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.
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