Caught in the history wars
March 6, 2010
"I am angry when I hear people say I am anti-Israel . . . I love this country very much" . . . historian Shlomo Sand.
Shlomo Sand has outraged many with his book The Invention of the Jewish People, which questions whether Jews were really exiled from the land of Israel, writes Jason Koutsoukis.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand is busy looking for new friends. Since the publication of his book The Invention of the Jewish People, an unsparing assault on Jewish historiography and Israel's Zionist edifice, Sand has felt the intense wrath of friends, colleagues and Jews everywhere.
''I knew it would not be easy for me. But now I have two, maybe three friends left,'' says Sand. ''There have been many death letters.''
Sand is chatting in the living room of his Tel Aviv apartment. Just home from Paris, where he has spent the last semester teaching, Sand, who turns 64 in September, betrays the weariness of an ageing prizefighter.
Tired he may be, but Sand has also become famous.
After selling 8000 copies in Israel, The Invention of the Jewish People has become an international best seller and is already being translated into 17 languages including Arabic, Japanese, German, Polish, Russian and Indonesian.
In France alone more than 50,000 copies of the book have been sold, and 10,000 copies in Britain in the four months since it was published in English. Already a French publisher is urging Sand to write a follow-up.
''At first, people were afraid to talk about the book. But then it sold, and it kept selling. Eventually it couldn't be ignored.''
The big turning point, Sand says, was last year's war in Gaza.
''My book profited from the Gaza war. A lot of Jews have told me that the Gaza war was too much for them.''
Not a survey of the daily problems facing Israel, The Invention of the Jewish People instead probes deeper questions of identity. ''The real problem facing Israel is much, much more than the occupation of the Palestinian territories or our borders with Syria. It is about our history.''
In short, the book's central thesis is that the story of the Jews' exile from the biblical land of Israel by the Romans in AD70 is nothing more than an invention of Zionist propagandists from the 1850s onwards.
''There simply was no exile,'' says Sand. ''How is it possible that the Romans could have exiled a whole people from a land? It is impossible.''
And if there was no Jewish exile, Sand argues, then there can be no justification for the return.
''How could Zionism justify the return of the Jews to a land from which the Jews never left? Without this, the whole basis for creating the modern state of Israel collapses.''
Often labelled an anti-Zionist Israel-basher, Sand describes himself as post-Zionist. ''I am angry when I hear people say that I am anti-Israel, or that I am somehow racist against Jews. I love this country very much.''
Not long after getting married in 1973, Sand and his wife, Varder, seriously considered emigrating to Australia. Instead he won a scholarship to the acclaimed Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris where he completed a masters in contemporary French history and doctoral thesis on the philosopher Georges Sorel.
His PhD impressed people at home so much that in 1982 he was lured back to a teaching position at Tel Aviv University. Eventually that led to permanent tenure and a chair in European history.
''In Israel we have this very strange division of labour when it comes to the profession of history. There is the department of history, where I am a professor, and then there is the department of Jewish history, which is separate. One never questions the other, which makes this book so unusual.''
Sand never imagined a life in academia. The son of an fervent communist, he was born in Austria and grew up in Jaffa, the Arab-dominated port city that is now a part of Tel Aviv, before leaving school at 16.
After a variety of labour-intensive factory jobs, Sand was drafted into the army at 18 and in June 1967 found himself fighting the Six Day War in which Israel conquered east Jerusalem and all of the territory known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
''It was the first time in my life that I felt that someone was trying to kill me, that someone was shooting at me, so I was shooting back. It was a mess.''
While the victory over the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan intoxicated most Israelis, Sand marks the war as a moment that pushed him towards the radical left.
''Even if I accepted the thesis of the Jewish exile, that several thousand years ago this land was occupied by Jews, I have never understood why this absence gave Jews the right to return to this land. And why the presence of the people who were living here doesn't give them a right to the land. I have always thought this was a stupid argument.''
After completing three years of military service, Sand spent the late 1960s and early 1970s working a series of odd jobs, including several years as a telephone lineman. It wasn't until he decided to complete his high school certificate at 25 that he began to think about becoming a high school teacher.
''It was easier to become a university lecturer,'' Sand says, laughing. ''But seriously, always I was troubled by the deeper questions of Israeli history. So first I studied French history and French nationalism. Without this I could not have confronted the founding myths of Israel.''
Standing before a European history class in Tel Aviv, Sand will often remind his students of the French pride in their connection to the ancient Gauls.
''It's a funny story because I tell my students that everyone in France today knows that they are not really the descendants of the Gauls and when I say this to my class, everyone smiles knowingly.
''But if I ask the same class: are all of us here the real descendants of the Jews who lived in this land 2000 years ago? And their faces change. They shout 'yes' for they are sure. There is no doubt.''
In a country where the belief that all Jews, be they Russian, Ethiopian, Polish, Persian, Lithuanian or Moroccan, share the same cultural and ancestral heritage, the argument that the only thing Jews have in common is religion is almost viewed as an act of treason.
''Everyone has to believe that Jews are of the same origin, because if they are not, then what is the reason for the existence of Israel, to ask for this land, and to keep asking for this land?''
Defining the traits that mark him as an Israeli - his Hebrew language, the food he eats, the songs he sings, the football league he follows with such passion - Sand asks what connects the Jewish diaspora to Israel.
A majority of the world's Jews live outside Israel, Sand argues, where they speak the languages of their native lands.
Sand conjures a hypothetical granddaughter of a Jewish emigre from Europe living in Sydney or Melbourne.
''The grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish and is a living example of a European Jewish culture that was wiped out by the Holocaust. This makes a great impression on the granddaughter who wants to feel the same connection to Jewish culture as her grandmother. So she makes every effort to become as Jewish, more Jewish [than] even her grandmother.
''This is expressed through religious devotion, or through strong support for Israel, or both. But it is an empty Jewishness. It is built on myth, not real culture. The granddaughter may be superficially more Jewish than her grandmother. She supports Israel more passionately. But does she necessarily want to emigrate here? Is she part of the same nation as me?''
If what defines a country is the culture its people share, then Sand feels a far greater connection to his Arab Israeli neighbour who grew up speaking the same language, living and breathing the same air.
Sand is adamant that if Israel is to succeed, then every Jew living outside its borders must help the country by putting enough pressure on its leaders to abolish the concept that Israel define itself as a Jewish nation.
Israel should remain a state of refuge for Jews who are persecuted for their beliefs, Sand believes, but not guarantee the automatic right of citizenship to every Jew no matter where they are born.
Israeli society may be liberal and open, Sand says, but the more difficult truth to confront is that it is equal parts anti-democratic and chauvinist.
How can Israel call itself a democracy, when more than 2.5 million Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have no say in choosing the leaders who ultimately govern them?
Sand's greatest fear for the future of his country is not the military threat from without, such as the possibility of a nuclear attack from a country such as Iran, but the boiling resentment of the Arab population from within.
The reason Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Affairs Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has struck such with voters, Sand argues, is because he never fails to remind people that one-fifth of Israeli-born citizens are Arabs.
''Lieberman is right to fear them. I agree with his diagnosis. If we continue to treat this section of our society the way we do now, then eventually they will revolt. But I disagree with all the force of my being his solution which is to transfer the Arab population to a future Palestinian state.''
Israel is long past the point, Sand says, where it must give up the idea that it can survive in the Middle East without integrating with its Arab neighbours.
Not a strong advocate of the ''one-state solution'' to the Arab-Israeli conflict, that would see all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza become Israeli citizens, Sand wants to see Israel first build a Palestinian state along the borders that existed before the Six Day War.
As to his own future, Sand wants his next book to be a page turner set in a fictitious university history department.
''As the reaction of my colleagues to Invention of the Jewish People has shown me, the way history is written can make a very complicated and thrilling story.''