The Denial of Jewishness

13 Nov 2009 by CST

There are many ways, often subtle, in which anti-Israel or anti-Zionist debate can have an anti-Jewish impact. However, a new anti-Zionist book by Tel Aviv Professor of History, Shlomo Sand, remoulds the paradigm: with notions of Jewish peoplehood now under attack in the service of anti-Zionism.

The sense of common lineage, kinship, and peoplehood that Jews around the world share and hold is a fundamental part of their identity (as perversely demonstrated by the splenetic accusations of “self-hater” that are hurled by some Jews at others who do not toe the majority line). To deny this aspect of Jewish identity - perhaps more accurately to demand that for political reasons it be rejected - is surely to deny or reject something that is essential to our perception of Jewishness itself.

There is of course nothing wrong with genuine historical inquiry about Jews or any other facet of history. But that is neither the core purpose, nor the core impact of Sand's book. It can be summed up very simply as:

No Real Jews = No Need For a Really Jewish State.

Sand’s original Hebrew book has now been published in English, entitled The Invention of the Jewish People. A more fitting title would be “Undercutting Zionism by denying Jewish historical memory, self-identity, tradition, ethnicity and peoplehood.”

Sand’s academic methodology, and many of his central assertions, were brutally taken to task in Haaretz last year by Professor Israel Bartal of the Hebrew University. Writing in TheJournal of Israeli History, Anita Shapiro of Tel Aviv University’s Chaim Weitzman Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel then added her own lengthy and detailed demolition, under the title, The Jewish-people deniers. As Shapiro points out:

…Since there were no Zionist historians for the first thousand years AD it appears that the “implanted memory” Sand speaks of was not created by them, but has belonged to the self-image of Jews since the Temple’s destruction.

…These are not religious emotions. They are an expression of collective memory bound up with national heritage, ancient memories, a culture of life, and day to day customs that foster a consciousness of religious and national separateness.

…It does not necessarily denote a common origin, but the embracing of the same historic memory, the same self-awareness, the same echoes of the past. These were not “implanted” by Zionism. They were integral to the consciousness of the Jewish collective up to the Jews’ encounter with the various forms of modernism, which unravelled the fabric of Jewish identity.

To add insult to injury, not only are Sand’s conclusions extremely questionable, but even his claims to originality are significantly overblown. For example, there is nothing new in his claim that the Old Testament is neither a revealed text, nor historically perfect. (Indeed, there are entire synagogue movements that are ideologically premised upon those very doubts).  Similarly, there has been much debate and study about the Khazar kingdom and Jewish lineage: in both Jewish studies departments, and the more deluded end of the far Right spectrum.         

Nevertheless, the book was featured without dissent on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Start the Week programme, on 9th November 2009 (the 61st anniversary of Kristallnacht). It was promoted in a public meeting by the New Statesman that same evening. Sand was also interviewed on BBC World.

Interviewed in the Jewish Chronicle, Sand pointed out that nationalist myth making was by no means unique to Zionism. However well such contextualisation may play in the pages of the JC, it will not survive for a nanosecond in the heat of political debate. This was shown by George Galloway MP, whose words were paraphrased on the Socialist Unity website as follows:

To those who believed that the Israeli state was the natural and just creation for a Jewish people exiled from their homeland in biblical times and wandering rootless ever since, Galloway said this was a fable, and a ridiculous one at that. Highlighting a new book by the leading Israeli historian Sholomo (sic) Sand, ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’, he said Jewish claims to a 2,000 year old lineage that justified theft of Palestinian land had about the same credibilty as the ‘descendents of the Romans, Normans, and Vikings’ laying claim on Britain today.

Meanwhile, the BBC also didn’t have much time for contextualisation and relativism. Here is Andrew Marr, summarising the book at the beginning of Sand’s interview on the Start the Week: (at approximately 10:38 on the BBC iPlayer).

…there was a kind of [Zionist] master plan to present the history of the Jewish people in Europe which emerged in the 19th century and the modern world has rather swallowed whole…[the book says] actually the history of the Jewish people is not as you thought…the Old Testament is very very inaccurate…most of the story of the Jews as presented in the history of the Old Testament is fictitious you think…

In the discussion, Marr mentions a couple of times that the book has attracted criticism and controversy, but gives no real detail. Sand says that he himself is not a Zionist, but nor he is an anti-Zionist. This does not, however, stop him calling his critics, “Zionists”, as if that simply disproves their collective body of work and proves his own.

Of course, Sand does not deny that Jews are Jews. As Marr summarises it, with Sand’s agreement: (approximately 18:40 BBC iPlayer)

If I can sum up the message of this book in a single sentence it is that you want to disconnect the idea of the Jewish people as being a blood group, what used to be called a racial group, from the idea of the Jewish people as a community of believers in a particular faith. It’s the latter that you say is much more accurate. 

It is easy enough to have a heated debate as to whether or not Jews constitute a race, a blood group, a common gene pool, or however else you wish to phrase it. The punch of Sand’s meaning, however, is that Jews are simply a bunch of disparate men and women who happen to share a broadly common religion – and that is it: nothing inter-connected, nothing familial, in fact, nothing much at all: it is what Shapira phrased as “Jewish-people deniers”. 

In the Marr interview, Sand claims that Jewish history departments are staffed by Zionists, hence the need for his work. Marr replies (at 20:30)

In some sense would you say that therefore there has been a conspiracy to hide what you have

Whereupon Sand, to his credit, immediately interjects and says

No not a conspiracy, we have to be careful

Sand goes on to say that this is about the need for a nationalist myth, and as he then compares it to the need for other national myths, it is Marr who now cuts across, bringing it back to Jews, saying

You remove this myth and you change a great deal about the situation in the Middle East, ultimately, don’t you.

Sand replies that he certainly hopes so; but there appears to be no understanding in the BBC studio that removing the “myth” not only pulls the rug from under Israel, but it also strikes at a core perception of Diaspora Jewry.

Compared to Holocaust denial, Sand’s denial of Jewishness looks positively saintly: a quest for historical truth, rigorously unpicking everything Jewish that both preceded and followed the nationalist myth-making of 19th century Zionism. Nothing here about crazed neo-Nazis or Islamist extremists claiming that Jews (or Zionists) control your Government; your history; your media; or your brain. This is not a denial that is born out of a desire to destroy the Jewish people. On the contrary, and in the very best traditions of philosemitic anti-Zionism, the purpose of this denial is to save the Jewish people from the terrible cycle of hatred, war and violence into which their Zionist myth making has allegedly led them.

Jews have never neatly fitted into the boxes that their scrutineers and critics have demanded of them. Today’s Jewish Question is, ‘What on earth is this abomination that the Jewish Zionists have concocted? A nation-state built by latter day colonists; premised upon religious faith, a sense of shared ethnicity, history and tradition; and illegitimately sustained by guns and dollars. Why can’t all Jews just be like Marx, Freud, Einstein and Abram Leon?’   

Never mind how this sense of Jewish faith and nationality compares to Israel’s Muslim neighbours, and the sense of Ummah. Never mind how the Jewish people’s tradition of nationhood compares historically with that of the Palestinians. Never mind that Germany, Italy, and countless other nationalities were cobbled together over the last two centuries. Never mind any of that. It is Jews that we are still talking about. It is Jews that we are poking a stick at again. It is Jews who remain under scrutiny.

In the same way that Mearsheimer & Walt’s book on The Israel Lobby was welcomed a little too warmly by much of the liberal left, there is something obscene about the rush to embrace this new book, which attacks the very core of Jewish identity.

To understand the audience that still exists for investigations into The Jewish Question, you only have to visit the book’s own website. This appears to have been constructed by its UK publisher, Verso Books, a company with a long tradition of publishing books that are hostile to Israel and Zionism. The book’s website boasts that Sand was interviewed for the BBC World Service News Hour and states:

In an e-mail exchange between Sand’s UK publicist and the producer of last night’s programme, it was emphasised that the BBC were “interviewing Mr Sand on the basis that the controversy over his book is an international news story.”

 The website then explains just how big an international story the denial has become:

 ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ has now been translated into more languages than any other Israeli history book. Currently the book is available in 3 languages (Hebrew, French, and published just this week, English), and in 2 months time the book will be translated into Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, German, Italian, Arabic, Turkish and Indonesian. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, the translator has just finished translating The Bible, and is now starting work on The Invention of the Jewish People.

The last word on this, however, should go Gilad Atzmon, an ex-Israeli who is so extreme that even the most hardened Jewish anti-Zionist activists regard him as being beyond the pale. Normally, it would be an unfairly low blow to associate anyone with Atzmon, who describes himself as a “proud self-hating Jew”. In this instance, however, it is the book’s very own website that cites Atzmon and provides a link to his review of Sand’s book. In the same way the Mearsheimer & Walt’s work provided an academic cover for conspiracy theorists, the conclusion to Atzmon’s review claims that Sand’s book provides an academic basis for openly identifying Jewishness, not Zionism, as the real danger to Western civilization:

Professor Sand leaves us with the inevitable conclusion. Contemporary Jews do not have a common origin and their Semitic origin is a myth.  Jews have no origin in Palestine whatsoever and therefore, their act of so-called ‘return’ to their ‘promised land’ must be realised as an invasion executed by a tribal-ideological clan.

…As far as Sand is concerned, Israel should become “a state of its citizens”. Like Sand, I myself believe in the same futuristic utopian vision. However, unlike Sand, I do grasp that the Jewish state and its supportive lobbies must be ideologically defeated. Brotherhood and reconciliation are foreign to Jewish tribal worldview and have no room within the concept of Jewish national revival. As dramatic as it may sound, a process of de-judaification must take place before Israelis can adopt any universal modern notion of civil life. 

…Sand erects a body of work and thought that is aiming at the understanding of the meaning of Jewish nationalism and Jewish identity. 

...If Sand is correct, and I myself am convinced by the strength of his argument, then Jews are not a race but rather a collective of very many people who are largely hijacked by a late phantasmic national movement. If Jews are not a race, do not form a racial continuum and have nothing to do with Semitism, then ‘anti-Semitism’ is, categorically, an empty signifier. It obviously refers to a signifier that doesn’t exist.  In other words, our criticism of Jewish nationalism, Jewish lobbying and Jewish power can only be realised as a legitimate critique of ideology and practice.

Once again I may say it, we are not and never been against Jews (the people) nor we are against Judaism (the religion).  Yet, we are against a collective philosophy with some clear global interests. Some would like to call it Zionism but I prefer not to. Zionism is a vague signifier that is far too narrow to capture the complexity of Jewish nationalism, its brutality, ideology and practice.  Jewish nationalism is a spirit and spirit doesn’t have clear boundaries. In fact, none of us know exactly where Jewishness stops and where Zionism starts as much as we do not know where Israeli interests stop and where the Neocon’s interests start.

…Our Palestinian brothers and sisters are at the forefront of a struggle against a very devastating philosophy. Yet, it is clearly not just the Israelis whom they fight with rather a fierce pragmatic philosophy that initiates global conflicts on some gigantic scale. It is a tribal practice that seeks influence within corridors of power and super powers in particular.


Is it just Israel? Is it really Zionism? Or shall we admit that it is something far greater…As things stand, we lack the intellectual courage to confront the Jewish national project and its many messengers around the world. However, since it is all a matter of consciousness-shift, things are going to change soon.  In fact, this very text is there to prove that they are changing already.

To stand by the Palestinians is to save the world, but in order to do so we have to be courageous enough to stand up and admit that it is not merely a political battle. It is not just Israel, its army or its leadership, it isn’t even Dershowitz, Foxman and their silencing leagues.  It is actually a war against a cancerous spirit that hijacked the West and, at least momentarily, diverted it from its humanist inclination and Athenian aspirations. To fight a spirit is far more difficult than fighting people, just because one may have to first fight its traces within oneself. If we want to fight Jerusalem, we may have to first confront Jerusalem within. We may have to stand in front of the mirror, look around us. We may have to trace for empathy in ourselves in case there is anything left.

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