Israeli historian explains 'invention of Jewish people'

'As a historian, I try and predict the past'

Professor Shlomo Sand takes on

thorny issue of Zionist myths

at New York University.

By Philip Weiss - NEW YORK

At NYU, devilish Shlomo Sand predicts

the Jewish past and pastes the Zionists

Of all the events I've covered surrounding

Jewish identity and Israel in the last year,

none has given me so much pleasure

as the lecture last night by Shlomo Sand

at NYU on the Invention of the Jewish People.

Most events I go to are grinding, awful,

heartrending, often with lamentations

and pictures of mutilated children.

This one was pure intellectual deviltry of

the highest order by a Pavarotti of the lecture hall.

And while it was fiercely anti-Zionist and

included references to the mutilated children,

it left me in just an incredibly elated mood.

For I saw real light at the end of the tunnel,

and not the horrifying dimness that surrounds

almost all other events that deal with

Israel politics here– for instance with

the neoconservative Weekly Standard's disgusting

pursuit of J Street.

This pleasure was entirely Shlomo Sand's achievement.

He walked by me going down to the lectern and

I noticed his physical vanity at once.

He had expensive shoes on, designer jeans

or cords, a zipup black jacket and a black shirt

under that unbuttoned to the sternum.

He is lean and mid-60sish, and behaves

like a player. His beard is cut in an

interesting manner, he wears designer glasses.

I wondered if he dyed his hair. All glorious devil.

Sand has an excitable, self-referential style,

and he began the lecture by breaking his guitar.

"Jewish history is not my field." No, but once

he had discovered that the story

of the connection of the Jewish people

to the Holy Land was a myth, he decided

that he would secretly explore the history

but not publish until he got tenure

for doing other work. Because if he

published this first, "there would not be

any chance of being a full professor.

Not only in Tel Aviv. But at NYU too."

Everyone laughed, but Sand said,

"That is not a joke. I must write the book

after I see that no one could touch me really.

" More devil. Though Sand is right. This is no joke.

Sand studies European history, but Israel

has a separate department in every

school for Jewish history, and Zionists run

these departments. "I have not a right

to write about Jewishness." The Zionist history

holds that the Jews have

an ancient connection biblically to the land,

and were exiled from the Middle East in 70 AD,

in what became the Diaspora.

The Jews of New York and Warsaw.

Sand began to question this story when

he saw archaeologists' work about

the early Christian times and also

when he saw scientific data.

The exile is absurd. The Romans persecuted

the Jews. They didn't exile them.

At this point came the first interruption

by a Zionist. A bald man in the third row

or so called out, "What about Bar Kochba?"

And: the Jews weren't exiled

because they were killed.

Sand seemed to live for this interruption.

He walked up to the audience

with his eyes gleaming, and congratulated

the man for his knowledge of the Bar Kochba revolt

of 135 AD, after the Second Temple destruction,

and agreed with him, but also dismissed him.

Yes many Jews were killed.

And for the rest of the lecture Sand would

dance toward this man and tease him that

he was Jewish—he was—and urge him

to buy the book to discover the gaps

in his knowledge, or by the end of the lecture,

say that he would buy the book

for him himself, to improve him. More deviltry.

Back to the exile myth. The expelled

diasporic Jews went in a straight line

north to Europe, made a right into the land

between the Caspian and the Black Seas,

Kazaria, and also north to Russia and Poland;

and when they got there in the 1800s

they made a u-turn and started back to Palestine.

The absurdity of the myth is that there were

always Jews in the Middle East.

The Jews were peasants and mingled

with other populations. The Jews were

not passive actors. They were at times

a majority in the Holy Land and

conquerors of the Arabian peninsula

before the Arabs, and of North Africa too.

For a time, they did not have

a bar against proselytization.

The Maccabees were the first

to undertake forced conversion.

In the 8th century the Jews and the Muslim

Berbers were likely the invaders of Spain.

Sand offered very little by way of evidence.

You will find that in his "boring" book, he said.

This was an aria not a chalktalk. The Jews of

the Middle East made several kingdoms

over the years. One in Yemen,

another in Babylon, another in North Africa,

where they fought the Arabs. Sand said

he loves the curly hair of the Yemenite Jews.

More deviltry, with some concupiscence thrown in.

The Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe

originated in Kazaria. They were hugely

successful and founded a great city, Kiev.

We can claim to have founded Kiev,

but not Jerusalem, he said. Because the Jews

who lived in the Holy Land stayed

in the Holy Land. Many of the people we now call

Palestinians were originally Jews.

The chance that someone who lives in Hebron

today and speaks Arabic is a direct descendant

of a Jew in ancient times is 1000 times greater

than the possibility that I am descended

from a Jew, Shlomo Sand declared.

Let's move on from the mythology

to the issue of national identity. Identity is formed

by many many associations. "I don't deny

Jewish identity. I'm not fighting against

someone's identity. There is identity

of homosexuals. They are not a people.

We are composed of a lot of identities."

Two Catholic share a religious identity,

but again, that is not a national identity

with a tie to land.

Nationalism took root in human political

development in the 1800s. The Germans

and French began the project by inventing

the idea of a German and French people.

The French history books declared outright

in the first sentence that the Gauls

were their ancestors. It was a way to valorize

the nation state, which was

an essential part of modernity.

What is a people?

A people generally shares a way of life,

a language, a food, a geography.

There is no Jewish language. Shlomo Sand

stumbles proudly in English, while of course

many of the people in the audience

were Jews speaking English. Food the Israelis

have–stolen from the Palestinians—and still

you must say that there is an Israeli people.

But they are not the Jewish people.

They are Israeli people, and the Palestinians

are Palestinian people. Both made by Zionism.

The Zionist project began inventing

the idea of a Jewish people in the 1870s as

a reflection of other nationalisms.

The Zionists turned to the Bible

for the foundational myth. The biblical myths

are taught in Israeli schools from

before children are taught mathematics

and language–taught about the biblical associations

of Jews to this land. But the Exodus

is a complete myth.

"As a historian, I try and predict the past.

I'm not a prophet." And what are

the true predictions of the past: at the supposed

time of the Exodus, the Egyptians also

controlled Canaan. The kingdom of David

and Solomon was not a kingdom at all,

but a small settlement around Jerusalem.

Sand had run over his 45 minutes.

In the Question and Answer period, his passion

and intellectual majesty announced themselves.

He sought to engage with the Zionists

in the crowd, and did so out of moral fervor.

When Sand said that Israel was not a democracy,

and a Zionist called out, "It is a flawed democracy,"

Sand bellowed. No: a democracy is founded

on the idea that the people are the sovereign,

that the people own the state.

That is the first principle of a republic

going back to Rousseau. Liberalism and civil rights

are not the core.

Yes, Israel is a liberal society. It tolerates

Shlomo Sand's heresy, for instance,

and puts him on TV.

But it is a liberal ethnocracy.

Down the row from me were two Arabs.

I recognized the man from other events

I have been to. I noticed how fulfilled they were

by the talk, how quietly approving,

and it was in this connection that we

saw Sand's passion: on behalf of the Palestinians.

This part of the lecture brought tears to my eyes,

it was so forceful and unapologetic.

The idea that Joe Lieberman has a right to

move to Israel tomorrow and a Palestinian

whose ancestors have lived there

for centuries cannot is an outrage, Sand said.

But for 50 years the Palestinian Israelis

were afraid to speak out.

"They were afraid because of the Nakba.

They were afraid because of the military regime.

Today this is a generation of

young Palestinian Israelis that stop to be afraid.

They become more anti-Israel in

their politics the more they become Israelis."

Ravishing fire.

Sand said that Gaza was just

an intimation of the violence

that might come when the Palestinians

declare that they want a genuine democracy,

a state of their own citizens in

Palestinian-dominated Galilee.

These are young Palestinian Israelis who

don't want to be part of the West Bank

or of Gaza. They will be like the Kosovars

of Serbia, who when the Serbs started

to make an ethnic regime of

the former Yugoslavia, did not want

to be part of Albania, with whom

they share religious connections, no they

wanted to be their own country. (And got it,

by the way, 60 years after the world

falsely promised the Palestinians that they

could have a state.) "They will build in Galilee a state

of their citizens. That will start to be

the end of Israel. Israel won't let Galilee

become a state of its citizens.

It will be a mass murder, I'm afraid."

Don't we want to get past the idea of the nation-state?

Of course we do, Sand said, but that is

the era we are in. And tell that

to the Palestinians. They want a state.

Sand is for the two-state solution

because the Palestinians ought to get

a state after being denied it forever.

As soon as the occupation, which has denied

these Palestinians any civil

or human rights for 42 years—more fire!—is ended,

that is the day we throw ourselves into

the project of making a confederation

of Israel with Palestine and Jordan.

The one-state solution is a utopia.

"Utopia has to direct politics.

Not replace politics. It's too dangerous."

(Something like Hussein Ibish's new book in that.)

When Sand spoke to Palestinian professors

at Al Quds University, they told him

to speak Hebrew, because they had

all learned Hebrew in Israeli jails.

And he told them that just because

Israel had begun with a great crime

did not mean that it had not begun.

"Even a child that was born from a rape

has a right to live. '48 was a rape.

But something happened in history.

We have to correct and repair

a lot of things." The next day

the Palestinian papers had his rape line in big headlines.

You have not talked about anti-Semitism,

or self-hatred, said another Zionist,

with a cap on. "I am anti-racist.

And an anti-anti-semite," he said.

"But look at me, do you think

I hate the Jewish?"

More devil eyes flashing.

"I don't hate myself…

I hate the Jewish people?

But that doesn't exist.

How can I hate something that doesn't exist?"

More Zionist claptrap from

the claque: You say that a Jew

can't marry non-Jews in Israel,

but two men can't marry each other

in this country!

Sand laughed. Men should be able

to marry each other here if they want to,

and anyone should be able to marry

anyone else in Israel. Why won't the

state recognize such marriages?

Not because of the orthodox. No: the secular Jews

gave the rabbis the power over marriage

when they founded the Jewish state in '48.

They did so because "they were

not sure of their identity, and needed religious criteria."

What do you think of Israel Shahak,

whose work says that ethnocentrism

and chauvinism are built into the Jewish religion?

Sand said that Shahak was a chemist

and a man of tremendous moral force,

but he didn't know the material.

(I say he's right about this;

all religious doctrines are interlarded with racism.)

Why are you not on Charlie Rose?

asked a man with a beard. The man said,

I watch Charlie Rose every night and I'm up

to here with the Zionism on the show.

He held his hand at his neck.

Not just the Israelis, the American journalists

who imbibe Zionism. Sand didn't seem to know

who Charlie Rose was. He has been on lots

of Israeli TV shows. And been 19 weeks

on the bestseller list in Israel. "Also in France."

I thought, Why has Yivo not asked Sand

to debate Michael Walzer?

Two years back at Yivo/the Center

for Jewish History, Walzer declared that

the Jews are a people, a people like no other,

without national borders.

They have maintained a political community

for 2000 years without geographical

sovereignty, through a religious-legal structure.

Interesting ideas. And it would be

a fabulous debate. Where are you

chickenshit Yivo, when these great ideas

are bursting forth from the Jews

who hate what Israel is doing to our identity?

I hope I am conveying something of the power

of this event, and its incredible optimism

and second sight. Sand challenged every Jew

in the room to reimagine the future.

"Most of the Jews [in the world today]

are a product of conversion…

I see the shame. And it is a shame.

If you are born in the 20th century,

and we were all born in

the 20th century– to base your identity on biology."

I thought as always of the American

Jewish project: to end the Israel lobby

and to end the myth of Jewish outsiderness.

Sand had addressed this too.

"The destiny of Israel. And the destiny

of the Middle East depnds a lot on you,

Americans." This was a subject for its

own lecture. But it was necessary

for the Americans now to "save us

from ourselves. I'm not joking about this."

Do you fear for your life? someone asked.

"I'm worried in New York.

Not in Tel Aviv. It's not a joke. Really, I'm not joking."

[Shlomo Sand is Professor of History
at Tel Aviv University in Israel and
the author of The Invention of the Jewish People.

This article appeared in mondoweiss.net.]

Link here

Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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