Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tel Aviv University's Shlomo Sand and the Neo-Nazi Theory about the Khazars

Last year I published an article entitled "The Khazar Myth and the New
Anti-Semitism." It dealt with the myth, popular these days on Neo-Nazi
web sites, claiming that Ashkenazi Jews are not decendent from Jews at all
but are "Khazars" who are nothing more than interlopers in the Land of
Israel, people who cannot claim the land as their ancestral homeland. The
article can be read here:

Meanwhile, one of the very worst members of Israel's Tenured Left,
Professor Shlomo Sand from Tel Aviv University, has a new "book"
in which he insists that Jews were never a nation and cannot be
considered one today, unlike Palestinians - who of course have been a
nation since the Big Bang. Sand is a malicious anti-Zionist and a
evidently a communist (he endorsed Stalinist HADASH). But his
new "book" clearly establishes him as a leading academic anti-Semite in
Israel. Much of the book seeks to breathe life into the Khazar myth and
repeats most of the same claims about Jews losing their nationahood status
because of their descendency from Khazars that are found on those Neo-Nazi
sites. It is a set of claims designed to negate the legitimacy of any
Jewish claims to a homeland anywhere in the Land of Israel.

Sand is a Professor of History at Tel Aviv University. Almost everything
he publishes is in French, which by Israeli academic standards makes him a
third-rate pseudo-academic. (See

The new Sand "book" was demolished in a review in Haaretz, of all places,
by the Zionist Professor Israel Bartel from the Hebrew University (no, not
all faculty members at the Hebrew University are anti-Zionist traitors)

The review is a bit long but worth reading in full. It follows here:

Last update - 18:46 06/07/2008
Inventing an invention
By Israel Bartal

According to Shlomo Sand, everything you ever thought you knew about the
Jewish people as a nation with ethno-biological origins is false. Israel
Bartal, however, says Sand didn't do his homework

Mattai ve'ekh humtza ha'am hayehudi?
(When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), by Shlomo Sand
Resling (Hebrew), 358 pages, NIS 94.

The first sentence of "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?"
reads: "This book is a historical study, not a work of pure fiction.
Nevertheless, it will open with a number of stories rooted in a collective
memory that has been adulterated with a considerable degree of
imagination." I recalled these words when I found myself utterly astounded
by the statements of the author of this learned, fascinating study,
concerned with the "period of silencing" in the "Jewish-Israeli collective
memory," a period that, to quote Sand, gave rise to a total avoidance of
"any mention of the Khazars in the Israeli public arena."

This assertion, according to which an entire chapter in Jewish history was
deliberately silenced for political reasons, thrust me back to my days as
a ninth grader, in the late 1950s. I recalled the Mikhlal Encyclopedia, an
almost mythological reference text that nearly every Israeli high school
student relied on in those years, the flagship of what is termed
"mainstream Zionism," in the lean Hebrew of 21st-century Israel. My ears
still reverberate with the introduction to the encyclopedia's entry on
"Khazars": "A source of consolation and hope for the scattered Jewish
communities of the Diaspora during the Middle Ages, the story of the
Khazar kingdom today has the ring of pure mythology. Nonetheless, that
story is one of the most wonderful chapters in Jewish history."

Sand suggests that it was "the wave of decolonization of the 1950s and
1960s [that] led the molders of Israeli collective memory to shield
themselves from the shadow of the Khazar past. There was a profound fear
that, should the Jews now rebuilding their home in Israel learn that they
are not direct descendants of the 'Children of Israel,' the very
legitimacy of both the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel's
existence would be undermined."

With considerable trepidation, I returned to my yellowing copy of volume
IV of the Mikhlal Encyclopedia. Could I perhaps have been mistaken and
could it be that my teachers in the Socialist-Zionist city of Givatayim
wanted to brainwash me with an ethno-biological perception of my parents'

When I reread the entry on the Khazars, my mind was put at rest. It was
not the Zionist education to which I, as an Israeli teenager, was exposed
that tried to make me forget the fact that the members of gentile tribes
converted to Judaism in the Khazar Kingdom; instead, it is the author of
this book about the "invention of the Jewish people" who has invented an
ethno-biological Zionist historiography.

Here is what was written about the conversion of the Khazars, a nation of
Turkish origin, in the Zionist Mikhlal Encyclopedia that the State of
Israel's Zionist Ministry of Education recommended so warmly during that
"period of silencing": "It is irrelevant whether the conversion to Judaism
encompassed a large stratum of the Khazar nation; what is important is
that this event was regarded as a highly significant phenomenon in Jewish
history, a phenomenon that has since totally disappeared: Judaism as a
missionary religion.... The question of the long-term impact of that
chapter in Jewish history on East European Jewry -- whether through the
development of its ethnic character or in some other way -- is a matter
that requires further research. Nonetheless, although we do not know the
extent of its influence, what is clear to us today is that this conversion
did have an impact." Sand, a professor of modern European history at Tel
Aviv University, comments further on the silence of the historians:
"Israel's academic community developed a violent attitude toward this
issue.... Any mention of the Khazars in the public arena in Israel was
increasingly considered eccentric, a flight of fancy, even an open

Zionist historiography, he claims, concealed the possibility that the
millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews were actually descendants of the Khazars
and that even today Israeli historians deny the existence of an early
Jewish nucleus that was augmented by immigrants who moved from Ashkenaz
(present-day northern France and western Germany) to Eastern Europe.

These claims are baseless. Sand, for example, does not mention the fact
that, from 2000 onwards, a team of scholars from the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem labored on a monumental task: the production of a three-volume
study on the history of the Jews of Russia.

In the first volume, which will shortly be published in Hebrew by the
Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History (another "Zionist" institution),
considerable attention is devoted to the question of the origin of the
East European Jews and to their link with the history of the Khazar

Sand repeats the method he employs vis-a-vis the place of the Khazars in
Jewish historiography in connection with other topics as well, presenting
readers with partial citations and edited passages from the writings of
various scholars. Several times, Sand declares what his ideological
position is. Like him, I am not one of those who support the injustices
committed by a number of Israeli government agencies against minority
groups in this country in the name of arguments pretending to represent
"historical values." However, critical readers of Sand's study must not
overlook the intellectual superficiality and the twisting of the rules
governing the work of professional historians that result when ideology
and methodology are mixed.

Sand's desire for Israel to become a state "representing all its citizens"
is certainly worthy of a serious discussion, but the manner in which he
attempts to connect a political platform with the history of the Jewish
people from its very beginnings to the present day is bizarre and

Descendants of pagans

What is Sand trying to prove in this study? In his view, the homeland of
the Jewish people is not Palestine, and most Jews are descendants of the
members of different nations who converted to Judaism in ancient times and
in the medieval period. He claims that the Jews of Yemen and Eastern
Europe are descendants of pagans.

According to Sand, this historical truth was concealed by Zionist
thinkers, who developed an ethno-biological ideology, and the so-called
"Jewish people" was invented as late as the 19th century. Furthermore, he
argues, the idea of a "nation" that was exiled from its homeland in
ancient times and which is destined to return to it in the modern age so
as to rebuild its independent state is merely an invented myth.

Sand also maintains that, in the era preceding the emergence of European
nationalism, the Jews were an ethnic group, not a nation. In his eyes, the
argument promulgated by the Zionists and by their successors in the
Israeli political arena concerning our "right to this land" rests on a
biological- genetic ideology; that argument became the "narrative of the
ruling group" thanks to the fact that the "authorized scholars of the
past" have concealed the truth concerning the real, impure origin of the

My response to Sand's arguments is that no historian of the Jewish
national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews
are ethnically and biologically "pure." Sand applies marginal positions to
the entire body of Jewish historiography and, in doing so, denies the
existence of the central positions in Jewish historical scholarship.

No "nationalist" Jewish historian has ever tried to conceal the well-known
fact that conversions to Judaism had a major impact on Jewish history in
the ancient period and in the early Middle Ages. Although the myth of an
exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli
culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions.
Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations
regarding this myth or denied it completely.

Sand's references to "authorized" historians are absurd, and perpetuate a
superficial pattern of discussion that is characteristic of a certain
group within Israeli academe. The guiding principle in this pattern of
discussion is as follows: "Tell me what your position is on the past and I
will tell you the nature of your connection with the agencies of the

The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a
deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological
origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion
of the story of the Jews' exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.

Sand points to three components in the structuring of the Jewish national
past. First, the national historical narrative, especially the Zionist
narrative, emphasizes the "ethno-biological" identity of those who belong
to the imaginary Jewish nation.

Second, this identity is directly connected with a nationalist ideology
that is a substitute for the religious link between Jewish communities in
the Diaspora that has considerably weakened in the present era of
secularization. Third, an aggressive political establishment that controls
the dissemination of knowledge is concealing vital information on what
really happened in the past, preventing the publication of sources that
can serve as an alternative to the recommended national narrative, and
censoring dangerous passages in published texts.

The central book of the Zionist "Jerusalem School," "Toldot am yisrael"
("History of the Jewish People," published in 1969), speaks extensively of
the Jewish communities that existed in the Diaspora before the destruction
of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and whose total population exceeded that
of the tiny Jewish community in Palestine. As one would expect from a work
that reflects a profound knowledge of scholarly studies in the field, the
Zionist "Toldot am yisrael" explains that the number of Jews in the
Diaspora during the ancient period was as high as it was because of
conversion, a phenomenon that "was widespread in the Jewish Diaspora in
the late Second Temple period .... Many of the converts to Judaism came
from the gentile population of Palestine, but an even greater number of
converts could be found in the Jewish Diaspora communities in both the
East and the West."

Choosing to ignore all this, Sand categorically states in his book that,
"the mass conversions that created such huge Jewish populations throughout
the Mediterranean region are scarcely mentioned in Jewish national
historiography." Apparently, he is obsessed with the idea of proving that
the Zionist historians (including Nahum Slouschz, who wrote about the
North African Jewish warrior-queen Dahia al-Kahina) were "ethnocentric
nationalists." It is irrelevant to Sand what these historians actually
wrote: To hell with the facts -- the argument is what really counts!

Sand bends over backwards to prove that the great Jewish historians (such
as Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron and Benzion Dinur), who, in their works,
linked Jewish nationalism with liberalism, radicalism and socialism, were
simply racists. Here's what he writes, for example, about Israeli
historian Haim Zeev Hirschberg (1903-1974), who studied the Jews of North
Africa: "His continual attempts to prove that the Jews were a race of
people that had been displaced from its ancient homeland and which had
been condemned to wander from country to country as an exiled nation ...
dovetail beautifully with the directives of mainstream Zionist
historiography." According to Sand, Hirschberg never managed to liberate
himself from a "purifying substantive ideology." Does this sound familiar?
When and where did you last read that Zionism was a racist movement?

Scattered communities

I will now refer briefly to the connection between the book's conceptual
underpinnings and the author's main historical argument, namely, that,
prior to the modern period, the Jews constituted only a group of
"scattered religious communities." Sand defines national identity in the
spirit of the ideas of the French Revolution. Not only does he reject the
concept of an ethnic identity that is not dependent on the existence of a
political entity confined within clearly defined borders, he even rejects
an identity whose possessors' claim is founded on a cultural or political
entity that is not subject to control or management by the agencies of the
central regime. In his view, such identities are merely "invented
identities" and he does not believe that pre-modern identities can survive
in the modern era. In fact, Sand advocates the position that was heard in
the French National Assembly in December 1789: "The Jews must not be
allowed to constitute a special political entity or to have a special
political status. Instead, each Jew must on an individual basis be a
citizen of France." However, whereas the champions of the Emancipation in
Paris did recognize the non-religious essence of the pre-modern Jewish
nation, Sand does not.

I was unable to find in Sand's book any innovations in the study of
nationalism. The author is stuck somewhere between historians such as Eric
Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner -- a generation behind what
is happening today in the field. As far as I can discern, the book
contains not even one idea that has not been presented earlier in their
books and articles by what he insists on defining as "authorized
historians" suspected of "concealing historical truth." "When and How Was
the Jewish People Invented?" is a marvelous blend of clearly modernist
arguments, drawn from the legacy of 18th-century European Enlightenment,
with a moderate, but disturbing (because of its superficiality), pinch of
Foucaultian discourse from a previous generation.

Moreover, the author's treatment of Jewish sources is embarrassing and
humiliating. What serious reader who knows the history of modern Hebrew
literature can take seriously the views expressed in a book that defines
"Bohen tsadik" (Investigating a Righteous Man), a satirical (fictional!)
work by the Galician intellectual and supporter of the Haskalah Yosef Perl
(1773- 1839), as something that was written by a person named Yitzhak Perl
and which "contains 41 letters from rabbis that relate to various aspects
of Jewish life"? Who would attest to the accuracy of facts in a research
study where it is stated that historian Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) -- a
scholar who never was (despite his burning ambition to do so) a professor
of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and who, instead, served
there as a professor of Hebrew literature -- "was in fact the first
official historian of the 'Second Temple period' at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem"? Does such sloppiness reflect the author's attitude to the
subject of his research? Or, perhaps, because everything is an invention
anyway, it does not really matter whether the "imagined object" is black
or white?

The lugubrious Israeli combination of aggressive one-dimensional
conceptuality and blatant disrespect for details (a characteristic mix
among writers at both ends of the political spectrum) will undoubtedly
captivate the hearts of the public relations executives of the electronic
media. However, we, the skeptical historians, who are buried between
mountains of books and piles of archival files, can only continue to read
what has really been written and to write about what has really been read.

Prof. Israel Bartal is dean of the humanities faculty of the Hebrew
University. His book "Cossack and Bedouin: Land and People in Jewish
Nationalism" was published by Am Oved in its Ofakim series (Hebrew).

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