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The Sandman

This is a guest post by Gabriel

If you have not heard of Shlomo Sand , you soon will. His book “When and How was the Jewish People Invented” spent 19 weeks on the best-seller list in Israel and was reprinted three times in French, picking up a non-fiction prize in France on the way. The book will debut in English in July and will undoubtedly be a best seller across the world. It is unfair to review a book before it is written, so I will not review it directly, but I will review the already frustrating yet predictable response to the controversial book as well as the methodology used by Sand. The basic idea of the book is that the Jews don’t really exist as a people and so Israel should be a single-state for everyone. Had Sand written a political tract as to why he believes there needs to be a single-state, I would not for a second, have minded. Unfortunately, he has written that political tract and disguised it as a history.

Sand is an anti-Zionist professor at Tel Aviv University with no background in ancient Jewish history, or indeed in ancient history altogether. His specialty is in modern Intellectual French History. Now, a lack of previous knowledge does not disqualify someone from writing an insightful history, but what is shocking here is the total lack of humility shown by Sand. In a logical twist reminiscent of the 9/11 “Troofers”, Sand comes across areas he does not understand and instead of trying to understand why people with greater knowledge than he believe what they do, he surmises that he does not understand because it does not make sense. A shocking example of this can be taken from his interview in Haaretz.

“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land – a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country. The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”

When I first read that, I stared at the screen in disbelief before going over it again. Surely, nobody is taking this person seriously.

There are two massive problems in this paragraph. Sand says that the Romans could not have exiled people because they did not have trucks or trains. Never mind that the Assyrians exiled about 450, 000 people around 800 years earlier so it was clearly very possible , the idea that something is impossible because it does not make sense to one amateur historian is nonsense. (Steel beams cannot melt at a certain temperature for example) The second massive logical problem is that just because something does not exist in literature, especially something ancient, does not mean it may not be true. The absence of proof is not in itself proof.

If you read the interview, and I suggest you do, you will see Sand using two types of arguments that are oft-repeated to those of us who regularly encounter anti-Zionist opinion. The first goes something like this 1) The Zionists are trying to silence me 2)Because his book has been torn apart by historians who actually know Jewish history therefore; 3) The Zionist critics are trying to silence me. The second is 1the creation of a straw-man argument. Sand’s basic argument is that the fact that Jews are not “pure” is hidden, claiming in once instance that “mention of the Khazars in the public arena in Israel was increasingly considered eccentric, a flight of fancy, even an open threat.” This is of course, not remotely true. Nobody, save a few ultra-Orthodox thinks that Jews, or anybody else for that matter, are pure. Certainly, no serious historian would ever put forward such an idea and Khazars are regularly talked about in Jewish history. Sand can then debunk what never was and disprove the non-existent idea. Jews are not pure.

History is never black and white. What is accepted history is agreed upon by a majority of scholars who research the field. Thus, when Patrick J. Buchanan writes in “Churchill, Hitler, and the Necessary War” that the Second World War was Britain’s fault, it is not taken seriously except by a few nuts. This is different when it comes to Israel. Historians with minority, even marginal positions, are given primacy. People do not read Norman Finkelstein because they want to understand history. They read Norman Finkelstein because they want to confirm what they already believe. What Sand (and Finkelstein for that matter) do, is as the respected historian Anita Shapira writes “bases his arguments on the most esoteric and controversial interpretations, while seeking to undermine the credibility of important scholars by dismissing their conclusions without bringing any evidence to bear.” So, in other words, cherry pick the parts of history that fit with their preconceived ideas no matter how far on the fringes of history those ideas are, and then casually dismiss anything that doesn’t. It is inevitable that this book will be a massive hit. It will most likely garner excellent reviews in the usual publications and I’d stake my life that it will be enormously popular in the Muslim world. If Jews do not really exist, how can one be an anti-Semite?

Where Sand really fails is his conclusion. Israel does not need to exist as a Jewish state because Jews believe that 2000 years their direct ancestors lived there. Israel needs to exist as a Jewish state because the world is, at best, ambivalent about Jewish suffering. Israel needs to exist as a Jewish state because even if the Jewish people were invented the hatred towards them is not. Israel needs to exist as a Jewish state because books like Sand’s are so popular.

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