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Shlomo Sand Ridiculed by Historian Simon Schama

Beit She'arim Menorah - you know, just a little like the one we light 2000 years later because of our vivid imaginations

Beit She'arim Menorah - you know, just a little like the one we light 2000 years later because of our vivid imaginations

Some of you may recall our celebration of French journalistic standards which permitted “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a sad, ideologically bent book by Shlomo Sand to win the Aujourd’hui Award, “given to the best non-fiction political or historical work from French journalists.”

That version of Sand’s book, published originally in Hebrew, was the French language version. Unfortunately, the English speaking world is now in possession of this ode to hatred of the Jewish people and it is on sale in England and the US. It’s actually ranked in the mid-2000s on Amazon, which means books are selling.

What kind of person is Shlomo Sand? He is the kind of person who compares Israel in an interview to a child born of a rape.

“Most Israeli Jews believe in a historical right. If there is no such right, what justifies our existence here? Arabs also ask me, after writing this book, how can I justify the existence of Israel. I say to them that even the son of a rape has the right to live. It was a kind of rape in 1947 and ’48 and the Palestinian tragedy continues. But you can say the same about the USA and Australia.”

“…I think Israel belongs to the Israelis, not the Jews. We have a language, a culture, a theatre, a literature, our jokes our football and our politics. We are a people but we are not just a Jewish people. I want to change the borders and definition of the state. I want to make it a more civil nation to separate religion from its existence, to normalise and democratise Israel. I think that Israel has to belong to all its citizens, not just the Jewish ones. People call me radical but from a democratic perspective this is not so radical.”

Therefore, we glean that he’s a scholar working at an Israeli university which affords him the freedom to attack his country and society viciously and then have his ideas travel the world with him so he can call the country subsidizing his salary, the child of a rape.

And you can imagine he has serious support from the anti-Israel crowd, Jewish especially.

In our previous post, we brought in some scholarly attacks that decimate his book, but my favorite new critique of his book is by prolific and popular historian, Simon Schama, definitely not an intellectual slouch.

Schama writes:

Sand’s self-dramatising attack in The Invention of the Jewish People is directed against those who assume, uncritically, that all Jews are descended lineally from the single racial stock of ancient Hebrews, a position no one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews would dream of taking.

But, he argues, there actually was no mass forced “exile” so there can be no legitimate “return.” This is the take-away headline that makes this book so contentious. It is undoubtedly right to say that a popular version of this idea of the exile survives in most fundamentalist accounts of Jewish history. It may well be the image that many Jewish children still have. But it is a long time since any serious historian argued that following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans emptied Judea. But what the Romans did do, following the Jewish revolt of AD66-70 and even more exhaustively after a second rebellion in AD135, was every bit as traumatic: an act of cultural and social annihilation – mass slaughter and widespread enslavement. But there was also the mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture; the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, the obliteration of the Temple, the prohibition on rituals and prayers. Sand asserts, correctly, that an unknowable number of Jews remained in what the Romans called Palestina. The multitudes of Jews in Rome had already gone there, not as a response to disaster but because they wanted to and were busy proselytizing.

All this is true and has been acknowledged. But Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning, the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away.

There are many such twists of historical logic and strategic evasions of modern research in this book. To list them all would try your patience.

His assumption that the Jewish state is an oxymoron built on illusions of homogeneity is belied by the country’s striking heterogeneity. How else to explain the acceptance of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews or the Bene Israel Indians as Israeli Jews? Certainly that acceptance has never been without obstacles, and egregious discrimination has been shown by those who think they know what “real Jews” should look like. Sand is right in believing that a more inclusive and elastic version of entry and exit points into the Jewish experience should encourage a debate in Israel of who is and who is not a “true” Jew. I could hardly agree more, and for precisely the reason that Sand seems not to himself embrace: namely that the legitimacy of Israel both within and without the country depends not on some spurious notion of religious much less racial purity, but on the case made by a community of suffering, not just during the Holocaust but over centuries of expulsions and persecutions. Unlike the Roman deportations, these were not mythical.

Sand would counter that such a refuge for the victims could have been in China, or on the moon, for all that Palestine had to do with the Jews. But since his book fails to sever the remembered connection between the ancestral land and Jewish experience ever since, it seems a bit much to ask Jews to do their bit for the sorely needed peace of the region by replacing an ethnic mythology with an act of equally arbitrary cultural oblivion.

Be sure to read the entire article in the Financial Times.

Very soon, expect to hear on campuses, in news programs on the radio and occasionally in TV programs that the Jewish people are a myth. This stuff used to be said by the neo-Nazi loonies who inhabit this world, but now we have a Jewish, son of Holocaust survivors, professor from an Israeli university, ideologue whose ideology so blinds him to the basic identity of the Jewish people that he has put this lie into the mainstream.

The problem with his argument is that HE’S the one who is touting the biological issue. It is clear to most Jews that their identity stems from our thousands of years of common heritage and that heritage is directly linked to our past in Judea and Israel. It isn’t material whether my genes are directly connected to those of some Jerusalemite from 2000 years ago – although they might well be – it’s that their ideas, beliefs, practices and lives have filtered down to our time and resonate with our identity. They define who we are, and not because of a couple of 19th Century historians, but precisely because our traditions, our shared histories, our literature and even the enduring hatred we’ve suffered, are a part of every Jew. If a prayer was being said 2000 years ago, and then 1000 years later a Jew who descends from a convert says the same prayer and teaches it to his children, and that prayer is repeated 500 years later and again a thousand years later by Jews, even if they are descended from converts to Judaism, that does not lessen their connection to the place where that prayer, language and culture originated. It does not change the fact that they faced Jerusalem when praying and wished that they could visit it and even live there upon the messiah’s arrival.

Whether Sand approves or not, these ideas that form us exist because our ancestors – and here I may mean biological and I could mean ancestry in terms of ideas, faith and religious practice – lived in Jerusalem and Hebron and Shechem and Judea and Samaria.

If his problem is that Israel, a state defining itself as a Jewish state, exist on disputed land that the Palestinians claim as theirs, then that’s an entirely different issue and question. Trying to use questionable history to address this complex situation is reprehensible.

If Walt & Mearsheimer’s “The Israel Lobby” wins TheMiddle’s “21st Century Protocols of the Elders of Zion” Award, Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” wins the “Temple was Never Here, It Was in Nablus” Upside Down History Prize, which I dedicate to Yasser Arafat.

(photo is from this article about the Beit She’arim site)

UPDATE: Shlomo Sand responded to Schama in an interview. We covered his comments in the post Shlomo Sand is Angry at His Critics.

36 Comments

  1. jladi

    11/16/2009 at 10:55 am

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