Since publication Sand appears to have gone underground. I, at least, have tried to find an address whereby to contact him but have been unable to do so and this causes me to wonder whether the extremely hostile response he has engendered has forced him to bunker down.
Who has never heard the question as to whether Jews are a distinct ethnicity or adherents of a religion? Sand’s curious title intrigued me and I must say I found this book stunning since I had never thought along his line of reasoning, which is compellingly presented and persuasive. Some readers, though, will find at least two of his central assertions shocking. Though many Israeli Jews dub the Muslims and Christians” of Israel/Palestine, “Arabs,” according to Sand both groups are probably closer genetic descendants of the original Jews than are the European Jews, the Ashkenazim, many of whom are probably descended from non “Semitic” peoples who converted to Judaism at various times in the remote past. Sand emphasizes, importantly, that many mainstream Zionist founders, including David Ben Gurion, and Zionist historians alike, have asserted much the same. Needless to say such contentions are condemned by those who believe Jews are a people unique and entirely apart from others (and this includes many who profess Christianity) who can trace their unbroken genealogy back to the biblical patriarchs, and who would never abandon their sacred ancestral religion for another, or deny a seamless heritage as Jews. But just as the fact of evolution threatens the power and control of all established religions, so such facts as Sands elucidates imperil the Zionist mythology he is at pains to delineate, as well as to question beliefs held strongly by Jews who are not necessarily Zionists that all of “historical” Israel should forever be the exclusive property of Jews. One cannot fail to be more than sympathetic to a people viciously persecuted for centuries for desiring a refuge and state of their own but what happens to the people they dispossess in the process of fostering that state? How does that wrong right the original harm? As currently configured the state of Israel seems doomed to an ever imploding cycle of violence and bloodshed that appears to be heading to an unpredictable chain reaction.
Unsurprisingly, despite being the son of Holocaust survivors, and notwithstanding his distinguished professorship in History at Tel Aviv University, Sand has been roundly denounced in some quarters for this meticulous and comprehensive study. Yet, Sand has followed many strands of research – historical, archeological, demographic, etymological, linguistic, and philological- to coherent and plausible conclusions.
At this point a reader might well ask why I, an American gentile, would concern myself with these issues, seemingly of interest or disquiet mainly to Jews and Israelis and Palestinians? The cold fact is that my own government is deeply involved, and utterly in a one-sided manner, in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, from my perspective, is shaping a disastrous future for the region and for the United States. Put basically, while the United States’ government voted in favor of the 1947 United Nations partition of Palestine that mandated the creation of two separate states – one Jewish and one Palestinian- every administration since has paid mere lip service to this guiding principle, and after 1967, while financing Israel’s military and its illegal occupation and settlement of land that is supposed to be the Palestinian state. Promised 44% of British Palestine in 1947, Palestinians now are reduced to living considerably less than half of that territory. Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 Israelis have settled on what remains, with more arriving almost daily. Though Washington professes that these settlements are illegal the U.S government continues to veto even feeble U.N. attempts to condemn these actions. While Israeli and American officials assert that threats to Israel’s security from those who would deny Israel’s right to exist are impeding the conditions of peace necessary for Palestinian statehood, that does not explain the ongoing movement by Israel to take and settle ever more of Palestinian land.
Sands begins by noting that Zionism emerged as a reaction to, and parallel with European nationalism in the 19th Century, though he is clear that despite more than 100 years of dispute no unambiguous definition or universally accepted categorization of nationalism has emerged. As nationalist ideology swept Europe “national cultures often tied the soft “people” to the rigid and problematic “race,” and many regarded the two words as intersecting, supporting or complementary.” Nationalist ideology played a major role in the outbreak of both world wars, reaching its most malevolent efflorescence in Nazism. So “The murderous first half of the twentieth century caused the concept of race to be categorically rejected” in favor of a new category – “ethnos.” But this term implies a sense of origin and closeness much as the concept of race. In reality, though championed by innumerable groups, ethnic purity is essentially unverifiable. Sand agrees with the French philosopher Etienne Balibar that “ethnicity… is entirely fictitious…it is in fact nationalization that creates a sense of ethnic identity in societies.” Zionism is the Jewish counterpart to European nationalism with the important difference that long-standing prejudice and persecution of Jews led the early Zionists to believe that Jews could never be safe in Europe. Thus, if Germans could trumpet their ethnic purity to the catastrophic loss of Europe’s Jews, then the Jewish “nationality” needed a nation of its own.
While the Zionist form of nationalism gained some traction in the early 20th Century as the British, after the Balfour Declaration, sought to exploit it in order to foster their own rule in Palestine, it was the horrific Nazi genocide that catapulted the Zionist goal of a Jewish homeland into the consciousness of the two major victors in World War II, primarily to serve their own interests. Since many Eastern European Jews were communists or socialists, the Soviet Union favored resettling them in Palestine in hopes of fostering allies in the region. In the United States though much of the political elite wished to curry favor with the Arab oil potentates, among the American population, and even in other high official circles, anti-Semitism resulted in widespread unwillingness to allow many displaced Jewish refugees into this country. Polls taken after World War II, and even after the death camps had been exposed to the American public (the U.S. government had known about them all along), revealed that anti-Semitic opposition to Jewish immigration to the U.S. was still as high as it had been in the late 1930s.[i] Needing the Jewish vote in major cities, President Harry Truman recognized the new state of Israel in 1948 because as he said, he had “many thousands more constituents to answer to than Arabs.”
Anti-Semitism originated in Medieval Christian Europe and its extreme consequences were worst there. Throughout the mostly Islamic Middle East Jewish communities had been largely accepted and flourished alongside Muslims and Christians for nearly 1500 years. That began to change drastically during the early years of Zionism when Jewish Ashkenazim migrants from Europe began to settle in ever growing numbers in what was then Turkish, and subsequently British Palestine, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Zionist ideology parallels the belief of many Jews, Zionist or not, that Jews, no matter their place of residence, constitute a unique and separate people, united by a common religious and/or genetic relationship that can be traced back more than 3,000 years. While many Jews in Israel and the U.S. are irreligious, many accept the historical claims of Zionism, if not the religious dogma. Most observant Jews, as do fundamentalist Christians, take the following, based on biblical scripture, as substantial fact. The one and only “God” chose Jews to be the carriers of the divine message to all peoples, doing so via the patriarch “Abraham” to whom the divinity endowed the land of Canaan forever. After a centuries-long banishment from the sacred soil of ancient Israel as slaves in Egypt, “Yahweh” enabled Jews to retake Canaan from interlopers, and Jewish civilization reached its zenith under Kings David and Solomon in a widespread empire with its capital at Jerusalem. Jewish society floundered thereafter, succumbing to conquest by a succession of pagan empires. In the second century C.E., when Jews mounted a revolt against Roman rule, they were forcibly, and all but entirely, evicted from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the Roman world, becoming the archetypal “wandering Jew,” eventually migrating into eastern and northern Europe, where, in various Christian communities they became victims of hatred and persecution as outsiders who had rejected Christ. Thus, according to this narrative, just as all other “nations” warranted a homeland, so in order to be free finally of anti-Semitism, and fulfill their destiny, Jews deserved once again to “return” to their ancient homeland. That some peoples in the modern world condemn Israel today, or wage war upon the new nation, is perceived as yet more evidence of the profound hatred that non-Jews have always expressed toward Jews, requiring modern Israel to become a garrison state, ever ready to defend the Jewish people from those who would destroy them once and for all.
The quintessential claim of Zionism, as well as general Jewish culture, is that Jews were the original inhabitants of what is now Israel/Palestine; that Jerusalem was always the capital of the Jewish people; that Jews were forcibly dispersed against their will to the four corners of the earth; that the world’s Jews are genetic descendants of the original inhabitants of ancient Israel and therefore the long-deprived heirs to their ancestral homeland.
Buttressed by massive evidence from multifarious sources, Sands contends that very little of these claims is true. The ideology is “mythhistory,” based largely on biblical texts, or what Sands calls further “the nationalization of the Bible.”
The Zionist assertion is as follows: According to the 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Or as one of the most important shapers of Zionist historiography wrote in 1947:
God gave to every nation its place and to the Jews he gave Palestine. The Galut (exile) means that Jews have left their natural place…the dispersion of Israel among the nations is unnatural. Since the Jews manifest a national unity, even in a higher sense than other nations, it is necessary that they return to a state of actual unity…The Jewish revival…harks back to the ancient national consciousness of the Jews which existed before the history of Europe and is the original sacred model for all the national ideas of Europe…if we can today read each coming day’s events in ancient and dusty chronological tables, as though history were the ceaseless unrolling of a process proclaimed once and for all in the Bible, then every Jew in every part of the Diaspora may recognize that there is a power that lifts the Jewish people out of the realm of all causal history… (emphasis added).[ii]
For some of those who take the claim of divine origin seriously it follows that the holy people have been robbed of their sacred birthright and many Jews do celebrate with one of Israel’s “founding fathers,” David Ben Gurion, that “We can once more sing with Moses and the Children of Ancient Israel…with the mighty impetus of all the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) divisions you have extended a hand to King Solomon.”
Sand emphasizes that for many who identify as Jews, exile is the central element of Jewish identity as well as the core of the Zionist claim to the whole of Israel, encompassing Abraham’s departure from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, to the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt, to the Babylonian Captivity, the presumed Roman Diaspora and the Muslim conquest, all buttressed by scriptural authority. Ben Gurion again:
When we went into exile our nation was uprooted from the soil in which the Bible had grown and torn from the spiritual and political reality in which it had formed…in exile our nation was disfigured and the image of the Bible likewise deformed. Christian Bible researchers, with their Christian and anti-Semitic aims, turned the Bible into a plinth for Christianity…
Christians have, at least since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century C.E., claimed that Jewish exile was divine punishment for Israel’s failure to recognize and accept Jesus as the long-prophesied Messiah. Sands writes that: “The myth of the Wandering Jew, punished for his/her transgression [against Christ], was rooted in the dialectic of Christian-Jewish hatred that would mark the boundaries of both religions through the following centuries.” Thus, Sands argues, Jews who accept the exile story have fallen into the same anti-Semitic myth that Christians claim. Interestingly, though a minority, many “orthodox” Jews also reject the Zionist return to Israel. They believe that exile has been divine punishment, deserved, not for failure to recognize the Messiah, but because Jews have continually broken the Covenant with Yahweh as they await the Messiah, who has yet to come. In this conception, Jews must remain in exile until that Messiah does arrive. Then, and only then, they say, will Yahweh bless the return from exile. So-called “Christian Zionists” trace their doctrines to Protestant evangelical sects that arose in the 19th century. They believe that the re-establishment of Israel fulfils divine prophecy that Christ will return only when the Jews are once again “in-gathered” in Jerusalem. Then Christ will reveal himself as the true long-awaited messiah to the Jews. It should be emphasized that these declarations do not constitute humanitarian concerns about the fate of the Jews since the subsequent chapter of the “Second Coming” is claimed to involve a choice granted by Christ to the Jews: Either convert to Christianity or die! In other words Christian Zionism prophesizes another genocide!
The Israeli victory in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” which brought the West Bank of the Jordan River under Israel’s control, also provided much new ground for archaeological research, initially intended to buttress the ancient scriptures. Ironically, as Sands puts it, the earth itself rebelled against mythhistory. Many Israeli archaeologists thought their finest hour had come as new digs would finally “fuse the ancient nation with its historical homeland, thereby proving the truth of the text.” But excavations instead brought growing anxiety as discoveries forced cracks in the dominant scholarly culture. First to go was the orthodox chronology of the Old Testament. Peoples with practices associated with Judaism did not appear in the region until much later than the time-frame of the scriptures. Moreover, “Israelites” were clearly a small band with close ties to many other Canaanites, and evidence that Sand discusses showed that Jews supposedly living in the region continued to worship pagan gods, as did many other “Semites” outside of whatever boundaries the Israelites claimed. Thus monotheism was hardly universal among Israelites.[iii] Research also proved that Canaan was under Egyptian rule during the supposed time of the Exodus. This would mean that Moses would have led the enslaved Hebrews “out of Egypt…to Egypt?”
As is well known the Egyptians kept extensive records. If Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt for four centuries there should be wide-ranging written evidence of that and there is none. The one Egyptian stela that mentions “Israel” refers to the Egyptian pharaoh’s crushing of a rebellion in Canaan in which “Israel” is listed as only one tribe among many others. Babylonian and Assyrian records are quite numerous as well, and depict other great rivals in the region in detail. If the ancient Jewish homeland was as broad and powerful as those who envision a reborn “Eretz Israel” such a mighty kingdom would figure prominently in these accounts and it does not.[iv]
The stories of the patriarchs in the Torah, or Pentateuch as Christians call the first five books of the Old Testament, were written at different times by different authors centuries after the events claimed, who used the tales to shape a national or religious unity when Jews were separating and distinguishing themselves from other Canaanite tribes. Thus, just as “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells us little about ancient Rome but much about England in the late sixteenth century,” so the Bible “is not a narrative that can tell us about the time it describes but is instead an impressive didactic theological discourse as well as possible testimony about the time it was composed.”
Many excavations remain ongoing in Israel today in the attempt to prove the existence of the rich, powerful and extensive kingdom under Kings David and Solomon comprising what many call Eretz Israel. One might suppose that the Book of Solomon describes his empire in detail but it does not. The glory that was Solomon’s Israel is a later embellishment. Sands asserts that a majority of archaeologists and scholars agree that “King Solomon never had grand palaces in which he housed his 700 wives and 300 concubines. The fact that the Bible does not name this large empire strengthens this conclusion. It was late writers who invented and glorified a mighty united kingdom, established by the grace of a single deity.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, currently prime minister of Israel, recently made a speech in which he declared that “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today…Jerusalem is not a settlement.” According to the archaeological record, though, Jerusalem was initiated by pagans who worshipped a god called “Shalem.” The name actually means “place of Shalem.” At the time Jerusalem was first established a people practicing Judaism did not yet exist, and only rarely did later Jews actually rule in the city. Changing hands many times the city was governed by Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Byzantines, European Catholics, Turks, and British to name only the best known.[v]
Illustrating the tragedy of modern Israel/Palestine Sands makes a profoundly convincing case that the people who are now perceived by many Israelis, American Jews, and many so-called “Christian Zionists,” as illegitimate occupiers of land to which Jews alone are entitled, are really the genetic descendants of the original Jewish inhabitants at the time of the rebellion against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple and the foreclosure of Jewish rule in Israel, something that was always tenuous and short-lived given the numerous successive conquerors who occupied and ruled the land far more often than Israelites or Judeans did. There is more to say on the issue of genetics but for now let us note that even Ben Gurion affirmed that the Palestinians were in all likelihood descendants of the original Jewish tribes.
Many will be troubled by this assertion but the historical record is clear that Romans never dissolved entire nations or tribes, nor deported entire populations, not in ancient Israel or elsewhere.[vi] Apart from the record the logic is simple. Romans colonized in order to exploit local resources. They needed native inhabitants to grow food and manufacture items for trade primarily to profit Romans, though of course the Romans, like American neo-colonists, also insisted their rule brought prosperity to the exploited too. A prime element of the Zionist and general Jewish narrative holds that at the time of the Bar Kokba Revolt (132 C.E.) the Romans effectively razed Israel to the ground, carrying off the bulk of the population as slaves, or otherwise banishing the rest. It is true that the relatively small number of “zealots” and their families who rebelled against Rome met a grim end, as the legend of Masada asserts, but the fact is that the peasants and artisans constituting the bulk of the population remained engaged in their traditional work. Once the land had been pacified Romans allowed locals throughout the empire to practice their native religions and customs so long as no disloyalty to the emperor surfaced and taxes were paid. And so a majority of the population of Jews continued to live in what the Romans had renamed “Palestine.” They no longer had the temple as their religious center, their high priests were banished, and they were not in control politically, but they remained. They were still there when armies from the Arabian peninsula arrived in the seventh century bringing Islam.
It is also well known that Jews were already dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, by choice, and before that in the Greek world. Thus large Jewish communities existed in every major city like Antioch and Damascus, Alexandria, Athens, and especially Rome itself, well before the anti-Roman revolts. Many Jews throughout the empire possessed Roman citizenship. For example, Saul of Tarsus, known to Christians as St. Paul, suffered beheading in Nero’s persecution of the first Christians, escaping the far more excruciating and ignominious execution by crucifixion, because he possessed Roman citizenship. There is no evidence that Jews outside of Israel objected to what Roman soldiers did in Israel, if they even knew. Many Roman Jews had never seen Jerusalem, and many thought of themselves as Romans, as did the millions of other Romans who practiced every conceivable religion. Importantly, many who practiced Judaism, or identified as Jews, were really converts, not descendants of those original Canaanite tribes, who, for unknown reasons, rejected traditional Canaanite gods and developed a monotheistic religion.
Many Jews today do not believe that Judaism ever proselytized, basically because that is the case today. Yet, many canonical books of the Old Testament such as the Book of Ruth, Second Isaiah, Jonah, and the apocryphal Book of Judith call for Judaism to accept gentiles. While the Book of Deuteronomy is quite severe in its proscription of intermarriage between Jews and gentiles a cursory reading of the Old Testament shows that the most prominent of the Hebrew heroes – Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon- all ignored the ban; thus technically their offspring were not Jewish. The Book of Esther is well known. According to that scripture courtiers of the King of Persia plan a pogrom against the Jews but the Jewish queen, Esther, and her cousin Mordecai, reveal a plot against the king and thus Jews become favored in the realm, leading many Persians to convert to Judaism. Sands quotes the Romanized Jewish historian Josephus to the effect that the Hellenized Jewish kingdom of the Hasmoneans (140-37 BCE) forcibly converted nearby Edomites. Josephus also states that many in the Greek speaking city states like Alexandria and Damascus “have come over to our laws.” He adds “Nay further, the multitude of mankind itself have had a great inclination of a long time to follow our religious observances.” Romans practiced virtually every religion of the empire. Roman historians like Tacitus and Cassius Dio, writers like Juvenal, and theologians like Origen, all noted mass conversions to Judaism. There was controversy among Rabbinical schools during the Talmudic period (beginning about 200 CE). For example one commentator declared that “Proselytes are as injurious to Israel as a scab,” thereby proving their existence. Sand quotes another: “All the proselytes enter Israel, yet Israel is not diminished.” Another statement from the period declares “Whoever brings one living soul into the fold is to be lauded as though he formed and bore him.” Sand does not speculate as to why such widespread conversions occurred but perhaps many Romans turned to Judaism for much the same reason they turned to Christianity. Remember, Christianity began as a reformist Jewish sect. Many denizens of the empire were disaffected by the muddle of gods and pagan immorality and opted for the two religions preaching monotheism and a righteous life. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity, however, marked the decline of Judaism in the Roman world. “When Christianity became the state religion in the early fourth century, it halted the momentum of Judaism’s expansion.” After this point an irreparable split occurred between Christianity and Judaism much to the injury of Jews.
Any religion claiming to worship the “one true God” would seek to convert others. The sheer numbers of Jews already living throughout the ancient Mediterranean basin cannot be accounted for by the slim numbers known to have lived in ancient Israel. Sand shows that in the ancient world Jews did convert many others to their monotheism, and throughout antiquity this often led to different practices distinguishing different groups. The well-known biblical division and conflict between the people of Judea and the Samaritans turned on relatively minor differences in ritual and interpretation of scripture. Even today the Rabbinate in Israel refuses to legitimize many practices of the Jews from North Africa, called “Sephardim,” and Jews from Yemen because their rituals and prayers differ from Ashkenazi orthodoxy. The Rabbinate also refuses to recognize the “Jewishness” of numerous immigrants from Russia today because their mothers cannot prove themselves to be Jewish, the religious and legal criterion. Drawing on accepted historical sources Sand shows that North African Jews are largely the descendants of the indigenous Berbers, and Yemenite Jews were largely converts too, though one can imagine that their original priests and leaders may have been the Canaanite Jews who converted them, especially the Cohanim, or priestly caste, some of whom may well have intermarried with converted women.
Sand also argues persuasively that many Jews, though certainly not all, who remained in Roman Palestine after the destruction of the temple eventually converted to Christianity for practical reasons when the empire itself adopted Christianity as the religion of the realm in the fourth century. Unlike Romans of the early empire, later Christian Romans were extremely intolerant of those who rejected the Christian “savior.”
When Arab armies moved north from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century CE and conquered Palestine they were tolerant toward the “peoples of the book” i.e. Jews and Christians, but because Muslims alone did not have to pay taxes, many of those who had converted to Christianity, and others who had remained Jews, then converted to Islam. As Sand puts it “Exemption from taxation must have been seen as worth a change of deity, especially as he seemed so much like the former one.” In fact, he adds, the Caliphate was forced to alter this policy when mass conversion threatened to empty the treasury. Nevertheless, many, if not most, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were descended from the original proto-Jews, and remained living with each other in relative tolerance.
Sand draws upon many Israeli historians, including ones known to be committed Zionists and shows that in the early days of pioneer Zionism, before the rise of Palestinian nationalism, “the idea that the bulk of the local population descended from the Judeans was accepted by a good many.” Among these was Ben Gurion himself, who with many other early Zionists once hoped for an “integrationist” Israel in which Jews and fellahin might live together, That dream ended when Palestinians revolted against what they perceived as European colonialism during the period of the British mandate, a division that accelerated and intensified after Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Consider the following from Israel’s founding prime minister.
The fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured Eretz Israel and Syria in the seventh century CE. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go in for settlement. Even in their former habitations the Arabs did not engage in farming…their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material: to rule, to propagate Islam, and to collect taxes…the Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil…Despite the repression and suffering the rural population remained unchanged.[vii]
Such statements from so exalted a source as David Ben Gurion very much call into question the widely held faith that Jews had been long gone from Israel since the time of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, or that Jews would never convert to another religion.
Ben Gurion’s co-author in the statement above, Yitzak Ben Zvi, a rock-ribbed Zionist, later wrote that “The great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors, but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.[viii]
What else then are the fellahin but the descendants of ancient Jews who chose to convert to Islam? Does that choice negate their ancient claim to the land on which they have resided for millennia?
Sand marshals linguistic and philological evidence such as the fact that “many Hebrew place names remain, unlike the Greek and Roman names meant to replace them.” Again he quotes Ben Gurion: “The entire biblical terminology of Eretz Israel remains alive.” Moreover, the local dialect is “strewn with Hebrew and Aramaic words” distinguished from other Arab vernaculars. Jews and Muslims are buried in many older cemeteries. Importantly, the Palestinian populace does not see itself as Arabic. To them the Bedouin are the Arabs. They refer to themselves as the “fellahin.” Ben Gurion and Ben Zvi also argued that “the entire biblical terminology of Eretz Israel remains alive… as it had been, in the speech of the fellah population, adding that some 210 Palestinian villages still retained old Hebrew names and many fellahin practiced, in addition to Muslim law, a code of “fellahin laws” known as the “laws of the patriarch Abraham.”
One of the Zionist founders of Israel, Israel Belkind, wrote that “The historians are accustomed to say that after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Jews were scattered all over the world and no longer inhabited their country. But, this too, is a historical error, which must be removed and the true facts discovered.” According to Sands, Belkind believed that he and his fellow pioneers were meeting “ a good many of our own people, our own flesh and blood.” In 1967 the founder of the Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Abraham Polak, wrote an essay entitled “The origins of the Arabs of the Country,” in which he argued that there was “considerable likelihood that Judeans did convert to Islam,” and urged that scientific study be devoted to this issue. His article was met with hostility and no university took up his challenge.
Sand devotes an entire chapter to the investigation of scholarship concerning the conversion of Yemenis to Judaism and of many Berbers of the Mahgreb (North Africa). When Arab armies conquered these areas they found numerous Jews, who, like Jews elsewhere in the Caliphate, were allowed to continue to practice their religion. Berbers may be the descendants of the ancient Phoenicians who settled Carthage and whose language was related to that of the Old Testament and who also practiced ritual circumcision. Thus conversion to Judaism would not have been a radical departure from existing beliefs and customs. Consequently many of these Judaized Berbers were among the Muslim armies that entered Spain in 711 CE, and who subsequently planted a large Jewish presence there. These Sephardim were hated by the Spanish Christian population precisely because they collaborated with the Arab Muslims in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula, and, of course, that was one major reason they were expelled or forced to convert to Christianity in the 15th century when Spain and Portugal achieved independence. Many of these Sephardim later settled in the Netherlands, and became the source of the so-called “German Jews”
And then there is the matter of the Khazars. Interestingly, the Khazar king was known as the Kagan (today a well known Eastern European Jewish surname) and surviving documents prove that Khazars spoke a “Hunnic-Bulgar” language but wrote it in Hebrew script. Khazar elites also had Hebrew names. It is not altogether clear why the Khazars converted but analyzing a considerable body of evidence Sand concludes, “The desire to remain independent in the face of mighty grasping empires- the Orthodox Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate- impelled the rulers of Khazaria to adopt Judaism as a defensive ideological weapon.”
In the early thirteenth century the Mongol invasion “swept up everything in its path and wrecked the political, cultural, and even economic morphologies of all of Western Asia and Eastern Europe” causing a mass exodus of numerous different peoples. The Khazars “advanced into the western Ukraine and hence to Polish and Lithuanian territories.”
In 1976 Arthur Koestler published a highly controversial book entitled The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and its Heritage, and argued that most Central and Eastern European Jews descend, not from Judeans, but from a Turkic people who occupied an extensive kingdom in what is now southern Russia and the Crimea. Jewish himself, Koestler was immediately attacked despite the fact that many Jewish scholars had long studied and known about this Jewish kingdom, because such knowledge flatly contradicted the essential Zionist message that all Jews today are descendants of the primordial Jews of ancient Israel and Judea. Koestler uttered what had become taboo:
The large majority of surviving Jews in the world is of Eastern European-and thus perhaps mainly of Khazar origin. If so this would mean that their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan but from the Caucasus, once believed to be the cradle of the Aryan race; and that genetically they are more closely related to the Hun, Uigur, and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Should this turn out to be the case then the term “anti-Semitism” would become void of meaning, based on a misapprehension shared by both the killers and their victims.[ix]
Koestler was well aware that he was treading dangerous ground and insisted that his argument by no means constituted a denial of Israel’s right to exist. Rather than being grounded in hypothetical origins or a mythological covenant between God and Abraham, he maintained that the Israeli state “exists de jure and de facto and cannot be undone except by genocide.” [x]
To which Sand responds:
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 Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and even the Sinai Peninsula. The writer who was able in his classic novel Darkness at Noon to crack the Communist enigma did not understand that the Zionist enigma was caught up in the mythology of an eternal “ethnic” time. Nor did he foresee that the post-1967 Zionists would resemble the Stalinists in their response- both saw him as an irredeemable traitor.
Koestler was, of course, scorned and pilloried viciously by Israeli and American scholars and journalists but to do so they had to expunge from memory a vast corpus of Jewish scholarship that effectively buttressed Koestler’s case. One such scholar is Salo Baron, whom Sand describes as “Israel’s high priest of memory in the 1950s.”
But before and after the Mongol upheaval the Khazars sent many offshoots into the unsubdued Slavonic lands, helping ultimately to build up the great Jewish centers of Eastern Europe…together with these arrivals from Germany and the Balkans they began laying the foundations for a Jewish community, which especially in sixteenth century Poland, outstripped all the other contemporary areas of Jewish settlement in population density as well as in economic and cultural power.
Sand adds that readers today might be astonished to hear a Jewish scholar of Baron’s repute describe Khazaria as the “diaspora mother, the mother of one of the greatest of the diasporas- of Israel in Russia, Lithuania, and Poland.” [xi]
Though numerous and respected Jewish scholars from Eastern Europe and Israel devoted much study to the subject of the Khazars, Sand says that since 1951 the subject has been all but verboten. “Any mention of the Khazars in the public arena in Israel came to be tagged as eccentric, freakish, and even menacing…There was anxiety about the legitimacy of the Zionist project, should it become widely known that the settling Jewish masses were not the direct descendents of the “Children of Israel”- such de-legitimization might lead to a broad challenge against the State of Israel’s right to exist.”
Sand then moves to an extended discussion of Zionism’s relationship to the nationalisms that arose in 19th century Europe as one response to modernity. As he puts it: For the Jewish nationalists, “Judaism ceased to be a rich and varied religious culture and turned into something hermetic, like the German Volk or the Polish and Russian Narod, though with the unique characteristic that it comprised an alien, wandering people, unrelated to the territories it inhabited.”
This was partly a response to the assimilationism throughout Western Europe where many Jews were rapidly becoming secularized and identifying themselves as citizens of Germany or France. Yet this phenomenon was compromised by growing anti-Semitism. Just as European nationalists resorted to “race theory” so did the emerging Zionists. Sand quotes Nathan Birnbaum, whom he identifies as “perhaps the first Zionist intellectual” [He coined the term “Zionism” in 1890]:
You cannot explain a people’s particular mental and emotional distinction except by means of natural studies. ‘Race is all’ said our great fellow national Lord Beaconsfield [Benjamin Disraeli]. The distinction of the people stems from the distinction of the race. The variety of the races accounts for the great diversity of nations…it is this difference which explained why the German created the Song of the Nibelungun and the Jew the Bible.[xii]
As late as the 1930s the leader of radical Zionist revisionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky, could say “And I persist in this view. The sense of national identity is inherent in every man’s ‘blood,’”[xiii] or later”…in the final analysis when all its shells arising from history, the climate, natural surroundings, and outside influences, have been removed the ‘nation’ is reduced to its racial kernel.”[xiv]
After World War II, as racialism was revealed as racism and as biology disproved the very existence of “race,” the emerging science of genetics was marshaled in pursuit of the exclusive “Jewish gene,” in Israeli universities and research institutes though this soon came up against difficulties such as why Ashkenazis suffered from specific diseases such as Tay-Sachs that were unknown to Yemenite or North African Jews. Scientific battles raged. One of the very first forays into genetics (actually eugenics) came in 1911 in an article published by a British biologist and Zionist in which he claimed that the reason that Ashkenazis were “fair” and Sephardim “swarthy” is that the latter have mixed far more with their neighbors. As for the Yemenite Jews, “they are not Jews. They are black, with an elongated skull, Arab half-castes…the true Jew is the European Ashkenazi, and I support him against all the others.”[xv]
One study claimed to show that two-thirds of Palestinians and the same proportion of Jews shared the same three male ancestors 8,000 years ago. This was anathema to Zionist orthodoxy so a year later another study maintained that such a genetic affinity did not really exist. Yet another focusing on mitochondrial DNA claimed that Ashkenazi males descended from the Middle East but that the origin of their wives could not be accounted this way. Since mitochondrial DNA derives only from the female side, and “Jewishness” must be endowed by the mother, this proved problematic to efforts to confirm Jewish genetic solidity. Genetics may someday unlock secrets of human origins but, as Sand shows, it is not yet free from ulterior designs. More than a few Israeli scientists argue that ideology has trumped scientific methodology when it comes to “proving” the genetic exclusivity of Jews.[xvi]
Perhaps comparative genetic studies would resolve the matter. Numerous ossuaries from ancient Israel-Palestine exist and genetic material is undoubtedly available from that past. Such a study could compare the DNA of ancient inhabitants of the region with current “Arab Palestinians” and then with Ashkenazim. Genetic studies of African Americans are showing the exact regions from whence their ancestors came. One might think that similar studies among other groups would show similar evidence.
At this stage of inquiry most scientists agree that there is no such thing as “race” or even ethnic exclusivity. Any group claiming such would have had to be isolated from others for a very long duration and that state of affairs has simply not existed throughout the evolution of humans.[xvii] Sand agrees with the many Jewish geneticists and biologists he quotes that there is no more basis for ethnic unity among Jews than among Muslims, or Christians. “The bottom line is that for all the ‘scientific endeavors,’ a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever.” At this juncture of history, needless to say, the hatreds generated by the division of Israel/Palestine militate against either side envisioning the “other” as congenital relatives even though their own scriptures note the descent of Jews and Arabs from one patriarch, Isaac. Serious genetic studies perhaps would settle the matter once and for all though one doubts proof of any degree of consanguinity would matter to either side at this date.
So based on disproven racist rationales of the early twentieth century and dubious science today, the Israeli founders, and all governments since, nevertheless fostered the “ethnos state.” Even though Israel’s Declaration of Establishment asserts that the new state will foster its development “for all its inhabitants” this simply isn’t true for “Arabs” within Israel’s official boundaries, who possess second-class citizenship at best, whereas those in the occupied territories posses no guarantees whatever. So Israel’s claim to be “democratic” is undeniably vitiated. As noted, the First Arab-Israeli War served as the perfect opportunity to expel most of the Palestinian inhabitants, and calls for the further expulsion of the rest remain constant from Israel’s right-wing parties. Certainly if we compare Israeli “democracy” to the same claim of the United States we see a key difference. American “democracy” claims to protect the equal rights of minorities (something from which American Jews have certainly benefited, though far less so for others, like African-Americans and Hispanics) while Israel asserts that it is a Jewish state for Jews alone. In response to the “population bomb” of a rapidly increasing Palestinian population, Israel went so far as to amend its “Law of Return” to allow about a million immigrant Russians into the country, even though officials knew that at least 300,000 of them could not be considered Jewish under secular and rabbinical law.
Finally, Sand declares that “the ideal project for solving the century-long conflict and sustaining the closely woven existence of Jews and Arabs would be creation of a democratic bi-national state. Further, he states that Israel must develop a policy of “democratic multiculturalism-similar to that of the United Kingdom or the Netherlands.”
The United Kingdom as a paradigm might seem not so far-fetched. For centuries the “English” (i.e. those who pretended to Anglo-Saxon purity) waged incessant war with the “Scots” and the “Welsh.” These peoples spoke different languages, and observed different religious dogma and customs, but they were almost certainly related genetically, in some cases closely, in others not so closely, as a result of the incessant invasions of the island over millennia, and intermarriage between numerous and diverse tribes who nevertheless had a keen interest in staving off as much violence as possible via intermarriage. Except for each’s regional accent can anyone glance at a Scot or Briton and claim to tell the difference? The UK functions with plenty of autonomy exercised by the “non-English.” The alternative was endless bloodshed. Nevertheless, the process took centuries. It would seem that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now too explosive for such a lengthy duration, especially given the vote in November 2012 in the United Nations General Assembly for Palestinian statehood. The United States immediately criticized the historic vote. “Today’s unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path peace,” said U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and then U.S. Secretary o State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the vote “unfortunate” and “counterproductive.”
However, and ironically, the UK, and Netherlands, and Scandinavia as the recent horrors in Norway attest, are seeing a dangerous resurgence of the same sort of nationalism that produced the Holocaust, only this time it is directed at a different religion or “ethnic” peoples, some of them “Semitic.”
In Israel’s case many Sephardim or Yemenite Jews are indistinguishable in physical terms from Palestinians and often suffer discrimination for this reason. I once had a student of Yemeni Jewish background who said he identifies now as an “Arab” because of the discrimination his family faced in Israel. Some Ashkenazim have relationships with “Arabs” and mixed marriages, while extremely opposed by authorities, do take place -as has always been the case since the dawn of the human species.
Because he sees a bi-national state in which Jews and Palestinians learn to live, if not together, then as equals co-governing the same space as the only hope for his homeland, Sand advocates that the Hok Hashevut, the Law of Return, be abolished and argues that this may be the only means by which the Jewish character of the state may be maintained. No Diaspora Jew would have an automatic right of return, nor could any Palestinians living in their own diaspora. Sand argues that to rectify the plight of the Palestinian refugees the Jewish National Fund should return the 130,000 hectares of land either seized or bought for symbolic amounts from Palestinians as the “primary capital from which to compensate” them but nevertheless allow those who wish to return to the ancient homeland to do so if not upon the exact lots they were forced to abandon.
Sand knows that his proposal appears today as “fantastic and utopian.” Yet there is still room for hope. On January 21 of this year thousands of Israelis marched in the streets chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” One thinks of the “good Germans’ who decried Nazi race laws! Can the hatreds and distrust that have taken root and seemingly become endemic be overcome in such a fashion as Sand proposes? If not what does the future hold? “If the nation’s history was mainly a dream, why not begin to dream its future afresh, before it becomes a nightmare?”
Sand’s remarkable and courageous study has not received nearly as much attention in this country as it has in Israel where it remained on the best seller list for nineteen weeks. This is curious since domestically the issue of U.S. policies toward Israel has long been highly contentious. One suspects the hand of a subtle and insidious censorship at work.
I have never seen any indication that Israel intends to allow an independent Palestinian state to come into existence. Nor does the historical record show such an intention. Consider the Israeli Historian Benny Morris’s expose of the motives of the Ben Gurion government at the time of Israel’s establishment and the first Arab-Israeli war that followed. Morris shows indisputably that the new Israeli state used the war to cleanse as many Palestinians as possible from the territory mandated by the UN, and committed acts that by any definition would be categorized as terroristic, exactly the opposite of the myth that Palestinians fled because of the “natural” conditions of war and at the urging of Palestinian leaders. He documents atrocities of every kind including mass murder and rape of helpless women and the result was the expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians into permanent refugee status.[xviii] The motive for such crimes against humanity? No Jewish state could exist in the middle of so many “Arabs.” The crimes and ethnic cleansing were plentifully justified by Ben Gurion but according to Morris they didn’t go far enough. Israel missed the most golden opportunity of all; the opening existed to rid every Palestinian from the land authorized for Israel as well as to annex the land sanctioned for Palestine itself. Morris’s revelations shocked the Israeli public but he was reviled mainly because he revealed these dark and previously concealed secrets not because they were considered atrocious. In an interview with Ha’aretz Morris further justified this ethnic cleansing by noting the fact that the United States had come into existence in exactly the same way.
If we take many of Israel’s architects’ words at face value we find that the recapture of “Eretz Israel,” was always at the forefront of their vision. As early as 1921, Aaron David Gordon, one of the principal founders of the Israeli Labor Party, stated categorically:
For Eretz Israel we have a charter that has been valid until now and will always be valid, and that is the Bible…including the Gospels and the New Testament…it all came from us: it was created among us…And what did the Arabs produce in all the years they lived in the country. Such creations, or even the creation of the Bible alone, give us a perpetual right over the land in which we were so creative…[xix]
Reacting to the Twentieth Zionist Congress in 1937 Ben Gurion wrote:
The Jewish people have always regarded, and will continue to regard Palestine as a whole, as a single country which is theirs in a national sense and will become theirs once again. No Jew will accept partition as a just and rightful solution.[xx]
Speaking at the Congress Ben Gurion stated:
If I had been faced with the question: a Jewish state in the west of the land of the land of Israel in return for giving up our historical right to the entire land of Israel I would have postponed the establishment of the state. No Jew is entitled to give up the right of the Jewish people to the land…Even if at any point, the Jews choose to decline it, they have no right to deprive future generations of it. Our right to the entire land exists and stands for ever.[xxi]
But Ben Gurion became faced with just such a decision in 1947. At that time, speaking as Israel’s first prime minister he said:
I am satisfied with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we build up a strong force following the establishment of the state…we will abolish the partition of the country and we will expand to the whole land of Israel.[xxii]
The historical record since these words were spoken is absolutely clear. That is exactly what every Israeli government has attempted to accomplish.
The slogan “Congress is Israeli occupied territory” has become a not-so-amusing cliché by now but underscores what many Americans see as a disturbing mystery. Why does American policy support Israel virtually unconditionally while paying mere lip service to Palestinian nationhood? Even General David Petraeus, formerly the supreme commander in occupied Afghanistan, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency, declared that such knee-jerk support for Israel feeds anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab and Muslim world that endangers Americans. By implication, American policymakers and legislators seem to agree with many Israelis that Palestinian Muslims and Christians are illegitimate interlopers in the “promised land.”
Washington decided on its alliance with Israel as a Cold War strategy against Soviet influence among Arab and Muslim states but also as another measure to thwart Arab nationalism. In this latter effort both the U.S. and Israel cultivated Islamists in the hope that this would weaken Arab nationalist regimes. Obviously this has backfired tremendously to cite only the case of many mujahideen recruited by the CIA against the Soviets in the 1980s morphing into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Israel too sought to undermine the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) by aiding the Islamist organization Hamas and now claims that Hamas is the greatest obstacle to peace. Recently, however, Hamas declared that if a majority of Palestinians by consensus decided for an independent state on pre-1967 borders it would abide by that decision, even though that territory would be considerably smaller than the original U.N. mandate. All Israeli governments have opposed the very demand for an independent Palestine as the greatest obstacle to peace.
The mounting number of Israeli settlements on territory that is supposed to comprise the Palestinian state, and the continuing eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem are rendering the original intent of the United Nations mandate of 1947 all but null and void, never mind the issue of the return of those expelled in many wars since 1948. Despite verbiage to the effect that the U.S. honestly seeks to broker peace and bring about a Palestinian state, in reality its actions amount to cynical theater and makes the U.S. complicit in this charade.
It seems that every year President Barack Obama demands a halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to which Netanyahu answered by increasing permits for Jewish settlement on land that is supposed to be the independent state of Palestine. As is well known the United States provides Israel with the most foreign aid of any nation, though it is among the smallest, as well as separate military aid. Israel’s nuclear weapons are an open secret about which the U.S. winks and nods. Many Israelis and Jews abroad note the threats of extremists to drive Israel “into the sea” but Israel’s conventional weapons alone make it the most militarily powerful state in the region, perfectly capable of providing for its own defense, even if all other Arab nations decided to attack at once, though that is more than unlikely. As is also well known, most Arab nations (despite the so-called “Arab Spring.”) are still governed by dictators and autocrats who are also propped up by U.S. aid, economic, military or both, and which have long since ceased to call for Israel’s destruction. Indeed, Saudi Arabia would bless an Israeli attack on Iran! While it was the UN itself that made Israel’s very existence possible, Israel, with American blessing, is the all time champion violator of UN resolutions demanding that it withdraw from illegally occupied Palestinian land and adhere to international law; something to which the US merely and egregiously pays lip service as it continually vetoes any international attempts to rein in Israel’s expansion. When the UN divided British Palestine in 1947 it accorded about 44 percent of the territory to what was supposed to become the new nation of Palestine. As a result of Israeli settlements in the West Bank only about half (22 percent) of the original land allotted remains, and this is shrinking daily and with indisputable American collusion.
Many nations which had previously abstained from officially recognizing Palestine as a state are now doing so. The Palestinian Authority, defying the U.S., has requested the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements as a precursor to a UN vote in the near future officially endorsing such a state. However, documents recently published by Al Jazeera show that the PLO has been willing to give up claims against major Israeli settlements in the West Bank, moves that will undoubtedly be viewed as a sellout by the Palestinian people, and undermine what little credibility the PLO has left. Yet at the same time these documents show that Israel has had a far more compromising “partner” in the so-called peace process than it has ever admitted. But compromise is not what Israeli governments have wanted; the surrender of the Palestinian territories is. Meanwhile, though the U.S. position publicly has always been that the settlements are illegal, the Obama administration indicated it would veto the U.N. measures just as all American governments have at least since the end of the 1967 Six-Day War and thereby block UN efforts to recognize Palestinian statehood.
The state of Palestine seems increasingly impossible to come into existence unless something changes radically, perhaps on the order of the prescription with which Sand concludes. After all the original Zionists, despite their oft condemned slogan, “For a people without land, a land without people,” knew that Palestinians numbered about 450,000 at the dawn of the 20th century, and envisioned a bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs would be equals. Reality has undermined utopian logic. Yet if conditions do not change the entire region faces a far bloodier and destructive future, all the more ominous with Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons. The emergence of suicide bombers is obviously of great concern yet this extreme phenomenon underscores the depths of growing despair among Palestinians. To what length will such assaults reach? The intensifying tension between Israel and Iran, deeply connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of Iran’s military support for both Hezbollah and Hamas, is among the three major “flash points” on earth today where a nuclear attack exists (India/Pakistan and the Korean peninsula are the others). Let us soberly take note of Seymour Hersh’s almost forgotten expose of Israel’s “Samson option” whereby, if Israeli officials believe the state is faced with destruction, Israel stands ready to vaporize each and every perceived enemy it can reach.[xxiii] These are grave matters and no one can predict the outcomes but at every juncture the potential for disaster is looming…and not only for the Middle East.
Paul Atwood is Interim Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, and faculty in the American Studies Department, University of Massachusetts-Boston, and member of the Smedley Butler Brigade, the Boston chapter of Veterans for Peace. He is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.