Shlomo Sand and The Importance of Tribe
by Not Sure
28 May 2023
“Every group in the world will be used. One of the best ways and easiest ways to be used is to really believe that you’re a people. And we’ve found that down through history as they’ve set peoples against peoples.”
--- Alan Watt on The Morning Show with Patrick Timpone, 21 Jan. 2014
This was part of Alan’s response to a listener living in Israel who emailed into Patrick Timpone’s show to ask a question about Israel and Palestine.
Over the years, listeners would email Alan with “a quick question” or to “hear your thoughts” about “just this one thing,” and Alan would remark to me that to answer that quick question would take days, perhaps weeks, of historical background in order to do justice to the answer.
So it was with “Eli from Israel” who wrote into Patrick Timpone. “I live in Israel and I’m very confused. I have some non-politically correct questions. Why is Israel put on the side of the imperialists? My understanding is that the powers that be are actually trying to reduce or eliminate Israel (see the real story behind the assassination of Yitzak Rabin) by inventing this non-historical people called the Palestinians.”
Part of Alan’s reply was to point out that some historians have concluded that the Jews who are the modern-day inhabitants of Israel are the non-historical people and cited the writings of Shlomo Sand. In Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People, he attempts to trace where the Jews come from and concludes there was no Jewish diaspora. Sand believes that the ancestry of Central and Eastern European Jews trace back to the Turkish Khazars who were converted to Judaism, a theory which Arthur Koestler promoted in his book The Thirteenth Tribe.
Sand’s work has its fierce critics and its enthusiastic supporters. He has written several books, numerous articles and was featured in a short film by Bruce Robbins entitled What Kind of Jew is Shlomo Sand?
A few bits of Sand’s personal history: He was born in Austria to parents with Communist views. In 1948, when Sand was two, his family moved to Jaffa, the oldest part of Tel Aviv. A high school dropout, he studied electronics, was drafted in 1965 and served at the Communist kibbutz of Yad Hanna. He eventually completed high school and served three years in the military. It was during the Six-Day War and witnessing some horrific abuses of Palestinians that pushed Sand further to the left. He was friends with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, with whom he was involved in an Israeli communist party.
Sand went on to complete university and from 1978 to 1982 was a Doctoral student at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in France. Since 1982, he has taught at Tel Aviv University and also at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2013, Sand wrote How I Stopped Being a Jew, in which he wrote about the difference between being a Jew and being an Israeli. Examining the question of Jewish identity, he expressed a desire to break free from “tribal Judeocentrism.” He expanded on this in an article he wrote for The Guardian newspaper in 2014 entitled ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew.’
Some of his critics have lamented that his work fuels an anti-Semitic desire to end the state of Israel by removing its historical justification for existing, but Sand’s response to that is that now Israel is entitled to exist because it does exist.
Reading a bit more about Shlomo Sand, I was struck by the sincerity of his search to answer his own questions of identity and to set right what he considered the wrongs caused by the foundational myths of his country. He loathes being part of that “tribal Judeocentrism” and sees that at the roots of Zionism and this long conflict with Palestinians and other Arabs in the region. Yet, Sand is human, and it seems the tribal element is innate. Though he wants to cease being a “Jew” or “Jewish,” he wants to be “Israeli.” He identifies with his country. “When I am far from Israel, I see my street corner in Tel Aviv and look forward to the moment I can return to it.”
It seems at least one antidote in the face of the relentless machinations of our ruling “elite” is to always push beyond the bounds of your place, your own street corner and all the baggage of identity that place holds. We are all part of some tribe, somewhere, though it may be broken and dysfunctional, and as Alan said, that tribe or group will be used. “Every group in the world will be used.” It is much more difficult to use an individual who can see beyond his place and his people.
© Not Sure
The Invention of the Jewish People
Shlomo Sand: ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew’
What Kind of Jew is Shlomo Sand?