Shlomo Sand: “I am not a Jew. I am an Israeli.”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bestselling Israeli historian Shlomo Sand on identity politics, political despair, why Lieberman is right… and drowning sorrows with Mahmoud Darwish.

Monday 12 March 2012

Shlomo Sand. Photo: Khaled Diab

Entering Shlomo Sand’s office at Tel Aviv university, the first thing that catches the eye are the numerous language versions of his controversial book, The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been a bestseller both in Israel and internationally. As an Egyptian with a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had read his book with great interest  – and now I was meeting the man behind this intellectual earthquake.

Despite the title of his book, Sand, with his neatly cropped beard and air of the anti-establishment academic, is not polemical, neither in his writing or in person. Rather, he projects the image of what academia should be ultimately about, intellectual scepticism and deep questioning. However, his willingness to stand up and challenge sacred cows have left their mark, and he comes across as a deeply pessimistic person, although  he is highly approachable and possesses an irrepressible passion for debate and conversation.

The polemical reactions to his iconoclasm overlook numerous important points, including the fact that, although he does not believe that a “Jewish people” exists per se, he holds firm to the notion that the existence of an Israeli people is a concrete reality, but that these Israelis are both Jewish and Arab, and that Israel should not identify itself as the homeland of the Jewish people, but should, instead, define itself as the state of the Israeli people. Also, for Arabs and opponents of Israel, it is also crucial to point out that the “Jewish people” were not the only people who were “invented”. Sand stresses that similar cases can also be made  for other peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians, and that inventing mytho-histories is a central component of modern nation-building, especially the 19th-century model in eastern and central Europe.

Although I don’t agree with everything he asserts, his vision of two independent Israeli and Palestinian republics of all their citizens, with a minority Jewish and Arab population of equals in each, is a refreshing option to consider, as is the urgent need not only to reinvent the Israeli people but also the Palestinian people.

Without further ado, I’ll let Sand speak for himself.

Shlomo Sand: It’s very difficult for me because I have started to lose hope. If we jump to the end, if you want, I don’t believe peace will be reached.

Khaled Diab:  You mean, in the short term, in the long term?

In the long term, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet. In the short term, I mean. This is the subject of my latest book. I’ve finished it pessimistically. Even the Oslo agreement was a bluff.

Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the doctor, was the leader of the Palestinians in Gaza. He was in the delegation of 1989 to Madrid. I met him 23 years ago. He died a long time ago. I remember, I went with a few academics to Gaza – he invited us. He was a secularist from a kind of Marxist background, not a communist. I remember he said that he was against the Oslo agreement. I asked him if it was because he didn’t want to recognise the Israeli state.

He started laughing. He said, “I have recognised the Israeli state since 1948.” By the way, he had a Jewish lover… woman?…

Girlfriend?

Yes. He said, I recognised it before Arafat. “No, it’s not because of this that I am against it,” he said. “I think that the Israelis are going to manipulate us again.”

“We promised to try to stop the violence. Israelis did not promise to stop the colonisation,” he said. Arafat wanted to go back to Palestine so much that he signed it, and he lost.

When you say that it’s a bluff, how much of it do you think was an intentional bluff and how much of it do you think was down to the fact that the extremists within Israeli society were more organised and…

You have to know that this is the subject of my book, and it’s not about the extremists, it’s about the centre of power, especially the Labour party. I read, during my research, Rabin’s last speech in the Knesset. When he proposed the peace, he insisted that Jerusalem would be united with Ma’ale Adumim under Israeli sovereignty. There would not be any discussion about this point. And also the Jordan Valley would belong to Israel. That was the last speech of Rabin before he was assassinated.

They accept a kind of Bantustan – all of them, all of them. This doesn’t mean that Rabin could not have progressed after this if he wasn’t assassinated. But Rabin, at that point, proposed more or less what Bibi Netanyahu is now doing.

But isn’t he going even further than that?

Yes, he is going a little bit further than Rabin in ’94.

The concept of the Land of Israel, and also the power, the emitted power, cannot bring a coalition with the goodwill to deliver the rights of the Palestinians. This is because the “Land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael”) is seen as the land that belongs to Israel, do you understand? I didn’t use to understand this. I thought that pragmatism would prove stronger. No, no, it’s very deep. It’s not only deep among extremists. There is not a single political party that can make peace on the Israeli side.

Beyond political parties, do you think the people themselves, the Israeli people, have a desire to…

They have a desire to live in peace. At the time when the terror was very, very strong, a lot of people became very tired of the occupied territories. Now the impression of the average Israeli is that they can continue to live like this for another hundred years.

So they think the conflict is manageable?

Yes, the average. But more and more people not on the left feel that there is no solution. They feel that it is going to end, in some way or another, badly. There is, if you want, 20% of the population, I think, which is not proposing a solution but don’t believe in any solution. They are very pessimistic.

Now the majority. It’s one of the paradoxes, and I don’t like paradoxes, that Israeli society cannot sacrifice… has stopped wanting to and being capable of sacrificing soldiers, on the one side. On the other side, they don’t fight for peace.

You have to know, all of us studied the Bible for something like 12 years at school. The curriculum is based on a historical narrative that the land belongs to Jews. Basically, an average Jewish citizen of Israel cannot understand why we have to divide the land.

By necessity, if there was pressure from abroad, if the Americans really wanted to push Israel, I think there could be some compromise.

So you think no compromise is possible from inside, it has to be forced from the outside? So, do you think, for example, that the Jewish and Arab communities in America could help in pushing Israel in the right direction?

No… Young people in universities, professors like me are very critical of Israeli policy. But organised Judaism is very, very pro-Zionist. This development began in ’67. And they are on the right wing of the Israeli political system.

There is a movement now, J Street and the likes, but it is not serious and they are contradictory.

Don’t you think it could get stronger, something like J Street? And these young people, as they get older and take on positions of influence…

No, no, because there is also something very strange about this. Somebody who wants to take part in Jewish politics in the United States, and not mainstream American politics, you have to understand. Why is Woody Allen not active in Jewish politics, for example? Because he’s very American. Most professors I know who are critical of Israel do not organise themselves to fight against Israel.   

So you mean that American Jews are either organised and pro-Israel, or are apathetic and critical of Israel?

Exactly. Apathetic or critical but not organised…  There is J Street which is kind of leftist Zionism or liberal Zionism, in someway, but I don’t think that it will become a very strong movement. Because if they understand what’s happening in Israel, in some ways, they become less interested in Israel.

Is this because it conflicts with their principles?

Yeah. The only way this will change, because I know the history of Judaism in the United States before 1967 when it wasn’t so pro-Israeli. If there were to be a massacre in the Galilee and an American Jew would go out of his garage and the neighbours would look at him with a bad eye, something might change.

So you mean things have to get a lot worse to mobilise…

When they begin to feel that the image of a Jew cannot go with the aggressive politics of Israel, if it really becomes a contradiction, may be organised Judaism will start to change its politics.

Or if there is a net contradiction between the politics of Israel and American politics. For the moment, this is not really the case. Like it did in 1956 during the Sinai war. The Jewish community in the 1950s did not fight for Israel at all. It’s very important to understand this.

This is the only, only hope that I can see. Inside Israel, not. I think that Lieberman is right. He understands very well that the real danger for Israel is the Palestinian-Israelis.

Is that why he proposed those land swaps?

Yeah. He knows, and he’s right, that the real danger will be the Palestinian-Israelis and not the Palestinians.

Because they have a power centre within Israeli society and they’re frustrated?

Yes, and they are a better-educated and they have higher political awareness.

They understand Israeli society?

Much more. Relatively, they are less oppressed but mentally they are much more oppressed, because they have problems with their identity. They speak Hebrew. The young students, who are the most extreme, with every step, are becoming culturally more Israeli and they are becoming more active Israelis politically.

The problem is not only the occupied territories. Now, I don’t believe the leftists who are talking of a binational state. It’s a joke. I’m not against it. But to propose to Israelis to become, from one day to the next, a minority in their own state is a joke, do you understand.

But do you think they will become a minority?

It’s 5.9 million Israeli-Jews versus 5.6 million Palestinians. So, they are more or less equal in number. So, you can’t propose to Israelis to live in a state where they will become a minority, especially when the leftists are proposing the right of return. It’s a joke.

Do you mean it would never be accepted?

They would blow up the Middle East before, and they have the capacity.

You know, rationally, I’m for a two-state solution. But not a Jewish and an Arab state. An Israeli and a Palestinian republic.

And each one would have Arab and Jewish minorities?

Yeah. I say an Israeli state, and not a Muslim state or an Arab state, but a Palestinian state with Israelis living there. And, here, Palestinians living here as full citizens. Israel has to belong to its citizens and not the Jews of the world.

Isn’t that what the bi-national state is about?

No, the bi-national state, as I told you, is a very bad programme. The Arabs will become a majority, not as part of a gradual process.

Just at once…

Just at once. And I don’t think that this racist society, the Israeli Jewish society is a very racist society. You cannot propose this. First of all, if you are speaking about a bi-national state, okay, I’m not against it, but on one condition, throw out the Israeli army before. If not, it’s a kind of legitimisation of the occupation.

Well, how about, if you’re going to make it a state for all its citizens, that all the state institutions become open to all the citizens, like the army becomes a joint Israeli-Palestinian army.

No, I’m speaking about two states, two republics that are confederated. You cannot… We cannot live here without Arabs. If somebody doesn’t want to live with Arabs, I tell my students, he has to go to Paris and not live in the Middle East.

Well, even in Paris, you’ve got plenty of Arabs.

It’s a joke. Well, anyway, I say that living in the Middle East is living with Arabs.

So, what’s your vision? That we would have the two-state solution with the 1967 borders but the Jews who live in the West Bank can continue to live in the West Bank but under Palestinian rule, as Palestinian citizens.

Yes, with the same and equal rights, not with 16 times more water than the Palestinians, like they have today.

So, the settlements would become joint Arab-Jewish neighbourhoods, for example, under full Palestinian control, something like that?

They would have an option to go back to their homeland, Israel.

And those who want to stay can stay as Palestinian citizens?

With equal rights.

Not as Israeli citizens living in Palestine?

They can have dual nationality, citizenship. You know, I also have French citizenship.

So the same can also apply to Palestinian-Israelis?

Yes, they can have double nationality, and they can move if they want to, but they don’t want to.

But then there are a lot of barriers even to that idea. For example, I’ve met the settlers in Hebron and they refuse the idea of living under Palestinian rule.

They would have a choice. They could go back to the homeland. You know, in 1962, millions of Europeans had to leave Algeria, half a million Israelis can leave the occupied territories. Now, you say a lot of them will not. Okay, they can accept to live in a Palestinian state.

Do you think that the Palestinian state will accept them? That’s another question, because they fear they will be discriminated against or become second-class citizens.

They have to behave nicely so as not to become second-class citizens, and they have to submit themselves to Palestinian authority, to live without problems. Most of them will leave.

I don’t believe any of this will happen but it is the only rational proposition. The future is a state that belongs to all its citizens, like France, like Britain, like the United States.

Speaking of Britain, one idea I’ve had is that, one huge barrier to coexistence is identity, so I thought the way to make a two-people federation work would be to come up with an additional national layer. So you would have an Israeli identity, a Palestinian identity, with the two of them joined together in a supra-identity, if you like, which we could call something like Canaan, or New Canaan.

We can start with the form of Europe. Europe today is a confederation. It will finish up like Switzerland. But it is a process.

But how about using Britain as a model? Britain is a good example. The way four different nations exist together under an umbrella identity called “British”.

First of all, I want to create a real umbrella within Israel itself, the principle being that the state is an Israeli state and not a Jewish state. This is the first step to existing in the Middle East. The second step, as you say, is a process that my children and grandchildren have to build in the future. We have to live in the Middle East with Arabs.

As a historian, I can say that if Israel is not to disappear, it has to become something completely different in the future, a part of the Middle East, a part of the goodness of the Middle East, not of the badness. For the moment, the democratisation in the Middle East is developing according to Islamic beliefs, but it is a democratisation.

In my concept, there is a difference between democratisation and liberalisation. The process we are seeing is democratisation and, unfortunately, not enough liberalisation. I am for a liberal democracy, a social, liberal democracy.

I am also for democratisation. Every time in history that somebody tried to stop democratisation, it created perversion, like in Germany in the 19th century, like in Algeria in the early 1990s. Now, in Egypt, I am for democratisation. I am against the army. The United States is doing everything possible to keep the military in power, and Israel supports it.

When I speak about our world in the Middle East, Egypt can become like Brazil, with Saudi money, oil. Egypt with Saudi could become the Brazil of the Middle East, like Nasser dreamed. But Nasser was afraid of the masses.

Nasser was willing to make peace with Israel, but he was afraid of the reaction on the street.

He was always afraid of the reaction on the street.

That’s why he marched blindly into the 1967 war. He could’ve avoided war…

Exactly. I am very angry at him. Do you know Eric Rouleau? Eric Rouleau was one of the greatest journalists of the Middle East. He wrote for Le Monde. He was a personal friend of Nasser’s, as well as of Mitterand. He became France’s ambassador to Tunisia. He invited me to spend three days at his house. He is writing his memoirs. He read my book and he was fascinated by it. By the way, he’s originally Egyptian, a Jewish-Egyptian. He was very young when he left. He was a communist, like a few others.

He ran away and then became a very important journalist. He told me about the first time he met Nasser. The only thing that made me angry at Eric Rouleau, who is really a great journalist, is that he admired Nasser. I don’t admire him, at all. I think Nasser is one of those responsible for what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians today.

Now, during our discussions, he tried to defend Nasser. We know today that Nasser didn’t want war in 1967. But I judge him as a leader and not by his intentions.

This is what he told me: the first time he met Nasser, Nasser invited him to his house. He knew that Eric Rouleau was Egyptian, and Eric Rouleau asked him, why are you not freeing all the political prisoners. Nasser looked at him and said, at the end of this month, they will all be free. Second question: why don’t you liberate Egypt’s political life, why don’t you allow political parties? Nasser said to him that he would not stay in power for one month if he did that. They continued to be friends till the end.

Eric Rouleau said to me that Nasser was a real head of state. So, I asked him, how about Arafat? He said, no. Arafat is the chief of a tribe, he said. But I don’t agree with this admiration of Nasser.

You see, the 1967 war shows that he was not a real leader… The bankruptcy of Arab nationalism – Ba’athism and Nasserism – is tragic. You see, it’s tragic for the Middle East. That cannot change. I wanted the Middle East to be like South America today.

Speaking of Arab nationalism, you talk about the invention of the Jewish people, but when I was reading your book, I was struck that you could equally write a book called The invention of the Arab people.

Well, there is a book in French called The invention of the Palestinian people.

But I’m talking about the Arab, not the Palestinian people.

I’ll give you an example. They think they are shocking the world by saying this. Yes, I think that the Palestinians were not a real people a hundred years ago. If they had been a real people, then the Zionist colonisation could not have succeeded.

In some ways, the idea of an Arab people is a myth. There is Arab culture, or cultures in plural. There is Arab civilisation. But people started to develop themselves… See, when I say that the Jewish people don’t exist, and I don’t believe that the Jewish people exist, nevertheless, I think that the Israeli-Jewish people exist. They created their own culture, cinema, a language.

The Arab world is in a very tragic situation. On the one hand, there is no one Arab people with the solidarity which you can find among the peoples of Europe. Unfortunately, you don’t have one Arab people, but you also don’t have a real Syrian people, a real Egyptian people. It’s a process. You know, when I look at the demonstrations last year in Tahrir, I saw a lot of Egyptian flags. I saw that, with all the Islamic discourse, they kept the flag, the Egyptian flag. In all the interviews, on the street, there was always a lot of Egyptian national feeling. I am not a specialist, but I felt that it was a kind of national revolution – something that crystallised around the idea of Egypt, this mass movement.

I don’t believe in the concept of the pan-nationalism of my ex-friend Azmi Bishara. It’s a bluff. They have played with it for too long without any power, any power to resist foreign imperialism. Arab nationalism as a force didn’t succeed. It failed. A lot of people now think that the Islamic, the New Muslims will create a kind of anti-imperialism. I don’t believe it will.

Yes, it’s already failed. Some people haven’t noticed yet but it failed a long time ago.

Then, we have to start again from the beginning, on the basis of the Egyptian people.

I’m not a professional historian, but I’m struck by how once fluid ideas of identity have become so rigid and fossilised. For example, it was completely normal, even up to 60 or 70 years ago, for someone to describe themselves as both an Arab and a Jew. Today, you know, that’s complete heresy to say something like that.

One moment, it’s very important what you said because I’m dealing with it now, in my new book. I’m writing about how I stopped being a Jew. The term “Arab Jews”… By the way, I’ve met people that define themselves in this way, a long time ago. Abraham Sarfati, he was an Arab Jew, in some way, a Moroccan Arab Jew. I think that the immigrants who came here were Arab Jews because their language was Arabic.

It’s very interesting, and I’m trying to work on it. You take an immigrant who came from Egypt or came from Morocco or from Iraq to here. His secular, daily culture was Arab. His religious culture was Jewish. It wasn’t like in Eastern Europe where Jews had a daily secular life which was different from their neighbours.

Now, this immigration, this poor immigration which came here, to the Zionist enterprise, they quickly learnt that the very lowest level in society was the Palestinian Arab. So, they tried to separate themselves. In the ‘50s and in the ‘60s, these immigrants, these Jewish Arab immigrants, or Arab Jewish immigrants, tried to hide their Arab daily culture and put forward their Jewish religious culture. Then, Zionism, which is a secular nationalist movement, stopped the secularisation of these immigrants.

The process of secularisation stopped because they wanted to be Jews, and every sign of Jewishness was religious. They didn’t have a Jewish secular culture. An Arab Jewish secular culture did not exist. You know, in Iraq it was different, the intellectuals from the Maghreb went to France and to Canada, only the poor arrived here. They were crushed by the Ashkenazi culture. In Eastern Europe, they had a strong, Yiddish secular culture. Sometimes I use the word Yiddish people, and not Jewish people, because they had a language, a daily culture, they were different to their neighbours, they had theatre, they had literature.

But didn’t the Sephardim have Ladino?

You see, the Ladino phenomenon could have become like Yiddish but it was too sparse. There was no concentration like there was in Eastern Europe. It didn’t become like Yiddish for two reasons. First of all, the Jews in North Africa, who came from Spain, and in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, they were very integrated into the local cultures, not like in Eastern Europe. Under Islam, they lived completely differently than in Christendom. This is the reason, for example, that I try to fight against the concept of Judeo-Christianity.

In my first book, there is a sentence which asks why my aunt, when they took her to Auschwitz, didn’t know that she lived in a Judeo-Christian civilisation? Now a lot of French intellectuals of Jewish origin don’t stop talking about Judeo-Christianity. In my new book, I try to explain that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is much greater than the difference between Judaism and Islam. First of all, there is no Son of God, and the problem with the Son of God.  And also, if I look at the history of the Jews under Islam, it wasn’t at all a paradise, but you cannot compare it at all to the experience of Jews in the Christian world.

But Jewish life in Christendom also had its high points, like German Judaism prior to Nazism, American Judaism today.

You are making a mistake.

Is this a mistake?

Yeah, because it wasn’t Judaism. What do you mean by Judaism?

Well, I mean Jews…

They were so integrated that most of them did not consider themselves to be Jews. You know what is the most tragic thing that I read? It was about a comedian and an agent who were arrested in 1936 and sent to the concentration camps. He went to the concentration camp and said I met communists, socialists – the most tragic were the Jews because they did not know why they were in the concentration camp.

Because they believed that they were fully German?

They were. This is your mistake. They were. Who is more German Heinrich Heine or Hitler’s father?

I don’t know Hitler’s father but Heinrich Heine was a great German poet.

Well, you know, Hitler’s father was a petty clerk that spoke the local dialect of his region of Austria. He didn’t know High German, you know Hochdeutsche.

Well, some say that the Jews were really the most German of people because they were raised…

They built the German culture. They were much more in the city… They were not peasants. The concept of the nation, of the German nation, with the language started from… I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalised, it was the revolt of the marginalised against the centre. Jews were at the centre in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler. By the way, they called themselves Israelites, not Jews. They didn’t like the term Jews. Even the religious said they were Israelites, the people of Moses’ religion. They didn’t describe themselves as Jews. Now you want to make them Jews again? After Hitler decided they were Jews?

Most of them, and I’m not speaking about Jews from Eastern Europe, I’m talking about German, French. They didn’t understand what antisemitism was doing with them. Now I respect everyone. If someone says that he is a Jew, I don’t care. Secular Jew, okay. But they don’t give me the right to define myself as a non-Jew.

You mean that people should have the freedom to define themselves the way they wish?

Yes. In reality, I don’t think that I am Jew because I am a non-believer. You know, I am of Jewish origin. This can be important sometimes. The fact that I am writing this book, it means that it was important for me. But, no, my horizon is humanity and my daily life is that of an Israeli – shitty Israeli culture, okay. But it is not Jewish. My grandfather, if he were before me now, he would start to laugh if I said that I was a Jew.

How can someone become a secular Jew? You can become a religious Jew. You can become a Muslim. You can become a member of the Labour party. You can become British. You can become Israeli. How can you become a secular Jew? And then I realised that it was a closed club.

In this age, at the beginning of the 21st century, I decided that I don’t want to belong to a closed club, if I have the choice.

So I can’t become a secular Jew, you mean?

You cannot.

But I could become a religious Jew by converting.

But you can’t become a secular Jew. And I don’t want to belong to a closed club. We suffered – I mean my parents and my grandparents – suffered too much from closed clubs. The Arian club was closed to them. German nationalism was closed. In our past, we suffered too much from closed clubs.

All my life I said that I would continue to be a Jew until the last antisemite was removed from this Earth. Now, I’ve stopped with this. I don’t want to be a Jew.

But others will continue to define you as a Jew.

Well, Hitler defined me as a Jew. That doesn’t mean that he was right. Yes, others will continue. They don’t let me. I cannot change my identity card. They won’t let me change my ID. I want to write Israeli as my nationality. But I have Jewish nationality. This is a good reason not to define myself as a Jew. I see that I am Israeli, a shitty Israeli citizen, a shitty Israeli writer and a shitty Israeli historian.

Speaking of defining a religion as a nationality, there is also a strong parallel between Jewish nationalism and Muslim nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan is very similar to Israel.

The nation of Pakistan is built on the principle of religion. Also, in Sri Lanka in some way. Ireland is also somewhat similar. But Ireland had to change its laws to join the EU. Israel cannot join the EU with its laws.

So, the original idea, the old idea of a “Jewish nation”, if I’ve understood it correctly, of “umma”, is similar to the idea of the “Islamic umma”, the idea that all Muslims have a spiritual link to each other.

Yes, yes.

So, in a way, Israel is like the idea of an Islamic caliphate.

[Laughs] Yeah, yes, in some way. Yes, because the word “umma” means the Islamic “umma”. They took this word to replace the word “nation”.

You talk about reinventing identities. Well, there was a time when Palestinian equally meant a Jew. Now it’s exclusive only to Christians and Muslims.

By the way, Golda Meir, at the beginning of the ‘70s when the word “Palestinian people” started to be popular, she was astonished. She said, “I’m a Palestinian.” She had a Palestinian passport issued by the British mandate authorities.

And you also said in your book, if I recall correctly, that the Zionist movement managed to create this creative, convincing identity in order to build a nation, so why not reinvent it. But can that equally be said for the Arab side, for the Palestinians, that the way to move forward is to try to creatively reinvent identities to make them more inclusive of each other?

You see, I hope, you know, the past 40 or 50 years, the idea of the Palestinian people was crystallised. I don’t believe that the Palestinian people existed 100 years ago. For example, the culture and identity of the Arabs of the Galilee was much nearer to the Lebanese.

Now, to create nations, you have to be an engineer in some way. All nations are a creation. My formula is, to create a nation, you need to invent people into the past. In order to create a future nation, you invent a story, you know, a mythological history. The Palestinians needed one too. You know a lot of Palestinians believe that they are the descendants of the Canaanites.

Some of them might be.

In my book, I say that most of them were Canaanites who became Jews and the later they became Muslims. This applies to part of them, some of them, because this is a part of the world where everybody moves. But to create nations, to crystallise a nation, you need myths. The idea that a people existed for 2,000 years is a myth.

I had a discussion with a Palestinian painter at the Bozar who tried to convince me that they are the real Canaanites. No, this is a myth. The concept of people is modern. You can imagine that a thousand years ago an agrarian society with a very low level of communication, without newspapers, without books, without schools, without TV, without the internet. You can imagine a village of your great, great, great, great grandparents, they knew that they belonged to the village.

A thousand years ago, every valley, every mountain had a different dialect. To speak about peoples in the modern sense of the word is unbelievable. When they speak about the Jewish people 2,000 years ago, you see they didn’t have a single language. In the capital of the kingdom, they spoke differently than in the villages. The vocabulary of a peasant was so poor – he didn’t need a broad vocabulary. Can you imagine speaking about a people without schools?

In your book and at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about, before we started recording, you talked about Mahmoud Darwish. You’ve met him a number of times and you were friends, right?

We were very young. He wrote a poem about me.

Yes, about an Israeli soldier who felt remorse.

I have here Majda al-Rumi singing this song about the soldier in front of Mubarak and all your generals. She sings it without mentioning it’s about an Israeli soldier.

Well, that brings me to an interesting point. You describe, after the war of ’67, the drunken night you had with him.

You remember that I mention he drank alcohol. You know that the Arabic translator, he took out the alcohol. But I said, sorry. He said, but it’s not important, we don’t need to mention the alcohol.

It’s absolutely important, I think. It shows that culture…

Yes, I insisted that they publish the story of the alcohol.

Well, in the Arab world, for decades, you’ve had the idea of a cultural boycott of Israel. Now they’re taking that even further by trying to get the West on board. But then you have someone like Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of the Palestinian people, had contacts with Israelis, with Israeli Jews, and had friends who were Israeli Jews. And yet many activists today think that’s a big no-no, a taboo.

Elias Khoury was attacked because he wrote nice things about me. Then, he wrote again, saying you attacked because I am a friend of Shlomo Sand, but he’s a friend of Mahmoud Darwish. He used this against his critics. “I am a friend of a friend of Mahmoud Darwish and you are against it?” he asked.

I don’t want to comment because I don’t want to insult Palestinians, but you know, the victims are not always clever.

So, you think that the cultural boycott is not productive?

Not completely.

 So, you think it should be targeted and not a blanket one?

They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv university.

Even though you wrote a book that was translated in Ramallah and is popular among Arab readers.

Now, any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture. It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic. Do you agree?

Well, I’m in your office, after all. The way I see it is that there can be no just resolution to the Palestinian cause without a strong Israeli involvement.

 

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Shlomo Sand: "I am not a Jew. I am an Israeli.", 8.8 out of 10 based on 5 ratings Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  • IzakFriend

    If Khaled had spent an hour rereading his Anthropology 101 textbook, with speial attention to the chapters headed “Social Identity,” he might’ve skipped this interview. People are animated by who/what they believe themselves to be, iterated by membership in a like-minded club. If Khaled puts the thumb screws and cattle prods to a random selection of Palestinian Arab grandmothers, he may well discover that they aren’t all the princess-daughters of  highly-cultured landed gentry, the souls of human kindness and religion, unustly displaced by the perfidious Jews. So what? They will still form ululating mobs, demanding that the Taj Mahal, Hermitage, and Texas be “returned” to them.

    Sand seems to be embroiled in a discussion of what it means to be a Jew in France. Rather a different thing from being a Jew in the US or in Israel; three different social constructs.

    Sand seems to think that the loss of Palestine fostered the creation of a cohesive Palestinian national identity. The evidence for cohesion seems to me to be very thin on the ground. Palestinian national identitiy seems to me to be a UN construct, which would lose 90% of its adherents without UN financial and political support.

    Sand also seems unaware of the Holocaust, and its effect on Jewish identity. Whatever was true of Jewish identity in 1936, was no longer true in 1946. Jews were profoundly and authentically seared, in cultural-altering ways in the 1930s-40s. This is not like Arab Palestinians, who are only playing at the thing, and haven’t changed at all.

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  • Steve Bush

    Well done!  Steve Bush

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  • Mikecomay

    You don’t give any sources to your claims. Please do so, I would like to read them. 
    It is nevertheless odd that Yemenite Jews look so similar to those revolting there now, appearing on my TV screen, that Mea Shearim has so many blond boys, that Morrocans are so beautiful, etc. There was obviously a lot of mixing even if not all are descended from converts.

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  • Jacob

      
     
          Shlomo Sand’s book is based on the assumption that present-day Jews are descendants of converts to Judaism and not of the original inhabitants of Judea. Thus he reached the conclusion that the Jews are not a people but just a group with the same  religion  and therefore  had no legitimate right to establish their nation-state in Mandatory Palestine. Sand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt. He thinks it’s all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel. According to Sand, the Zionist need to devise for them a shared ethnicity and historical continuity produced a long series of inventions and fictions. concocted in the minds of those who conceived the Zionist movement, while others were offered as the findings of “Jewish” genetics – an effort that “cannot be entirely free from crude and dangerous racism”.
           Sand claims that the North African Sepharadi Jews descended from local converts of the Berber tribes, that the Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars and that the Yemanite Jews descended form converts of a Yemanite tribe.
             But Sand ignores the fact that the genetic studies were done in many countries by well known academic researchers and published in prestigious peer review journals. That research clearly shows that, even though there is no “Jewish DNA,” there is definite biological-genetic evidence that the Jews are one people.
             The researchers found that despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level. They studied seven Jewish populations: Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Near Eastern, North African, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Ethiopian. The first six showed a strong affinity, with the Ashkenazic and Yemenite populations coming out the closest. Palestinian, Syrian and other non-Jewish Middle Eastern populations were also very close to the Jewish populations.
          Other research shows that the Jews in different countries are much closer to Jews in other countries than to their non-Jewish neighbors.
          The Jews in North Africa were not at all similar to their Berber neighbors. The Ashkenazi Jews were not similar to present-day Turkish  speakers, who are descendants of the Khazars. The Yemanite Jews were not similar to their non-Jewish neighbors. Only the Ethiopian Jews were found to be similar to their non-Jewish neighbors and different from the other Jewish communities, which means that they are indeed descendants of local converts.
            The results of the research support the notion that modern Jews are descendants of the Jews who lived in the Middle East 1900 years ago. Contrary to Sand’s assertion, both history and science support the existence of the Jewish people and its Middle-Eastern origin.
         It is immaterial if there was an exodus or not or if Jews were expelled by the Romans or not. What counts is that the Jews became a people in what was later called Palestine, some 3500 y ago.  Regardless if the Bible stories are true or not, they were written by members of the Jewish people. The Mernaptah stele (1200 BCE),  displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, mentions Israel, indicating that it was a significant socioethnic entity. The Tel Dan stele, (840 BCE) mentions “The house of David”, which indicates that the Biblical refrence to King David is not a legend. And, in spite of  losing their territorial base for more than 1900 years, and being dispersed all over, they managed to preserve their historical memory and did not disappear like so many other nations of antiquity did.
         The  Zionist movement was founded  by totally secular Jews. They were motivated by nationalism, not religion. They wanted to re-establish an  independent Jewish state in Palestine, not because God promised  the land to the Jews  but because the Jews became a people in  that land. The Jews never lost their emotional connection to that land and through the centuries there was always a Jewish presence there. The Hebrew term “Am Israel” (Peaple of Israel, which is synonymous to Jewish people) was coined many centuries before the appearance of political Zionism.
        If the Jewish people did not exist, the Zionist movement would have  failed. But, so it happens that it was extremely successful. Less that 50 y after the first Zionist congress, it reached its main goal, the founding of the independent nation-state of  the Jewish people, in the land of its origin. In 1948 there were only 650,000 Jews in Israel. Today there are more than 6 million. If one adds to that the revival of the Hebrew language, dead  for many centuries, one can appreciate the success of the Zionist movement. That explains why Sand, a known anti-Zionist, is trying to deny the existence of the Jewish people and its right to its nation-state. He grew up in a fervent Bundist anti-Zionist family. When his father came to Israel he refused to speak Hebrew as this would  mean that Zionism won. Sand himself was a member of of the Israeli communist party.  So, his “finding” about the Jews was in tune with the long  held  communist idea that there is no Jewish people.
          In short, if Sand likes it or not, he is a member of the Jewish people and lives in Israel, the naton-state of  that people.

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  • Yehuda

    That’s his problem, thank God, there are not many Israelis so troubled with their Jewish identity.
    Do you know many Israeli Arabs saying “I am not an Arab, I am not a Palestinian, I am an Israeli”?
    There is no such a thing as an “Israeli people”! He should have written a book called “The Invention of the Israeli people” The article seems interesting though…

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  • Moshe

    I could sense that there was a
    limitation with English and, admittedly, some of the conceptual
    vagaries I detected might well stem from that. With that said, I found
    the whole interview interesting and readable, in spite of having to stop
    and decipher Sand’s actual intent in a few spots.

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  • KhaledDiab

    Thanks, Moshe, for your kind
    words. You must bear in mind that Sand was speaking in a language which
    he is not strong at, which could explain the impression you had. Despite
    his limited command of English, I found him expressive and eloquent

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  • Moshe

    Once again, an outstanding
    interview, although I have to say the interviewee is less than eloquent
    and more than inconsistent. (One statement I would not take issue with
    is Sand’s self-assessment as a “shitty Israeli historian”! :-))
    Nonetheless, kudos for your ongoing journalistic exploration of the
    complex mosaic of the Israeli-Palestinian engagement and for leaving no
    stone left unturned.

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