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Does the `Jewish people` exist? Shlomo Sand`s new book
By: Shmuel Amir
20 June 2013

Hebrew original:

In a recent editorial, the newspaper Haaretz complained that new studies that have once again confirmed what actually occurred in the Nakba – that the Arabs fled for fear of the IDF and not in response to their leaders’ appeals to leave – are excluded from Israeli high school textbooks because the Education Ministry, specifically former Education Minister Gideon Saar, blocks all information of that kind. I was reminded of this as I perused readers’ responses to a review of Shlomo Sand’s new book Matai ve-eych hadalti lihiyot Yehudi (When and how I stopped being a Jew [1]). There I found about 150 responses that vied among themselves in their condemnations and derision of the book’s author, along with complete disregard of what is actually written in the book, and especially, ignorance of all connected to the history of the State of Israel. Evidently most of the responders were young and presumably victims of the very suppression of the historical truth in Israeli schools that the editors of Haaretz find so lamentable.

But let us turn now to the book itself. Sand has done it again. As in his previous books, The invention of the Land of Israel and The invention of the Jewish people, this time too Sand has aroused the ire of the disciplined professoriate in the academic establishment as well as good ordinary Zionist citizens with his analyses and revelations that are unacceptable to them because they contradict their entire global outlook and everything they hold sacred.

One might be tempted to advise those readers to simply put the book down and not read it; but to the dismay of the Israeli Establishment the public is buying the books. They are becoming best-sellers and are published in several languages. Clearly they challenge readers, even those who oppose the views expressed in them, with the audacity of Sand’s historical exploration, his flowing and modern language and his well-chiselled words.

In critique of his previous books, some professors (for example, Prof. Blatman) claimed that Sand did not reveal anything new – that all the historical facts he advanced had already been advanced in the work of many scholars – including himself. In his new book Sand answers them by pointing out that on the one hand they accused him of mendacity, but at the same time they claimed that he was kicking down open doors and that it was all well-known and written up long ago. And he adds, regarding the nature of historical writing: “The important thing is not so much to uncover facts as it is to organizing the findings and establish their hierarchy.” Here Sand is following in the footsteps of the great British historian Edward Carr, who wrote on this very issue in his famous book What Is History? Carr tells us that, counter to our assumptions, the `facts of history cannot be purely objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historian`. [2] The historian assesses their place in the hierarchy and on that basis proposes them “for membership in the select club of historical facts” – or not. [3] Accordingly let us take, for example, the fact that in the 1920s the USA, in a thoroughly racist decision, restricted the immigration of Jews to its shores. Subsequently many Jews turned towards Palestine instead, as they had previously turned towards the US. Is this an important historical fact? We could claim that it changed nothing in the long run – that the construction of the Jewish colony (Yishuv) [4] in Palestine would have continued regardless. But it can also be argued that if not for that decision, the Jews would have continued to flow in their masses to the US and a large Jewish colony would not have emerged in this country. Or we might ask, for example, who was the most the most important person in the history of Zionism after Herzl (to the extent, of course, that we ascribe supreme historical importance to the influence of individuals)? Most historians will say that it was David Ben-Gurion; but it can also be argued – and this is my personal opinion as well – that the greatest Zionist was Chaim Weizmann because without the Balfour Declaration, which is considered to be Weizmann’s greatest accomplishment, there could not have been a Yishuv in Palestine.

Of course one can argue that if interpretation is the most important thing, then what’s wrong with the Zionist interpretation Sand rejects? Here we must emphasize that when it comes to interpretations and generalizations all is permitted, but with one important condition: they must be based on facts – they must be true. And Zionist historiography does not withstand the test of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

And indeed Shlomo Sand refutes in his book one of the inventions of Zionist historiography. The Jews were not expelled from the country by the Romans; they dispersed throughout the world willingly. Back then as many Jews lived in Alexandria as in Jerusalem. The Jews did not aspire to return to Zion for two thousand years; for long periods in history Zion was wide open to them but they just did not go there – and that is the situation today as well. Who is stopping the Jews in America and Europe from packing up their bags and “ascending” [5] to Israel? The fact is that since the inception of the State of Israel nearly a million Israelis have left it to go to those countries. Tens of thousands of Israelis flock to the gates of the foreign consulates to get foreign passports. If the US opened its gates, Israel would probably empty out.

Sand also comes out against the secularization and historicization of the Bible (“From the Tanach to the Palmach”). [6] In his hands the Zionist epic loses King David and King Solomon. The glory of ancient times is lost in the sands sifted by archaeologists determined to find the mythological past of Jerusalem – meanwhile ignoring the glorious buildings that stand in the city: the Mosque of Omar and the wall built by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which are among the most magnificent structures in the world. And the Exodus from Egypt, as recounted in the Bible and the Passover Haggadah, never happened. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that there is no longer any need to for calls to “pour out thy wrath” on the Gentiles. What remains is the “Second Temple”, although Sand says that it too should be looked at with more realism and rigour: it is quite entertaining, he writes, to read Zionist history books that define the kingdom of the “Second Temple” as a nation-state. “It is quite clear that a society in the capital city of which the Aramaic language was spoken, most of the subjects of which communicated in various Hebrew dialects and the merchants of which flourished while speaking the widely-used Greek, was by no means a nation and it is doubtful if they could even be defined as a people.” But we can also take comfort (if we need it) in the fact that the glorious epics of the Greeks, the French and the Germans were also invented to create national unity and a willingness among their subjects to sacrifice their lives for the Homeland.

Sand writes that the purpose of his book is to convince its readers that there is no such thing as a Jewish nation, nor is there a “historical Jewish people”. And so of course he has been attacked as a denier of the Jewish people. But his intention was to say that the Jews definitely existed, but they were not a people in the modern sense of the concept, a concept that was “invented” in the last two hundred years. Before that, people were divided into kingdoms populated by groups of various national origins, and their identity was religious or based on belonging to one king or another. It was not a secular national identity with a flag, anthem, borders, national army and national culture and education and a shared history (generally fabricated). Ernest Renan, the French famous French scholar of nationalism pointed out long ago that “the first sign of a new nation is the falsification of its history.” This applies to the Jews as well. Until the emergence of nationalism in Europe, the Jews were organized into religious Jewish communities. With the secularization of the Jews, the obstacle of religion that separated them from their neighbours was largely removed, and they became Germans or French – even fervently so. To this day they – notably the Jews of the US – hotly defend themselves against the accusation of dual loyalty, even though many Israelis, in line with Zionist ideology, consider them to be members of the same Jewish nation. Only the smallest of small minorities among them saw the coming of nationalism as the basis for a new Jewish nationalism to be embodied in a state for the Jews.

For a great many Israelis it will be difficult to digest the fact that before they were Israelis there was no “Jewish people”. To them Sand has an interesting and instructive answer about the folly of “defining human groupings as ‘peoples’ before the appearance of the printing-press and the manufacture of books; before newspapers and public education, when the communication between tribes and villages was sparse and incidental, in an age in which one valley was distinguished from another by a panoply of dialects, an era in which the limited vocabulary of peasants or shepherds mostly revolved around the nature of their work or their local cults. It is unlikely that real peoples existed. To me it seems problematic to define an illiterate society of farmers and artisans as a ‘people’, and in my opinion it always constituted, to a certain degree, an insurmountable anachronism.” That assessment is correct in my view, and it closely approximates the description of pre-national conditions. And I also liked that passage because it expresses the essence of the principle that “life determines consciousness” and not the other way round (though I am of course aware of the mutuality between them). Every historical phenomenon is linked to certain historical conditions, to a certain reality. Sand’s analysis of this matter also applies to the concept of “nation” – the nation too is not “eternal”, and with changes in conditions it will disappear or undergo a complete transformation.

The first of two articles

Translator’s notes

1. In Hebrew. Kinneret Zmora-Beitan Dvir Publishing, Or Yehuda, Israel, 2013.



4. “Yishuv” (literally “settlement”): the Hebrew-speaking Zionist Jewish community that emerged in Palestine after the birth of Zionism in Europe and which evolved into contemporary Israeli-Jewish society. The Yishuv grew rapidly after the British government endorsed the Zionist project and conquered Palestine in 1918.

5. The official Zionist/Israeli term for the immigration of Jews to Israel is “ascent” (Aliya).

6. “Tanach” means the Jewish Bible. The Palmach was the main combat force of the Hagana, the precursor to the Israeli army, from 1941 to 1948.

Translated from Hebrew by George Malent

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