Shlomo Sand

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Shlomo Sand
Born 10 September 1946 (1946-09-10) (age 73)
Linz, Austria
Nationality Jew
Occupation writer

Shlomo Sand (pronounced Zand; Hebrew: שלמה זנד‎) (born 10 September 1946 in Linz, Austria) is professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of the controversial book The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso Books, 2009). His main areas of interest are nationalism, film as history, and French intellectual history.[1]


Sand was born in Linz, Austria, to Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. His parents had Communist and anti-imperialist views and refused to receive compensations from Germany for their suffering during the Second World War. Sand spent his early years in a displaced persons camp, and moved with the family to Jaffa in 1948. He was expelled from high school at the age of sixteen, and only completed his bagrut following his military service.[2] He eventually left the Union of Israeli Communist Youth (Banki) and joined the more radical, and anti-Zionist, Matzpen in 1968. Sand resigned from Matzpen in 1970 due to his disillusionment with the organisation.[3][4]

He declined an offer by the Israeli Communist Party Rakah to be sent to do cinema studies in Poland, and in 1975 Sand graduated with a BA in History from Tel Aviv University. From 1975 to 1985, after winning a scholarship, he studied and later taught in Paris, receiving an MA in French History and a PhD for his thesis[5] on "Georges Sorel and Marxism". Since 1982, Sand has taught at Tel Aviv University as well as at the University of California, Berkeley and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.[1]

The Invention of the Jewish People

Book's topic

Sand’s best-known book in English is The Invention of the Jewish People, originally published in Hebrew (Resling, 2008) as Matai ve’eich humtsa ha‘am hayehudi? (When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?) and subsequently translated into English the following year (Verso, 2009). Reviewing the book for Haaretz, Ofri Ilani wrote that Sand's work is an attempt "to prove that the Jewish people never existed as a ‘nation-race’ with a common origin, but rather is a colorful mix of groups that at various stages in history adopted the Jewish religion. He argues that for a number of Zionist ideologues, the mythical perception of the Jews as an ancient people led to truly racist thinking."[6]

One component of Sand's argument is that the people who were the original Jews living in Israel, were not exiled following the Bar Kokhba revolt. He has suggested that much of the present day world Jewish population are individuals, and groups, who converted to Judaism at later periods. Additionally, he suggests that the story of the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. Sand writes that "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."[7] Sand argues that most of the Jews were not exiled by the Romans, and were permitted to remain in the country. He puts the number of those exiled at tens of thousands at most. He further argues that many of the Jews converted to Islam following the Arab conquest, and were assimilated among the conquerors. He concludes that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were Jews.[8]

Sand's explanation of the birth of the myth of a Jewish people as a group with a common, ethnic origin has been summarized as follows: "[a]t a certain stage in the 19th century intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people "retrospectively," out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and went back to its birthplace."[6]

Sand's area of professional expertise is the history of modern France and Europe, and not of antiquity,[6] and in response to Israeli criticism that he wrote about Jewish, rather than European history, he has replied that, "a book like this needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world."[7]


Tom Segev wrote that Sand's book "is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a 'state of all its citizens' - Jews, Arabs and others - in contrast to its declared identity as a 'Jewish and democratic' state" and that the book is generally "well-written" and includes "numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time".[8]

For Ofri Ilani, "(...) most of [the] book does not deal with the invention of the Jewish people by modern Jewish nationalism, but rather with the question of where the Jews come from."[6]

Carlo Strenger writes that Sand divides modern democracies into two categories: those east of the Rhine were dominated by an ethnocratic model, while those West of the Rhine, where pure liberal democracy prevailed, a sovereign state is just the totality of its citizens, whatever their ethnic origin. His book's agenda aims to ensure that Israeli democracy is stabilized. For this reason, Sand is opposed to the Law of Return (Hok Hashevut), which he thinks should be repealed in order to make all it citizens equal.[9]


Israel Bartal, dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University, in a commentary published in Haaretz, writes that Sand's basic thesis and statements about Jewish historiography are "baseless". Bartal answers to "Sand's arguments (...) that no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically "pure" [and that] Sand applies marginal positions to the entire body of Jewish historiography and, in doing so, denies the existence of the central positions in Jewish historical scholarship." Bartal refers to Sand's overall treatment of Jewish sources as "embarrassing and humiliating." He adds that "The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews' exile from their homeland is pure fantasy." Bartel summarizes his critique of Sand's characterization of Jewish historiography as follows: "as far as I can discern, the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented earlier in their books and articles by what he insists on defining as "authorized historians" suspected of "concealing historical truth,"" and calls the overall work "bizarre and incoherent."[10] For a full updated version of Bartal's review see now Zion 76 (2011), pp. 509-521.

Anita Shapira wrote "Sand bases his arguments on the most esoteric and controversial interpretations, while seeking to undermine the credibility of important scholars by dismissing their conclusions without bringing any evidence to bear."[11]

Hillel Halkin has cited the book as an example of the notion that there is "no book too foolish to go un-admired by someone."[12]

Jeffrey Goldberg likened the book to Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe, another book with a controversial thesis on the genesis of the Jewish people published in 1976.[13] "Today", Jeffrey Goldberg said, "The Thirteenth Tribe is a combination of discredited and forgotten." Goldberg also accused Sand of having disingenuous motives:

Sand is not publishing this book at a dignified conference in Bern at which scholars of the Middle East debate the origins of the Jews ... He is dropping manufactured facts into a world that in many cases is ready, willing, and happy to believe the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Jews and to use those conspiracy theories to justify physically hurting Jews. ... It is nothing new ... We [the Jews] survived ... The Thirteenth Tribe; we can survive this.[13]

DNA analysis

In June 2010, genetic research supervised by geneticist Harry Ostrer of the New York University School of Medicine, and published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, led to a series of journalistic comments on Sand's book.[14] An article in Newsweek titled "The DNA of Abraham's Children" challenges through genetic analysis Sand's assertion (as Koestler asserted in The Thirteenth Tribe) that modern European Jews are descended from Khazars, a Turkic group: "The DNA has spoken: no." This study, Newsweek writes, undermines rather than supports Sand's position, showing instead how modern Jewish genes can be traced back to a common people of Middle East origin.[15] A New York Times article on the same studies notes they "refute the suggestion made last year by the historian Shlomo Sand in his book The Invention of the Jewish People that Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people in Europe and Central Asia who converted to Judaism at various times".[16] Similarly, an article in Science states that Sand's hypotheses "clash with several recent studies suggesting that Jewishness, including the Ashkenazi version, has deep genetic roots". According to Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, Ostrer's study "clearly shows a genetic common ancestry of all Jewish populations." Geneticist Noah Rosenberg of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, states that although Ostrer's study "does not appear to support" the Khazar hypothesis, it "doesn't entirely eliminate it either."[17]

In an afterword to the paperback issue of The Invention of the Jewish People in June 2010 Sand wrote "As of today, no study based on anonymous DNA samples has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews, and it is not likely that any study ever will. It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased! And it is all the more repulsive that this kind of research should be conducted in a state that has waged for years a declared policy of 'Judaization of the country' in which even today a Jew is not allowed to marry a non-Jew."[18]

Publishing history

The book was in the bestseller list in Israel for 19 weeks and quickly went to 3 editions when published in French.[7] In France it received the "Aujourd'hui Award", a journalists' award for top non-fiction political or historical work.[19]

In October 2009 it was published in English by Verso.

In March 2010 it was published in Russian by Eksmo.

In April 2010 it was published in German by Propyläen Verlag.

In 2010 a Hungarian translation appeared by Kairosz Kiadó.

In August 2011 it was published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Akademickie Dialog.

In April 2012, a sequel, The Invention of the Land of Israel, was published in Hebrew by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir. [20]


  • L'Illusion du politique: Georges Sorel et le débat intellectuel 1900, Paris, La Découverte, 1984
  • Georges Sorel en son temps, with Jacques Julliard (eds), Paris, Seuil, 1985
  • Intellectuals, Truth and Power: From the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War, Tel Aviv, Am Oved, 2000 (in Hebrew)
  • Le XXe siècle à l' écran, Paris, Seuil, 2004 — also as Film as History – Imagining and Screening the Twentieth Century, Tel Aviv, Am Oved & Open University Press, 2002 (in Hebrew)
  • Cinema and Memory – A Dangerous Relationship?, with Haim Bresheeth & Moshe Zimmerman (eds), Jerusalem, The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2004 (in Hebrew)
  • Historians, Time and Imagination, From the “Annales” School to the Postzionist Assassin, Tel Aviv, Am Oved, 2004 (in Hebrew)
  • Les Mots et la terre - Les intellectuels en Israël, Paris, Fayard, 2006—Also as The Words and the Land: Israeli Intellectuals and the Nationalist Myth, trans. Ames Hodge, Cambridge, Semiotext(e)/Active Agents, 2011.
  • The Invention of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv, Resling, 2008 (in Hebrew) — also as Comment le peuple juif fut inventé - De la Bible au sionisme, Paris, Fayard, 2008, and The Invention of the Jewish People, New York, Verso 2009.
  • The Invention of the Land of Israel, Tel Aviv, Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, 2012 (in Hebrew).

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 CV on the Tel Aviv University website
  2. History as Film, Shiur Hofshi (Free Period) no 67, June 2005, Israeli Teachers' Union (in Hebrew)
  3. Matzpen site
  4. Conversation with Shlomo Sand, by Asaf Shor, Me'asef, 10 December 2004 (in Hebrew)
  5. PhD Thesis : Georges Sorel et le marxisme. Rencontre et crise 1893-1902. (Georges Sorel and Marxism. Encounter and crisis 1893-1902), École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, France, 1982.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Shattering a 'national mythology' by Ofri Ilani, Haaretz, March 2008
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Idea of a Jewish people invented, says historian Book Review by Jonathan Cook at MediaMonitors. 17 Oct 2007. Verified 12 Dec 2008.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Segev, Tom (1 March 2008). "An invention called 'the Jewish people'". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2 March 2008. Retrieved 13 December 2008. 
  9. Carlo Strenger 'Shlomo Sand's 'The Invention of the Jewish People' is a success for Israel,', at Haaretz, 27 November 2009.
  10. Bartal, Israel (6 July 2008). Inventing an invention. Haaretz. Archived from the original on 25 September 2008. Retrieved on 22 October 2009.
  11. The Journal of Israeli History Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2009, 63–72 Shlomo Sand book review
  12. "Jewish Peoplehood Denied, While Israel’s Foes Applaud", Hillel Halkin, Published 24 June 2009, issue of 3 July 2009.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Goldstein, Evan R. "Inventing Israel." Tablet Magazine. 13 October 2009. 30 October, 2009.
  14. Gil Atzmon, Li Hao, Itsik Pe'er, Christopher Velez, Alexander Pearlman, Pier Francesco Palamara, Bernice Morrow, Eitan Friedman, Carole Oddoux, Edward Burns, and Harry Ostrer, "Abraham's Children in the Genome Era: Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry". American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 86 (2010), pp. 850-859.
  15. Begley, Sharon (3 June 2010). The DNA of Abraham's Children. Newsweek. Retrieved on 10 June 2010.
  16. Wade, Nicholas (9 June 2010). Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity. The New York Times. Retrieved on 28 October 2011.
  17. Balter, Michael (3 June 2010). Tracing the Roots of Jewishness. Science. Retrieved on 25 July 2010.
  19. Maya Sela, "Israeli author of controversial book on Jewish lineage wins French prize", Haaretz 12 March 2009
  20. "ספרים חדשים (New Books)". Haaretz. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 28 April 2012. 

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