Of course all settler colonialists and indeed all those waging war have claimed, in the words of Bob Dylan, that they have god on their side. The claim of the Zionists that they were endowed with the promise of god and could therefore remove or dispossess the indigenous people was always a racist idea at heart, based on the idea of the Chosen People, itself a racialisation of an old Jewish religious concept. In fact the most ardent advocates of a ‘return’ of the Jews to Palestine were not Jewish, other than a tiny minority of racial ideologues who sailed under the banner of Zionism. The first Zionists were non-Jewish imperialists and romantics – Ernest Laharanne, Lord Shaftesbury, George Elliot – for whom the Jewish ‘return’ meant a legitimation of those who enabled that ‘return’ i.e. British or French colonialism.
At first Zionism’s ideologues such as Arthur Ruppin, literally argued there was a biological continuum between the ancient Hebrews and today’s Jews, something which is still believed by many. Today it is merely a mixture of the quasi mystical and mythical, a hotchpotch of claims based on religious sanction. Religion has always been the oil that enabled the wheels of colonialism to turn freely. The publication of Shlomo Sand’s book in English is therefore extremely welcome although much of it has appeared elsewhere e.g. Arthur Koestler’s 13th Tribe. It debunks the myth that the Zionists were anything other than European settlers, themselves a mixture of various European peoples, whose religion operated as a means of legitimation for naked conquest. In this of course they are not unique and others such as the Pilgrim Fathers and the Conquistadors also put to the sword natives who insisted on claiming their lands for themselves.
The consequence of these Zionised religious myths can be seen above – Palestinians replaced Jews as the object of the most extreme and virulent racism. Below are some reviews of the book which has been in the Israeli best seller lists for 19 weeks and has just been published in English.
Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State
The Palestine Telegraph
9 July 2009
What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same `children of Israel` described in the Old Testament?
And what if most modern Israelis aren`t descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn`t `return` to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia? What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora — the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews` exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh`s clutches — is all wrong?
That`s the explosive thesis of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand) that sent shockwaves across Israeli society when it was published last year. After 19 weeks on the Israeli best-seller list, the book is being translated into a dozen languages and will be published in the United States this year by Verso.
Its thesis has ramifications that go far beyond some antediluvian academic debate. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that decades-long cycle of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Each group lays claim to the same scrap of land — holy in all three of the world`s major Abrahamic religions — based on long-standing ties to that chunk of earth and national identities formed over long periods of time. There`s probably no other place on Earth where the present is as intimately tied to the ancient.
Central to the ideology of Zionism is the tale — familiar to all Jewish families — of exile, oppression, redemption and return. Booted from their kingdom, the `Jewish people` — sons and daughters of ancient Judea — wandered the earth, rootless, where they faced cruel suppression from all corners — from being forced to toil in slavery under the Egyptians, to the Spanish massacres of the 14th century and Russian pogroms of the 19th, through to the horrors of the Third Reich.
This view of history animates all Zionists, but none more so than the influential but reactionary minority — in the United States as well as Israel — who believe that God bestowed a `Greater Israel` — one that encompasses the modern state as well as the Occupied Territories — on the Jewish people, and who resist any effort to create a Palestinian state on biblical grounds.
Inventing a People?
Zand`s central argument is that the Romans didn`t expel whole nations from their territories. Zand estimates that perhaps 10,000 ancient Judeans were vanquished during the Roman wars, and the remaining inhabitants of ancient Judea remained, converting to Islam and assimilating with their conquerors when Arabs subjugated the area. They became the progenitors of today`s Palestinian Arabs, many of whom now live as refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 20th century.
As Israeli journalist Tom Segev summarized, in a review of the book in Ha`aretz:
There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened — hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua.
But this begs the question: if the ancient people of Judea weren`t expelled en masse, then how did it come to pass that Jewish people are scattered across the world? According to Zand, who offers detailed histories of several groups within what is conventionally known as the Jewish Diaspora, some were Jews who emigrated of their own volition, and many more were later converts to Judaism. Contrary to popular belief, Zand argues that Judaism was an evangelical religion that actively sought out new adherents during its formative period.
This narrative has huge significance in terms of Israel`s national identity. If Judaism is a religion, rather than `a people` descended from a dispersed nation, then it brings into question the central justification for the state of Israel remaining a `Jewish state.`
And that brings us to Zand`s second assertion. He argues that the story of the Jewish nation — the transformation of the Jewish people from a group with a shared cultural identity and religious faith into a vanquished `people` — was a relatively recent invention, hatched in the 19th century by Zionist scholars and advanced by the Israeli academic establishment. It was, argues Zand, an intellectual conspiracy of sorts. Segev says, `It`s all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel.`
Zand Gets Slammed; Do His Arguments Stand Up?
The ramifications of Zand`s argument are far-reaching; `the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendants,` he told Ha`aretz. Zand argues that Israel should be a state in which all of the inhabitants of what was once `British Palestine` share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rather than maintaining it as a `Jewish and democratic` state, as it`s now identified.Predictably, Zand was pilloried according to the time-tested formula. Ami Isseroff, writing on ZioNation, the Zionism-Israel blog, invoked the customary Holocaust imagery, accusing Zand of offering a `final solution to the Jewish problem,` one in which `No auto da fe is required, no charging Cossacks are needed, no gas chambers, no smelly crematoria.` Another feverish ideologue called Zand`s work `another manifestation of mental disorder in the extreme academic Left in Israel.`
That kind of overheated rhetoric is a standard straw man in the endless roil of discourse over Israel and the Palestinians, and is easily dismissed. But more serious criticism also greeted Zand`s work. In a widely read critical review of Zand`s work, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, slammed the author`s second assertion — that Zionist academics had suppressed the true history of Judaism`s spread through emigration and conversion in favor of a history that would give legitimacy to the quest for a Jewish state.
Bartal raised important questions about Zand`s methodology and pointed out what appears to be some sloppy details in the book. But, interestingly, in defending Israel`s academic community, Bartal supported Zand`s more consequential thesis, writing, `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.` Bartal added: `no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically `pure.` ` He noted that `[i]mportant groups in the [Zionist] movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.`
`As far as I can discern,` Bartal wrote, `the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented` in previous historical studies.’ Segev added that `Zand did not invent [his] thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others.`
One can reasonably argue that this ancient myth of a Jewish nation exiled until its 20th century return is of little consequence; whether the Jewish people share a common genetic ancestry or are a far-flung collection of people who share the same faith, a common national identity has in fact developed over the centuries. But Zand`s central contention stands, and has some significant implications for the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Changing the Conversation?
The primary reason it`s so difficult to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the remarkably effective job supporters of Israel`s control of the Occupied Territories — including Gaza, still under de facto occupation — have done equating support for Palestinian self-determination with a desire to see the destruction of Israel. It effectively conflates any advocacy of Palestinian rights with the specter of Jewish extermination.
That`s certainly been the case with arguments for a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until recent years, advocating a `single-state` solution — a binational state where all residents of what are today Israel and the Occupied Territories share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship — was a relatively mainstream position to take. In fact, it was one of several competing plans considered by the United Nations when it created the state of Israel in the 1940s.
But the idea of a single, binational state has more recently been marginalized — dismissed as an attempt to destroy Israel literally and physically, rather than as an ethnic and religious-based political entity with a population of second-class Arab citizens and the legacy of responsibility for world`s longest-standing refugee population.
A logical conclusion of Zand`s work exposing Israel`s founding mythology may be the restoration of the idea of a one-state solution to a legitimate place in the debate over this contentious region. After all, while it muddies the waters in one sense — raising ancient, biblical questions about just who the `children of Israel` really are — in another sense, it hints at the commonalities that exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both groups lay claim to the same crust of earth, both have faced historic repression and displacement and both hold dear the idea that they should have a `right of return.`
And if both groups in fact share common biblical ties, then it begs the question of why the entirety of what was Palestine under the British mandate should remain a refuge for people of one religion instead of being a country in which Jews and Arabs are guaranteed equal protection — equal protection under the laws of a state whose legitimacy would never again be open to question. Shattering a ‘national mythology’
By Ofri Ilani Tags:
Of all the national heroes who have arisen from among the Jewish people over the generations, fate has not been kind to Dahia al-Kahina, a leader of the Berbers in the Aures Mountains. Although she was a proud Jewess, few Israelis have ever heard the name of this warrior-queen who, in the seventh century C.E., united a number of Berber tribes and pushed back the Muslim army that invaded North Africa. It is possible that the reason for this is that al-Kahina was the daughter of a Berber tribe that had converted to Judaism, apparently several generations before she was born, sometime around the 6th century C.E.
According to the Tel Aviv University historian, Prof. Shlomo Sand, author of “Matai ve’ech humtza ha’am hayehudi?” (“When and How the Jewish People Was Invented?”; Resling, in Hebrew), the queen’s tribe and other local tribes that converted to Judaism are the main sources from which Spanish Jewry sprang. This claim that the Jews of North Africa originated in indigenous tribes that became Jewish – and not in communities exiled from Jerusalem – is just one element of the far- reaching argument set forth in Sand’s new book.
In this work, the author attempts to prove that the Jews now living in Israel and other places in the world are not at all descendants of the ancient people who inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple period. Their origins, according to him, are in varied peoples that converted to Judaism during the course of history, in different corners of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent regions. Not only are the North African Jews for the most part descendants of pagans who converted to Judaism, but so are the Jews of Yemen (remnants of the Himyar Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century) and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe (refugees from the Kingdom of the Khazars, who converted in the eighth century).
Unlike other “new historians” who have tried to undermine the assumptions of Zionist historiography, Sand does not content himself with going back to 1948 or to the beginnings of Zionism, but rather goes back thousands of years. He tries to prove that the Jewish people never existed as a “nation-race” with a common origin, but rather is a colorful mix of groups that at various stages in history adopted the Jewish religion. He argues that for a number of Zionist ideologues, the mythical perception of the Jews as an ancient people led to truly racist thinking: “There were times when if anyone argued that the Jews belong to a people that has gentile origins, he would be classified as an anti-Semite on the spot. Today, if anyone dares to suggest that those who are considered Jews in the world … have never constituted and still do not constitute a people or a nation – he is immediately condemned as a hater of Israel.”
According to Sand, the description of the Jews as a wandering and self-isolating nation of exiles, “who wandered across seas and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of Zionism, made a U-turn and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland,” is nothing but “national mythology.” Like other national movements in Europe, which sought out a splendid Golden Age, through which they invented a heroic past – for example, classical Greece or the Teutonic tribes – to prove they have existed since the beginnings of history, “so, too, the first buds of Jewish nationalism blossomed in the direction of the strong light that has its source in the mythical Kingdom of David.”
So when, in fact, was the Jewish people invented, in Sand’s view? At a certain stage in the 19th century, intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people “retrospectively,” out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and went back to its birthplace.
Actually, most of your book does not deal with the invention of the Jewish people by modern Jewish nationalism, but rather with the question of where the Jews come from. Sand:
“My initial intention was to take certain kinds of modern historiographic materials and examine how they invented the ‘figment’ of the Jewish people. But when I began to confront the historiographic sources, I suddenly found contradictions. And then that urged me on: I started to work, without knowing where I would end up. I took primary sources and I tried to examine authors’ references in the ancient period – what they wrote about conversion.”
Sand, an expert on 20th-century history, has until now researched the intellectual history of modern France (in “Ha’intelektual, ha’emet vehakoah: miparashat dreyfus ve’ad milhemet hamifrats” – “Intellectuals, Truth and Power, From the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War”; Am Oved, in Hebrew). Unusually, for a professional historian, in his new book he deals with periods that he had never researched before, usually relying on studies that present unorthodox views of the origins of the Jews.
Experts on the history of the Jewish people say you are dealing with subjects about which you have no understanding and are basing yourself on works that you can’t read in the original.
“It is true that I am an historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period. I knew that the moment I would start dealing with early periods like these, I would be exposed to scathing criticism by historians who specialize in those areas. But I said to myself that I can’t stay just with modern historiographic material without examining the facts it describes. Had I not done this myself, it would have been necessary to have waited for an entire generation. Had I continued to deal with France, perhaps I would have been given chairs at the university and provincial glory. But I decided to relinquish the glory.”
Inventing the Diaspora
“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom” – thus states the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence. This is also the quotation that opens the third chapter of Sand’s book, entitled “The Invention of the Diaspora.” Sand argues that the Jewish people’s exile from its land never happened.
“The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of ‘the people of the Bible’ that preceded it,” Sand explains. Under the influence of other historians who have dealt with the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people is originally a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.
“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land – a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country. The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”
If the people was not exiled, are you saying that in fact the real descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians?
“No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-9], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled. Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ‘the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'”
And how did millions of Jews appear around the Mediterranean Sea?
“The people did not spread, but the Jewish religion spread. Judaism was a converting religion. Contrary to popular opinion, in early Judaism there was a great thirst to convert others. The Hasmoneans were the first to begin to produce large numbers of Jews through mass conversion, under the influence of Hellenism. The conversions between the Hasmonean Revolt and Bar Kochba’s rebellion are what prepared the ground for the subsequent, wide-spread dissemination of Christianity. After the victory of Christianity in the fourth century, the momentum of conversion was stopped in the Christian world, and there was a steep drop in the number of Jews. Presumably many of the Jews who appeared around the Mediterranean became Christians. But then Judaism started to permeate other regions – pagan regions, for example, such as Yemen and North Africa. Had Judaism not continued to advance at that stage and had it not continued to convert people in the pagan world, we would have remained a completely marginal religion, if we survived at all.”
How did you come to the conclusion that the Jews of North Africa were originally Berbers who converted?
“I asked myself how such large Jewish communities appeared in Spain. And then I saw that Tariq ibn Ziyad, the supreme commander of the Muslims who conquered Spain, was a Berber, and most of his soldiers were Berbers. Dahia al-Kahina’s Jewish Berber kingdom had been defeated only 15 years earlier. And the truth is there are a number of Christian sources that say many of the conquerors of Spain were Jewish converts. The deep-rooted source of the large Jewish community in Spain was those Berber soldiers who converted to Judaism.”
Sand argues that the most crucial demographic addition to the Jewish population of the world came in the wake of the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria – a huge empire that arose in the Middle Ages on the steppes along the Volga River, which at its height ruled over an area that stretched from the Georgia of today to Kiev. In the eighth century, the kings of the Khazars adopted the Jewish religion and made Hebrew the written language of the kingdom. From the 10th century the kingdom weakened; in the 13th century is was utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants remains unclear.
Sand revives the hypothesis, which was already suggested by historians in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to which the Judaized Khazars constituted the main origins of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
“At the beginning of the 20th century there is a tremendous concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe – three million Jews in Poland alone,” he says. “The Zionist historiography claims that their origins are in the earlier Jewish community in Germany, but they do not succeed in explaining how a small number of Jews who came from Mainz and Worms could have founded the Yiddish people of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe are a mixture of Khazars and Slavs who were pushed eastward.”
‘Degree of perversion’
If the Jews of Eastern Europe did not come from Germany, why did they speak Yiddish, which is a Germanic language?
“The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words. Here I base myself on the research of linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University, who has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish. As far back as 1828, the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson) said that the ancient language of the Jews was not Yiddish. Even Ben Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography, was not hesitant about describing the Khazars as the origin of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and describes Khazaria as ‘the mother of the diasporas’ in Eastern Europe. But more or less since 1967, anyone who talks about the Khazars as the ancestors of the Jews of Eastern Europe is considered naive and moonstruck.”
Why do you think the idea of the Khazar origins is so threatening?
“It is clear that the fear is of an undermining of the historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us. Since the beginning of the period of decolonization, settlers have no longer been able to say simply: ‘We came, we won and now we are here’ the way the Americans, the whites in South Africa and the Australians said. There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist.”
Is there no justification for this fear?
“No. I don’t think that the historical myth of the exile and the wanderings is the source of the legitimization for me being here, and therefore I don’t mind believing that I am Khazar in my origins. I am not afraid of the undermining of our existence, because I think that the character of the State of Israel undermines it in a much more serious way. What would constitute the basis for our existence here is not mythological historical right, but rather would be for us to start to establish an open society here of all Israeli citizens.”
In effect you are saying that there is no such thing as a Jewish people.
“I don’t recognize an international people. I recognize ‘the Yiddish people’ that existed in Eastern Europe, which though it is not a nation can be seen as a Yiddishist civilization with a modern popular culture. I think that Jewish nationalism grew up in the context of this ‘Yiddish people.’ I also recognize the existence of an Israeli people, and do not deny its right to sovereignty. But Zionism and also Arab nationalism over the years are not prepared to recognize it.
“From the perspective of Zionism, this country does not belong to its citizens, but rather to the Jewish people. I recognize one definition of a nation: a group of people that wants to live in sovereignty over itself. But most of the Jews in the world have no desire to live in the State of Israel, even though nothing is preventing them from doing so. Therefore, they cannot be seen as a nation.”
What is so dangerous about Jews imagining that they belong to one people? Why is this bad?
“In the Israeli discourse about roots there is a degree of perversion. This is an ethnocentric, biological, genetic discourse. But Israel has no existence as a Jewish state: If Israel does not develop and become an open, multicultural society we will have a Kosovo in the Galilee. The consciousness concerning the right to this place must be more flexible and varied, and if I have contributed with my book to the likelihood that I and my children will be able to live with the others here in this country in a more egalitarian situation – I will have done my bit. “We must begin to work hard to transform our place into an Israeli republic where ethnic origin, as well as faith, will not be relevant in the eyes of the law. Anyone who is acquainted with the young elites of the Israeli Arab community can see that they will not agree to live in a country that declares it is not theirs. If I were a Palestinian I would rebel against a state like that, but even as an Israeli I am rebelling against it.”
The question is whether for those conclusions you had to go as far as the Kingdom of the Khazars.
“I am not hiding the fact that it is very distressing for me to live in a society in which the nationalist principles that guide it are dangerous, and that this distress has served as a motive in my work. I am a citizen of this country, but I am also a historian and as a historian it is my duty to write history and examine texts. This is what I have done.”
If the myth of Zionism is one of the Jewish people that returned to its land from exile, what will be the myth of the country you envision?
“To my mind, a myth about the future is better than introverted mythologies of the past. For the Americans, and today for the Europeans as well, what justifies the existence of the nation is a future promise of an open, progressive and prosperous society. The Israeli materials do exist, but it is necessary to add, for example, pan-Israeli holidays. To decrease the number of memorial days a bit and to add days that are dedicated to the future. But also, for example, to add an hour in memory of the Nakba [literally, the “catastrophe” – the Palestinian term for what happened when Israel was established], between Memorial Day and Independence Day.”