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.
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 proselytizing religion, desperate for converts.
"This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time."
Jews traveled 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 criticized 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."
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.