A Ray of Hope from Israel

[Anthony Löwstedt and Anon.[i]]


Casually yet elegantly dressed, Shlomo Sand looks young for his age. There is even something child-like about him. He fiddles absent-mindedly with the zipper of his briefcase for a while after we first greet each other, and we find out he is still intensely curious about the world. We have both lived and worked in the West Bank and he wants to know where and what we did there. His English is good, but he is more fluent in Hebrew and French, the two languages in which he has had his original work published. His mother tongue is Yiddish, a Germanic language, but he is apparently not very good at German. He was born in Linz, Austria, but emigrated to Jaffa, Israel, in 1948, at the age of two. Admitting that both he and his daughter are also not very good at Arabic, he still believes the descendants of today’s Israelis should all learn Arabic, even before they learn English. He is a full professor of history who teaches and conducts research at Tel Aviv University, in France and in the USA. A full auditorium awaits him here in Vienna, Austria, where Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat was first published in 1896, an event commonly seen as signifying the birth of Zionism. It is ironic that Sand, an Israeli Jew, might be the first to shake the ideology of Zionism to its very core. He has come back to its and his own country of birth to do exactly that.


Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People, will soon have been translated into 19 languages. While we sit down for a coffee in the small interview chamber at the Bruno Kreisky Forum he mentions to us his recent lectures in Budapest and Tokyo and proudly tells us a small Ramallah publisher is now offering an Arabic translation of the sensational book, first published in Hebrew and French in 2008, then in English in 2009 (London-New York: Verso), and this year in German and Arabic among many others. He chose the small Palestinian publisher for this translation although much bigger publishing houses in Egypt and Lebanon had also asked him for the rights. Now we are impressed.


The Jewish People, according to Sand, were invented. What does that mean? Sand says he has “touched something in the nerve of Zionism, something very, very important.” He calls it ‘Mythistory.’ Of course the work of a historian to some extent is mythmaking, you cannot just replace myth with facts – so far we have only been able to replace myths with other myths – but he cautions that the contract of a historian with his employer is to find out the truth about the past. And as a historian, he must seek to attain the truth even if it is unattainable in a strict sense. Sand sees himself as a follower of Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm. He is a critic of nationalist myths in general. By distinguishing myth from legend, he can attack myths, which not everybody knows to be untrue. Legends, on the other hand, are known by everybody to be untrue.


In Israel, he says, mythistory is mainly an instrument for the state, for the government, for power. It is an arm of the nation state to construct the past. His job as a historian, says Sand, is to deconstruct myths, and he is optimistic about the prospects, even if he believes that history may only be taught at schools and high schools in Western countries for another 30 or 40 years. “We don’t need it any more. . . even the nation state doesn’t need history like it did before.” History as an arm of religion was superseded by history as an arm of the nation state. Now, the era of the nation state as the main power constructing history is coming to an end, and many young Israelis are starting to understand and promote this development. “History will still exist, like philosophy, but not as an arm of the nation-state to construct the imagination of the past.” In Israel, Sand is still fighting an uphill battle. Nationalism pervades history in Israel, not only in primary and secondary education, in which the Bible is used as a historical rather than a theological book, but even in academia, in tertiary education and research, unlike in other countries. Sand is a post-Zionist. He is not a specialist in Jewish history, but his book checks the history of the Jews and the history of Zionism, and there he has found myths, simply untrue statements without an iota of evidence, myths that are currently being disseminated and defended fiercely by the Jewish state and its supporters, the Zionists.


The central Zionist myth (not yet legend) that he has chosen to deconstruct is the notion that the Jews were expelled from the Holy Land in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, ending the Jewish Zealot revolt in 70 CE. This is a claim, invented in the late 19th century, and enshrined in the Declaration of the State of Israel. Sand’s perhaps greatest achievement is to have found out and spotlighted this myth. He says, “I’m like the child who discovered that the king is naked.” Growing up and studying in Israel, he found to his surprise that there is no research, none whatsoever, to support the claim that the Romans expelled the Jews from Palestine. True, many Jews, religious extremists and others, were killed and punished by the Romans in Palestine during this and other uprisings, but the vast majority of Jews, he learned, continued their lives as peasants under Roman rule, though later they came under intense Roman pressure to convert to Christianity. In fact, the Romans never expelled a conquered people wholesale. It was much more profitable to let them stay, work, and provide food and tax revenue for the empire.


And here comes the twist, the idea that makes the book a bestseller: As the mainstream, predominantly pastoral and agricultural Jews stayed on in Palestine, most of them were eventually forced by Romans to convert to Christianity, and then, a few centuries later, their descendants were largely pressured by the new, Arab rulers of Palestine to convert to Islam. The Aramaic-speaking Jews of the time of Jesus had mostly turned into Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims in less than a thousand years. Of course they have also mixed with other populations over the centuries, but today’s Palestinians, whether the refugees or those trapped under Israeli rule and occupation, whether Christian or Muslim or other, are the main descendants of the ancient Israelites.


But what about today’s Jews? Where did they come from? According to Sand, most of them descend from (among others) people who converted to Judaism throughout the Roman Empire between 200 BCE and 300 CE. It was a popular, missionary religion during this half-millennium; it even competed with Christianity for souls over centuries. At one time, up to eight percent of the population of the empire were Jews. In the fourth century CE, however, when Christianity became the brutally enforced Roman state religion, proselytizing activity for Judaism became a crime punishable by death, although Jews were not forced to convert to Christianity as directly as the members of other religions were. The new Christian emperors and bishops wanted Judaism to stay alive, yet only in the margins of society, as the only reminder of pre-Christian religious life. That is when Judaism first ceased to be a missionary religion. Nevertheless, after the end of the empire, many other non-Palestinians were added to the Jewish Diaspora, especially during the European Middle Ages in the fringes of the Christian territories, when for instance the Khazars, who inhabited a large country north of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas, converted wholesale to Judaism. At least four kingdoms, he says, in Babylon, Yemen, Khazaria, and at least one in North Africa, were Jewish kingdoms outside of Palestine.


Today, the Judaic proselytizing activities target recent actual or potential immigrants to Israel, especially eastern Europeans. Unlike his now exiled compatriot and historian colleague, Ilan Pappe (author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) and a few other dissident Israeli Jews, Sand does not (yet) see this renewed missionary role of Judaism as part of a scheme of ethnic cleansing (he uses the expression “partial cleansing”), designed to rid Palestine of Palestinians. After all, according to Sand’s conclusions, this implies ridding the Holy Land of the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, and, perversely, to do this in their ancestors’ name, in the name of the Jewish people. Sand is adamantly opposed to the discrimination against non-Jews, especially Palestinians, by Israel and Israelis, but he tends to avoid terms such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘apartheid’ to describe it. Although Pappe and many others, including South African liberation icon Desmond Tutu, frequently use these designations for Israeli policies and practices, these terms in particular have international legal ramifications that make it increasingly dangerous for Israelis to use them. They may be accused of treason in Israel, as Pappe was, and be forced or pressured to flee their home country, as Israel and Israelis may now (since 2002) be charged and tried in international courts as perpetrators of these crimes against humanity. The deterioration of liberal and democratic institutions under the present right-wing Israeli government is accelerating this development of persecution of regime critics, as can be seen in the recent introduction of a loyalty oath to the state of Israel for immigrants. Nonetheless, Israel still has a great amount of freedom of expression (though mainly for Jews), and like Jimmy Carter, Sand does occasionally use “apartheid” to describe discrimination against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but (unlike Pappe and Tutu) not within Israel’s borders. Like Pappe, Tutu, and Carter, he is also an exceptionally brave man.


The other founding myths of Zionism, the 19th-century nationalist ideology first publicized and mobilized in Vienna, were that ‘Jews need their own nation-state to be safe’ and that Palestine during the 20th century was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’ The former is a questionable statement; and the latter is long-known to be false, yet it is still sporadically reiterated by Israeli leaders, including the current president of the country. The question of who is really a Jew, moreover, keeps being redefined by the state of Israel and was never really answered by its ideologues. Many of the leading Zionists of the early 20th century, including the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the second and longest-serving president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, both realized and wrote, during the first couple of decades of the century, that Palestinians were the main descendants of the ancient Jews, but after Palestinians started resisting Zionist efforts to make Palestine a Jewish state, the truth was buried by these and other Zionists and replaced with the myth of the ancient exile, still imparted today to Israeli schoolchildren, visiting tourists, and many others.


The myth of the exile was spawned already in early Zionism, designed to make Diaspora Jews feel that they were coming home to the Holy Land, and that they had a right to own it. The notion that the ancient Jews were forcibly expelled and exiled then contributed substantially to the justification for a Zionist conquest of Palestine in the 20th century and the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the so-called ‘in-gathering of the exiles.’ Of course, other myths, some related to it, were added later, among others the preposterous ideas that the 7th-century Arabian Muslim invaders expelled Jews, or that 20th-century Arab labourers had been attracted by a fictional Zionist pre-state economy, both rejected by unanimous scholarship. (The Arabian Muslim invaders, who liberated the Jews from Byzantine oppression and allowed them back into Jerusalem, were supported by the Jews, and the truth of the fledgling Zionist pre-state economy is that it really only employed Jews and that there were no Arab immigrants to speak of in Palestine, not in the last century, in any case. In reality, Sand points out, during the subsequent Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, more Palestinians fled and were made to flee than there were Jews in Palestine at the time.) In the discussion following the Vienna lecture, without wanting to equate them, Sand mentions the Shoah (holocaust) and Nakba in one sentence as major crimes. An upset member of the audience picks up on this. But Sand wins the ensuing argument with the following words: “The Shoah is over, it is finished. The Nakba is not over.”


Without the central mythistory of the alleged exile in the first century, he believes, the conquest of Palestine by Zionists during the 20th century would not have happened. The myth of the exile crystallizes a nationalist ideology that justifies land theft and racist discrimination as much as any of the other imperialist, racist, and nationalist ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is an ideology of a by-gone era. Sand warns that the myth that helped construct the state of Israel may in the end also contribute to destroy it.


He is, however, ambivalent about the current political situation. He says he is a supporter of the two-state solution, yet at least qualifies this by admitting the one-state solution is “the most moral solution.” Although Sand describes Israel as a “racist state,” he does not, as indicated, use the expression ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe Israeli policy and practice. He is obviously worried about the future of a society in which he lives, a society which he calls “Israeli society.” But he also admits that the Jewish state, by denying people the right to an Israeli nationality (in favour of ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, etc), is at the same time destroying Israeli society. He adds wistfully, “you cannot reverse a tragedy by creating a new tragedy,” implying that the destruction of the state (rather than the society) of Israel would or could  become a tragedy, but also, apparently, acknowledging that the construction of the Jewish state was a tragedy in the first place.


After all, he explains, counting the life-spans of both the ancient and modern Jewish states, Jews were dominant in Palestine so far during a maximum total period of 700-800 years, whereas the Muslim or Arab dominance, including the continuous ex-Jewish Christian presence, has lasted more than 1,300 years. And if one counts the refugees as Palestinians, as the UN does but Israel does not, then there are still, correspondingly, twice as many Palestinians as there are Israeli Jews, with legal claims and deeds and even house-keys to most of the land and much of its immobile property, as well. (This, by the way, makes the land restitution for Palestinians even more implementable than for Blacks in post-apartheid South Africa.)


The Exodus of the Bible, he says, never happened, referring to Keith W. Whitelam’s deconstructive trailblazer, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (London-New York: Routledge, 1996), among other serious historical  and archaeological work. The Exodus is obviously a story written in the 6th or 5th century BCE, and projected far into the past by early mythistorians. There was a kingdom of David (the one after whom the Camp was named) and Solomon, but we do not know the name of that kingdom. The Jewish kingdoms of the central Palestinian highlands, Judea and Israel, came later.


Yes, the Jews are a very important part of the Palestinian cultural identity, but the Jewish cultural identity in the Holy Land is also but a part of a Palestinian one. And the Palestinian experience is now also part of the Jewish cultural identity. It is not as easy as: ‘The Jews are fighting each other,’ or ‘The Palestinians are fighting each other,’ but there is a shared identity, a single Jewish and non-Jewish, Christian and non-Christian, Muslim and non-Muslim identity. It is a shared identity beyond religion, nationality, race, and genes. And whether we call this mainstream, shared identity ‘Israeli’, ‘Palestinian’, ‘Arab’, ‘Jewish’, or ‘Cana’anite’, or something else, is really only of secondary importance. This is another one of Sand’s important discoveries as well as a hopeful message and a genuine way forward in these times of political impasse and increased extremism. The Jews and the Palestinians are very closely related and intertwined, in biological, cultural, historical and experiential ways, much more closely than, for instance, Whites and Blacks in South Africa, or Whites and Native Americans in the Americas. That is reason for hope.


As long as information is repressed and replaced with myths, it is easy to separate people, to divide and rule and to concentrate power and wealth, but there will be times when keeping the myth alive becomes more difficult than turning it into legend or giving it up, as another great Austrian Jew, Sigmund Freud, showed so successfully on the level of the individual person. Those are times of liberation and of truth. Now might be such a time.


We have arrived at yet another historical juncture. An end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the centre of aspirations for world peace, analogous to the two Koreas at the beginning and the two Germanys at the end of the Cold War. In the Middle East, however, the solution is not a reunification. It is not as simple as that. Rather – as in South Africa – truth, reconciliation, and justice must all be served. Otherwise there will be no real peace. But then there is an additional, fascinating dimension to the conflict in the Holy Land. Many of today’s Jews are rightfully proud of having remained loyal to their culture and their faith through horrible trials and circumstances, or of descending from people who did. But many Palestinians are, equally rightfully, proud of having developed out of Judaism, and of having responded to the calls of the last prophet(s). There is already a great deal of mutual recognition between the holders of these attitudes, and Shlomo Sand’s work is a most welcome and most needed contribution to speed up the spread of this mutual recognition. He calls the publication of his book in Arabic in Palestine this year his “…gift to the non-existing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”


He ends the interview, he is already late for the lecture, telling us that he is absolutely convinced that the typical Hamas member in Hebron is more ancient Hebrew, in terms of genes, than any Israeli Jew or any other Jew in the world is. He has the glint in the eye of a naughty schoolboy when he says: “I am now going to tell Jews about this. You will see the reaction.”


[i] I would like to acknowledge the assistance in interviewing the subject and writing this article by a dear friend who must, for political and professional reasons, remain anonymous. The interview and lecture took place on October 13, 2010 at the Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna.



Anthony Löwstedt teaches and conducts research in media communications, history,  political science, and philosophy at Webster University Vienna. His latest book is Apartheid – Ancient, Past and Present: Systematic and Gross Human Rights Violations in Graeco-Roman Egypt, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine, Vienna: Gesellschaft für Phänomenologie und kritische Anthropologie, 6th edition, 2010 (1st edition 2006), http://media.manila.at/gesellschaft/gems/Apartheid6.pdf 


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