Shlomo Sand responds to Simon Schama’s review in the Financial Times

by Sarah on November 21, 2009

The debate about The Invention of the Jewish People continues in the FT here. Shlomo Sand was keen to respond to Simon Schama’s critical review of his book from last Saturday’s FT. However, the paper would only consider publishing a very short one paragraph response. Shlomo declined and has asked us to present the complete text of his response below.

“Dear Editor,

One of the most effective techniques adopted to ridicule or marginalize one’s ideological opponents is to create a caricatured and extreme version of their thesis. Some Zionist historians have become past masters with such methods, and Simon Schama seems to want to emulate them in his review of my book in the FT of 13 November.

Although most Zionist thought was ethnocentric and in some cases even defined Judaism in racial terms, I insisted in my book that Zionist thinkers had not thought in terms of a pure race and had no intentions of “purifying” it. After all, the Jewish religion would not have permitted such a conception (see pp. 265-6). Zionism did however reconfigure the many and diverse Jewish communities into an “ethnic” people in which most of its members were to be seen as the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. As is well-known, a religious community cannot possess historical ownership rights over a land, whereas a people can. Thus the famous Zionist motto, “A people without a land for a land without a people”. Thus also the evolution of the profoundly rooted myth concerning the “Exile of Jewish people” by the Romans in the first years of the first millennium. It is indeed true that specialists of Jewish antiquity knew that the Exile had never taken place, yet up to and including the present day, most ordinary Israelis are convinced that it did indeed occur – after all, it’s inscribed in the “Declaration of Independence of Israel” and even on Israeli money bills.

Schama’s remark regarding the question of the Khazars is even more problematic. It is not surprising that the young Schama had heard about the Khazars and I did not argue that I, or before me Arthur Koestler, had discovered the issue. I repeatedly emphasize in my book that, up until the 1960s, the best historians in the world, including Zionists, wrote extensively on the Kingdom of Khazaria. Moreover, almost everyone – from the Jewish-American historian Salo Baron to Ben-Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography and minister of education in Israel in the 1950s – explained the widespread Jewish presence in Eastern Europe by way of the Khazar immigration thesis (the Zionists added to this the absurd assumption that Palestine was the origin of the Jews in Khazaria). The problem is that ever since Abraham Pollack, the founder of the history department at Tel Aviv University, conducted his wide-ranging research, no serious work concerning the origins of the demographic weight of Yiddish-speaking Jews has been carried out. Maybe this is also the reason that Schama is the only historian who claims that the Kingdom of Khazaria converted to Judaism in the 10th century and not in the 8th.

And if we want to turn to questions of historical accuracy, Schama’s statement that the “mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture” in Judea after the two religious revolts at the beginning of our era is very odd: The Mishna, the greatest Jewish work after the Bible, was completed in 200 A.D – not long after those revolts. It is also quite peculiar that a serious historian should assume that in the 9th century B.C there was a “developed nation-state” in the Middle-East. Perhaps we are to imagine the existence of a flourishing print industry, book market and compulsory education during that period, thereby forging ancient Israel into a nation-state?

Nevertheless, the most surprising elements in Schama’s review are his notes regarding the Jews’ relationship to Palestine. If Schama had seriously read my book he would have learnt that there was indeed a profound affinity of Jewish believers with Jerusalem, but that it was a deep yearning for a sacred place. Jews, even those who lived nearby, never thought of immigrating to the holy city of Zion. Furthermore, even the few who lived within it saw their life as a kind of “Exile”. Jerusalem could not be ascended to without the arrival of the messiah and, with him, the revival of all the dead Jews. With all their great talents, the Zionists turned the metaphysical-theological paradigm “Exile–Redemption” into a physical-national paradigm of “Exile–Homeland”.

But the truth is that, even if there was great appeal in the Zionist myth, most of the Yiddish-speaking Jews did not want to emigrate to their “ancestral land”. Instead, they chose to emigrate to America. If the US had not blocked East European immigration from the 1920s onwards, it is highly questionable whether the state of Israel would ever have been founded. This merciless closing of the gates continued, as is well-known, before and after the Second World War and thus caused great suffering to the victims of the Nazi regime. It was much easier to compel the Arab population in Palestine to accept these miserable strangers that Europe had expelled rather than to receive them in the US. The majority of immigrants from Soviet Russia in the 1980s would also have preferred to emigrate to the West, but the State of Israel pressured the American president to help prevent such anti-patriotic tendencies. Eventually, these immigrants were obliged to land in Israel.

Most of those who see themselves as Jews, up until today, prefer not to live under Jewish sovereignty and not to send their children to risk death in Israeli wars. It seems to me that Schama can be counted amongst these, even if he thinks that Israel is his “ancestral land”. As for me, in contrast, I live in Israel and justify its continued existence, not on the grounds of past Jewish suffering – no suffering in the past can excuse creating suffering in the present – but because I have lived here all my life and I know that the denial of its existence would only lead to a new tragedy.

Professor Shlomo Sand

Tel Aviv University


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Dennis Loh, MD November 24, 2009 at 12:38 am

Schama’s review is written to belittle Shlomo Sand’s achievement in writing this book. Schama is very disingenuous in not giving credit to Sand’s contribution. The key contribution is that of bringing a COHERENT story to the origins of the “Jewish” people. Schama’s description of the content of the book is purposefully misleading and it’s obvious (having read the book twice myself). This book will be a landmark–it’s influence will be global and will span politics, academy, and gossip columns. I am all for divulging the “dirty” secrets into the public domain.

Kevin Brook November 24, 2009 at 3:08 am

In the letter above, Sand claims “no serious work concerning the origins of the demographic weight of Yiddish-speaking Jews has been carried out” in recent decades. I wrote a study of this very nature titled “The Origins of East European Jews” and it was published in the scholarly journal Russian History/Histoire Russe volume 30 numbers 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2003) on pages 1-22.

Sand is familiar with the first edition of my book “The Jews of Khazaria” and cites it in “The Invention of the Jewish People”. But it is the second edition of my book that carries the full extent of the research on Jewish demographics and origins, with its Chapter 10 (formerly numbered 11) sourcing the new genetic studies as well as the demographic and linguistic research of scholars like Alexander Beider.

Ernst Raedecker November 26, 2009 at 11:10 am

Amsterdam, 26-nov-2009

To: Shlomo Sand

Dear Sir,

Your book arrived only two days ago in the Netherlands and I have only been able to leave through a page here and there.

It seems to me a pity that Gabriel Piterberg’s book “The Returns of Zionism”, also published by Verso, arrived too late for you to reflect on his ideas in your book. He writes extensively on what he calls the Zionist foundational myth, which has in his view three manifestations:

[1] the negation of exile (shelilat ha-galut)
[2] the return to the Land of Israel (ha-shiva le-erets yisrael)
[3] the return to history (ha-shiva la-historia)

See pg xiii, introduction, and pg 94-95 for his central argument.

On the subject of the ‘jüdische Rassenkunde’, utterly neglected in Simon Schama’s angry review of 13-nov-2009, a few relatively modern PhD theses of excellent quality have been published in Germany. To wit:

Veronika Lipphardt, Biologie der Juden. Jüdische Wissenschaftler über “Rasse” und vererbung 1900-1935
VandenHoeck & Rupprecht, Göttingen, 2008

with good material on Auerbach, Zollschan etc.

Annegret Kiefer, Das Problem einer “jüdischen Rasse”
Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 1991

which centers on the reception of the idea of “race” and purity in Wilhelminian and Weimar Germany in relation to concepts like Entartung, loss of self, loss of group identity among Germans as well as German Jews.

Hans Kohn has written two beautiful books on the Middle East, which are unfortunately never read:

[1] Nationalismus und Imperialismus im Vorderen Orient
Societäts-Verlag, Frankf / M., 1931

[2] Die Europäisierung des Orients
Schocken Verlag, Berlin, 1934

THE central article thats sums up all the problems that continue to haunt us right up until today is in my opinion the following, written by its chief editor Robert Weltsch in the Jüdische Rundschau:

Nummer 64/65 Berlin, 14. VIII. 1925
XXX Jahrg., S. 549:

Zum XIV. Zionistenkongreß
Worum es geht

This fine article merits a reprint. Weltsch became famous with another article, published on 04-04-1933, right after the days of the Judenboykott: ‘Tragt ihn mit Stolz, den gelben Fleck’

I hope you will be able to give a lecture on your book in the Netherlands. I heard there were some problems, but probably these are only rumours.

Ernst Raedecker

zachary esterson, PhD student, Cardiff November 27, 2009 at 10:17 am

I am a PhD student immersed in many of the primary sources to which Shlomo Sand, specialist in modern French history, refers. There are plenty of British academics in Jewish history. Conspicuously, none were present in any discussion with Sand.

The exile is assumed in rabbinic and Talmudic literature, as it is in Christian and Islamic. The Talmud is an expression of the rabbis’ resolve that every scrap of Jewish law, lore, custom and memory be retained in the face of the catastrophic loss of temple, Jerusalem, Judea and state.

In the Bellum Judaeorum. Josephus is too early to realise the loss of temple and Jerusalem is permanent, and he likely hoped for their return to the Jews. But there is no question that he perceives the loss of a Jewish state, of which Jerusalem is the capital.

Soon after Jews fall from favour. We hear no more of Hellenistic Jewish intellectuals, like Philo, whether Roman citizens or no. The destruction of the Alexandrian Jewish communities signals a decline in Hellenistic Jewish civilisation, a decline completed by the Christians. Jews no longer write Greco-Roman historiography. Hellenistic and Roman Jewish works, the provenance, in any case, of an elite, are lost. All Jews, empirewide, are punished for the rebels of Judea by collection of the temple tax. Indeed this likely plays a part in triggering the revolts in Alexandria and Cyrenaica. All Jews are thus identified as “Judeans”, and the Christians continue the policy. But now Jews are not only treated as de facto rebels, or potential rebels, against the Roman state and its gods, they are rebels against their own God, who know favours Greco-Roman gentile Christians, who inherit Jerusalem and Judea, now renamed “Palestine”, from their pagan predecessors, who acted as agents of divine wrath against Israel for rejecting or slaying Christ.

The “myth” of exile arises precisely because it is no longer possible to retain or research information about the past in detail. Except, for Jews, in the Talmud. It is a shorthand that most neatly encapsulates the Jewish experience of dispossession, disfavour, subjugation and displacement. Jews intermingle and intermarry, and the rabbis forge a pan-Jewish identity precisely because they fear Israel will be lost among the nations. Thereafter the tendency is less to convert new as to retain old Jews.

The assumption, indeed the necessity, that Jews are a people dispossessed of temple, city and land for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets only bolsters Jewish self-definition.

And the Christians continue the process of Jewish dispossession of the land of Israel by laws seeking to alienate or marginalise them. Yes, a sizable Jewish community remains in the land, largely in the Galil, whither many Judean refugees likely went.

Shlomo’s assertion that Romans did not exile peoples is idiotic: they certainly carried out tranfer or genocide against Dacia, the only other province, other than Judaea, to be renamed as a consequence.

Cassius Dio says 500 000 Judeans were killed during the suppression of the second Jewish revolt. Exaggeration? Possibly. But ethnic cleansing even by modern standards (and the Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian experience springs to mind).

Judaea is changed to Syria Palaestina both to likely reflect that “demographic” change and to alienate Jews from the land for ever. It was never complete, sure. But I can tell you that every ancient Christian author, even those living in Palestine, speaks as though Israel has been completely dispossessed from the land, not because it necessarily reflects reality, but because it reflects things as they think they should be.

Which is why Jews have been regarded as a people dispossessed of temple, city and land, in Christendom and Islam, for most of Christian and Islamic history.

Especially Palestinian Christian and Islamic history.

In any case, one consequence of this is that, even in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews in Europe, North Africa and Asia are regarded as more nationally Judean than, say, European or Arab, and are either killed, or effectively driven out: before 1914, mostly to America, after 1914, mostly to Palestine, or what became Israel.

Which is why the Jewish state of Israel is the second or largest Jewish community today, and certainly the one most identifiably Jewish (hence, unsurprisingly, the especial focus of hatred of antisemites today).

Sand’s holding a post-Revolutionary French notion of nationality as the touch stone of its definition is absurd: the Greeks and the Romans regarded Jews as a distinct ethno-national group, along with Syrians and Egyptians.

But, more to the point, Sand’s criterion proves the very opposite of his thesis: the granting to Jews of French citizenship was significant precisely because it was the first time since antiquity that Jews could transcend their (anciently regarded) Jewish ethno-nationality without having first to convert from Judaism to Christianity.

The intellectuals of the French Republic all assumed the Jews were an ethno-national group historically dispossessed because this was not merely how Jews saw themselves, it had been a datum of European culture for nearly 2000 years.

It was precisely this identity Jews were supposed to surrender in order to become French citizens. That was why orthodox rabbis viewed emancipation with such ambivalence, and why Liberal Judaism evolved as a response.

Conte de Clermont-Tonnerre to the General Assembly of the Republic ‘To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation nothing.’

It goes without saying that this presupposes Jews to have been a national group of some kind, although this was what Jews needed to abandon to become French citizens.

Jesusthepalestinain December 10, 2009 at 4:57 am

If those GOYIM Europeans Jews(Ashke-NAZI or SPANISH Sephardim) are “SEMITIC”, and HEBREWS” true descendants of our biological blood grand father Eber ????? the Arab, then “ARAB” like me MUST be German, since I or(we Arabs)genetically DO NOT SHARE any DNA heritage with those GOYIM EUROPEAN JEWS. We are genetically proven NOT to be related, and we Arabs are the cousins of ourselves.

Goyim Jews go back to Europe to where U belong

Jesusthepalestinain December 10, 2009 at 4:58 am

Since there is no such thing as homogeneous “Jewish DNA “,( European-with R1a1,Slavs R1b1, Armenians , Kurds -J2, Ethiopian- A2, Amaziq- E3B1, Georgian and Ossetian -G etc of different paternal Y-DNA haplogroups ), could all those Goyim Jews then be biological blood descendants from a one single most recent common ancestor let alone one man named Jacob ?! ! !

Benyamin Ben-Ari December 22, 2009 at 11:26 am

First off if the Khazars are the ethnic majority of Ashkenazi Jews why did a HUGE majority if not all of them speak Yiddish, a language based off the Germanic language? How come they did not speak Khazarish? Did a great majority of these Jews learn and speak a the language a small minority of Jews in the new lands of Eastern Europe? If Yiddish was based off a Slavic language maybe it would make sense since they would need to able to speak also the language of the local people. But no Yiddish was the dominat language of the Jews of Eastern Europe becuase it was this Germanic (not Slavic or Turkish)language that the ancestory of these people originated from.

Second, Mr. Sands books states that it was not until the the onset of Zionism and European nationalsim that the “myth” of the exile take full force amgonst the Jewish People. How then do you explain the whole culture of Exile amongst the Sephardic Jewish Community? It was Yehuda Ha-Levi from Muslim Spain that wrote the famous words “I am in the East, but I am in the West” He does not go into detail about this communty becuase he has no academic backgrounf there he prefers to avoid this conversation because it does not mesh well with his Eurocentric World View.

Benyamin Ben-Ari December 22, 2009 at 11:40 am

I apologize for the sloppiness of the previous comment. My Computer got ahead of me

First off if the Khazars are the ethnic majority of Ashkenazi Jews why did a HUGE majority if not all of them speak Yiddish, a language based off the Germanic language? How come they did not speak Khazarish? Did a great majority of these Jews learn and speak a the language a small minority of Jews in the new lands of Eastern Europe? If Yiddish was based off a Slavic language maybe it would make sense since they would need to able to speak also the language of the local people. But no Yiddish was the dominate language of the Jews of Eastern Europe because it was this Germanic (not Slavic or Turkish)language that the ancestry of these people originated from.
Second, Mr. Sands books states that it was not until the onset of Zionism and European nationalism that the “myth” of the exile take full force amongst the Jewish People. How then do you explain the whole culture of Exile amongst the Sephardic Jewish Community? It was Yehuda Ha-Levi from Muslim Spain that wrote the famous words “I am in the West, but my heart is in the n the East” He does not go into detail about this community because he has no academic background there he prefers to avoid this conversation because it does not mesh well with his Eurocentric World View.

Also his childish comeback about Simcha’s comment on the nation-state makes me wonder about his academic ability to be objective, but of course a Jew writing about the denial of the Jewish people can hardly be objective (see I can do it too).

Jobs in Encinitas CA March 3, 2010 at 1:27 am

Really good article – I’m continuously seeking real useful articles. Any other solutions you care to talk about? I will be coming back for your reply

Rueben March 20, 2010 at 7:04 am

If you are lucky enough to be a genealogist, you are lucky enough.

ben Zalman April 3, 2010 at 5:27 pm

This guy Sands is a curse to everything good we Jews have given to the world! Jews are Jews..Hebrews are Hebrews…all this intellectual clap trap about exile or not is nuts! Here we Jews have the same book (Torah) for 3000 years and this putz Sand says “no it aint so! Then in the diaspora we Jews struggled against all odds to stay Jewish and alive! And along comes Sand in 21rst century and uses all the Jew hating Propaganda to say the bull-oney he says. Who cares whether Jews left town or not..yeah those Romans were nice guys who loved “Phillistinia”..Jews and Jesus! What womb did Sand come out of? What a “KLOG” he is to our Jewish Heritage!

ben Zalman April 3, 2010 at 5:31 pm

jesusthepalestinian listen goy arab..if it werent for Judaisim..there would be no Islam. Mohammed was fascinated with Jews! There sia book called Koran that says so.

ben Zalman April 3, 2010 at 5:42 pm

All I know is that in spite of all the Jew haters thru out world history we Jews are again sipping Tea in Tel A Viv and Jerusalem. Without Jews this world is a boring place! We Jews are the “yeast” to the lazy flour and makes it rise! And put this in your “Jewish” putz and smoke it Mr Sand…”so it goes with Israel goes it with the whole free Western World!” (ERIC HOFFER)

Binyamin Henri April 4, 2010 at 1:12 am

The issue ought not to be articulated in terms of genetics, and this goes for both Sand and his opponents.

Ethnicity and culture are categories of kinship and identity, not biological indices. Just because the majority of members of a particular nationality or ethnicity are not genetic descendants of the original propagators of said group does not therefore invalidate their identity. To assert that it does is similar to saying that an individual adopted into a family is not “really” part of that family… absurd. It may well be that many Jews from a wide variety of genetic populations nonetheless felt throughout history a kinship beyond mere religious affiliation. That is my main criticism of Sand.

Incidentally, the autonomy of ethnicity/culture/nationality from biology can be said of not just the Jews, but virtually all peoples. The population of Britain, including simply the Anglo-Saxon portions, shows great genetic diversity. Likewise Germany, etc.

However, my greater criticism is towards Sand’s critics, who are apparently blind to the tremendous contributions – if only conceptual, rather than in terms of scholarly accurate detail – of Sand’s work. Whether or not the notion of Am Yisra’el has had the currency throughout history that Zionist narratives accord it, it certainly cannot be denied that a vast diversity of Judaic peoples has always existed. Moreover it continues to do so. This multiplicity has indeed also been marginalized by proponents of the “One Jewish People” perspective associated with Zionism. In opposition to such simplistic notions, Sand’s readers ought to maintain criticism that is sympathetic.

ben Zalman April 9, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Benyamin, Henri..of course we are a multiplicity of people. With all our enemies thru out hitory, we Jews should not even be here today. Ancient Greece is gone, Rome is gone, Persia is gone, The Assyrians are gone..etc etc. and after 2000 yrs of pogroms and inquisitions Jews of all kinds are davening at the Kotel (Western wall)! Sure some Jews converted in order to save their lives…many went back. I admire and love to read our Jewish history..In 4000 years since Abraham there has not been a time someplace, nation, king , dictator or evil church Pope has not tried to harass or murder Jews. This statement by you…”kingship beyond mere religious affiliation” is right on. Sands demeans us when he asserts that we “INVENTED” ourselves. Of course we had to invent things, situations, and have all kinds of tricks in our Jewish “Survival Kit”! Hitler’s clone still roams the earth..ask Israel. I have a “kingship” with every Jew. That is every Jew who has a Jewish heart! Sands lost his Jewish heart! His book aids our enemies! As do Chomsky, Finklestein, et al. And who the heck are the Khazars..Jewish? I doubt it! Where is their community today? Sorry, Henri..I cannot be “sympathetic” to Mr Sands. I have 6 million reasons, Sir!

Robert May 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Ben Zalman,, you spew ignorance and keep patting yourself on you’r own back… Science is science and you sir are a moronic blabbermouth!

john thames September 20, 2013 at 12:31 am


The justifications of Zionism fall into three categories: the theological, the historical and the political. The theological justification of Zionism is that God promised the Jews all of Palestine. Such promise was conditional on Jewish obedience to God. When the Jews crucified his son, that promise was voided. Such was the doctrine of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches until the Vatican Council of 1964. It usually escapes the average Christian Zionist that 15%-20% of the Palestinian population is Christian. Apparently they are not as blessed by God as the Jews who crucified Jesus. And whatever one thinks of Old Testamentary promises, they have little applicability to devotees of the Talmudic scriptures.

The historical claims of the Zionists are equally absurd. If modern day Jews are entitled to a Jewish state in Palestine because the ancient Jews occupied a small part of the land for a brief period of time, then the Danes have a claim to England because a Danish king ruled there in the ninth century; the English are entitled to reoccupy the Normandy coast because of the Hundred Years War and Mussolini is entitled to a recreated Roman Empire. Ancient history does not confer title in the modern world. The Jews were only one of many peoples occupying Palestine. The Phoenicians, the Caanites, the Greeks, Romans and others occupied Palestine as long, or longer, than the Jews. None of them are demanding a recreated state in Palestine. If a recreated state for the Jews must be established for some unspecified reason, reestablishing the old Khazar Empire between the Black and Caspian seas would seem a better choice. At least the geography would more closely correspond with the true genetic background of today’s Jews. Or, if not that, why not send the Jews to Soviet, now Russian Birobidzhan? It still exists.

Zionism, or the desire for a recreated Jewish state, has nothing to do with Biblical promises. Zionism arose out of the tremendous ethnic tensions of 19th century Europe. Jewish tax gouging and sex slave trading were making Jews extremely unpopular in Russia and Eastern Europe. Jewish Marxist revolutionary agitation was compounding the problems. The Zionists believed that the only solution to these problems was for Jews to leave Europe and found a state of their own. Unfortunately, they decided to do it in a land occupied for centuries for by Arabs. Although the Zionists now pretend that Palestine was deserted and empty, at the time of their first colonization efforts; they pretended no such thing. Again and again, Zionist scouts would report back to headquarters that Palestine was full of Arabs already plowing every available acre. Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote famous essays in the early 1920’s explaining how the Arabs would have to be confronted with an “iron wall of bayonets” before resistance could be overcome. Some will argue that the mythical “gas chambers” of the Nazis give the Jews a right to Palestine. But the extermination hoax merely provided the Zionists with an excuse to do what they were planning to do anyway. It provided a convenient camouflage for an intent formulated long before.

The Jews presently have no need for a state in Palestine or anywhere else in the world. They are secure in all nations and enjoy not merely equal rights, but dominating rights in all nations in which they reside. They finance the politicians, own the media and generally dictate the acceptable limits of discourse on all subjects. To allow them to set the world ablaze for Israel’s imperial interests would be a setback of immense proportions. It would provoke a Nazi like reaction far worse than Hitler’s and repudiate every right won through emancipation. It would be a ticking time bomb of disaster.

Jews have always had to face the charge that they are Jews first and loyal citizens of their adopted homelands second, if at all. By allowing Israel to continue on its disastrous path, Jews are only lending credence to those arguments. Israel can either reform by making amends to those it has dispossessed or plunge both itself and the world into a fiery inferno. If it does the latter, there will be no place on earth to which the Jews can flee.

Margalit Fliegelmann May 10, 2014 at 11:38 am

Professor Sand, calling names will not win you the argument; on the contrary. You lost. Schama towers over you and you would be better off not to stand on the same virtual platform with him for your own good.

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