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Tel Aviv University
Al-Ahram on TAU Shlomo Sand: Contemporary Jewry have nothing to do with ancient Judeans, Old Testament is "Mythistory"


5 - 11 May 2011, Al-Ahram Weekly

Scriptural non-sequitur

The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand. Translated by Yael Lotan (2009). Verso, London

Complacency and political convenience have conspired to blur the vision of Israeli historians and biblical scholars to gross factual errors unearthed by contemporary archaeology since the inception of the Zionist state. Israel is today repeating that folly. The Zionist entity is continually reinventing the wheel. Its politicians and academicians, historians and archaeologists monotonously sound like a scratched gramophone when they insist that the Jews of the world are simultaneously a race, an ethnicity and a religious community.

In harking about exile and return they do not exude a positive message about either Zionism or Judaism. Their ideas are outdated and antiquated no matter how much high-tech they smear on the ultra-modern veneer. There is a paradox in hearing this from an Israeli academician.

This tardiness is a symptom of three deeper problems. First, politics and public life in Israel must be transformed if the Jewish people are ever to recover that timeless religious poise as God's chosen people. Second, archaeology and Biblical studies overlain with the history of struggle against much powerful peoples and the horrific memory of the Holocaust still dominate the animus of the Israeli body politic. Third, the legitimate rights of the indigenous peoples whether they were the ancient Canaanites and Philistines or the modern Palestinians must frame the search for public morality in a triumphant Israel. One that is inebriated with the monumental binge of greedily annexing territory that both in Biblical times and today belonged to another no less cultured a people and for all intents and purposes the rightful owners of the Holy Land.

No such plea of mitigation can be entered on behalf of such an honest and astute historian as Shlomo Sand. It takes a brave man then to ascertain the cruelty of his people, to ditch their civic values rooted in universal, read Western, ideas and ethics. Shlomo Sand's masterpiece is a trenchant critique of essentially European settler colonialism in Palestine. Written with style and passion, discernment and sardonic wit, Sand's best-selling polemic portrays Israel as no less aberrant than Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, or apartheid South Africa itself. An imaginary ethnicity, and a latent racism not in the least more congenial than Nazism frenzy- filled the God-sized void left by the secularist nature of the European settler colonialists that conjured up and "bolstered the promoters of the fragile national identity of Israel."

That makes it impossible to excuse the mean spirit and scrambled logic of Zionist intellectuals. "Thus ethnos has become not merely a historical and cultural unit but an ambiguous entity of ancient origin, at whose heart lies a subjective sense of closeness that it inspires in those who believe in it, much as race did in the nineteenth century," extrapolates Sand.

So are contemporary Jews the "seed of Abraham"? Or are they proselytized converts of diverse Eurasian and African racial groups? Why would any Zionist historian want to erase that vital distinction? Shlomo Sand has a ready answer. "Blurring the categories of ancient social groupings, as these scholars have helped to do, apparently seemed to them a necessary condition for the preservation of unstable identities in the present."

Looking back, contemporary Israelis have devised a contrived linguistic community associated with a specific religion, Judaism, and a particular territory, Palestine. They have no ethnos, so to speak. That is the point. "Various theoreticians of nationality, like nationality-supporting historians, continue to thicken their theories and hence their narratives with essentialist, ethnicist verbiage," as Sand aptly puts it.

Less easy to shake off are the deceptions and the deliberate defamation of peoples regarded as not authentically Jews such as the historical Himyarites of Yemen, the Falasha of Ethiopia and the mercantile Khazars of the Volga and the Don rivers of Russia. Zionist mythology is capable of breathtaking inconsistency. The Zionist skillfully schemed and plotted their way to a mythical Eretz Israel. The Zionists cleaved to myth that world Jewry had a common ancestry and a shared history.

Such adamancy blinded scholars to the gravity of the erratum that created sacred myths and religious taboos that have been ruthlessly used by Zionists as a pretext to rob the rightful land rights of the indigenous Palestinian people.

First published as Matai ve'ekh humtza ha'am hayehud ? [When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?], Sand's iconoclastic masterpiece has topped the Israeli bestsellers list and won France's covered Aujourd'hui Award. Sand has unraveled the fanciful fabrications of the rabbis, the self-styled architects of Jewish identity and explicated how they were charlatans and pranks with no leg to stand on.

The political implications of Sand's nonconformist work are tremendous and groundbreaking. Contemporary Jewry have virtually nothing to do with the ancient Judeans. Sand declares the Old Testament to be "Mythistory". The vast majority of modern-day Jewry are descendants of the proselytized peoples of the medieval empires of the Kagans and the Khazars who moved progressively westwards into the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and Russia.

If so, then the predominant ethnic ancestry of Eastern European Jewry can be traced back in history not to the River Jordan, but to the River Volga. These contemporary Israelis who immigrated to Israel were not the descendants of the Judeans of Canaan, but rather of the Khazars of the Caucasus. The crux of the matter, the bombshell that Sand detonates, and this is a most contentious issue in Israel today, is that the Jews of contemporary Israel are not biologically the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

If so, how can they sincerely claim Palestine as the "Promised Land"? From the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, European Jewry posed as the hegemon. "Constructing a nation can also lead to the opposite outcome. Cultural-linguistic minorities, which had not been sharply defined before the era of nationalism, begin to acquire -- owing to hasty engineering dictated from the centre, or to alienating discrimination -- a new, distinguishing sense of identity," the author perceptively points out.

The Sephardim, or Oriental Jews, ironically originated from lands far to the west of the Khazars, and are culturally and racially very distinct from the Ashkenazi Jews. They are the descendants of the founders of the proselytized Kingdom of Himyar, in contemporary Yemen, and of North African and Iberian Phoenicians and Berbers. There is no concrete archaeological evidence that they have any racial or ethnic affiliations with the Hebrews of the Bible, whose origins, again are shrouded in mystery.

"In the thirteenth century BCE, the purported time of the Exodus, Canaan was ruled by the still-powerful pharaohs. This means that Moses led the freed slaves out of Egypt ... to Egypt? According to the biblical narrative, the people he led through the wilderness for forty years included six hundred thousand warriors; they would have been traveling with their wives and children, implying a party of around three million in total. Aside from the fact that it was utterly impossible for a population of such size to wander through the desert for so long, an event of such magnitude should have left some epigraphic or archaeological traces. The ancient Egyptians kept meticulous records of every event, and there is a great deal of documentation about the kingdom's political and military life. There are even documents about incursions of nomadic groups into the realm. Yet there is not a single mention of any 'Children of Israel' who lived in Egypt, or rebelled against it, or emigrated from it at any time," expounds Sand.

All that might seem obvious, but for Israeli policymakers responsible for the Zionist settlements in the West Bank and determined to oust the indigenous Palestinian people from their own land, the penny has yet to drop. Instead of fully accepting the wealth of archaeological evidence unearthed in the past four decades demolishing the myth of the biblical fables, Israeli politicians still cling to the fallacy of "Exile and Return" a tiresome recurring biblical theme.

A rather ghoulish trend pioneered in mythology-obsessed Israel began to take hold defining and redefining the ethnos of the Israeli nation. "Significant changes occurred in the profession of history during the 1960s and especially the 1970s, which affected the work of archaeologists the world over and eventually also in Israel. The decline of classical political historiography and the rise of social, and later anthropological, historical research led a good many archaeologists to consider other strata of ancient civilisations. Everyday material existence, the ancient world of labour, nutrition and burial, basic cultural practices, became increasingly the main objects of international research." These arguments fail completely to justify what amounts to a land grab.

An admired and internationally acclaimed academician, Sand argues that the world has not yet seen the scope of Zionist logic but the evidence so far is that even Israeli historians have woken up to the serious implications of their myth-making. "Echoes of this historical transition eventually reached the Israeli academic world, which since biblical archaeology was essentially event-oriented and political, found its predominance gradually slipping."

The founding father of the State of Israel David Ben Gurion himself had misgivings about certain Scriptural assertions. "Ben Gurion, always a frustrated scholar, also developed his own Bible theory. For example, he believed that monotheistic Hebrews had lived in Canaan for a long time before the arrival of Abraham, and it was their presence that attracted the 'father of the nation' to their land. Ben Gurion also asked some deep questions: How did the Hebrews preserve their Hebrew language during 430 years of exile in the land of the Pharaohs? Why, after they had been a single nation under a single leader in the time of Moses and Joshua, did they suddenly break up into separate tribes?" The author inquires rhetorically whether "the Jewish nation had taken shape, Heaven forbid, on alien soil."

Sand certainly has a clearer sense of where his country is heading than the cheerleaders of Zionist mythology are. "The next biblical story to lose its scientific historicity as a result of new archaeological discoveries was the jewel in the crown of the long national memory," Sand observes.

The risk of refuting, rebutting or actually scientifically disproving Old Testament stories, dismissing the venerated tales as fables, falsehoods and fabrications is among the most complex historical challenges humanity confronts. "New excavations at Jericho, Ai, and Heshbon, those powerful walled cities which the Children of Israel supposedly captured with fanfare, confirmed the old findings: in the late thirteenth century BCE Jericho was an insignificant little town, certainly unwalled, and neither Ai nor Hesbon had yet been settled at all. The same holds for most of the other cities mentioned in the story of the conquest."

The best that can be hoped for is that there is a grain of truth in some of the Biblical allegories. The lecherous King David of the Old Testament might be even more mythical a character than the legendary King Arthur of medieval British lore. Moreover, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were valiant and chivalrous.

"Divinity was kicked off its pedestal; thenceforth, truth came to be confined to the Biblical stories that deal with humanity," notes Sand.

The fine line between myth and historical fact was irrevocably blurred. The Old Testament is replete with admonishments that what counts is that the victory of one's own people over a vanquished another is historically assured. A hypocritical idealism set the stage for Zionists to play rough. The Bible abetted Zionists to annihilate the Philistines and the Palestinians, rather then inhibiting them from endorsing genocide.

The Old Testament lost its moral authority. King Arthur's Queen Guinevere betrayed him when she indulged in a love affair with his right hand man Lancelot. King David, in sharp contrast was a trickster who murdered his army commander Uriah in cold blood in order to lay hands on his beautiful widow whom he coveted in contradistinction to the Ten Commandments of Moses. The Arthurian legend is more of a moral lesson than the depraved escapades of King David. He had no qualms about his dirty deed.

This pragmatic view of the Pentateuch is nevertheless tinged with the genuine repentance of the sinful King David when he purportedly composed the psalms. "The inescapable and troublesome conclusion was that if there was a political entity in tenth-century Judea, it was a small tribal kingdom. It is possible that the tiny kingdom was ruled by a dynasty known as the House of David. An inscription discovered in Tell Dan in 1993 supports this assumption," the author poignantly pinpoints. "Every historical corroboration depends on ideology, whether overt or hidden."

Throughout much of Judeo-Christian history, scholars have been reluctant to countenance the notion that the glories kingdoms of Judah and Israel might have been gross exaggerations if not outright fabrications. "The documents from the Tell Al-Amarna, dating from the fourteenth century BCE, indicate that already there were two small city-states in the highlands of Canaan -- Shechem and Jerusalem -- and the Mernptah stela shows that an entity named Israel existed in northern Canaan at the end of the thirteenth century BCE."

It is becoming increasingly evident that most of the Biblical assertions cannot be realistically true. "Already toward the end of the 1960s, Mazar, one of the fathers of nationalist archaeology, encountered a difficulty that left him troubled. The stories of the patriarchs mention Philistines, Aramaeans, and a great many camels." Sand has some hard truths to tell.

"The camels, too, gave no end of troubles. They were first domesticated at the start of the first millennium BCE, and as beasts of burden in commercial activity from the eighth century BCE."

That flawed Biblical model is now broken. Is Sand's study, his meticulous historical investigations for the public good? This month Israel is celebrating its 63rd independence anniversary. Israel has traditionally marketed itself as the only democratic political entity in the region. This year marks a watershed in Arab politics. By the end of the year, at least half a dozen Arab countries will be more than qualified to claim the accolade democratic than Israel itself which is still grappling with the key question of whether the indigenous Palestinians are entitled to full citizenship rights.

Sand has hit the nail on the head. "Almost all history books published in Israel use the word am(people) as a synonym for le'om (nation). Am is also a Biblical word, the Hebrew equivalent of the Russian Narod, the German Volk, the French peuple, and the English 'people'. But in modern Israeli Hebrew, the word am does not have a direct association with the word 'people' in a pluralistic sense, such as we find in various European languages, rather it implies an indivisible unity. In any case, am in ancient Hebrew, as well as in other languages, is a very fluid term, and its ideological use, which has unfortunately remained very sloppy, makes it difficult to include it in any meaningful discourse," laments Sand.

"Arthur Koestler was a Zionist pioneer in his youth, even a close supporter of the Zionist right-wing leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, but grew disillusioned with the settlement project and the Jewish national movement," explains Sand. "Koestler was not certain, in the 1970s, whether the non- Ashkenazi Jews were descendants of the Judeans. Nor did he understand that his battle against anti-Semitic racism might deal a mortal blow to Zionism's principal imaginary."

The West's slipshod role in fostering Israeli national identity is well documented and is not the focus of this particular book, even though the Western goof or faux pas if you will crops up periodically throughout this masterful work. Many in the West may stereotype Israelis as Westerners, the only nation in the Middle East capable of digesting the tenets of democracy, Western-style. There is a comic irony of entrusting this Israeli aptitude for democracy and civil society when the question of citizenship rights was what in the first place displaced the Jews of Europe from their national homelands. It was the desire of "Jewish" people in Europe who sought to legislate personal protection from persecution that forced them, as Zionists, to seize the lands of innocent indigenous people, the Palestinians, in a Land of Milk and Honey, the Promised Land, in Biblical mythology. The beauty of Sand's magnum opus is that it unequivocally stresses that it might not be too late for the contemporary Israelis to learn this lesson of conscientious, ethical and humane nation-building.

The plea for Palestinians to the Israelis, the Zionist entity, to acknowledge their civil rights has historically proved to be a waste of time and energy. "But it was no use. In the 1970s Israel was caught up in the momentum of territorial expansion, and without the Old Testament in its hand and the 'exile of the Jewish people' in its memory, it would have had no justification for annexing Arab Jerusalem and establishing settlements in the West Bank."

The West failed Arab democracy, Palestinian democracy, just as it has historically survived the implosion of its most moralistic project -- the integration of Jews, whatever their real or imagined ethnic background, into the European Volk. Today the West is Israel's most powerful backer. The West has purposely overlooked the uncertainty that accompanies successive Israeli bailouts and the caveats being attached to by Washington to future Israeli rescue missions.

"The writer who was able, in his classic novel Darkness at Noon, to crack the Communist enigma, did not comprehend that the Zionist enigma was entirely caught up in the mythology of an eternal 'ethnic' time," Sand says of Koestler.

The author also surmises other similar theories. "Yitzhak Schipper, a senior socioeconomic historian and a prominent Zionist in Poland, believed for a long time that the 'Khazar thesis' accounted well for the massive demographic presence of Jews in Eastern Europe. In this, he was following a series of Polish scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had written about the first settlements of Jewish believers in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine."

The mass Khazar conversion was no exception in Jewish history. "The spread of Jewish monotheism, which was not yet rabbinical, must have helped prepare the spiritual ground for the rise of Islam. Although the new religion clashed strongly with its precursor, the Quran testifies to the crucial role played by Judaism's ideological preparation," Sand pontificates.

"There is much archaeological and epigraphic evidence, some of it newly discovered, that indicates with near certainty that toward the end of the fourth century CE the Himyar kingdom abandoned paganism and adopted monotheism, but it was not Christianity that it chose."

Innate talent for historical scrutiny is nothing without demonstration. "There are also inscriptions reading 'Lord of the Heavens and the Earth' and 'Rahmanan' (The Merciful). The latter is a characteristic Jewish term; it appears in the Talmud in its Aramaic form, Rahmana, and was only later, in the early seventh century, adopted by the Muslism as one of the names of Allah."

The partnership between the Yemeni aristocracy and the country's mercantile class conspired to create a hegemony of the Mosaic religion in the southwest corner of Arabia, christened Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia by the Romans. "The nobility and the merchants supported the Jewish monarchy, because it safeguarded their economic independence. But Judaism was not confined to the nobility -- there is much evidence that it struck root in various tribes, and even crossed the strait and penetrated the rival realm of Ethiopia. After several years of Christian hegemony, Jusiam returned to power in the figure of Dhu Nuwas, the last Jewish Himyarite ruler. There is abundant material about this malik, mainly because of his intense struggle against Christianity and his bitter war against Ethiopia."

Contemporary Israel was not, however, especially enthused about Yemen's Jewish heritage. "Later Zionist historiography paid less attention to the Himyarite kingdom. Some Israeli scholars questioned the Jewishness of the Himyarites, which was probably not entirely rabbinical; others simply passed over this troublesome historical chapter. School textbooks issued after the 1950s made no mention of the proselytised southern kingdom that lay buried under the desert sand."

Sand maintains that against all the odds and in spite of its founder's European bias, that Israel did manage to establish a cultural identity in the heart of the Middle East, precisely because of the preeminence of the likes of the "father of ethnonationalist historiography Heinrich Graetz.

Zionists had to "dream up the Jewish people", Sand concludes. "The Zionist idea of the Jewish nation-race as a solid life science, and a new discipline was born: 'Jewish genetics'. What could be more convincing than publication in respected journals in the Anglo-Saxon world? The gates of Western canonical science -- mainly in the United States -- opened to the industrious Israeli researchers, who regularly blended historical mythologies and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings."

Rather than avail himself as one of Israel's self-styled political icons, Sand stresses that other factors were at play. "The Marxists' significant contribution to the study of the nation was to call attention to the close connection between the rise of the market economy and the crystallization of the nation state. They argued that the advance of capitalism destroyed autarkic markets, severed their specific social links and opened the way to the development of new species of relations and consciousness."

A clock is ticking buried deep in the wilderness and ruined cities of the Holy Land. Sand's own study should be taken seriously, even if one doesn't entirely agree with all its principles and convictions. Only there is a slight problem for the brutalised souls of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Sand reveals, pretty conclusively, that contemporary Jews could hardly be of the seed of Abraham in spite of their tenacious grasp of the Mosaic Law. Contemporary Jewish historians looked aghast at the culturally disparate and chronologically fragmentary history of the Jewish people and invented "Jewish genetics". That too does not wash.

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