Interview: Zionism, socialism and nationalism

Issue: 127

Shlomo Sand & John Rose

Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), which offers a devastating critique of Zionist historical myths, has had a major impact. Following up on his review article of the book, John Rose interviewed Sand for International Socialism.1

How is the English translation of your book going both here and in the US?

Very good in Britain, less so in the US, but it’s early days yet. In France I sold 50,000. The English language edition has sold 25,000.

And what kind of reviews have there been in the mainstream press?

In Britain very good: the Jewish Chronicle opened their pages to me in a good way—intelligent, thoughtful articles. It was a surprise for me. The Jewish community in Britain is much more moderate than the French community. True, Simon Schama in the Financial Times (FT) tried to rubbish my book, but, generally, the reception in Britain was very open.

The attitude of Simon Schama and the FT towards your book was a disgrace. Schama is very important and influential. He is both a “global media personality historian” and a serious scholar. He is also a contributing editor of the FT and he was given space for a superficially serious attempt to demolish your book. The fact that they would only allow you a oneparagraph reply, which you refused, is astonishing but it is also a measure of the extreme nervousness you have generated in high places. Mind you I can see why the FT did not like your reply. You exposed far too many Schama gaffes.2

Even so, the British reception was not bad. Even in the US, the New York Times, for example, was not so aggressive. In the end they found a biologist, a geneticist to say there is a DNA link, a “Jewish DNA”, a genetic link back to ancient Palestine! This is their refutation, their refuge to keep the Jewish people alive! Even the French critics of my book did not do this. But in the Anglo-Saxon world, it’s terrible that they have to go to geneticists to try and prove that the Jewish people exist.

But you know the atmosphere around the established Jewish community in France is frightful. People are afraid. In France at first journalists were afraid to write about the book. However, after the war on Gaza a lot of walls fell down and people began to write more and more about the book. And now there is a pocketbook version and again it is in the bestsellers list. In 2009 the full-size version was the bestselling book about history. But don’t underestimate just how reactionary, racist and authoritarian the current mood of the pro-Zionist circles in the French Jewish community is. They remind me of the pro-Stalinist influence in Paris at the beginning of the 1950s or even the McCarthyist influence in the US at the same time.

I want to ask you why you ignored Abram Leon’s Marxist theory of Jewish history in your book.

I regret very much that I did not mention him. You know sometimes you feel that someone is in your family, so well known, so close, that you take them for granted, you forget to mention him. I feel that Abram Leon is my family. Even before I became a student in the 1960s I was dealing with Leon’s book when it became available in English in Israel. It was a mistake to miss him out. When I was analysing the causes for the Jewish presence in Eastern Europe I should have used Abram’s Leon’s class analysis.3

How would you have made the connection with Leon if you hade included him?

The Yiddish-speaking religious Jews in the 19th century constituted a kind of social class in the economy of Eastern Europe.

But you could go back much earlier to your argument about Khazaria. This converted Jewish state, itself on a vital continental trade route, could have been a factor in consolidating the Jewish community as a trading community in the early medieval period.

I mean this exactly. I should have done it. If I have the opportunity I will try and include this argument in the paperback edition.

But there is one contradiction with your argument. Abram Leon argues that the growth of the Jewish population in Poland was the result of Western Jewish migration eastwards, itself a result of the expulsion of the Jewish trading community from emerging market capitalist economies of Western Europe.

No, this was one of his weaknesses. I disagree completely. Statistically, demographically this can be demonstrated. The detailed demographic investigation “Eastern Modern Polish Jewry: The Rhineland Hypothesis Revisited” by the Dutch scholar Jits van Straten demonstrates conclusively that the Jews in Poland cannot have come from the Rhineland.

Are you saying that there was no Jewish migration from west to east?

Elites, yes, part of the Ashkenazi elite was more intellectual and hence very important, but the mass of the population, no. Don’t forget that Abram Leon was not a professional historian. He used some documents that I cannot accept.

Actually Leon does also provide evidence for Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe several centuries before the disputed Jewish migrations from west to east—including reference to Khazaria. This passage is now particularly fascinating in the light of your book and this discussion:

According to Gumplowicz, the Jews were the sole intermediaries between the shores of the Baltic and Asia. An old document thus characterises the Khazars, a Mongol tribe of the Caspian Sea, that converted to Judaism: “They have no slaves to the land because they buy everything by means of money.” Itil, the capital of the Khazars, was a great commercial centre, the starting point for the transport of goods eventually ending up at Mainz.4

Presumably, though, the ethnic mix of Khazaria was much more diverse, not least because the Caspian itself was an important sea trade route between ancient and medieval Iran and Eastern Europe.

Let’s turn to how you used Gramsci in your book.

I used Gramsci to define the concept of intellectual. I also accept his definition of the organic intellectual—a specific actor in the social process. But where I separate myself from Gramsci is how he defines the role of the intellectual in relation to the proletariat. Gramsci describes the role of the intellectuals in relation to the bourgeoisie; he then makes a parallel with the role of intellectuals in relation to the proletariat, with intellectuals who join the proletariat. I cannot accept this thesis, because the power relationship between intellectuals and the proletariat is determined by the state and the state is an arena that the proletariat cannot dominate. The only place that the proletariat can really dominate is the factory. Do you understand my point?

Yes I do. But we have to make a distinction between those intellectuals who work for the state and those intellectuals who attach themselves independently to the working class movement.

Yes, but even those intellectuals who attach themselves to the working class movement, in liberal democracies in the West, depend from one degree to another on the state. This is generally true. Shlomo Sand, in case you don’t know it, has a relationship with the Zionist state!

You mean your employer, a statefunded Israeli university?

Yes, and this is true generally: intellectuals in bourgeois society depend either on the state or on capitalists.

No, this is not always the case.

Okay, let’s look at intellectuals who depend on trade unions or socialist parties. There are not very many of them, but these kind of intellectuals, suppose they obtain political power, they become the real “prince” of the state.5 Look at what happened in October 1917 with the Bolsheviks. This is an intellectual corpus. The Bolsheviks were an intellectual corpus.

We do have serious disagreement here. Let’s try and tease it out. First of all, under capitalism, there can be independent intellectuals. Ilan Pappe, now he has left Israel, can become an independent intellectual attached to the Palestinian movement. Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, before Hitler came to power, were independent intellectuals attached to the working class movement in Germany.

Wait, not so fast! Walter Benjamin suffered a lot by being an independent intellectual. His eventual suicide had a relation with his victimised position as an intellectual. With Brecht, before the Nazis took power, Brecht was dependent on the market: he was very successful selling his plays and making a living as a playwright. After the war, he came back to East Germany, he became an organic intellectual of the Stalinist state of East Germany. Now it’s true, because of his talent and fame, roughly between 1946 and 1954, he had some autonomy. But it was very little autonomy in the face of the Stalinist state. Ilan Pappe is a good example. But now he is working for a British university, therefore he is dependent on the British state.

Yes, but even so, he has some flexibility.

Yes, even in my case, the fact that they cannot fire me from Tel Aviv University gives me some independence. In a liberal democracy, even though you are dependent on the state, there is some relative autonomy for some intellectuals.

However, you have to understand that for Gramsci, the Communist Party is the new prince: in the minds of the Communist Party leadership, they see themselves as a collective intellectual. Until now, looking at the historical record these collective intellectuals, when they arrive in power, they become the dominant class. They transform themselves into a bureaucratic class. Because workers can dominate only the factories and never the state, it will always be intellectuals who become the real rulers of the socialist state.

No, not at all. This is our disagreement.

It is. In some ways I am half-Sorelian. Partly I support the theories of Georges Sorel.6 Still, I am a socialist.

You call yourself a socialist, a Marxist?

Socialist, yes, we are living at the start of the 21st century, plunged into a huge and classic crisis of capitalism. Not only this, capitalism is very close to destroying our planet. I have, though, a problem with the description “Marxist”. I call myself a “historical materialist” and I am very clear about this in my book, The Invention of the Jewish People. But to call myself a Marxist means I believe in the power of the proletariat, that the
proletariat can take power, and I do not believe this. When I think about socialism I try to invent new forms of a possible future and how we arrive there. I have come to this conclusion not only because of what happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but also because of the position of the proletariat in the Western world. You see Marx was lucky to write a book about capital and not about the proletariat. Marx wrote the greatest book of modern times, Capital.

I agree, but, with Engels, he wrote an equally important book which was also about the proletariat, the Communist Manifesto.

Yes, it’s marvellous for the practical politics of the time but it was not the best thing that Marx wrote. It was very important in 1848. But Marx assumes that the workers of the world will unite. All my adult life I have asked myself why it didn’t happen. The answer lies with the strength of nationalism. As someone who grew up in Israel with the Zionist domination, with a very nationalistic feeling, even the racist consciousness of the masses, I had to understand nationalism’s grip on societies. I wanted to know why nationalism defeated socialism in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. My Master’s degree in Paris was about Jean Jaurès and the national question. Nationalism has preoccupied my intellectual life. Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson and other British thinkers have helped me understand it.

But there is nothing inevitable about nationalism dominating the proletariat. True, parliamentary socialist working class parties throughout the 20th century succumbed to it, especially in 1914, but the most important revolutionary socialist party of the 20th century, the Bolsheviks, did not. Let’s return to the Bolsheviks and especially the leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. They suggest an alternative to the political role you describe for socialist intellectuals.

Lenin and Trotsky became rulers of the soviet state before it became a Stalinist state.

They were elected leaders by new forms of mass democratic working class political power, the soviets.

I question all the relationships of representation. A problem always arises when someone represents someone else.

You became an anarchist?

I’m not exactly an individual anarchist but, yes, I do question all forms of representation. After the experience of the 20th century, not to deal with the problems of representation and its failure to represent mass democratic interests and its capacity to represent other interests means you fall back to the old bourgeois culture.

Even the workers’ soviets at the height of mass working class revolutionary power on the eve of the October Revolution, during it, and immediately afterwards, had a builtin tendency for the elected revolutionary intellectuals to take the power and develop separate interests?


This is not so much Georges Sorel but the conservative sociologist Robert Michels who developed a theory of the iron law of oligarchy to which all organisations, however democratic, must succumb.

No, Michels, Sorel and me are all very different. First, I am a pessimist like Sorel not Michels. I will not define as an “iron law” the failure of representatives properly to represent. Don’t forget Sorel supported the soviets and Lenin.

Let’s turn to Lenin in more detail and Tony Cliff’s interpretation of him. Cliff, the SWP’s founder, was brought up in a Zionist Jewish family in British Mandate Palestine. I am now belatedly and ironically coming to appreciate one merit of Zionism. It makes its opponents particularly sharp practitioners of historical materialism! Cliff, like you, worried about the dangers of “substitutionism” of workers’ power by revolutionary intellectuals and by the Bolsheviks. But his four-volume masterpiece on Lenin addresses this. He describes how Lenin saw the administration of the workers’ state controlled by the mass of workers not just their representatives. Lenin is expanding on his famous oneliner: “Every cook shall govern.” Lenin writes:

It goes without saying that this new apparatus is bound to make mistakes in taking its first stepsIs there any other way other than by proceeding immediately to genuine self-government by the people? The chief thing now is to abandon the prejudiced bourgeois-intellectualist view that only special officials, who by their very social position are entirely dependent on capital, can administer the stateThe chief thing is to imbue the oppressed and working people with confidence in their own strength, to prove to them in practice that they can and must themselves ensure the proper, most strictly regulated and organised distribution of bread, all kinds of food, milk, clothing, housing, etcThe conscientious, bold, universal move to hand over administrative work to proletarians and semi-proletarians will however rouse such unprecedented revolutionary enthusiasm among the people, will so multiply the people’s forces in combating distress, that much that seemed impossible to our narrow, old, bureaucratic forces will become possible for the millions, who will begin to try and work for themselves and not for the capitalists, the gentry, the bureaucrats, and not out of fear of punishment.7

The failure of the revolution to spread, to internationalise, and of course the civil war, broke workers’ power but that was not inevitable.

We will have to disagree. Lenin’s integrity here is not an issue. But workers’ power, rule by the working class in 1917, was not real and could not be. The workers in that year were more or less 5 percent of the population.


1: Sand’s book was reviewed in International Socialism 125. See Rose, 2010.

2: See Schama, 2009, and Sand, 2009.

3: Leon, 1970. For background, see Rose, 2008.

4: Leon, 1970, p127.

5: Chris Harman has left us this excellent summary of what Gramsci meant by “prince”: “Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks under the surveillance of a fascist jailer and…disguised his real meaning. So Marxism is called ‘the philosophy of practice’, Lenin is referred to as ‘Ilyich’ and the revolutionary party as the ‘modern prince’ (after the ‘prince’ who Niccolo Machiavelli hoped would bring about a revolutionary unification of renaissance Italy).” See Harman, 2007, p106.

6: Georges Sorel (1847-1922), French writer who theorised about violence and the general strike, sometimes seen as a representative of revolutionary syndicalism. I would like to thank Ian Birchall for our email exchanges about Sorel.

7: Cliff, 1976, p331.


Cliff, Tony, 1976, Lenin: Volume 2 – All Power to the Soviets (Pluto).

Harman, Chris, 2007, “Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and Philosophy”, International Socialism 114 (spring 2007),

Leon, Abram, 1970 (1946), The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (Pathfinder).

Rose, John, “Marx, Leon and the Jewish Question”, International Socialism 119 (summer),

Rose, John, 2010, “Jewish Intellectuals and Palestinian Liberation”, International Socialism 126 (winter),

Sand, Shlomo, 2009, “Shlomo Sand responds to Simon Schama’s review in the Financial Times”,

Schama, Simon, 2009, “Review: The Invention of the Jewish People”, Financial Times, 13 November.