Via: The Guardian.
‘Post-Zionist’ Shlomo Sand has outraged many Jews by disputing the ethnic basis of Jewish identity. Rafael Behr meets him in Paris
Shlomo Sand presses his thumbs together, palms outward, fingers stretching up like the branches of a candelabra. “If you can visualise it…” The air above our table is meant to be the Mediterranean region shortly after the birth of Christ. Sand’s hands are rival monotheistic cults.
“There are two kinds of Judaism: Christianity and a kind of Judaism that starts to close in on itself because of the success of Christianity.” The hands drift apart. The fingers on the right withdraw into a fist. “The vision that we have of Judaism today came out of this closedness, because of fear; because of the conditions imposed on Judaism if it was to continue under Christianity.”
A middle-aged academic with a close-cropped beard, dark polo-neck and metal-rimmed glasses, gesticulating over coffee, is hardly a controversial sight in a cafe on Paris’s Place d’Italie. But this particular mime is deeply subversive. Sand is a professor at Tel Aviv university and author of The Invention of the Jewish People. His quiet earthquake of a book is shaking historical faith in the link between Judaism and Israel.
Sand’s hands are depicting how most Jews are descended from converts who never set foot in the Holy Land. That has come as a bit of a surprise to many Jews and as a colossal affront to Zionism, Israel’s national ideology. The modern Israeli state was founded on belief in a “Jewish people” as a unified nation, established in biblical times, scattered by Rome, stranded in exile for 2,000 years, then returned to the Promised Land.
But according to Sand there was no exile, and as he seeks to prove by dense forensic archaeological and historical analysis, it is meaningless to talk today about a “people of Israel”. At least not if by that you mean the Jews.
It is hard to imagine a more fundamental challenge to the idea of a modern Jewish state on the site of ancient Judea. Yet the book was a bestseller in Israel and is spreading worldwide. It won a prestigious literary award in France, where Sand is currently on sabbatical. But the reaction of the Jewish community there was hostile. “Hysterical,” he says.
Sand’s own manner in print and in person is urgent rather than polemical; more deadpan than diatribe. He understands the controversy. “After years and years of using phrases like ‘Jewish people’ and ‘Jewish nation for 4,000 years; it isn’t so easy for them to accept a book like mine.”
Sand’s detractors portray the book as an assault on Jewish identity and the legitimacy of Israel. But he sees it as the opposite: an attempt to rescue Jewish-Israeli identity from an intellectual abyss and redeem Israeli society with a healthy dose of secular rationalism. “I wrote the book for a double purpose. First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism.”
This, Sand explains, is the tendency in modern Judaism to make shared ethnicity the basis for faith. “That is dangerous and it nourishes antisemitism. I am trying to normalise the Jewish presence in history and contemporary life.”
That means chipping away at the Jewish self-image of survival by insularity – withstanding thousands of years of persecution by virtue of non-proselytising, cultural and religious introspection. In Sand’s analysis, early Judaism pioneered the art of conversion. To spread as quickly as it did, Christianity must have exploited an earlier Jewish expansion.
Later, another mass conversion took place in the Black Sea kingdom of Khazaria towards the end of the eighth century. The Khazar elite acquired Judaism as a form of diplomatic neutrality in the surrounding clashes between Christianity and Islam. That conversion gradually scooped up people of mixed ethnic backgrounds who are, Sand believes, the main ancestors of Eastern European Jewry.
The Khazar conversion is no revelation. It was the basis for a 1976 book by Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe, which was reviled, then ignored, by mainstream Zionism. But the Jewish Khazars were recognised by early Zionist historians, albeit as a numerically insignificant curiosity. They were only dropped from the story in the 1960s. After the 1967 Six Day War, to be precise.
Sand notes that the disappearance of converts from Israeli history books coincides with increased occupation of Arab land. This is not a conspiracy theory. Zionism was a typical modern nation-building exercise. It followed the pattern by which most European national identities were forged in the 19th and 20th centuries. Intellectual elites propagated myths that met “the deep ideological needs of their culture and their society”. In Israel’s case that was the myth of ethnic origins in a biblical kingdom based around Jerusalem.
But, say Sand’s critics, since all national identities are myths, why pick on the Jews? Only a few fundamentalists think God actually promised Israel to Moses. Meanwhile, millions of Jews feel a cultural and religious attachment to Zion. It is in their liturgy and their sense of self. It is no fiction.
That is the rebuke issued by Simon Schama in a recent review. “The book fails to sever the remembered connection between the ancestral land and Jewish experience,” Schama wrote. “What chutzpah coming from Simon Schama, speaking about his ancestral land!” Sand says, eyes widening. “He doesn’t want to come to his ‘ancestral land’ to live!”
Sand is scathing about accusations made by Jews living elsewhere that his book is anti-Israel. From the comfort of the diaspora they charge him with sedition. Some say his thesis fuels antisemitism. Overseas donors to Tel Aviv University have called for him to be sacked.
But Sand has voted for Israel with his feet. He is not anti-Zionist, he says, but post-Zionist: accepting modern Israel as a fait accompli. Besides, his interest in the country’s survival as a democracy is not theoretical. His family lives there.
Diaspora Zionists can nurture the Jewish myth of biblical nationhood as dual citizenship alongside their passports from safer states. When they refer to “Israel” and “Jerusalem” in their prayers, they do not have to distinguish between scriptural metaphor and political reality. It is a distinction on which Israel’s survival depends.
“A lot of pro-Zionists in London and New York don’t really understand what their great-grandparents felt about Zion,” says Sand. “It was the most important place in the world in their imagination, as a religious, sacred land, not a place to emigrate.” That “Israel” was a metaphysical destination to be reached at the End of Days. The modern Israeli state is a political enterprise, conceived in the late 19th century, made necessary by the Holocaust, founded in 1948.
It is a young country. Many Jews see that as a weakness. The more insecure they feel, the tighter they cling to the myth of an ancient mandate. But Israel’s best hope is to acknowledge that its nationhood is invented, and modernise even more. It must, Sand argues, reform itself so the state belongs to all its citizens, whether Jew or Arab.
He admits that sounds utopian under current circumstances. But the alternative means Israel gambling its future on the consolidation of a mythic “people” in their “ancestral homeland”. That is 20th-century-style ethnic nationalism. Many such projects have ended in tragedy.