Jewish historian’s book makes waves in London
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 16 November 2009
Borders bookshop in Charing Cross Road, central London, is normally a tranquil haven where book lovers can browse the shelves at leisure and perhaps refresh themselves at the in-house café.
But last week the shop’s calm was shattered by the uproar that erupted during the launch of one of the most controversial books to have been published in London this year: the English-language version of Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People.”
During the launch certain hard-line supporters of Israel in the audience shouted hostile remarks at the author to the annoyance of other attendees. The vocal pro-Israel faction included Jonathan Hoffman, co-vice chair of the Zionist Federation in Britain, who declared: “Why, Shlomo Sand, have you chosen to write an anti-Semitic book: was it because of the fame, or was it because of the money?” Sand vigorously denied that his book was anti-Semitic and answered his critics’ various points robustly.
“The Invention of the Jewish People” runs to a densely-packed 332 pages, full of references and footnotes. Sand deconstructs the national myths of Israel and asserts there is no”Jewish people”. He argues that there is no evidence for an expulsion and exile of the Jews by the Romans in 70AD, and without exile there is no right to “return”. The “Jewish people” is a construct of Zionist scholars from the 19th century onwards, and most Jews are the descendents of converts to Judaism from early times when it was a proselytizing religion, rather than being descended from Jews of ancient Israel. Four kingdoms saw large-scale conversions to Judaism: the Kingdom of Babylon, the Himyar kingdom in Yemen, a Berber kingdom in North Africa and the Khazar kingdom in the northern Caucasus.
The book has been published simultaneously in the US and UK by the radical publisher Verso. Before his visit to London last week, Sand was in New York to promote the US edition. The original in Hebrew caused enormous controversy in Israel when it was published there last year. It triggered much debate, was widely discussed on TV and in the written media, and became a bestseller.
The French translation, published by Layard, was a bestseller and won this year’s Prix Aujourd’hui, the prize that goes to the best work on contemporary politics or history. The book is set to be available in more languages than any other Israeli history work, with translations under way into eight languages including Arabic, Turkish, Japanese and Indonesian.
The launch at Borders was billed as a ‘Conversation with the New Statesman’ and was chaired by the cultural editor of the New Statesman magazine, Jonathan Derbyshire. Appearing alongside Sand was Labour MP Denis MacShane. MacShane, a former Foreign Office Minister, is chairman of The European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. He spent most of his allotted time talking about Antisemitism in the Middle East rather than discussing Sand’s book, and was interrupted by a couple of members of the audience who reminded him he was there to speak about the book. MacShane responded: “I assume I’m here because I do a lot of work on Antisemitism. I really am not an expert on Shlomo’s thesis at all – I heard him on Start the Week this morning and I thought it was very interesting and convincing.”
Sand is a professor of contemporary history at Tel Aviv University, and his books include volumes on Georges Sorel and on Israeli intellectuals. He explained at the launch that Jewish history is not his field, and that the subject is only supposed to be dealt with the Jewish history departments of Israeli universities. These are quite separate from other history departments because the history of the Jewish people is regarded as “something exceptional”. He noted that the harshest criticisms of his book in Israel came from departments of Jewish history.
As a historian he helps construct the collective memory of his students and readers, and as he grew older he felt it was no longer enough to occupy himself with French or European history and not to touch the history of the Jews and of Zionism.
He writes in his book’s introduction: “I could not have gone on living in Israel without writing this book. I don’t think books can change the world – but when the world beings to change, it searches for different books.”
His visit to London last week attracted a great deal of media attention. He appeared on Start the Week, the one of BBC-Radio 4’s most popular programs, on Monday morning. He was also invited to be interviewed on BBC TV’s World News Today on the basis that the controversy over his book is “an international news story”.
Following the book launch at Borders on Monday he gave a lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University Wednesday and on Thursday was in conversation at the Frontline Club with another of the revisionist or new Israeli historians, Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University. Shlaim’s latest book “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” was published recently by Verso. The event was chaired by Professor Jacqueline Rose.
Sand marries his critique of Zionist historiographers with severe criticism of Israel. “I think the future of Israel is very dangerous because it defines itself as a Jewish state,” he says. Israel cannot be described as a democratic state while it sees itself as the state of the “Jewish people” rather than as a body representing all its citizens, including the 20 percent of the population which is Arab and a further five per cent also regarded as non-Jewish. Israel defines itself not as a state that belongs to all Israeli citizens but as a state that belongs to all the Jews of the world.
Sand acknowledges that there is rising antisemitism in the Arab world, but says “Israel is giving good reason to hate her. The last Gaza war was proof of our cynicism.” He notes that the 2002 Arab League summit decided to recognize Israel in return for a complete withdrawal from the occupied territories. “What was the response of Israel to this? Everybody knows today that the Arabs will accept – and I am happy they accept – the Israeli state within its 1967 borders but the Israelis insist they want all Jerusalem for themselves.”
He said he was “very pessimistic, and I will continue to write and to fight.”