Israel Bartal’s Response to Shlomo Sands’ Invention of the Jewish People (Haaretz 7/2008)
According to Shlomo Sand, everything you ever thought you knew about the Jewish people as a nation with ethno-biological origins is false. Israel Bartal, however, says Sand didn’t do his homework
Mattai ve’ekh humtza ha’am hayehudi?
(When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), by Shlomo Sand
Resling (Hebrew), 358 pages, NIS 94.
The first sentence of “When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” reads: “This book is a historical study, not a work of pure fiction. Nevertheless, it will open with a number of stories rooted in a collective memory that has been adulterated with a considerable degree of imagination.” I recalled these words when I found myself utterly astounded by the statements of the author of this learned, fascinating study, concerned with the “period of silencing” in the “Jewish-Israeli collective memory,” a period that, to quote Sand, gave rise to a total avoidance of “any mention of the Khazars in the Israeli public arena.”
This assertion, according to which an entire chapter in Jewish history was deliberately silenced for political reasons, thrust me back to my days as a ninth grader, in the late 1950s. I recalled the Mikhlal Encyclopedia, an almost mythological reference text that nearly every Israeli high school student relied on in those years, the flagship of what is termed “mainstream Zionism,” in the lean Hebrew of 21st-century Israel. My ears still reverberate with the introduction to the encyclopedia’s entry on “Khazars”: “A source of consolation and hope for the scattered Jewish communities of the Diaspora during the Middle Ages, the story of the Khazar kingdom today has the ring of pure mythology. Nonetheless, that story is one of the most wonderful chapters in Jewish history.”
Sand suggests that it was “the wave of decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s [that] led the molders of Israeli collective memory to shield themselves from the shadow of the Khazar past. There was a profound fear that, should the Jews now rebuilding their home in Israel learn that they are not direct descendants of the ?Children of Israel,’ the very legitimacy of both the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel’s existence would be undermined.”
With considerable trepidation, I returned to my yellowing copy of volume IV of the Mikhlal Encyclopedia. Could I perhaps have been mistaken and could it be that my teachers in the Socialist-Zionist city of Givatayim wanted to brainwash me with an ethno-biological perception of my parents’ origin?
When I reread the entry on the Khazars, my mind was put at rest. It was not the Zionist education to which I, as an Israeli teenager, was exposed that tried to make me forget the fact that the members of gentile tribes converted to Judaism in the Khazar Kingdom; instead, it is the author of this book about the “invention of the Jewish people” who has invented an ethno-biological Zionist historiography.
Here is what was written about the conversion of the Khazars, a nation of Turkish origin, in the Zionist Mikhlal Encyclopedia that the State of Israel’s Zionist Ministry of Education recommended so warmly during that “period of silencing”: “It is irrelevant whether the conversion to Judaism encompassed a large stratum of the Khazar nation; what is important is that this event was regarded as a highly significant phenomenon in Jewish history, a phenomenon that has since totally disappeared: Judaism as a missionary religion…. The question of the long-term impact of that chapter in Jewish history on East European Jewry — whether through the development of its ethnic character or in some other way — is a matter that requires further research. Nonetheless, although we do not know the extent of its influence, what is clear to us today is that this conversion did have an impact.” Sand, a professor of modern European history at Tel Aviv University, comments further on the silence of the historians: “Israel’s academic community developed a violent attitude toward this issue…. Any mention of the Khazars in the public arena in Israel was increasingly considered eccentric, a flight of fancy, even an open threat.”
Zionist historiography, he claims, concealed the possibility that the millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews were actually descendants of the Khazars and that even today Israeli historians deny the existence of an early Jewish nucleus that was augmented by immigrants who moved from Ashkenaz (present-day northern France and western Germany) to Eastern Europe.
These claims are baseless. Sand, for example, does not mention the fact that, from 2000 onwards, a team of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem labored on a monumental task: the production of a three-volume study on the history of the Jews of Russia.
In the first volume, which will shortly be published in Hebrew by the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History (another “Zionist” institution), considerable attention is devoted to the question of the origin of the East European Jews and to their link with the history of the Khazar kingdom.
Sand repeats the method he employs vis-a-vis the place of the Khazars in Jewish historiography in connection with other topics as well, presenting readers with partial citations and edited passages from the writings of various scholars. Several times, Sand declares what his ideological position is. Like him, I am not one of those who support the injustices committed by a number of Israeli government agencies against minority groups in this country in the name of arguments pretending to represent “historical values.” However, critical readers of Sand’s study must not overlook the intellectual superficiality and the twisting of the rules governing the work of professional historians that result when ideology and methodology are mixed.
Sand’s desire for Israel to become a state “representing all its citizens” is certainly worthy of a serious discussion, but the manner in which he attempts to connect a political platform with the history of the Jewish people from its very beginnings to the present day is bizarre and incoherent.
Descendants of pagans
What is Sand trying to prove in this study? In his view, the homeland of the Jewish people is not Palestine, and most Jews are descendants of the members of different nations who converted to Judaism in ancient times and in the medieval period. He claims that the Jews of Yemen and Eastern Europe are descendants of pagans.
According to Sand, this historical truth was concealed by Zionist thinkers, who developed an ethno-biological ideology, and the so-called “Jewish people” was invented as late as the 19th century. Furthermore, he argues, the idea of a “nation” that was exiled from its homeland in ancient times and which is destined to return to it in the modern age so as to rebuild its independent state is merely an invented myth.
Sand also maintains that, in the era preceding the emergence of European nationalism, the Jews were an ethnic group, not a nation. In his eyes, the argument promulgated by the Zionists and by their successors in the Israeli political arena concerning our “right to this land” rests on a biological-genetic ideology; that argument became the “narrative of the ruling group” thanks to the fact that the “authorized scholars of the past” have concealed the truth concerning the real, impure origin of the Jews.
My response to Sand’s arguments is that no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically “pure.” Sand applies marginal positions to the entire body of Jewish historiography and, in doing so, denies the existence of the central positions in Jewish historical scholarship.
No “nationalist” Jewish historian has ever tried to conceal the well-known fact that conversions to Judaism had a major impact on Jewish history in the ancient period and in the early Middle Ages. Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions. Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.
Sand’s references to “authorized” historians are absurd, and perpetuate a superficial pattern of discussion that is characteristic of a certain group within Israeli academe. The guiding principle in this pattern of discussion is as follows: “Tell me what your position is on the past and I will tell you the nature of your connection with the agencies of the regime.”
The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews’ exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.
Sand points to three components in the structuring of the Jewish national past. First, the national historical narrative, especially the Zionist narrative, emphasizes the “ethno-biological” identity of those who belong to the imaginary Jewish nation.
Second, this identity is directly connected with a nationalist ideology that is a substitute for the religious link between Jewish communities in the Diaspora that has considerably weakened in the present era of secularization. Third, an aggressive political establishment that controls the dissemination of knowledge is concealing vital information on what really happened in the past, preventing the publication of sources that can serve as an alternative to the recommended national narrative, and censoring dangerous passages in published texts.
The central book of the Zionist “Jerusalem School,” “Toldot am yisrael” (“History of the Jewish People,” published in 1969), speaks extensively of the Jewish communities that existed in the Diaspora before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and whose total population exceeded that of the tiny Jewish community in Palestine. As one would expect from a work that reflects a profound knowledge of scholarly studies in the field, the Zionist “Toldot am yisrael” explains that the number of Jews in the Diaspora during the ancient period was as high as it was because of conversion, a phenomenon that “was widespread in the Jewish Diaspora in the late Second Temple period …. Many of the converts to Judaism came from the gentile population of Palestine, but an even greater number of converts could be found in the Jewish Diaspora communities in both the East and the West.”
Choosing to ignore all this, Sand categorically states in his book that, “the mass conversions that created such huge Jewish populations throughout the Mediterranean region are scarcely mentioned in Jewish national historiography.” Apparently, he is obsessed with the idea of proving that the Zionist historians (including Nahum Slouschz, who wrote about the North African Jewish warrior-queen Dahia
al-Kahina) were “ethnocentric nationalists.” It is irrelevant to Sand what these historians actually wrote: To hell with the facts — the argument is what really counts!
Sand bends over backwards to prove that the great Jewish historians (such as Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron and Benzion Dinur), who, in their works, linked Jewish nationalism with liberalism, radicalism and socialism, were simply racists. Here’s what he writes, for example, about Israeli historian Haim Zeev Hirschberg (1903-1974), who studied the Jews of North Africa: “His continual attempts to prove that the Jews were a race of people that had been displaced from its ancient homeland and which had been condemned to wander from country to country as an exiled nation … dovetail beautifully with the directives of mainstream Zionist historiography.” According to Sand, Hirschberg never managed to liberate himself from a “purifying substantive ideology.” Does this sound familiar? When and where did you last read that Zionism was a racist movement?
I will now refer briefly to the connection between the book’s conceptual underpinnings and the author’s main historical argument, namely, that, prior to the modern period, the Jews constituted only a group of “scattered religious communities.” Sand defines national identity in the spirit of the ideas of the French Revolution. Not only does he reject the concept of an ethnic identity that is not dependent on the existence of a political entity confined within clearly defined borders, he even rejects an identity whose possessors’ claim is founded on a cultural or political entity that is not subject to control or management by the agencies of the central regime. In his view, such identities are merely “invented identities” and he does not believe that pre-modern identities can survive in the modern era. In fact, Sand advocates the position that was heard in the French National Assembly in December 1789: “The Jews must not be allowed to constitute a special political entity or to have a special political status. Instead, each Jew must on an individual basis be a citizen of France.” However, whereas the champions of the Emancipation in Paris did recognize the non-religious essence of the pre-modern Jewish nation, Sand does not.
I was unable to find in Sand’s book any innovations in the study of nationalism. The author is stuck somewhere between historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner — a generation behind what is happening today in the field. As far as I can discern, the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented earlier in their books and articles by what he insists on defining as “authorized historians” suspected of “concealing historical truth.” “When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” is a marvelous blend of clearly modernist arguments, drawn from the legacy of 18th-century European Enlightenment, with a moderate, but disturbing (because of its superficiality), pinch of Foucaultian discourse from a previous generation.
Moreover, the author’s treatment of Jewish sources is embarrassing and humiliating. What serious reader who knows the history of modern Hebrew literature can take seriously the views expressed in a book that defines “Bohen tsadik” (Investigating a Righteous Man), a satirical (fictional!) work by the Galician intellectual and supporter of the Haskalah Yosef Perl (1773-1839), as something that was written by a person named Yitzhak Perl and which “contains 41 letters from rabbis that relate to various aspects of Jewish life”? Who would attest to the accuracy of facts in a research study where it is stated that historian Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) — a scholar who never was (despite his burning ambition to do so) a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and who, instead, served there as a professor of Hebrew literature — “was in fact the first official historian of the ?Second Temple period’ at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem”? Does such sloppiness reflect the author’s attitude to the subject of his research? Or, perhaps, because everything is an invention anyway, it does not really matter whether the “imagined object” is black or white?
The lugubrious Israeli combination of aggressive one-dimensional conceptuality and blatant disrespect for details (a characteristic mix among writers at both ends of the political spectrum) will undoubtedly captivate the hearts of the public relations executives of the electronic media. However, we, the skeptical historians, who are buried between mountains of books and piles of archival files, can only continue to read what has really been written and to write about what has really been read.
Prof. Israel Bartal is dean of the humanities faculty of the Hebrew University. His book “Cossack and Bedouin: Land and People in Jewish Nationalism” was published by Am Oved in its Ofakim series (Hebrew).