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Shlomo Sand: ‘When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?’

Jonathan Cook  |  Information Clearing House via The Truth Seeker 9,939 views
October 17, 2008

No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel’s bestseller list — and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel’s biggest taboo.

Dr Shlomo Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation — whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel — is a myth invented little more than a century ago.

An expert on European history at Tel Aviv University, Dr Sand drew on extensive historical and archaeological research to support not only this claim but several more — all equally controversial.

In addition, he argues that the Jews were never exiled from the Holy Land, that most of today’s Jews have no historical connection to the land called Israel and that the only political solution to the country’s conflict with the Palestinians is to abolish the Jewish state.

The success of “When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” looks likely to be repeated around the world. A French edition, launched last month, is selling so fast that it has already had three print runs.

Translations are under way into a dozen languages, including Arabic and English. But he predicted a rough ride from the pro-Israel lobby when the book is launched by his English publisher, Verso, in the United States next year.

In contrast, he said Israelis had been, if not exactly supportive, at least curious about his argument. Tom Segev, one of the country’s leading journalists, has called the book “fascinating and challenging”.

Surprisingly, Dr Sand said, most of his academic colleagues in Israel have shied away from tackling his arguments. One exception is Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, Dr Bartal made little effort to rebut Dr Sand’s claims. Paradoxically, he dedicated much of his article instead to defending his profession. He suggested that Israeli historians were not as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr Sand contends.

The idea for the book had come to him many years ago, Dr Sand said, but he waited until recently to start working on it. “I cannot claim to be particularly courageous in publishing the book now,” he said. “I waited until I was a full professor. There is a price to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort.”

Dr Sand’s main argument is that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews only because they shared a common religion. At the turn of the 20th century, he said, Zionist Jews challenged this idea and started creating a national history by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion.

Equally, the modern Zionist idea of Jews being obligated to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism, he added.

“Zionism changed the idea of Jerusalem. Before, the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem not because they could not return but because their religion forbade them from returning until the messiah came.”

The biggest surprise during his research came when he started looking at the archaeological evidence from the biblical era.

“I was not raised as a Zionist, but like all other Israelis I took it for granted that the Jews were a people living in Judea and that they were exiled by the Romans in 70 AD.

“But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends.

“Similarly with the exile. In fact, you can’t explain Jewishness without exile. But when I started to look for history books describing the events of this exile, I couldn’t find any. Not one.

“That was because the Romans did not exile people. In fact, Jews in Palestine were overwhelming peasants and all the evidence suggests they stayed on their lands.”

Instead, he believes an alternative theory is more plausible: the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. “Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God.”

So if there was no exile, how is it that so many Jews ended up scattered around the globe before the modern state of Israel began encouraging them to “return”?

Dr Sand said that, in the centuries immediately preceding and following the Christian era, Judaism was a proselytising religion, desperate for converts. “This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time.”

Jews travelled to other regions seeking converts, particularly in Yemen and among the Berber tribes of North Africa. Centuries later, the people of the Khazar kingdom in what is today south Russia, would convert en masse to Judaism, becoming the genesis of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe.

Dr Sand pointed to the strange state of denial in which most Israelis live, noting that papers offered extensive coverage recently to the discovery of the capital of the Khazar kingdom next to the Caspian Sea.

Ynet, the website of Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined the story: “Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital.” And yet none of the papers, he added, had considered the significance of this find to standard accounts of Jewish history.

One further question is prompted by Dr Sand’s account, as he himself notes: if most Jews never left the Holy Land, what became of them?

“It is not taught in Israeli schools, but most of the early Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion [Israel's first prime minister], believed that the Palestinians were the descendants of the area’s original Jews. They believed the Jews had later converted to Islam.”

Dr Sand attributed his colleagues’ reticence to engage with him to an implicit acknowledgement by many that the whole edifice of “Jewish history” taught at Israeli universities is built like a house of cards.

The problem with the teaching of history in Israel, Dr Sand said, dates to a decision in the 1930s to separate history into two disciplines: general history and Jewish history. Jewish history was assumed to need its own field of study because Jewish experience was considered unique.

“There’s no Jewish department of politics or sociology at the universities. Only history is taught in this way, and it has allowed specialists in Jewish history to live in a very insular and conservative world where they are not touched by modern developments in historical research.

“I’ve been criticised in Israel for writing about Jewish history when European history is my specialty. But a book like this needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world.”


Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net . This article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.

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27 comments

  1. Sonny says:

    I would like to know if Dr. Shlomo Sand has look into private library of some of the rich people of this world. Cause, they have some old material they don’t want the people of this world to know.

  2. [...] When and How Was Jewish People Invented, Professor Shlomo Sand, Tel Aviv [...]

  3. chris says:

    It seems only Jews are allowed to make this point without being vilified as anti-semitic….any critcism of Israel or US policy is grounds for castration if you are a US citizen.

  4. fathi Abdallah says:

    Prof. Shlomo Sand has the professional integrity, historical knowledge, respectable vision, courage and honesty to show the Jews where they should stand from Zionism. Such racist indocrine brought death and misery to Jews and Arabs alike. De-Zionising the Holy Land is the only solution to the Middle East conflict. Then, and only then Jews and Arabs can live peacefully as they did for centuries before.

  5. Joe says:

    As an historian of European and Jewish history, there is so much wrong with his views that there is almost nil that is right ! The Exile was in 586 BCE, NOT in 70 CE. Jews lived continuously in places like Iran, Iraq [Babylonia] etc. from 586 BCE until 1948, when they were ‘encouraged’ to move to leave. The Khazars are nothing new, but DNA proves Sephardic and Ashkenazic Cohanim have the same ancestry. Jews have lived in varying numbers in Israel for about 3,000 years — and yes we all know many Pals are of Jewish ancestry — Jews who were forced to convert to Islam. Some Pal clans are quite open about being of Jewish ancestry. All the more surprising that they don’t want to co-exist.

  6. Joe says:

    There is no reason to suggest that David and Solomon were only legends. Aside from all the evidence, you have a problem that Jesus came from the House of David and that Muslims accept Solomon and Jesus as part of their tradition. The House of David was still distinguished as the Exilarchs in Bavel / Iraq until the Middle Ages. Up until Roman times there were issues regrding Jewish rulers who did not have Davidic descent. His theory takes many entire books out of the Bible, which have been supported by the evidence of generations of archaeologists. The reason there are separate depts for European and Jewish History is that most of Jewish history did not take place in Europe. European Christian historians took the view that Jewish history ended with the coming of Christianity and Jews only reappear in the Holocaust. This is becase European historians equate Europe with Christendom. With Jews living for centuries isolated from mainstream European life why should we be included in European history ?

  7. Joe says:

    ‘For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem…’ There were many Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades and many were murdered by Crusaders. Many leading figures in European Jewry such as Maimonides and the followers of the Vilna Gaon — among many others– set out to fulfill the Biblical precept to ‘live in the Holy Land.’ There were Jewish communities in Sefad and Tiberias as well as Jerusalem throughout the Middle Ages and Jews from far afield settled there. My own education was guided by people like William Foxwell Albright and Samuel Rosenblatt. I don’t see them as ‘untouched by modern developments in historical research.’ Shlomo Sand might do the world a favor and stick to his own field of expertise in European history.

  8. david says:

    “you have a problem that Jesus came from the House of David and that Muslims accept Solomon and Jesus as part of their tradition. The House of David was still distinguished as the Exilarchs in Bavel / Iraq until the Middle Ages.”
    when you need us to take Muslim you do ,when you do not want us to know you say different thing.

  9. david says:

    “For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem…’ There were many Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades and many were murdered by Crusaders.”
    Joe did not give us any archeological evidence that the temple of Suleiman is in Jesusalem!despit of 42 years of occupation.

  10. david says:

    Muslim can not and will not need to get more Muslims by force,read more from:
    http://home.swipnet.se/islam/quran-bible.htm.
    anyone can change,but in jewish believe no one can chose!

  11. david says:

    “Jews who were forced to convert to Islam. Some Pal clans are quite open about being of Jewis”
    how can Muslim force you to Islam?
    it is not valid and non.

  12. Joe says:

    David. Thank you for your comments. Islam always said it had built its holy places on the site of Solomon’s Temple. No one disputes that the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary is the site of the Temple, so there is nothing to prove. There is by the way quite a lot of archaeological proof. Forced conversion may not be the Islamic ideal, but from time to time there have been forced conversions. Maimonides saw it first hand and wrote about how Jews should respond. In his case he moved to another country very quickly! I mention the House of David in connection with Jesus and Islam because it shows that Christianity and Islam attest to David and Solomon his son. Judaism has always viewed Islam as a fellow pure and iconoclastic ethical monotheism. There is no reason we can’t live together in harmony.

  13. Ali says:

    There is no jewish history, this is a fact and has been already proved that trying to create an artificial race brings our world nothing but disaster like israel…

  14. admin says:

    Dear Ali, the entire human race is artificial, not just “some” races. And Israel is NOT a disaster, the STATE of Israel is!

  15. Jane says:

    Ali,

    Is the denial of Jewish history a way to validate your existence? Do you not exist simply because Jews do? Let me help you here. You exist, I exist and at the same time, we are all illusions. History is an illusion and so is the present moment. Let go of needing to be right and work on removing hatred from yourself. All of us are right and wrong and it really doesn’t matter…. Love always, Jane

  16. Ali says:

    A new study from the World Health Organization says 59 million people died from all causes in 2004. Four of the ten leading causes of death worldwide are infectious diseases. These are pneumonia, infectious diarrhea, H.I.V./AIDS and tuberculosis. The study found that the Middle East produced 55% of the world’s war dead in 2004. The Middle East has about 8% of the world population. this is mainly because of injuries from violence, including war.
    Diseases spread and kill people from all ages and don’t respect any laws and rights, Israel is spreading with illegal settlement, killing people from all ages and doesn’t respect any laws and rights as well. israel approved that israel is a leading disaster in the Middle East.

  17. Jane says:

    Let’s stop spreading fear..it’s all a tactic of the satan. Anger and hatred for no reason are the epidemics here… If you have the capacity to love, use it to love your fellow human and stop looking to blame, each of us has to take responsibility by spreading love and ending hatred for no reason. I send you love and light Ali, I wish for you a open heart. I don’t want to be right anymore, I just want to shake your hand and say let’s bring about the certainty of a world where we can all do good for eachother.

  18. michael says:

    Am i anti semetic? maybe so, In the eyes of some. However if I am unable to make my point without the under current of uncomfortabilty and political correctness then what is the point of any thing.No bubbles for nobody.Thanks again

  19. michael says:

    Jane the utopic world is an impossibilty, and if you find it and keep it to your self, then thats selfish. If you tell everyone then its a tourist attraction and lost forever. quote 07/02/10 i agree you can be good on a an individual leveland should be all the time.
    Good luck Jane

  20. admin says:

    Dear michael,
    War Is Crime is NOT a discussion forum. And it’s not a part of any “social network”. So the “freedom of speech” issue simply doesn’t apply here, especially when the speech is as aggressive as were your first two comments (that I have deleted). Also, War Is Crime has nothing to do with “de-MOCK-racy”, it’s all about PERSONocracy (see http://www.personocratia.com to know what it is).

  21. [...] Автор на интервюто и материала е Джонатън Кук, писател и журналист, живеещ в Назарет. Личната му страница е http://www.jkcook.net източник [...]

  22. eliezer says:

    Sand is a pseudo-historian whose specialty is the French cinema and who knows nothing at all about Jewish history. He is also a hardcore Stalinist. His “theories” about the Jewish people are recycled myths he has copied from Neo-Nazi groups and web sites.

  23. admin says:

    Hi elieser,
    Thanks for a comment from a citizen of a state that has no other reason to exist but a fairy tale. ;)

  24. Lesley Chapman says:

    Most Jews are from the south of Russia (Khazar) and travelled over Europe and went to the Holy Land in 1948. There were some that escaped the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Most were killed or sent to Egypt as slaves by the Romans where they died or became part of the local community. Read The War of the Jews by Josephus for the full history in the 1st century AD.

  25. edward says:

    As a seeker of truth and an observer of world events i find a certain discomfort when there are discussions regarding the JEWS.I am discomforted because the jews seem to be a people from another planet who has rights and privileges that the rest of us earthlings do not.That mentality is a SUPREMACIST mentality.I would also venture to say that many of these so called jews do not have an ounce of Semitic blood in their bodies.We have been fooled by their many legends and lies.If we do the research and ask the right questions, the truth will present itself.Shlomo Sand has dared to shine a light in a dark place and on a dark subject as…THE JEW.

  26. admin says:

    Dear Edward,
    Among other things, Shlomo Sand demonstrates that there is no difference between the Jews and any other people on this planet. It’s the Zionist ideology that presents them as kind of ‘extraterrestrials’. All the Jews are not Zionists, just as all the Zionists are not Jewish. The truth is that we are all human beings, and even that we are only for a tiny period of time of our ‘collecting experience’ in the material world ;-)