Interview with Shlomo Sand: The new history of the origins of the Jews

Historians in the News

Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand recently spoke at NYU about his newly translated book "The Invention of the Jewish People," a book that challenges conventional wisdom and deeply entrenched myths about the foundations of the state of Israel...

... Sand writes in his introduction, "I don't think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change it looks for different books." This book is an important contribution to the debate on the future of the Middle East. I sat down with professor Sand last Friday to talk about "Invention" while he was in New York.

What moved you to write this book?

I wrote the book because something in me wanted to look through things toward the truth — knowing that I cannot arrive at absolute truth. As a historian, I have an obligation to discover the truth of the past — I am paid for it. I remember being shocked the first time I heard that the Exile from Egypt was not true. Hearing that David and Solomon's kingdoms didn't exist. It shocked me so much that I decided in some way, when I have time, I will need to focus on Jewish history.

In Israel, in every university, there are two departments of history. There is the department of general history and the department of Jewish history. Because I work in the department of general history, I have no right to occupy myself with Jewish history. When I got a full professorship, I decided I had nothing to lose. Before that, I did write articles that were critical of the Israeli attitude toward Palestinians, but I never really took on Jewish history as a subject. As I explain in the preface to the book, living near all these archives, leaving this history only to the Zionist historians, was too much. I decided after I got my full professorship to write what I wanted to write.

You open with an examination of nationalism and the various ways it is defined. Can you talk about how that applies to what has come to be called the "Jewish people"?

If I use the phrase "French people", if I use the phrase "Italian people," if I use the phrase "American people" — I cannot, by the same criteria, use the phrase "Jewish people" because thinking about Jews in history, I thought that Jews did not have any secular practical norms in common culturally. They didn't speak the same language, they didn't eat the same foods, they didn't have the same songs. The thing that bound Jews was something more important. It was religion, which in pre-modern time was the most important thing in some levels of life.

If you use the word American people, and you know it is something constructed in the last 200 years, slowly with a cultural basis common to all Americans — more or less — or the Italians, or the French, how can you, by the same criteria, apply the word Jewish people?

The tendency of most of the people is to say that — speaking of the Jewish people — they have the same origin. This is not a reason to call a human group a people. This is a mistake because there is not a human group that has the same origin in the world. But we are lazy. So we think if a human group had a similar origin, it is a people...
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