'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."
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
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.]
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda