Jewish intellectuals and Palestinian liberation

Issue: 125
Posted: 7 January 10

John Rose

A review of Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), £18.99 and Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine (Verso, 2009), £16.99

I’ll risk a prediction. Shlomo Sand’s book, already a best seller in Israel and France, will accelerate the disintegration of the Zionist enterprise. Of course Israel’s military force as well as its usefulness to Western governments can allow it to hang on for some time, but its ideological credibility, already severely shaken, will now shatter more quickly. Furthermore Sand is immune to any accusation of anti-Semitism. His book, with tremendous elan and gusto, is a celebration of an unknown early history of the Jewish religion.

Yet the November Verso UK launch of the English edition of his book missed this. Jacqueline Rose as interlocutor concentrated instead on the “67/48” question. Rose, along with Avi Shlaim, also present to promote his book, are two of Israel’s most creative critics. They have even been called “Jews for Genocide” by ardent Zionist Melanie Phillips because of their prominent support for Independent Jewish Voices. Phillips is understandably bitter with the pair: in January 2005 over 600 people saw her team lose to their team in a debate, “Zionism is the Main Enemy of the Jews”.

Yet Rose and Shlaim do not consider themselves “anti-Zionist”; hence the “67/48” question, meaning, do you favour two states along the 1967 border or one state on the 1948 borders? Rose seemed determined to “out” Sand on this matter. And indeed we learned that he was also for two states if only because one state, however desirable, was simply not practical. But it was a wasted evening. Do Rose and Shlaim agree with Sand that conversion rather than “exile” is a defining moment in Jewish history—the basis for the book’s title? It was not properly discussed either by the panel or with the audience. Fortunately, though, queues for his book continued long after the meeting had finished.

Still a further thought lingers, which we will return to later. Was there an unspoken worry that evening for the fate of a Jewish minority in an Arab Palestine?

In 1670 Baruch Spinoza helped ignite the Enlightenment when he denied that Moses had received the Ten Commandments from god. Rather they had been written “by someone long after Moses”.1 Three centuries later Israeli archaeologists were reluctantly drawing the same conclusion. In Sand’s pithy phrase, “the earth rebelled against mythistory”.2 Positioning himself firmly within the radical “minimalist” school of biblical criticism, Sand argues that archaeological discovery increasingly demands that we see the Bible:

not as a book but a grand library that was written, revised and adapted in the course of three centuries, from the late 6th to the early 2nd BCE. It should be read as a multilayered literary construction of a religious and philosophical nature or as theological parables… The…ancient authors sought to create a coherent religious community… They invented the category of Israel as a sacred chosen people… This self-isolating literary politics, which began to develop between the little province of Yahud3...and the centres of high culture in Babylonia accorded well with…the policies of the Persian empire.4

The challenge this poses to the Zionists’ manipulation of fictitious “biblical” Israel cynically servicing Jewish nationalist claims on Arab land is obvious. In addition the argument is rapidly going mainstream. The British Museum’s recent Babylon exhibition tentatively drew similar conclusions, supported by grouping together fabulous artefacts from ancient Babylonia and Persia, like the massive black stone Old Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), illustrating the evolution of monotheistic thinking over a thousand years before Judaism.

It was the Roman Empire as well as the period immediately preceding it, the epoch of Hellenistic culture, the culture of classical Athens, that boosted Judaism and transformed it into such a “dynamic, propagative religion” that it would “mount the Greek eagle and traverse the Mediterranean world”.5

And here we come to the spectacular core of Sand’s argument where he demolishes the entire Zionist ideological lexicon by replacing one single word with another single word, yet both so emotionally and politically loaded: conversion, not exile.

But surely “the distinguishing characteristic of the Jews has been their Exile”, as David Vital wrote in his three-volume history of Zionism, hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as setting “new standards” for historians. This may constitute an ideological success story but it has little to do with real life Jewish history.

Bible sources are sometimes hostile, sometimes ambiguous about conversion, though one authoritative text, the “Book of Isaiah”, predicts “all nations shall flow into…the Lord’s house”, and another source has the whole world adopting the “religion of Moses”.6 Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, who would struggle to make Plato compatible with Moses, had no doubts: Jewish laws would “shine” for the benefit of all.7 The issue here is whether the God of the Jews is the God of all humanity (tribal or universal); if so then the pressures for conversion are implicit in the theology.

In any event there can be no doubt that conversion was the decisive factor “for the vast presence of Jewish believers throughout the ancient world before the fall of the Second Temple”.8 And Zionist historians know and admit it even though they then “sideline” the argument, preferring the “oppressive” narrative of expulsion, displacement, dispersal to account for the numbers outside Judea. Prior to Rome consolidating its rule, the Maccabee state even imposed Judaism on its neighbours by force.9 This is the background to “Herod the Great”, the legendary “half-Jewish” king, imposed by Rome, who, with his grandiose building work schemes, transformed the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

A critical moment in the spread of the Jewish religion was the translation of the Bible into Greek. Israeli historians reject the view that this must have been a trigger for conversion, arguing that many Jews knew no Hebrew and so the translations were intended for them. But this begs far more questions than it answers—not least why so many Jews did not know their national language. It is at least as likely that the Greek Bibles were for Hellenist converts.10

The reality is that Judaism spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, to such an extent that it laid the foundations for the “Rise of Christianity” captured so brilliantly as a chapter in Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World. Judaism became nothing less than “the universal religion of the urban masses of empire”.11

The city of Rome itself would feel the pressure. Judaism had “become seductive in broad circles… The crisis of the hedonistic culture, the absence of an integrating belief in collective values, and the corruption…appeared to call for a tighter normative system and a firmer ritual framework”.12

Headlines here will have to suffice for several of Sand’s fascinating accounts of a Judaism erupting almost everywhere. Women leading the conversions in Damascus and the reasons for it; the Berber conversions and the famous Berber Queen in North Africa, and their base for the eventual spread of Judaism to Spain; the conversion of a state in South Arabia in pre-Islamic Yemen, which led to bitter, bloody internecine Jewish-Christian warfare, with implications for the origins of nearby Ethiopia; and the conversions “in reverse”—the Islamisation of Palestine’s Jewish peasantry who, most certainly, did not go into “exile”.13

But the conversion of an entire early medieval European state, Khazaria, situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, requires closer attention because here is the potential base for modern European Jewry and hence the majority of Israelis.

Sand begins his exhaustive analysis of the evidence for Jewish Khazaria with an exchange of letters written in the 10th century between a Jewish representative of the court of the Islamic caliph of Cordoba, Spain, Abd ar-Rahman III, and the king of the Khazars, Joseph ben Aaron. The letters confirm that this was indeed a Jewish kingdom. Ten centuries later, in the early to mid-20th century, Jewish scholars mobilising all the techniques of established historical inquiry, subjecting to scrutiny a bewildering variety of sources in a range of different languages, drew an identical conclusion. Then something strange happened. We entered what Sand calls the “Realms of Silence”, the title of his chapter on Khazaria, and the official Jewish memory forgot all about it.

Tracing this peculiar aspect of the 20th century evolution of Zionist historiography allows us simultaneously to give at least a superficial outline of Khazaria and the extraordinary panic it then subsequently posed for Zionist ideologues.

In 1944 Abraham Polok published in Hebrew his Khazaria: The History of the Jewish Kingdom in Europe. It was the first comprehensive work on the subject and it won a prize from the city of Tel Aviv. Polok was in many ways the perfect scholar for this subject. Born in Kiev, he knew Russian, Turkish, classical Arabic, ancient Persian, Latin and probably Greek. Nevertheless several reviewers began to have their doubts. What worried them was that Polok stated categorically that the great bulk of Eastern European Jewry originated in the territories of the Khazar empire. The ethno-biological “ancient Israeli” basis of Zionism was under threat. “I cannot imagine what greater joy and honour he grants us with this Turkish-Mongolian genealogy than our Jewish origin,” cursed a critic.14

A further edition of the book was published in 1951 and then never re-issued. Furthermore not a single historical work about the Khazars has ever appeared in Hebrew since that date. There have been many books on the subject in English and other European languages. But only one of them was ever translated into Hebrew, Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe. Koestler’s work did not have the same academic foundations as Polok’s but the line of argument was the same. The reaction was hysterical. “An anti-Semitic action financed by the Palestinians,” said Israel’s ambassador to Britain. “Perhaps the cosmopolitan has begun to wonder about his own roots,” declared the World Zionist Organisation.15

Mainstream Israeli academia concurred. Yet as they did so they conveniently ignored the prestigious line of Jewish scholars stretching back to the 19th century who had developed the argument. Abraham Harkavy stated in 1867 that the first European Jews came “from the Greek cities on the shores of the Black Sea and from Asia, via the mountains of the Caucasus”. Yitzhak Schipper, historian and prominent Zionist in Poland, argued that the “Khazar thesis” accounted well for the massive demographic presence of Jews in Eastern Europe. Salo Baron, the great 20th century American Jewish historian, described the Khazars sending “many offshoots into the unsubdued Slavonic lands, helping ultimately to build up the great Jewish centres of Eastern Europe”.16

An intriguing question is, of course, why Khazaria converted to Judaism. One possible answer is suggested by its much sought after geographical location:

The Khazars were typical rice growers and regular consumers of fish and wine, though the bulk of the kingdom’s income came from tolls. Khazaria straddled the Silk Road and also dominated the Volga and the Don rivers, which were major transportation routes… The Khazars were known for their flourishing trade especially in furs and slaves, and their growing wealth enabled them to maintain a strong and well trained military force that dominated all of southern Russia and today’s eastern Ukraine.17

Pressed by the surrounding and competing empires, the Orthodox Christian Byzantine and the Abbasid Muslim Caliphate, Judaism might have seemed attractive as a form of ideological, theological defence. “Had the Khazars adopted Islam, for example, they would have become subjects of the Caliph…Christianity would have subordinated them”.18

Khazaria as a trading Jewish nation suggests the interesting question of the alternative thesis for Jewish history—namely that of Abram Leon. I raised this in conversation with Shlomo Sand while he was in London. He agreed that the Leon argument—that the Jews also developed as a mobile trading community—could be compatible. A fascinating article by Aleksander Gieysztor explicitly links the Khazar empire to an independent group of long distance 10th century Jewish traders, known as the “Radanite” Jews.19

This is one line for further inquiry that flows directly from Sand’s book.20 Another is his discussion of the metamorphosis of the Jewish religion into Jewish nationalism, Antonio Gramsci and the role of intellectuals.

As monotheistic religions spread around the ancient Mediterranean region they:

gave rise to broader intellectual strata. From the ancient Essenes through the missionaries, monks, rabbis and priests, to the ulema, there were increasing numbers of literate individuals who had extensive…contact with the masses of agricultural producers—one reason that religion survived through the ages while empires…fell.21

It is the mediating role of these religious intellectuals, between the authorities and the masses, as well as, or so it seemed, between Heaven and Earth, that enhanced their stature. Sand regards nationalism in the modern world as having the same ideological force that religion had in the ancient and medieval world. Using the work of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Ernest Gellner and Gramsci, among others, he explores how modern intellectuals helped create and sustain modern nationalism. But here there is unusual confusion in his argument. In particular, he misuses Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”, ignores or at least minimises the significance of the social class base of modern intellectuals and ends up mixing praise for Gramsci with a frankly embarrassing and gratuitous attack on him:

It is not necessary to believe in Gramsci’s political utopia—designed to justify his work as an intellectual in a workers’ party—to appreciate his theoretical achievement in analysing the intellectual function that characterises the modern state.22

There is in fact a concealed hint here of Sand’s own disappointed Marxist past. This issue clearly requires more discussion than is possible here,23 but by junking Marxism he fails to distinguish two types of modern intellectuals, the middle class mediating intellectual who vacillates between differing social class interests and the intellectual who unambiguously declares for one social class. The social class background is not necessarily relevant. For sure, the upper class background of the Socialist Workers Party’s Paul Foot made him a rarity, but his work as a professional intellectual was devoted to working class interests and in that sense he re-made himself as an “organic” intellectual by consciously tying his own interests in that way.

And this argument brings us full circle back to the role of Shlomo Sand, Jacqueline Rose and Avi Shlaim as intellectuals. As outstanding critics of Zionism, are they, can they be, part of the Palestinian and wider Arab movement? How does a Jewish intellectual relate to an Arab movement? A satisfactory answer here will contribute to a debate about the place of Jews in an independent Palestine.

Shlaim knows the answer. And it is a great pity that his book of essays misses this question. There is of course, as always with Shlaim, a great deal of enormous value in this book, particularly his blistering assault on the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s thoroughly nauseating record in creating the Zionist state. But his essays on the Arab world are disappointing—a review of an Arab author with a deeply negative view of Arab nationalism, and a record of Shlaim’s interview with Jordan’s King Hussein, implying that he regarded the king as part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. In fairness, though, his essay on Edward Said acknowledges the Arab intellectual’s greater stature and recognises that Said saw the hollow core of the Oslo peace accords in a way that Shlaim readily admits he missed.

But Shlaim knows another history that is more important than any of this: his own. For he is an Iraqi Jew and elsewhere he has written:

Judaism was a ritual. My parents used to attend the synagogue once a year, at home we spoke Judeo-Arabic, we listened to Arabic music. Nor was Zionism important, my parents had no empathy for it. There were Zionist agents who tried to create propaganda, but it didn’t impress the Jewish elite and the middle class. There was no tradition of persecution or anti-Semitism in Iraq.

One of the great untold Jewish tragedies of the 20th century was the destruction of the Iraqi Jewish community, one of the oldest in the world and one which probably defies Sand’s law of conversion with roots back to ancient Babylonia.

Not only that, Iraqi Jewish intellectuals really did help create Iraqi national culture in the early 20th century and a wonderful example is the fact that a third of Iraq’s top musicians were Jewish.24

So, however bleak the intellectual and political landscape may be today, we should take a lesson from another great Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin, and “fan the sparks of hope from the past”.

1: Sand, 2009, p65.

2: Sand, 2009, p115, pp123-5. See also Rose, 2004, pp20-25.

3: ie Judah, today’s West Bank and East Jerusalem.

4: Sand, 2009, p126.

5: Sand, 2009, p161.

6: For a full discussion see Sand, 2009, pp150-154.

7: Sand, 2009, p162.

8: Sand, 2009, p150.

9: Sand, 2009, pp154-161.

10: Sand, 2009, p161.

11: Harman, 2008, p92.

12: Sand, 2009, p170.

13: See Scharf, 2009.

14: Sand, 2009, p234.

15: Sand, 2009, p234.

16: Sand, 2009, pp241-242.

17: Sand, 2009, pp217-218.

18: Sand, 2009, p222.

19: Gieysztor, p16, also Rose, p47.

20: The debate about the origins of the Jewish “East European” language, Yiddish, with its German roots, is important here. German and other Western European Jewish medieval migration eastwards and Leon’s explanations, need to be incorporated. Sand points to the significance of the Turkish roots of Yiddish, even the word to pray, davenen-Sand, 2009, p244.

21: Sand, 2009, p56.

22: Sand, 2009, p58.

23: In conversation he agreed to an interview about Gramsci and the issues raised here for International Socialism or Socialist Review.

24: Rose, 2004, p180.


Gieysztor, Aleksander, 1986, “The Beginnings of Jewish Settlement in Polish Lands”, in Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk and Antony Polonsky (eds), The Jews of Poland (Blackwell).

Harman, Chris, 2008, A People’s History of the World (Verso).

Rose, John, 2004, The Myths of Zionism (Pluto).

Sands, Shlomo, 2009, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso).

Scharf, Miriam, 2009, “Review: The Invention of the Jewish People”, Socialist Review (November 2009),

Shlaim, Avi, 2009, Israel and Palestine (Verso).