Schama v Sand

By Simon Rocker
November 24, 2009

In last week’s Financial Times, Simon Schama dismissed the claims of Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand, over here recently to launch the English edition of his controversial new book, The Invention of the Jewish People.

Sand argues that the idea of a single Jewish people descended from the inhabitants of ancient Israel was a 19th century myth fostered by the advocates of Zionism to justify a return to the land: instead diaspora Jews are scattered religious communities (who were often the product of conversion).

Schama attacks the “sensationalist assertion that somehow, the truth about Jewish culture and history, especially the ‘exile which never happened’, has been suppressed in the interests of racially pure demands of Zionist orthodoxy. This, to put it mildly, is a stretch.”

Schama also writes: “Sand confuses ethnicity – which, in the case of the Jews, is indeed impure, heterogeneous and much travelled – with an identity that evolves as the product of common historical experience. Rabbinical arguments may rest on an imaginary definition of ethnicity, but the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland does not. Ultimately, Israel’s case is the remedy for atrocity, about which Sand has nothing to say.”

Now Sand has offered his riposte – which you can read on his publishers’ blog here.


Jonathan Hoffman

Tue, 11/24/2009 - 13:39

Rate this:

0 points

Well Sand hasn't responded to me and he refused to answer my question at the Frontline Club.


Tue, 11/24/2009 - 13:57

Rate this:

0 points

Having read Sand in the original Hebrew, Schama is absolutely right. But the Orwellian "watch" sites and their lobbyists do Israel no service whatsoever. In fact, pace Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, they do much more harm than good.


Tue, 11/24/2009 - 14:18

Rate this:

0 points

Here's an interesting point raised by Professor David Newman in the Jerusalem Post

Given the time difference and the fact that Jews in Brooklyn, Toronto and London tend to be far more patriotic in the comfort of their Diaspora homes than those who live, experience and contribute to Israel on a daily basis, the bulk of the messages arrive from abroad.

While Israeli critics tend to engage with you and prove that you are wrong or misguided, the patriots of the Diaspora resort to tactics of delegitimization, usually branding you an anti-Semite. In some extreme cases, as happened just last week, a letter came from a Jewish philanthropist in London who branded me a traitorous anti-Semitic Jew, cursed me and expressed his hope that I "perish."


Thu, 11/26/2009 - 00:12

Rate this:

0 points

iainlrabbak (or - inaal rabbak) you seem to have a bit of a problem with "watch" sites.You might be intrested, however, to read my comment about Sands at:

But - just in case you don't want to go to "that site":

November 10, 2009 at 8:16 am

There is something so typical of the Israel-haters that when Sand presents his book it is treated as a literary event to be used to bash Israel and he is questioned by the literary Editor of the New Statesman – a man, one might imagine, of strong opinions on the matter, but little knowledge.

So we had a Professor of French History being questioned by a literary editor about matters which might better be discussed by researchers into DNA and genealogy – perhaps appropriate for what many have come to accept is a work of fiction.

The reality is far more interesting, and Sand seems to have now scrambled things to a point where it will probably take years to undo the emotions on both sides and actually look at what increasing appears to be the reality.

DNA research at Hadassah by Professor Ariela Oppenheim, Devorah Filon, and Marina Feyerman has shown strong links between Ashkenazi Jews and many WB Arabs and Bedouin, some of who actually preserve old Jewish rituals similar to those of the “conversos”. In fact, the research has shown that the DNA of many WB Arabs is closer to that of Ashkenazi Jews than to other Arabs. The cause, which is about the only part of Sand’s theory that is possibly correct, is that these Arabs are descended from Jews who were forced to convert when the Moslems invaded the area .

This was all reported in a fascinating broadcast on Israel TV on May 1, 2009. (I transcribed it – it runs to several pages). In one scene, we see an Arab taking out a set of tefillin (phylacteries) from a secret hiding place in his house and explaining that he puts them on when there is sickness in the family or other troubles as a way, he hopes, of curing the ill or overcoming the problem. We see Bedouin women discussing when the proper time is to light Sabbath candles and circumcise their sons, and gravestones in a village with niches for a candle, similar to old Jewish traditions.

Sand has apparently completely messed up. Instead of taking this research, and using it to show that today’s Ashkenazi Jews are, in fact, directly tied to the land of Israel and represent a coherent group that left the area and maintained their identity for millenia, he somehow drew exactly the opposite conclusion and chased after the Khazar myth, while accepting that many of the WB Arabs are descended from the Jews who remained after the Roman conquest.

That does not invalidate the fact that the Jews who spread throughout the world and did not convert to Islam are Jewish and derive from ancestors in the land of Israel, mainly from Roman times. The more interesting question is why Arabs who accept that they derive from the Jews have not returned to their original faith now that the threat of the sword has been lifted from their necks.

So – perhaps the solution to the I/P problem is for the Arabs on the WB to convert back to Judaism and then include Judea and Samaria as part of the State of Israel …
Just a thought … or at least, for both sides to recognize their common ancestry and agree to live side by side. Where is the WB Shlomo Sand??

Kevin Brook

Thu, 11/26/2009 - 15:42

Rate this:

0 points

In his response to Schama, Sand claims "no serious work concerning the origins of the demographic weight of Yiddish-speaking Jews has been carried out" in recent decades. That isn't true. 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. Was Sand really ignorant of it?

Sand is familiar with the first edition of my book "The Jews of Khazaria" and cites it in "The Invention of the Jewish People" on page 238. 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. That's because I expanded upon my journal article when I wrote that chapter. So those are two places where my serious research has been published.

AKUS suggests the issue "might better be discussed by researchers into DNA and genealogy". I agree, and I am one of those researchers. I have done genealogical research for many years, spoke at an international Jewish genealogy conference in Toronto in 2002, studied the DNA material, partnered with Family Tree DNA (a major DNA testing company), and conducted a DNA study of my own (on the Karaites of Europe).

The evidence I collected disproves Sand's book's ideas about the origins of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, showing that the real story is that Ashkenazim and Sephardim have preserved a large amount of ancestry from ancient Israel to the present day.

Ashkenazim do have potential Khazar genetics, though. And many West Bank Palestinians do have Israelite genetics. But Sand exaggerates these two facts. Find out why he's only partially right by reading "The Jews of Khazaria", available in softcover and hardcover formats from English bookshops including


Thu, 11/26/2009 - 16:22

Rate this:

0 points

Kevin - I am pretty sure that many Jews have DNA that shows almost any ethnic European/Slav group you care to name, and probably not a few Semitic groups as well, given the dispersion over 2000 years.

Having tested my DNA, I find I have at least two people sharing DNA reasonably closely who have Arab names, and even one at one point from Mongolia!! In addition, I have the Cohen gene.

What I fail to understand about Sand's obsession is why he cannot accept that Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic makeup predominantly showing their origins from the area of Israel/Palestine, as well as all the other other groups with which Jews have intermingled willingly or by force, and why he seems to insist that the one and only group to which you cannot ascribe Jewish genes is the group that is associated with that area.

Kevin Brook

Fri, 11/27/2009 - 07:27

Rate this:

0 points

In a review of Shlomo Sand's book at The Independent, Professor Stephen Howe of Bristol University asserts that most of Sand's online critics lack "any discernible expertise in any of the fields Sand touches on." My participation in those blogosphere discussions goes against Howe's assertion. I am a recognized expert on the Khazars and Jewish genetics and have been published by scholarly journals, encyclopedias, and book publishers.

As for Howe, he has edited and written books for the same publisher as Sand's book, Verso. Specifically, his book "Afrocentrism" got published by Verso in 1998, and he was the editor of "Lines of Dissent" that Verso published in 1988. Verso is an avowedly pro-Socialist publishing house. So Prof Howe is not one to talk about how "responses are so utterly predictable according to the critic's political views" within his somewhat friendly review of a book published by his comrades at Verso - a review where he outright said "Sand's political purpose is (in my view) an admirable one".

zachary esterson

Tue, 12/01/2009 - 02:46

Rate this:

0 points

I am a PhD student immersed in many of the primary sources to which Shlomo Sand, specialist in modern French history, refers.

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.... See More

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, whether 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.

“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?”

This is just moronic.

It sounds as though Sand is saying that, because an ancient Judean state does not match up to the French Republic, ergo it cannot have been a state that originates the traditions that go on to comprise the Tanakh, not to mention the ethnic group that goes on to become the Jews.

Briefly, Sand’s assertion that there could have been no such thing as a state in 9th century Judah only rather shows that specialists in modern French cinema shouldn’t dabble in ancient historiography.

Schama’s asserting Rome extirpated “everything” Jews is a mistake. But Rome did destroy and forbid the temple cultus, various aspects of Judaism at various times, Jewish habitation of Jerusalem, and effected ethnic cleansing from its surroundings and Judea more widely. It was not complete. But then it was not complete for Palestinian Muslims or Christians, either.

They destroyed and depopulated hundreds of Jewish villages, as archeology bears out: most Jewish remains are in the Galil, and date from the third-fourth century. At that time the Roman state seems to have largely left Judeans alone. Then came the Christian state, and that changed.

In any case, as I wrote earlier, Rome, pagan and Christian, punished all Jews as de facto Judean.

Further Sand’s adducing Mishna and Talmud does not help his case: the catalyst for their production is the great national disaster the rabbis perceived had befallen Israel, and their response is, as I write above, the every scrap of Jewish law, lore, custom and memory be retained in the face of the catastrophic loss of temple, Jerusalem, Judea and state.

The Talmuds and Mishna witness to the Jewish experiene of Nakbah.

And these are the very books that assume an exile that Sand claims not to have found.

Perhaps if he looked a little harder?

zachary esterson

Tue, 12/01/2009 - 14:02

Rate this:

0 points

I would just like to respond to Stephen Howe's assertion that Sand's critics are insufficiently qualified.

a) to call Anita Shapira (, Hillel Halkin (, Israel Bartal ( insufficiently qualified is ridiculous.

b) for Stephen Howe to profer himself as more the authority in Jewish history than Simon Schama is also ridiculous, especially given Sand's expertise being in modern French, specifically French Cinema, history.

c) Sand's work has hardly been reviewed by his peers in British academic Jewish historiography. Farcical is the fact that, although Sand has twice been hosted at SOAS by groups external to it, not once has any of the staff of the Israel or Jewish Studies departments been informed or invited to respond.

UCL Hebrew and Jewish Studies department is literally a 100 meters away. No one was informed or invited from there either.

The closest scrutiny he received was from Avi Shlaim, Oxford Professor of International Relations, and, surreally, Jaqueline Rose, Professor of English Literature at Queen Mary's.

Dr Catherine Heszer, head of Jewish Studies at SOAS tells me she had no idea that Sand has now spoken twice at SOAS!


Tue, 12/01/2009 - 16:10

Rate this:

0 points

It's good, Zachary, that you making these excellent points without resorting to ad hominem attacks.


You must be logged in to post a comment.