Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Shlomo Sand and his book "The Invention of the Jewish People"
To a lecture on Friday at University College Cork by Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People. An historical tour de force offering a groundbreaking account of Jewish and Israeli history, according to the blurb, which continues:-
“Exploding the myth that there was a forced Jewish exile in the first century at the hands of the Romans, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argues that most modern Jews descend from converts, whose native lands were scattered across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In this iconoclastic work, which spent 19 weeks on the Israeli bestseller list and won the coveted Aujourd'hui Award in France, Sand provides the intellectual foundations for a new vision of Israel’s future.”
His book demolishes the argument, fervently believed in by most Israelis, that Jews have an historical right to occupy the land of Israel (more about this below). He’s had death threats from Israelis who are scared of his conclusions.
Yet despite these conclusions, he lives in and supports Israel.
Afterwards over wine and vol-au-vents I asked him how he justifies the Jewish state. He said: too much pain and suffering to undo it, even though it’s a colonial creation. In an interview in The Jewish Chronicle November 12, 2009 he was quoted saying “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.”
Somewhere on my laptop I have a podcast interview with him saying something similar but I can’t find it.
Genetic studies of Jewish populations
In the Q&A session I asked him about genetics. Last year a study was published tracing the ancestry of Jewish people, concluding that Jewish populations around the world have a common genetic background, being all descended from a founding community that lived 2500 years ago in Mesopotamia.
On the face of it, this flatly contradicts his thesis that most European Jews are the descendents of converts, and I wanted to know what he made of it.
He gave a long answer. At first, as a non-scientist, he respected genetic science; but the more he looked, the less he respected. He made a disparaging aside about Zionist geneticists. In 20 years we will laugh at it all, he said. In the 1950s they sought a Jewish fingerprint. “I don’t believe there is Jewish DNA.” Genetics the last refuge of the scoundrel. “It’s anti-semitism which has convinced us we are a race.”
Prof Sand is a specialist in European history, not Jewish history. This means his credentials for writing the book have been questioned by his numerous critics. A questioner asked if it was a risky enterprise, being a non-specialist. He had many hesitations, he said. “I tried to get collaborators, but they were afraid.”
Every schoolchild in Israel is taught the Jews were exiled in AD 70, known as the Second Exile. So he went to the university library looking for books on this event. He found none. He was shocked! He challenged Jewish history specialists about this. “Oh, we never said it happened” was their reply. This he says was when he decided to write his book.
If there was no exile, what happened to the population? It mainly stayed put, he says. David ben Gurion who became the first Prime Minister of Israel after leading Israel to victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (see postscript), knew this. He said the Arab peasants are the descendents of the ancient Jews. Indeed this was the Zionist consensus up till 1929. they wanted to include the Arabs in their project. Blood was the issue. “Folkish nationalism” he called it.
The Land of Israel
A questioner asked about the expression Eretz Yisrael, which was used by Zionists in 1930’s up to the Jordan. It’s an expression I've often heard but never fully understood. Prof Sands said that in the Bible the expression just meant the Northern Kingdom, that is, Israel but not Judea, it doesn’t include Jerusalem. But the Promised Land, that’s another thing, that meant half of the Middle East, it included Babylon. I've a feeling that Zionists wouldn’t allow any distinction between Eretz Yisrael and the Promised Land. The trouble is you're wading in controversy all the time. You feel you’ld like a clear definition first, and then get down to the controversy, but it just doesn’t happen that way.
Shlomo Sand’s first language is Hebrew, he says he's not comfortable speaking English but he is too modest. I commented that Hebrew is a unique enterprise, it must be the only example in history of a dead language successfully revived. He corrected me, it’s not a revived language, that’s an impossibility, it’s an invented language. I was about to say that must still qualify as a uniquely successful enterprise, but at this point he got distracted, probably he was bored of talking to me!
Postscript re David ben Gurion:
He is the one who is supposed to have said (in 1956): "Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country ... There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations' time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it is simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army."
Regarding the Arab peasants being the descendents of the ancient Jews, Prof Sands told me afterwards it’s not as simple as that; there's been so much mixing.
References and links
The genetics study was "Abraham's Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry" in the American Journal of Human Genetics 03 June 2010
Jewish intellectuals and Palestinian liberation, review in International Socialism 7 January 10)
Shlomo Sand: an enemy of the Jewish people?, review in Observer 17 January 2010
Google books reviews
Review by Simon Schama in Financial Times, November 13 2009
Review by Patricia Cohen in New York Times, November 2009