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Sun

26

Oct

2008

Israeli best seller breaks national taboo - Israeli academic and historian says Jewish Nation myth
Sunday, 26 October 2008 09:46

by Jonathan Cook

No 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 biggest taboo.

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.

"Prof. Zand teaches at Tel Aviv University. His book, "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?" (published by Resling in Hebrew), is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a "state of all its citizens" - Jews, Arabs and others - in contrast to its declared identity as a "Jewish and democratic" state. Personal stories, a prolonged theoretical discussion and abundant sarcastic quips do not help the book, but its historical chapters are well-written and cite numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time."
- Haaretz Newspaper
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 equally controversial.

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 Jewish state.

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.

“Zionism changed 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 were legends.

“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 proselytising religion, desperate for converts. “This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time.”

Jews travelled 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 Gurion [Israel’s 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.

“I’ve been criticised 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.”

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.
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david brooks said:

0
...
as a jew who is very pro-Israel (but not absolutist about it) there is nothing inherently troubling in this historical account.

it does not dispute for me the simple reasons I am pro-Israel, thousands of years of strong anti-semitism and no place in the world for a jew to call their own.

it also does not dispute that Israel and Jerusalem have always been the spiritual home of the jewish people.

after that, it is all about how to get there fairly and appropriately. the only "taboo" or "myth" that gets questioned here is that "g-d gave Israel to the jewish people".

in my view over 90% of jewish supporters of Israel have never believed this explicitly any more than other bits of biblical litereral interpretation like creation or the parting of the red sea.
 
October 26, 2008
Votes: +0

Tom Human said:

0
to David Brooks
If there's no historical reason, then how do you justify throwing people out of their homes a couple of generations ago? You can't just say, "We have no place to call our own, so we'll leave our homes, go somewhere else, and throw out the people who live there."

Without the historical background, there would be no justification for treating the "Palestinians" as animals.
 
October 27, 2008
Votes: +1

Shii said:

0
...
David, come to America... you've got family here.
 
October 27, 2008
Votes: +0

Danny Ross said:

0
Israel is, and should remain, a last place of Jewish refuge
The Spanish hated the Jews and sought to convert, murder and exile them. Also the Russians. And the Ukranians. And the Arabs, in many countries. Can it happen in the Americas? Could. There is certainly a strain of anti-Semitism in many countries in the Americas. As for the Palestinians and Arabs in neighboring countries, if they would try to live in peace with Israel, they would not have lost the lands they did, and would not be in exile.
 
October 27, 2008
Votes: +0

Daniel said:

0
Everybody persecutes the Jews?
What is it about the Jews that makes everyone persecute them? Possibly the "we are the chosen people and your not" line just is not a great way to make frineds.
 
October 27, 2008
Votes: +0

georgann marks said:

0
...
how about the quotes from the Talmud telling Jews of their 'responsibility' to cheat non Jews.... to steal and cheat them?

I think anti semitism [especially after 9/11] is a moral imperative. -- sorry... I just don't like them.

and I fear Jews and their power over our government
 
October 27, 2008
Votes: +0

Dave Green said:

0
Read
I read the Yellow Pages. You should see what it says there.
 
October 28, 2008
Votes: +0

Wayne said:

0
Sinner saved by grace
Hate the Jews? Maybe the 10 Commandments have everything to do with the messenger and his self inflicted alienation. Brave hearts!!
 
October 28, 2008
Votes: +0

Jag Pop said:

0
Be careful what you wish for
Theodor Herzl created Israel to cure anti-semitism. He misunderstood anti-semitism. The very first comment on this page, by one David Brooks, reveals so much.
...I am pro-Israel, thousands of years of strong anti-semitism...


No anti-semitism, no Israel. David Brooks didn't tell us whether he was against anti-semitism. Does the zionist have an identity apart from anti-semitism? Would he be willing for anti-semitism to go away if it meant the end of Israel?

The claim of anti-semitism allows zionists to inhabit their own separate moral sphere where murder is not murder, theft is not theft, oppression is not oppression. A zionist can deflect any criticism of the policies of Israel, any at all, with the cry of "anti-semitism". The "anti-semite" is rendered a low person, nay, a non-person - silenced, invisible, separate, apart.

Policies of Israel create hatred. Hatred begets hatred. The zionist, who sees things in his own terms, sees that hatred as "anti-semitism". The zionist is not responsible for anti-semitism, he is the victim only. "Anti-semitism" permits him thus to disconnect himself from responsibilty for the cycle of hatred. Again, he creates his own moral sphere, separate and apart.

Ironically, the so-called "anti-semite", is pushed away. Treated as sub-human, upon whom murder and theft are his own fault. A mirror of what originally motivated Herzl.

So we find modern Israel. Not a cure for anti-semitism. Theodor Herzl theorized about it's source and posited a solution; today anti-semitism has descended from the realm of ideas and emotions down to a visible, concrete 30 foot scar that snakes across that land. A land that has institutionalized walls, separatism, anti-semitism.

it does not dispute for me the simple reasons I am pro-Israel, thousands of years of strong anti-semitism and no place in the world for a jew to call their own.

 
October 28, 2008
Votes: +1

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