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Editorial Article

Tel Aviv University - Shlomo Sand's Revisionist Pseudo-History of the Jewish People

Seth J. Frantzman
December 5th, 2008

It must come as news to the Ethiopian Jews or to Ovadiah Yosef. You are not Jews at all! You were invented in Germany in the 19th century. This must be news for Rabbi Yosef because he has had a decidedly controversial relationship with Ashkenazi Jews, the Holocaust and the Reform movement, the last of which are especially linked to German Jewry. How surprising for Ethiopian Jews to learn that they were invented in Germany in the 19th century.

These are but two examples of people who will be quite shocked to read the newest book by Tel Aviv University historian, Prof. Shlomo Sand; Matai ve'ech humtza ha'am hayehudi? (When and How the Jewish People Was Invented?; Published by Resling, in Hebrew). But the Sand's book is not unique. It follows in the footsteps of others and was the logical outgrowth of other attempts by Israeli intellectuals and academics to 'smash idols' and write 'controversial' works about Jewishness. Such treatises are composed partly out of a desire to get themselves noticed, published and get some cash, or out of a need to feel that they are being 'original'.

Sand's point of departure, like most critics of Jewish nationalism, is that the Jewish national movement is not only morally wrong but that it must be based on a myth, on the Benedict Anderson idea of an 'imagined community.' When one begins to write a book or do a study whose conclusion has already been reached, it necessitates uncovering "sources" to prove it and ignoring any source which contradicts it. This decidedly un-scientific method leads to pseudo-scholarly revisionist writing about history, which, as has been illustrated by the works of Ilan Pappe, can pick and choose sources as one sees fit. Sand refers to this process as 'historiography.'

Historiography is the analysis of how history is written. To give but one example, it would not address the history of the Holocaust but rather the history of how and why people have written about the Holocaust. Thus a historiography of the Jewish people is not a history of the Jewish people so much as a history of how people have written about them. Paul Kriwaczek's Yiddish Civilization and Tudor Parfitt's The Lost Tribes of Israel, have shown to some extent that Jews themselves were not always interested in writing their own history. This supposedly adds to the Sand thesis because it allows him to claim that absent of Jews writing their own history, their history was created by Europeans and then invented in the 19th century. But Jews didn't need to write history books about themselves, they had the Talmud and other rich sources, living histories learned in the Yeshiva, and so they did not need to write history.

Sand describes his own venture into historic revisionism as an exploration in historiography, and notes: "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 takes historiography one step further and rather then analyzing simply how Jews wrote about themselves in the 19th century he goes one step further and creates a new history of the Jewish people. So the Sand ideology was not just to write about how people wrote about Jews. Sand, who was once active in the Israeli splinter Maoist group Matzpen, also wanted to learn about stories of conversions to Judaism and then to connect those strands into a theory that claimed that all Jews everywhere are the descendants of converts. That being the case, Jewish peoplehood must itself be a fabrication, one invented in 19th century Germany, notably contemporaneous with the antecedents of Nazism. For Sand this is not a coincidence, because then Zionism can be shown to be similar to Nazism, is proven illegitimate, and so Israel should not exist at all. This is quite a novel way to rewrite history.

Before Sand there was Arthur Koestler and his The Thirteenth Tribe, published in 1976, which argued that all Eastern European Jews, the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry, were descendants of the Khazars, a kingdom that converted to Judaism. The Zionist Koestler's goal was to convince the world that Jews are indeed an interesting, exotic, group of people, deserving of respect and interest. The anti-Zionist Sand's goals are the opposite.

Meanwhile, Koestler's book has been distorted and misused by neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists to "prove" that today's Jews are Khazar interlopers, with no legitimate claims to the land of Israel. Sand's book seems to be popular among the same crowd. As one illustration, on Amazon.com one finds that large numbers of those who today buy Koestler's book also buy Holocaust Denial and Neo-Nazi books. These include a book that is described as "The Synagogue of Satan is the first book ever to document the secret history of the evil conspirators responsible for wars, revolutions, and financial debacles around the world. It is a virtual encyclopedia of fresh new information and facts unmasking the Jewish Illuminati elite and their sinister goals and hidden influence." So Sand is now connected to the same crowd of book writers who claim that Zionism is Nazism, that Zionism is ethnic-cleansing, and that the Holocaust is an 'industry' exploited by the Jews for money.

In his Haaretz interview with Sand, Ofri Ilani explains the Sand thesis: "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." Sand rests his 'proof' on a simplistic deconstructing of history, one based on him being an expert on 20th century history. Sand claims that "the reason is that no one exiled the [Jewish] 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 not exiled." This begs the question how exactly the Mongols made it all the way to Eastern Europe, with no trains and trucks. It also begs the questions of other mass migrations, including about how Arabs ended up in Morocco.

For Sand "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." But this begs a further question: Why not call the Palestinians 'Jews' if he truly believes this? Sand's 'evidence' for this is: "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." Some proof, a single old citation taken out of context!

This illustrates the typical pattern of misuse of history and selective quotes to 'prove' things that were never intended to be proven by the individual being cited. For instance when someone objects to the term 'indigenous' being used for the Arab Muslim Palestinians, one is always told to 'read Jabotinsky' because he referred to them as the 'indigenous' inhabitants. Similarly Sand ignores the origins of the Ben-Zvi citations. Ben-Zvi was not alone in believing that the rural peasantry of Palestine were descendants of the Jewish people. General Charles Gordon, who was in the Holy Land in 1883, and like Ben-Zvi and Sand was a self studied expert on the history of the Land of Israel, claimed that one could clearly see the Jewish people's original facial structure in the faces of the Fellahin.

But which is the myth here? Gordon also believed he had found the 'true' tomb of Christ outside Damascus Gate at a place called the Garden Tomb. He believed rumours at the time that some of the Bedouin tribes practiced Judaism. There are even some Rabbis today who claim that they have found Jews among several Palestinian families in the Hebron hills.

The source of the 'Palestinian Fellahin as Jews' idea is not original to Sand, and it's also not true that every Zionist believed this wholeheartedly. What is true is that leading Zionists from the late 19th and early 20th century did see among the Fellahin a people that were descendants of the Jews, just as they themselves were, and they felt that if the Fellahin could be freed from their Muslim and nationalist leaders that they would return to Judaism, just like, year later, some Ethiopian Jews who had converted to Christianity (referred to as Falash Mura) were encouraged to return, along with the Morranos. But the existence of some Ethiopian Jews-turned Christians or Morranos was never said to make the rest of the Ethiopian Jews or Sephardim not Jewish, they were simply some people who had been disconnected and should be brought back to Judaism. Sand takes the argument further and says the Palestinians are the real Jews, a fact that might be surprising to some of the Jerusalemite families such as the Dajanis who believe they are descendants from great Muslim Arabs of the 7th century. It might be a surprise to some of the light skinned Hebronite Arabs who are reputed descendants of the Crusaders. Or maybe the Jews are descendants of the Crusaders who borrowed their ideology from the Nazis, anything is possible in the Sand reading of history which requires new myths be used to replace what he sees as old myths. Not so unlike General Gordon's creation of a new 'tomb of Jesus' to replace what he saw as the mythical tomb of Jesus in the Holy Sepulchre.

Sand has a theory for everything. For him the Sephardim are actually descendents from Berber tribes. "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 conquered Spain, 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 should look up the meaning of the term "non sequitur."

There is a slight problem here because Sand has also claimed that Zionism has no claim to land in the Arab world because the Jews were invented in Europe and thus belong in Europe. But if some of the Jews are Berbers, then don't they deserve a state someplace in North Africa? Aren't they the 'indigenous' people of North Africa? Sand might dismiss that idea as imperialist colonialism.

Sand revives the long-disproved Koestler myth about the Khazars being the fathers of East European Jewry; "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 eastward." He delves into demography, which is another thing in which he has no expertise. He ignores problems with the claims that a half million Palestinian refugees now number 9 million people.

As it turns out, the Khazars were dispersed and disappeared between the 10th and 13th centuries. Sand claims that it is demographically probable that they were the fathers of the 3 million Polish Jews who existed in the 20th century. Never mind that they have no Khazar family names, spoke Yiddish, and contained numerous Cohens and Levis who could not possibly be of Khazar ancestry (such status is passed through the patrilinear line and cannot be obtained via conversion). Demography actually tells us that it is far more likely that German Jewish immigrants became the millions of Jews of Eastern Europe through migration and natural growth.

Sand's theories are all predicated on his basic view that Jews have no right to be in Israel at all. "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." Sand does not believe the Jewish people exist, except perhaps as Arab Palestinians. He does believe that there is a 'Yiddish' people, the descendants of Khazars, and also an 'Israeli' people that have nothing to do with Jewishness. Sand's 'Israelis' are connected to the old ideology of Canaanism, which was once an ideological fad among some Israeli intellectuals who believed the creation of Israel would lead to the creation of a new people of Hebrew-speaking Canaanites, the new Israelis

According to Ron Kuzar, himself a radical leftist, "The Canaanites redefined the forming nation as a new Hebrew (rather than Jewish) nation which had its roots in the glorious days of the Biblical era. They claimed that large parts of the Middle East, which they named the Land of Kedem (kedem 'East/antiquity'), constituted in antiquity a Hebrew-speaking civilization. Hence the Hebrew renaissance should aspire to rebuild a nation based on the same geographical area, which should embrace the whole local population, liberating them from Islam and from pan-Islamic and pan-Arab tendencies."

Canaanism was a small splinter movement made up of poets and intellectuals, some of whom became members of the revisionist underground groups, the Etzel and Lehi, and some later became extremist anti-Israel leftists. One-time adherents to Canaanism or fellow travelers include Uri Avnery, author of Israel without Zionists: a plea for peace, Meron Benvenisti, and Boaz Evron, author of Jewish State or Israeli.

Sand identifies with those he sees as the "actual Jews," the Palestinians, noting, "If I were a Palestinian I would rebel." Meaning become a terrorist? For Sand, Israel is based upon "an ethnocentric, biological, genetic discourse." Of course Palestinian nationalism, is not. In Sand's upside-down world, the Palestinians, who by and large never considered themselves to be a people at all before 1967, are an unchallengeable ethnic-nation, while the oldest ethnic-nation on earth, the Jews, are a bunch of interloping converts with no entitlement to self-determination.

Sand's prescriptions for a non-Jewish Israeliness appear mild; "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." In short, the Palestinians, who are the real Jews, need more memorials inside Israel, but the other Jews, the 'Yiddish' and 'Israeli' nations, do not. Sand is modest in his description of himself:; "As a historian it is my duty to write history and examine texts. This is what I have done."

But Sand also has a radical alternative: "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 exist." But Sand's theory is also part of his re-definition of himself: "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." So Sand is a self-defined Khazar who identifies with the real Jews, the Palestinians, and would join them if only he were a real Jew like they are; but he is not, he is a Khazar.

It is hard to debate the Sand discourse because it is so convoluted, based on so many dubious assumptions, so out-of-step with the history he claims to understand, including demography, technology, and the movements of people. Nevertheless, it is necessary to point out several key flaws with it.

The Sand belief that Jewish nationalism is connected to other European nationalism is not unique. His belief that Zionism must be subjected to the same critique of nationalism as other nationalisms is also neither unique nor problematic. Sand claims that the search for a 'mythical' Jewish past is connected to the interest of Greek nationalism in Classical Greece or German nationalism's interest in the Teutonic tribes. So for Sand "at 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."

But what is strange is that no one denies that the German people may live in Germany or that Greek people may live in Greece. Even though modern German nationalism may be illegitimate and the Greeks are in large part descendants from Slavic migrants rather than Pericles and Homer, no one says that Greece should be given to Turkey or Germany given to Russia. Germans and Greeks get to keep Germany and Greece, even if their old nationalist myths are false. But the Jews, alone among the world's peoples, are said to have a national myth which makes them illegitimate as owners of a state. Books such as Japan's Modern Myth by Roy Andrew Miller critique Japanese national myths, but don't suggest the Japanese should be expelled back to Korea, whence some claim they came, nor that China should be given Japan. But for people like Sand, that is the implication: the Jews must go, so that the 'real Jews', the Palestinians, can have their ethnic-nationalist state.

Herein lies the second problem with the Sand thesis. He holds the Jews to a very "high standard," claiming that because some people converted to Judaism over the last two thousand years, therefore all modern Jews are descendants from converts. But he does not hold the Muslim Arab Palestinians to a similarly high standard. For him, their nationalism is legitimate, and he sees in them the ancient Jewish tribes and perhaps Canaanites. Hence they necessarily predate and have more legitimacy than the modern Jews.

But any critique of nationalism should be the same for all peoples, including Jews and Arabs. The Arabs cannot be painted as a homogenous people who are allowed a mythical national narrative, while the Jews are said to be no more than a myth. For Sand this is precisely what happens. In fact he helps create a mythical Palestinian history in order to tear down Jewish history. This is de facto anti-Semitism, the holding of the Jews to a different standard than other peoples, singling them out for special hatred and contempt, while raising up other peoples.

Furthermore Sand's argument that Jews are either Berbers, ancient Yemenite "remnants of the Himyar Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century," or Khazars should actually mean that Jews have a right to three new states; Yemen, Algeria and perhaps Azerbaijan. Instead, for Sand the Jews deserve no state, which means once again they are alone among the world's peoples in not being allowed self-determination, even in their supposed forms as descendents of Yemenites, Berbers and Khazars.

Another problem with the Sand thesis is that it is Eurocentric and allows for the idea that only the Europeans "invented" the Jews. Since those Jews were then said, by anti-Semites, to control Europe, as per the Elders of Zion, the same Europeans decided to exterminate the Jews they had, according to Sand, created. This predicates Jewish existence on whatever Europeans decide. Europeans create the Jews, then hate them, then accuse them of controlling the world, then exterminate them, and now claim all Jews are really Europeans.

But who are Europeans? What is their pedigree? Why are their states legitimate? This is a problem that returns us to the old ghosts of the colonialistic past, where Europeans practiced pseudo-scientific anthropology wherever they went, creating 'martial tribes' and describing others as 'naturally slaves.' But it is a circular argument. European civilization into the 1950s was based on Christianity and the original anti-Semitism was inspired by Christianity. Yet now we hear that Europeans invented the Jews, the very people from which Jesus sprung.

There is also an entrenched racism behind the Sand thesis. Sand is welcome to think that the Ashkenazi elite of Israel is based on a mythical history, but by what right does he claim that the Sephardim were 'invented' in Europe? When European civilization consisted of people clubbing eachother to death, the Jews of Babylon were a rich community of intellectuals and scholars. Today's European wants to believe he created the Jews, but Christian European civilization and Islamic civilization could not have arisen without the Jews first existing. Both traditions were built upon the existence of the Jews.

Furthermore it is quite alarming to have a professor at a leading Israeli university point to the Sephardim, the Ethiopians, and the Yemenite Mizrachim, all who happen to be darker skinned Jews, and say 'we created you; you are a myth; you are based in Europe; your heritage is a lie.' Their heritage is actually older than that of the Ashkenazi Jews. Is it just a coincidence that the Sand's condemnation of the Sephardic, Mizrachi and Ethiopian heritages targets those Jews who happen to be of darker skin? These are also people who came as refugees from the Islamic world (except for Ethiopian Jews who came from Orthodox Christian Ethiopia), their rich heritage destroyed and crushed and their lives broken, only to try to succeed in Israeli society. They are now being told by an Austrian-born Israeli academic that they are a myth. They are being told they should be deported 'back' to Europe, their 'origin', a continent that genocided the Jews when the Jews lived there.

But the Sand thesis has one other simple problem: history. Sand chose to pick and choose sources, Christian or anti-Semitic, that agreed with him, just as Dr. Ariel Toaff 'proved' that the Blood Libel was true in Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murder (he used Jewish confessions extracted under torture to 'prove' that the Jews 'might' have drank the blood of Christian children). But he misses the real history.

Apion, who lived from 20 B.C to 45 A.D, wrote anti-Jewish works and encouraged communal riots against Jews. In 70 A.D the Jews of Judea revolted against Rome and their polity was destroyed. In 118 the Jews of Cyrus and North Africa revolted against their Roman and Greek administrators and massacres resulted. In 415 A.D Theodosius II of Byzantium forbade Jews from holding public office. In the 7th century Mohammed complained that the Jews refused to recognize him and he exterminated one of the Jewish tribes of Arabia. In 1096 Crusader knights massacred Jews in the Rhine valley on their way to the Holy Land. In 1148 the Almohades conquered Cordoba and ordered the Jews to convert, die or leave. Many fled, including the family of Maimonides. In 1290 Edward I of England expelled the Jews from his country. In 1306 Philip IV of France expelled the Jews from his France. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain. In 1543 Martin Luther published his anti-Semitic Jewish text, On the Jews and Their Lies. In 1573 Jews were expelled from Berlin. In the Chemielnicki massacre of 1648 some 300 Jewish communities were destroyed in the Ukraine by Cossacks. In 1821 the first recorded Pogrom took place in Odessa.

Who were these Jews, who appear so often in history, in official edicts of expulsion, and tractates of anti-Semitism? Sand would have us believe that they were all imaginary and mythical characters. So then why did so many of them have to die over the years? Why were 6 million of them exterminated? Why were their caricatures of Jews sucking at the breasts of sows in Germany, while they were ordered to wear special clothes, enter through special gates and live in segregated ghettos, locked at night?

That is the ultimate question. If the Jews never really existed, then why did Islam and Christianity spend so much time suppressing them?

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Op-Ed articles appearing on IsraCampus.Org.il are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinion of IsraCampus.Org.il