For a man at the centre of a controversy, Professor Shlomo Sand looks remarkably calm. The German-born Israeli historian has faced ferocious and repeated attacks from the academic community in Israel and beyond over his new book, The Invention of the Jewish People. His scholarship, his conclusions and his political stance have all been criticised. In fact the title itself has angered Jews around the world.
The storm certainly helped sales, propelling the book to best-seller status in Israel. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Sand’s basic thesis is explained in the title — that there is no Jewish people. According to him, the Jews are a religious group without any particular ethnic link to ancient Israel — rather, nearly every Jew living in the world is the product of a conversion.
This, says Sand, sipping coffee in the offices of his London publisher, came as a very big surprise to him too. Until starting research on his current work, the 63-year-old teacher of contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv had specialised in Western Europe. “But I began to be bothered by the question of what is a Jew. I wanted to know — what is a people. What is a nation? What is a race?”
His conclusion was that the Jewish people was a creation of 19th-century historians. But we need not feel singled out. Sand also asserts that the French, Italian and German peoples were invented at the same time. “To construct at new nation in modern times you needed to create a history of that people. Most French people thought that they were descended from the Gauls. Most Italians believed they were descendents of Julius Caesar. This is not true. Neither is it true that Jews are descended from the Kingdom of David and Solomon. We took the Bible, a theological masterpiece, and tried to make it into a historical work when it was no such thing.”
Sand says he was staggered to find that the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel after the fall of the Second Temple never took place in the accepted sense. “If you ask anyone in the street whether the Jews were exiled they will all say yes. I thought so too. But then I started to look for a book about the exile. There were no books. The Romans did not force the Jews to leave. It was a society of peasants. Peasants do not migrate en masse. No one forced them out. I’m sure there was emigration but it was just five per cent of society at most.”
He maintains that the Jewish diaspora that sprung up around the Mediterranean was more to do with the success of the Jewish religion rather than mass migration — that it was “Jewishness” that spread and not the Jews. Says Sand: “Six years ago I believed that Jews were a closed religion — then I discovered there was forced conversion. I was staggered to find this.”
According to Sand’s view, most Jews stayed put and would have later been converted to Islam. So is he asserting that the real Jews are in fact the Palestinians? “I wouldn’t say that the Palestinians are the direct descendants of the old Jews — they are mixed, like everyone else in the world.”
What he does claim is that Jews of Sephardi descent are likely to have originated in North Africa and that those of Eastern European descent are likely to come from the Khazarian kingdom, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This is, of course, something that most Jews would find very difficult to accept.
“It’s not my idea,” says Sand. “The great Jewish historian, Ben-Zion Dinur, described the Khazar kingdom — a land of converts to Judaism — as ‘the mother of the diaspora’. It is the only thing that can explain the massive number of Jews in Eastern Europe. The only difference between Dinur and me is that he claimed a lot of Jews came from Palestine to Khazaria. He needed an ethnic line. I’m sure a few Jews went there as missionaries but there was no ethnic line.”
This part of the book has been attacked by Israeli historians, who maintain that there is simply no evidence to support the fact that Eastern European Jewry is descended solely from Khazarians — a theory which has in the past been propounded by anti-Zionists to discredit Jewish claims to Israel. Sand acknowledges there is not enough evidence, but claims that this is largely due to the fact that there has been no doctoral research into the subject since the 1960s. He believes that this aspect of history has been deliberately ignored because it is an uncomfortable truth. “We all act under ideology,” he says. “In the 1950s people had less of a problem with the Khazarian hypothesis. We were less frightened then.”
He feels that Israelis are scared of his conclusions. “Most Israeli Jews believe in a historical right. If there is no such right, what justifies our existence here? Arabs also ask me, after writing this book, how can I justify the existence of Israel. I say to them that even the son of a rape has the right to live. It was a kind of rape in 1947 and ’48 and the Palestinian tragedy continues. But you can say the same about the USA and Australia.”
Sand is open about his political motivations for writing the book. He feels that, while Zionism failed to create a Jewish people, it did create two others — the Israeli people, and by consequence, the Palestinian people. He says: “I think Israel belongs to the Israelis, not the Jews. We have a language, a culture, a theatre, a literature, our jokes our football and our politics. We are a people but we are not just a Jewish people. I want to change the borders and definition of the state. I want to make it a more civil nation — to separate religion from its existence, to normalise and democratise Israel. I think that Israel has to belong to all its citizens, not just the Jewish ones. People call me radical but from a democratic perspective this is not so radical.”
Sand certainly does not advocate testing any of his claims with DNA evidence. “Maybe I’m from Khazar origins. I don’t care. As I say to my students, Israeli and Arab, it is more important to have wings than roots. A people which has to justify their existence in biological terms is in very bad shape.”