Friday, 13 November 2009

The Invention of the Jewish People

Diaspora Jews are descended from converts and have no historical connection with Israel. That`s just one of the claims made by a Tel Aviv University professor who`s shaken the Jewish world.

For a man at the centre of a controversy, Professor Shlomo Sand looks remarkably calm. The German-born Israeli historian has faced ferocious and repeated attacks from the academic community in Israel and beyond over his new book, The Invention of the Jewish People. His scholarship, his conclusions and his political stance have all been criticised. In fact the title itself has angered Jews around the world.

The storm certainly helped sales, propelling the book to best-seller status in Israel. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Sand`s basic thesis is explained in the title — that there is no Jewish people. according to him, the Jews are a religious group without any particular ethnic link to ancient Israel — rather, nearly every Jew living in the world is the product of a conversion.

This, says Sand, sipping coffee in the offices of his London publisher, came as a very big surprise to him too. Until starting research on his current work, the 63-year-old teacher of contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv had specialised in Western Europe. “But I began to be bothered by the question of what is a Jew. I wanted to know — what is a people. What is a nation? What is a race?”

His conclusion was that the Jewish people was a creation of 19th -century historians. But we need not feel singled out. Sand also asserts that the French, Italian and German peoples were invented at the same time. “To construct at new nation in modern times you needed to create a history of that people. Most French people thought that they were descended from the Gauls. Most Italians believed they were descendents of Julius Caesar. This is not true. Neither is it true that Jews are descended from the Kingdom of David and Solomon. We took the Bible, a theological master-piece, and tried to make it into a historical work when it was no such thing.”

Sand says he was staggered to find that the exile of Jews from the Land of Israel after the fall of the Second Temple never took place in the accepted sense. “If you ask anyone in the street whether the Jews were exiled they will all say yes. I thought so too. But then I started to look for a book about the exile. There were no books. The romans did not force the Jews to leave. It was a society of peasants. Peasants do not migrate en masse. No one forced them out. I`m sure there was emigration but it was just five per cent of society at most.”

He maintains that the Jewish diaspora that sprung up around the Mediterranean was more to do with the success of the Jewish religion rather than mass migration — that it was “Jewishness” that spread and not the Jews. Says Sand: “Six years ago I believed that Jews were a closed religion — then I discovered there was forced conversion. I was staggered to find this.”

According to Sand`s view, most Jews stayed put and would have later been converted to Islam. So is he asserting that the real Jews are in fact the Palestinians?

“I wouldn`t say that the Palestinians are the direct descendants of the old Jews — they are mixed, like everyone else in the world.”

What he does claim is that Jews of Sephardi descent are likely to have originated in North Africa and that those of Eastern European descent are likely to come from the Khazarian kingdom, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This is, of course, something that most Jews would find very difficult to accept.

“It`s not my idea,” says Sand. “The great Jewish historian, Ben-Zion Dinur, described the Khazar kingdom — a land of converts to Judaism — as `the mother of the diaspora`. It is the only thing that can explain the massive number of Jews in Eastern Europe. The only difference between Dinur and me is that he claimed a lot of Jews came from Palestine to Khazaria. He needed an ethnic line. I`m sure a few Jews went there as missionaries but there was no ethnic line.”

This part of the book has been attacked by Israeli historians, who maintain that there is simply no evidence to support the fact that Eastern European Jewry is descended solely from Khazarians — a theory which has in the past been propounded by anti-Zionists to discredit Jewish claims to Israel. Sand acknowledges there is not enough evidence, but claims that this is largely due to the fact that there has been no doctoral research into the subject since the 1960s. He believes that this aspect of history has been deliberately ignored because it is an uncomfortable truth. “We all act under ideology,” he says. “In the 1950s people had less of a problem with the Khazarian hypothesis. We were less frightened then.”

He feels that Israelis are scared of his conclusions. “Most Israeli Jews believe in a historical right. If there is no such right, what justifies our existence here? Arabs also ask me, after writing this book, how can I justify the existence of Israel. I say to them that even the son of a rape has the right to live. It was a kind of rape in 1947 and `48 and the Palestinian tragedy continues. But you can say the same about the USA and Australia.”

Sand is open about his political motivations for writing the book. He feels that, while Zionism failed to create a Jewish people, it did create two others — the Israeli people, and by consequence, the Palestinian people. He says: “I think Israel belongs to the Israelis, not the Jews. We have a language, a culture, a theatre, a literature, our jokes our football and our politics. We are a people but we are not just a Jewish people. I want to change the borders and definition of the state. I want to make it a more civil nation — to separate religion from its existence, to normalise and democratise Israel. I think that Israel has to belong to all its citizens, not just the Jewish ones. People call me radical but from a democratic perspective this is not so radical.”

Sand certainly does not advocate testing any of his claims with DNA evidence. “Maybe I`m from Khazar origins. I don`t care. as I say to my students, Israeli and Arab, it is more important to have wings than roots. A people which has to justify their existence in biological terms is in very bad shape.”

© Copyright 2009. The Jewish Chronicle.

Taste -- Houses of Worship: Where Do Jews Come From?
By Evan R. Goldstein
The Wall Street Journal
October 30, 2009

A group of immigrants making aliyah to Israel. According to Shlomo Sand, their forebears hailed from the Black Sea, not Judea

This much is known: In the mid-eighth century, the ruling elite of the Khazars, a Turkic tribe in Eurasia, converted to Judaism. Their impetus was political, not spiritual. By embracing Judaism, the Khazars were able to maintain their independence from rival monotheistic states, the Muslim caliphate and the Christian Byzantine empire. Governed by a version of rabbinical law, the Khazar Jewish kingdom flourished along the Volga basin until the beginning of the second millennium, at which point it dissolved, leaving behind a mystery: Did the Khazar converts to Judaism remain Jews, and, if so, what became of them?

Enter Shlomo Sand. In a new book, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” the Tel Aviv University professor of history argues that large numbers of Khazar Jews migrated westward into Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, where they played a decisive role in the establishment of Eastern European Jewry. The implications are far-reaching: If the bulk of Eastern European Jews are the descendents of Khazars -- not the ancient Israelites -- then most Jews have no ancestral links to Palestine. Put differently: If most Jews are not Semites, then what justification is there for a Jewish state in the Middle East? By attempting to demonstrate the Khazar origins of Eastern European Jewry, Mr. Sand -- a self-described post-Zionist who believes that Israel needs to shed its Jewish identity to become a democracy -- aims to undermine the idea of a Jewish state.

Published in Hebrew last year, “The Invention of the Jewish People” was a best seller in Israel. In March, the French translation, also a best seller, received the prestigious Aujourd`hui Award, which honors the year`s best nonfiction book. Past winners include such intellectual titans as Raymond Aron, Milan Kundera and George Steiner. “The Invention of the Jewish People” is being translated into a dozen languages. Mr. Sand is delivering lectures this month in Los Angeles, Berkeley, New York and elsewhere.

What should we make of Mr. Sand`s radical revisionist history? There is reason to be very skeptical. After all, we have been here before. In 1976, Arthur Koestler published “The Thirteenth Tribe,” which argued that Diaspora Jews were a “pseudo-nation” bound by “a system of traditional beliefs based on racial and historical premises which turn out to be illusory.” The genetic influence of the Khazars on modern Jews is, he wrote, “substantial, and in all likelihood dominant.” Koestler`s speculations were not novel. The connection between the Khazars and the Jews of Eastern Europe had been debated by both scholars and conspiracists (the two are not mutually exclusive) for centuries.

“The Thirteenth Tribe” was savaged by critics, and Mr. Sand`s repackaging of its central argument has not fared much better. “A few Jews in Eastern Europe presumably came from the Khazar kingdom, but nobody can responsibly claim that most of them are the descendents of Khazars,” says Israel Bartal, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We simply don`t know enough about the demographics of Eastern European Jews before the 13th century to make such an assertion, Mr. Bartal says, adding, “Sand has not proven anything.” According to Peter B. Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers University, the Khazars are likely one of a number of strains that shaped the Jewish population in Eastern Europe. But, he stresses, DNA studies have confirmed that the Middle Eastern strain is predominant.

In “The Invention of the Jewish People,” Mr. Sand suggests that those who attacked Koestler`s book did so not because it lacked merit, but because the critics were cowards and ideologues. “No one wants to go looking under stones when venomous scorpions might be lurking beneath them, waiting to attack the self-image of the existing ethnos and its territorial ambitions.” But Koestler was himself uneasy about scorpions. The Khazar theory, he knew, was an article of faith among anti-Semites and anti-Israel Arab politicians. Just a few months before “The Thirteenth Tribe” was published, the Saudi Arabian delegation to the United Nations declared Zionism illegitimate because it was conceived by “non-Semitic Jews” rather than “our own Arab Jews who are the real Semites.” (An Israeli ambassador, wrongly, countered that Koestler`s book had been secretly subsidized by the Palestinians.) Perhaps more disconcerting, the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party in the U.S. declared “The Thirteenth Tribe” to be “the political bombshell of the century” because “it destroys all claims of the present-day Jew-Khazars to any historic right to occupy Palestine.” Members of Stormfront, a self-described “white nationalist” Internet community, have predictably reacted to Mr. Sand`s book with glee.

I recently called Mr. Sand in Paris, where he is on sabbatical, to ask if he is concerned that “The Invention of the Jewish People” will be exploited for pernicious ends. “I don`t care if crazy anti-Semites in the United States use my book,” he said in Israeli-accented English. “Anti-Semitism in the West, for the moment, is not a problem.” Still, he is worried about how the forthcoming Arabic translation might be received in the Muslim world, where, he says, anti-Semitism is growing. I ask if the confident tenor of his book might exacerbate the problem. He falls quiet for a moment. “Maybe my tone was too affirmative on the question of the Khazars,” he reluctantly concedes. “If I were to write it today I would be much more careful.” Such an admission, however, is unlikely to sway the sinister conspiracists who find the Khazar theory a useful invention.

Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

© Copyright 2009, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

The `ethnic cleansing` of Palestine; Are the Jews an invented people?
Eric Rouleau
Le Monde Diplomatique
May 01, 2008

Sand doesn`t challenge Israel`s right to exist or the notion of its sovereignty, but he thinks that sovereignty is undermined by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist ideologues.

How the Jewish people were invented, from the Bible to Zionism is the provocative title of the most recent book to be published in Israel by Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University (forthcoming in French with Fayard). Sand, one of the “new” historians, attacks what he calls the myth that the Jews are the descendants of the Hebrews, exiled from the kingdom of Judaea. He has attempted to show that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. According to Sand, the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand doesn`t challenge Israel`s right to exist or the notion of its sovereignty, but he thinks that sovereignty is undermined by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist ideologues. In other words, Israel shouldn`t be a Jewish state, but a democratic secular one which belongs to all its citizens.

Quoted in Haaretz on 21 March 2008, Sand was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

Sand may be mistaken. A no less challenging work which presents the Torah as in large part a collection of myths and legends, has been well received by the Israeli media and in secular circles.

In their book The Bible Unearthed, two eminent Israeli archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, present an argument based on excavations and ancient documents which calls into question long-cherished convictions.

Israeli society may be more receptive to challenging questions than it is given credit for.

© Copyright 2008 Le Monde Diplomatique All Rights Reserved

Khazaria: a forgotten Jewish empire. (Eastern Europe)
Nicolas Soteri
History Today, Vol. 45, No. 4
April 01, 1995

With the recent break-up of the Soviet Union and the troubles prevalent in the Balkans there has been much renewed interest in the early history of Eastern Europe. Troubles have fuelled nationalist tendencies in the region and there has been much talk of an Orthodox-Catholic (East-West) Christian and Islamic divide, which has a well-documented history and which historians are retracing. Much emphasis has been placed on religious difference and intolerance as the source of the trouble. But does such an explanation get at the crux of the problem or is religion just a small part of much wider and complicated conflicts? if religion does play a part, how large a part? Are nationalistic tendencies largely shaped by considerations of religion? What part do ideas about `race` play? Are concepts of race` influenced by concepts of nationalism or vice versa? And how far do religious ideas influence those about race? How far are religion and `race` distinguishable indicators of ethnicity?

Indeed, what is race`? These questions have plagued mankind from time immemorial and attempts to answer them have never been wholly satisfactory but have often incurred danger. The procrustean nature of ideas about nationalism seem never ending. Suffice to say that the religions of Islam, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity have exerted a large influence on the history and shaping of Eastern Europe.

Yet one very interesting epoch in the history of Eastern Europe has been overlooked, if not totally forgotten, by most historians which is of import to another great religion in the area -- Judaism. Khazaria, or mention of the Khazars, is a non-starter to most. Yet historians, and medieval historians in particular, should be aware of the important existence of this powerful kingdom which played just as crucial a part in the stemming of the Arab advance into Europe as Charles Martel did at Tours at around the same time (i.e. the eighth century). However, this Khazar kingdom was neither Christian nor Muslim at the height of its power but Judaic, which makes study of it all the more interesting, since it places a powerful Judaic military presence amidst the power politics of the period in question.

Scholars in the last 100 to 150 years or so have been treating Byzantium (bulwark of Christendom in the east) as a generative, powerful, creative force and a superpower of its day, rather than the degenerating remnants of a Roman empire in the east as Gibbon had once regarded it. Relations between Byzantium and the Arab empire (the other superpower of the day) and their influences have been rightly regarded as important for the study of any aspect of medieval history. Yet, in between these two superpowers lay a third, if not superpower at least important power, strategically, militarily, and economically -- Khazaria. This kingdom held considerable sway between the early seventh and early eleventh centuries, extending its power from its homeland in the northern Caucasus to Eastern Europe and beyond. It was only in 1016 when a joint Russo-Byzantine expedition was launched against the Khazars that the Khazar empire suffered irremediable loss and its decline was sealed. Most of our evidence for the history of the Khazars comes from literary sources. Information on archaeological sites is scanty, since all of these were in the former Soviet Union and are not very accessible; royal burial sites are non-existent since, as our sources tell us, these were placed under streams.

Both Byzantium and the Arab empire viewed the Khazars as a linchpin in the power-diplomacy game and an all-important factor in any balance of power considerations. Byzantium regarded Khazaria as more important than any Western kingdom, as can be seen from the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus` De Cerimoniis, a treatise written on state protocol in the tenth century, where letters of correspondence to the Khaqan of the Khazars were to be given a gold seal worth three solidi, whereas those addressed to the pope in Rome or the Emperor in the West` were given a seal worth only two solidi. The importance placed on the power of the Khazars can also be seen in the practice adopted by the Persian king of having three golden thrones permanently placed in the royal palace, in addition to his own, representing the great powers of the day: one for the Khazar khaqan, one for the Byzantine emperor, and another for the emperor of China. As allies of the Byzantines the Khazars not only stemmed the Arab advance into Europe (from the seventh century onwards) but earlier helped to bring about the downfall of the Persian empire by supplying the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, with 40,000 soldiers under the leadership of Ziebel in 627.

However, who were these Khazars and where did they come from? How did they come to build a powerful empire to the north of the great civilised states of the day in Europe and the Middle East -- namely Byzantium, Persia and later the Arab empire? How did they resist these culturally advanced states which were vying for influence in the strategically crucial area which the Khazars controlled? That the Khazars did resist culturally, in the attempt to not allow any of these outside powers to gain influence in their territories, is amply illustrated by the decision of the royal family, sometime in the eighth century under either the kingship of Bulan or Obadiah, to take the unusual step of converting to Judaism. In this way neither Christian Byzantium nor the new Muslim empire to the south could gain power indirectly through religious blackmail and other such means. By adopting Judaism Khazar khaqan ingeniously managed to give a neutral impression to those powers involved in Christian-Muslim (and Christian-Christian) squabbles. Thus Khazaria not only resisted religious influence, and the political influence that accompanied it, from Christian and Muslim powers but also managed somewhat to divert their perceptions of hostility which would have arisen had the Khazars converted to one of these faiths.

The story of the Khazar conversion, although largely fictional, contains revealing insights into the power-politics of the day and how religious considerations played a major part. According to the story the khaqan, on hearing the various arguments put forward by Christian, Muslim and Judaic missionaries, asked each in turn which of the other two religions was considered more acceptable after their own. As to what the Jewish representative replied is of no consequence since both the Christian and Muslim representatives (fearing each other) answered that after their own the Jewish faith would be the most acceptable -- the consequences of a Khazar conversion to either Christianity or Islam could have been disastrous to the unsuccessful party. As things turned out the Khazars opted for a path which attracted least hostility, least obligation, and least cultural influence from any of the other major powers of the day.

As to the origins of the Khazar kingdom, this can be traced back to the West Turkish empire -- a confederation of Turkic tribes, of which the Khazars were but one, stretching from the Black Sea to Turkestan in the mid-sixth to mid-seventh centuries. Some time in the seventh century this empire began to dissolve and the Khazars later emerged as dominant in the area north of the Caucasus. Later expanding their domains, until by the tenth century they controlled an empire which ranged from the plains of Hungary to the Aral Sea and Ural Mountains, the Khazars controlled all trade passing through south-east Europe towards the Byzantine and Arab empires and the numerous peoples living in this vast area. Thus Khazaria was not only strategically important and a military force to be reckoned with but controlled an important trade route. Their capital, Itil, was at the crossroads of east-west as well as north-south trade routes, and the Khazars extracted a large revenue from taxing goods passing through their territories, not only towards the high civilisations of Islam and Byzantium but also towards the western European kingdoms, northern Europe, and the Turkic peoples to the east of their domains. As for goods produced within the Khazar kingdom itself, these were mainly agricultural -- rice, millet, honey, wine, sheep and fisheries from the Khazar ( Caspian`) Sea. However, the Khazars possessed few natural resources and never developed their economy through trade to any level of sophistication. Most of the state revenues came from tax dues imposed on trade passing through the Khazar empire, and taxes exacted upon subject peoples. It was, mainly, the military might of the Khazars that kept the empire intact. Once this had been weakened, by persistent Russian attacks in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, there was not much else to hold the empire together. By the time of the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan, in the early thirteenth century, the Khazar empire had shrunk both in size and importance to a small area between the Caucasus mountains and the Don and Volga rivers.

However, Khazaria had proved an extremely powerful force to be reckoned with between the seventh and tenth centuries. During this time it stemmed the advance of an Arab empire at its most dynamic (conquering) phase and managed to hold the status quo for centuries; it dabbled in the affairs of Byzantine politics, sometimes wielding considerable influence; it also held back the persistent tribal migrations of peoples from the Russian and Central Asian steppes, which had been menacing Europe for centuries; and it held considerable power/influence over the Slavs and other newly emerging peoples` of Eastern Europe. Why, then, does there seem to be no substantial amount of literature in the English language on this seemingly (as a result) obscure empire and people which played such an important role in the early history of Europe and especially south-east and Eastern Europe? At about the time of the decline of the Khazar empire, which took place from the tenth and eleventh centuries onwards, there seems to follow a period of rudimentary state formations in Eastern Europe. However, these very kingdoms which were later to develop into the modern states of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech and Slovak republics, Austria and Germany, up until and well into this century were home to substantial communities of peoples professing the Jewish faith. That these Jewish communities could very well be descendants of the Khazars and subject peoples of their empire begs the question of all anti-Semitic movements ever to take place in Central and Eastern Europe being void of all meaning (since these communities would be of indigenous ancestry to the region just as much as the peoples they find themselves among, if not having an older presence).

It is a widely held belief among historians that the Jewish communities of Europe are descendants of the diaspora of Roman times and consequent diasporas from Western Europe. Apart from the point that not many are aware of the important existence of this medieval Jewish kingdom, and cannot therefore consider its impact on subsequent history, there seems to be a fallacy here. For the diaspora of the Roman epoch led to an exodus of Jews from Palestine to other parts of the Roman Empire which never incorporated most of the lands of Eastern Europe, thus these Jewish emigres settled mainly in the west of Europe. That later diasporas from Western Europe fled eastward does still not explain the substantial Jewish communities existing in Eastern Europe from a very early date, i.e. before the tenth century. To add to this, the main language of Central and Eastern European Jews before this century was Yiddish, which is a mixture of Hebrew, Slavonic and east Germanic dialects. Had these Jews migrated from Western Europe would their language not have incorporated a large element of West European loan words? By any account, there is no record of a mass exodus of Jewish peoples from Western to Eastern Europe. But that large population movements of various peoples from East to West Europe occurred up to, and especially at the time of, the Mongol invasions no historian would deny. That the Khazars and their descendants would have been part of this general movement would logically follow. if this be the case there is a lesson to be learned from such an ironic twist of history. Whether one considers themselves Russian, Bosnian, Serbian, Albanian, Croatian, or Macedonian there is no valid criterion for establishing such nationalisms. Just as the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe (using the Khazar example) are more or less of the same `racial stock` as the peoples they find themselves among, so too are the Muslims of the Balkans, Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. When one speaks of Bosnian Croats/Serbs this becomes a contradiction in terms (highlighting the futility of racial categorisations). Both are Bosnians, yet due to their religious bent, i.e. Orthodox or Catholic Christianity, identify, or are identified, with Serbian or Croat nationalisms. To add fuel to the fire, why do we in the West refer to Bosnian Muslims`? Using religion as an indication of ethnicity for the latter group but not for their Christian counterparts.

The problems of nationalism in Eastern Europe are much more complex than a simple explanation of religious difference. However, using the example of the Khazars and their descendants, it can be exemplified that nationalist movements, with their tenacious convictions about race, can affect the perceptions of both aggressor and victim alike which, when one probes deeper into the espoused ideologies, seem to be based on false premises and, ultimately, contradictory theories.

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