationalist sentiments. He is fully aware that nations, all of them, are imagined in a creative process that uses but does not depend on historical evidence for claims to antiquity, authenticity and eternity. The exchange between Ariel and Tony Soprano demonstrates this is not a process unique to Jews. The absence of such evidence in the case of Zionist Jews does nothing to undermine their identity. He seems to know better than to expect that the debunking of historical myths would result in weakening the political movements and national solidarities built on their foundations.

(2) He is not calling for historical reversal. There is no going back. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Zionist-inspired immigration process to Israel/Palestine, and whatever the myths that made it possible, the Jews who went there and their descendants are here to stay. They may not have been a ‘nation’ or a ‘people’ before their move, but, having lived together as an organized community for a century, they have become a full-fledged Israeli national group, with the same rights to collective existence and political expression as any other. The key questions here are the boundaries of the group: is it confined to Jews who live in Israel or can it include all Israeli citizens regardless of their ethnic or religious background? What is the relation between this Israeli group and Jews elsewhere? What are the political implications of these identity boundaries?

Sand comes out in favour of an Israeli identity that is not defined or confined by Jewishness, whether historical or contemporary:

I know that by insisting that only my historical past was Jewish, while my everyday present (for better or worse) is Israeli, and finally that my future and that of my children (at least the future I wish for) must be guided by universal, open and generous principles, I run counter to the dominant fashion, which is oriented towards ethnocentrism.… I am myself a part of the cultural, linguistic and even conceptual production of the Zionist enterprise, and I cannot undo this. By my everyday life and my basic culture I am an Israeli. I am not especially proud of this, just as I have no reason to take pride in being a man with brown eyes and of average height. I am often even ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel military colonization, with its weak and defenseless victims who are not part of the ‘chosen people’.

While the Israeli culture Sand wishes to be part of draws heavily on traditions developed by Jews over centuries, and symbols and practices associated with Judaism, it is open to Israeli non-Jews and is not shared by non-Israeli Jews. In other words, there is some overlap between Israeli and Jewish identities today, due to their common historical heritage, but they are distinct in two important ways that involve inter- and intra-ethnic relations.

Israeli culture initially was shaped by Zionist-leaning Ashkenazi immigrants and their descendants, and after 1948 by other waves of Jewish immigrants primarily from Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Palestinian citizens of Israel have made a contribution as well, especially from the 1980s onwards. This mixture of local and foreign components is not replicated anywhere in the Diaspora, dominated as it is by Ashkenazi Jews (with the possible exception of France), and is a unique product. It includes Mizrahi Jewish and Palestinian Arab elements, which may be marginalized socially and politically but exert their powerful impact anyway.

The intra-ethnic divide between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel is mentioned by Sand but hardly features in his discussion. It is interesting to note that it is a crucial issue in debates on culture in Israel today, due to the emergence of a new generation of Mizrahi intellectuals and media activists who have brought it to the attention of the public in visible and powerful ways. It is curious that Sand does not devote more attention to it, since it serves to highlight the difference between Israeli and Jewish cultures. His focus on the Ashkenazim, due to their numerically and culturally dominant position in modern Jewish history, is responsible for this omission, the impact of which on the overall argument needs further exploration.

The inter-ethnic divide, between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens, is mentioned as well, but discussed very briefly in its implications for understanding contemporary culture. Granted that Sand is not primarily interested in Israeli culture as such, but rather in debunking the notion of a secular Jewish identity (independent of religion), he could have made a bit more of the local Arab elements that have shaped overall Israeli culture and contributed to distinguishing it from Jewish cultures elsewhere. As in the case of Mizrahi Jews, such a discussion would have strengthened his argument about the uniqueness of Israeli identity.

But Sand’s focus is elsewhere, on the hollow nature of what passes for contemporary Jewish secular culture. He regards the notion as bogus, reflecting a nostalgic attachment for an identity that no longer exists. What has replaced the lost foundations of identity – language, religion, culture – is a new-found political symbolism centered on the Holocaust and the State of Israel, usually seen in complementary terms. Secular Jews worldwide have little else to unify them today, he says.

The Holocaust and Israel are related in time – going back to the 1940s – as well as thematically: the Jewish identity discourse frequently links them in a kind of sin-redemption, or punishment-reward, type of interrelations. To put it in language much used on official occasions: only three years after the weak and defenseless Jewish People had experienced its most terrible defeat, it rose like a phoenix from the ashes and, in a show of military might, returned to the Family of Nations. Seen in these terms, the two events became foundational for the new secular Jewish sense of identity.

The military aspect of the birth of Israel has been a source of particular pride for many Jews who adhere to Zionist notions of identity, as they see in it a reversal of the traditional image of the Diaspora Jew as being meek and weak, neurotic and over-spiritual, hanging up in the air and not grounded enough in land and industry and other manly pursuits. In the absence of any positive cultural, religious and spiritual content to define them, these secular Jews turn to state symbols and rituals as a substitute: the flag, anthem, uniforms, weapons, visits to historical sites such as Masada, celebrating bar-mitzvahs at the Wailing Wall, planting a tree at JNF forest, donating money to Israel and its agencies, participating at AIPAC events, taking part in a march for or celebration of Israel, and so on. All these have nothing to do with traditional Judaism but allow people to identify with fellow Jews and thus give their sense of affiliation as Jews some practical but superficial meaning.

In distancing himself from this form of Jewish identification, Sand follows in the footsteps of the great scholar and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an orthodox Jew who pioneered the critique of the cult of state/military worship – a form of Fascism in his view – that became dominant among Israelis and Jewish supporters overseas in the post-1967 period. But, unlike Leibowitz, who was known for his advocacy of Jewish religious observance based on commitment to a divine authority, albeit one that plays no role in human history, morality and politics, Sand is thoroughly secular. Having rejected religion on personal grounds, and having rejected Jewish secular identity on historical grounds, he remains unable to identify with any form of Judaism. Hence the title of his last book: How I Stopped Being a Jew.

This stance would leave many people who otherwise like his historical analysis with a quandary. Does Judaism really allow only two options: meaningful but self-isolating and oppressive religious orthodoxy on the one hand, and hollow secularism focused on symbols of (Israeli) state power? What about Isaac Deutscher’s ‘Non-Jewish Jews’, from Spinoza through Heine and Marx to Trotsky, Luxemburg and Freud, who developed a radical critique of religious obscurantism and bourgeois complacency? What about progressive Jewish scholars and public intellectuals such as Arendt, Butler, Chomsky, Derrida, Gordimer, Judt, Kimmerling, Magnes, Scholem, and many others, motivated in large part by their sense of Judaism as a secular moral and political force? And what about creative artists like John Zorn, Leonard Cohen, Michael Chabon, Harold Pinter, Roman Polanski, and Art Spiegelman, who bring special Jewish sensitivity to their work without identifying either with religion or with Israel?

Sand’s secularism is of a particular Israeli-Ashkenazi variety that allows no compromise between tribal religious orthodoxy and universalist humanism. It fails to recognize the many gradations, from liberal humanism that allows for ethnic specificity (in the US in particular) to Mizrahi Jewish traditionalism that combines respect for religious practices with tolerance for deviations from orthodox rigidity. Being true to his classical secular Israeli upbringing in the 1950s-60s, based on strict separation between tradition and modernity, Sand ignores the living realities of many progressive Jews in the Diaspora, who care about their Jewish identity and see no need to choose between the mutually exclusive alternatives offered by him.

On the positive side, Sand’s entire body of scholarly work expresses support for an open, democratic, integrative Israeli culture, reflecting the real Jewish historical heritage of mixture and incorporation of different groups as converts, neighbours, allies. This heritage needs to be examined further and used as a basis from which to oppose the tribal, ethnocentric, xenophobic, and oppressive version of Jewish identity that is dominant today in Israel and among its blind loyalists – by no means Jewish only – overseas. Sand’s work leaves many questions unanswered, but it opens the way to productive explorations in the same vein.

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