Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand recently spoke at NYU about his newly translated book “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book that challenges conventional wisdom and deeply entrenched myths about the foundations of the state of Israel.
Among the revelations in the book is the fact that the ancient kingdoms of Solomon and David did not exist as the Bible describes. He also challenges the myth of the Exodus of ancient Jews from Egypt, noting “the Ancient Egyptians kept meticulous records of every event … yet there is not a single mention of any ‘children of Israel’ who lived in Egypt.” He further points out that an exodus from Egypt would have involved moving across the Sinai peninsula into lands Egypt ruled over — thus escaping from Egypt to … Egypt.
He also describes the process of proselytizing and conversion that led to whole populations converting to Judaism, thus explaining the dispersal of the religion throughout Europe and Asia.
Sand writes in his introduction, “I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change it looks for different books.” This book is an important contribution to the debate on the future of the Middle East. I sat down with professor Sand last Friday to talk about “Invention” while he was in New York.
What moved you to write this book?
I wrote the book because something in me wanted to look through things toward the truth — knowing that I cannot arrive at absolute truth. As a historian, I have an obligation to discover the truth of the past — I am paid for it. I remember being shocked the first time I heard that the Exile from Egypt was not true. Hearing that David and Solomon’s kingdoms didn’t exist. It shocked me so much that I decided in some way, when I have time, I will need to focus on Jewish history.
In Israel, in every university, there are two departments of history. There is the department of general history and the department of Jewish history. Because I work in the department of general history, I have no right to occupy myself with Jewish history. When I got a full professorship, I decided I had nothing to lose. Before that, I did write articles that were critical of the Israeli attitude toward Palestinians, but I never really took on Jewish history as a subject. As I explain in the preface to the book, living near all these archives, leaving this history only to the Zionist historians, was too much. I decided after I got my full professorship to write what I wanted to write.
You open with an examination of nationalism and the various ways it is defined. Can you talk about how that applies to what has come to be called the “Jewish people”?
If I use the phrase “French people”, if I use the phrase “Italian people,” if I use the phrase “American people” — I cannot, by the same criteria, use the phrase “Jewish people” because thinking about Jews in history, I thought that Jews did not have any secular practical norms in common culturally. They didn’t speak the same language, they didn’t eat the same foods, they didn’t have the same songs. The thing that bound Jews was something more important. It was religion, which in pre-modern time was the most important thing in some levels of life.
If you use the word American people, and you know it is something constructed in the last 200 years, slowly with a cultural basis common to all Americans — more or less — or the Italians, or the French, how can you, by the same criteria, apply the word Jewish people?
The tendency of most of the people is to say that — speaking of the Jewish people — they have the same origin. This is not a reason to call a human group a people. This is a mistake because there is not a human group that has the same origin in the world. But we are lazy. So we think if a human group had a similar origin, it is a people.
You make the point that the Bible “was transferred from the shelf of theological tracts to the history section. The more nationalistic the author, the more he treats the Bible as history — as the birth certificate attesting to the common origin of the ‘people.’ ” Could you talk about that?
The Bible is in fact a library — it is a number of books — that you can separate completely. It’s as though you have come up to a shelf with a lot of books and you call it “a book.”
It is astonishing to think about the fact that the Jews [historically] did not read the Bible. In the Yeshivas — the rabbinical schools — they did not work with the text of the Bible. They can only read interpretations.
The real Jews in history took the Pentateuch — the Torah — and they read it Saturday morning in the synagogue. Three categories of human beings seriously read the Bible. The Karaist [a Jewish sect of the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries], the Protestants — who are the first to treat the Bible as a historical book, more so than Catholics — and the Zionists.
The Zionists were the last ones to transform a very important theological work into a historical book. In Israel, a child, before he starts learning history, learns the Bible — and I’m speaking of the non-religious schools in Israel. I was introduced to the Bible when I was seven years old. In every school, for a few hours — not religious schools, secular schools — you are taught the Bible as history.
When I was younger I was sure that the Exile had occurred; Jews were expelled from their land, began wandering around the world, they arrived in Moscow, did a U-turn and came back to their land. It’s not just me as a historian that had internalized this view; most people believed this.
By chance I read a very short article that took on the question of the Exile by a historian, Israel Jacob Yuval, who said the Exile is a Christian notion. He thought that the reason there are populations of Jews throughout the world is because, at some point, they started to emigrate. But it was only one article.
I went to the library. I was sure I would find thousands of books about the subject, because we have so many books about what has happened to the Jewish community. The Exile is inscribed on our money. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a very great Israeli writer, is quoted on a 50 shekel note saying that we were exiled by [the Roman emperor] Titus after the destruction of the Second Temple.
In the end I found only one book on the historical exile. There was not one serious historical work about the act of Romans that dispersed the Jews [after the fall of the Second Temple]. They took prisoners, they killed a lot of people, but they did not exile the Jews.
Two questions jumped to my mind. What happened to the people if they weren’t expelled? And how come there ended up being so many Jews in the world, especially in Eastern Europe?
I am a modernist, a contemporary historian, but I forced myself to read a lot of material from antiquity. Like a lot of readers of the Bible, I was shocked by this sudden discovery. What shocked me much more was that all of this was known. I had not discovered anything new. I was only organizing the knowledge differently.
What was your first thought on that realization? That you’ve discovered something in total contrast to everything you thought?
I was afraid of myself. I remember hesitating, even if I was a full professor, and don’t have to be afraid of anything [about my job]. I wasn’t sure about myself. I went to historians of Jewish antiquity and asked them what happened? Was there an exile or wasn’t there an exile?
They answered me saying, Shlomo, it was ‘not exactly an exile … but you know we never said it was an exile. You see, after the revolt, people left, they were upset … they said many different things,’ but they repeated, ‘We never said it was an exile.’
From the point of view of diffusion of knowledge in society it struck me that you have an elite, a very small elite, of specialists that know the Exile didn’t exist, but no historians are working on the subject.
Then I understood that this has something to do with collective memory. Once upon a time in the United States there were very few people that knew there was a genocide against the Indians. A few historians knew details, but it wasn’t diffused in the collective memory. Sixty years ago in the U.S., I don’t think most people knew about the genocide of Indians. Similarly, 60 years ago, French people believed their ancestors were Gauls.
What is tragic with our history is that today Americans know they are composed from a lot of things; they are not only an Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, white nation. It’s deeper now. Some people may want that, but most people understand that the country is made up of a very rich, very large gamut of origins. In the U.S. it’s clear. In the 19th century, a lot of people believed that the real American nation had to be Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and white. Today your president, while Protestant, is not white.
What happened with us is that most people believed the Exile happened and they believed they are the direct descendants of their Hebrew ancestors.
So if the Judeans — it’s not Jew because a Jew is someone that believes in the Jewish god. I’m speaking of the Judeans — were not expelled, what happened to them?
They become proselytizers. First they do it by force like all the other monarchies, forced their neighbors to become Jews or to leave the land. Some were already circumcised. Josephus Flavius [Jewish Roman historian] writes about this. When Judea stopped being an independent kingdom the proselytism continued. The proselytizing began with Hellenisation; I give the metaphor that Judaism mounted the Hellenistic eagle.
Then the Roman world destroyed boundaries and borders between tribes, between cities and created a circulation of culture and created conditions for diffusing Jewishness all over the Mediterranean.
Monotheism has a few advantages over paganism. Without getting into a long explanation, it did propose paradise as well as other moral aspects. As a result Judaism became very popular in the Roman world, it started to be diffused among all the classes, from slaves to masters. And every master that became a Jew forced his slaves to become Jews.
It was not only the conversion of individuals and families, there was also a big conversion of kingdoms, like the Himyar kingdom, in what is Saudi Arabia and Yemen today. Like the Berber kingdom before the Arabs arrived. And like the Khazar kingdom, which no one doubts, that in the 8th Century became a Jewish kingdom.
The Khazars were not a people. Before modern times I am very careful not to use the word people. Under the kingdom of the Khazars lived a lot of tribes: Turks, Slavs, etc. I think that more or less a big part of them accepted Judaism and became the demographic base of the spread of Judaism in East European countries.
You make the point that there was no push for archaeology in these areas.
Not at all, no pursuing of linguistics or archaeology, because they are afraid to prove that Jews are composed of so many origins, that they are so rich in color, they are so different in origins than the anti-Semitic caricature.
What have been the various reactions to the book?
This morning I was on the Internet and this guy said I want to eliminate Israel because I’m criticizing the nation. I don’t accept that. I knew some people would behave like this. I have also gotten death threats.
The reception has been varied. In Israel, the reception in the media was wonderful.
The Zionist historians reacted very badly. They are right, because I questioned all of what they are doing. I understand their emotions, their attacks, their aggressiveness, much more than I accept this stuff on the Internet sites that accuse me of anti-Semitism, or negation, of denial and all this.
There has also been a positive reaction that has somewhat surprised me. I’ve gotten hundreds of letters, most of them are very positive. I think most people who hate me — who hate the book — do not write letters.
So what would you say in conclusion?
The bottom line is that we have to change Israel quickly, before it is too late. The two-state solution has to be two states not for two people exactly, but for two open societies that are composed of a lot of groups.
The day that Israel gets out of the occupied territories — if you will help us a little bit, you Americans — I will fight for a confederation between Israel and Palestine. The one-state solution is not practical because I don’t think you can propose to the Israeli Jew to become a minority in their own state. My proposition that Israel normalize the Israeli state, to democratize the Israeli state, would give it a chance to exist for longer, but not for eternity. States don’t exist for eternity. I’m a historian. I know this very well.
I don’t deny Jewish identity. After Hitler, it would be stupid. I also don’t deny the possibility of Jewish solidarity. After Hitler, we need a little bit more Jewish solidarity than during the time of Hitler. But I’m against Jewish solidarity supporting Israeli militarism. But Jewish identity and Jewish solidarity is not the same as becoming a Jewish people. You know gay people have a lot of solidarity among themselves, the Bahá’í religion has a great deal of solidarity, but it doesn’t make them a people. When you say “people” you give a notion of propriety of land.
I accept Jewish identity, but I am an Israeli of Jewish origin. Why? Because I know that in Israel being a Jew means being privileged. I prefer to define myself as Israeli of Jewish origin, someone that is not defined by his religion. I’m not proud always of my Jewishness and I’m not proud always that I’m Israeli, especially after the last Gaza war. Yes, I deny that the Jewish people exist. Today, the real sufferer is not the Jew. Yesterday it was Jew, maybe tomorrow it will again be the Jews. But today it is the Palestinian, the sufferer is the immigrant, the unemployed, [struggling] people in Africa. Yesterday the principal sufferer was the Jew, not today. Fortunately, the Shoah is finished. The Nakba [the exodus of Palestinians in 1948] is not.
I am pessimistic, but I am not fatalist. I’m not a philosopher. I am a historian. What I mean by that is the conditions of the conflict in the Middle East … If human society came out of the 20th century without a nuclear war, everything is possible. And even this conflict, this long conflict, that looks today as though it is unsolvable, I am not a fatalist. I think history is capable of surprises. I remember in 1993, Rabin shaking hands with Arafat. If you asked me five years before if it were possible, as a political analyst, I would say, “In no case would that be possible.” This is the reason I am not a fatalist.
Published October 21, 2009