Professor Shlomo Sands, a “scholar” of French history at Tel Aviv University, has written a polemic whose ultimate aim was to deligitimize the Jewish claim to the land of Israel. In order to do this, he has invoked the mythical theory that posits that Ashkenazi Jews are actually descended from the Khazars, an ancient Turkic ethnic group whose monarchy adopted Judaism as the state religion sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries. This would essentially mean that the majority of the architects and founders of the State of Israel (as well as 90% of American Jews) had and have no meaningful biological connection to the Jews who lived in the land of Israel before the Diaspora. They are but latecomer descendants of Turkic peoples who assimilated and intermarried–in short, who were inadvertent impostors who, through the faultiness of historical memory, mistake themselves to be part of a people that doesn’t really exist: the Jews. This pseudo-theory, which has been debunked, has proven to be an object of fascination, not to people of repute, but generally to non-Jews whose opposition to Israel is fueled by Jew hatred.
But Sands goes a step beyond his goal as well. Is his aim merely to undermine the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel? The title of his magnum opus is The Invention of the Jewish People. Understand the title literally: there is no Jewish people. It’s not about colonialism anymore. These Jews cannot lay claim to the land of Israel because they are not actually Jews.
That an anti-semite would want to invoke the Khazar myth to disconnect the Jews from the land of Israel does not perturb me; people driven by hatred will employ all means to prove their point. I do find it odd that a published professor on the staff of an academic institution would utilize a theory that he knows has been proven totally false through historical, genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence. I find it fascinating that a university that considers itself respectable would retain someone like this as a faculty member. And what is even more diabolical about Sands’ work is that he is only making use of this lie to accomplish his goal of subverting any Jewish claim to the land of Israel. This goal alone provides the rationalization for him to publish tripe.
What I find most significant, and horrifying, about this tripe is that, according to the New York Times, Sands’ book has been on the bestseller list for months. Where? In Sweden? In Iran? No, in Israel.
The question begging to be asked is, if a significant portion of the Israeli populace is able to keep a book that reduces the notion of the Jewish people to a historical myth on a bestseller list for months, what does this tell us about Jewish identity amongst secular Jews in the State of Israel? How can the fascination with this book, whose thesis is based on an idea that has been laughed out of the laboratory, be explained?
I do not think that it is coincidental that on this date in the year 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Darwin is credited with introducing the concept of evolution into the consciousness of the Western world. This is an exaggeration; the aspect of evolutionary theory that Darwin was responsible for was natural selection from accidental variations. Jacques Barzun, in his landmark work Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Little, Brown and Company, 1941), summarized the effects of Darwinian theory and their contribution to modern thought as follows:
“The entire phrase and not merely the words Natural Selection is important, for the denial of purpose in the universe is carried on in the second half of the formula–accidental variation. This denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention.” (p. 11)
“Evolution was restless, and though it could mean progress, it was strictly speaking progress without a purpose” (p. 4)
Barzun contends that the three figures mentioned in the title of his book gave the world mechanical materialism, a worldview which essentially severed man from his soul.
And this is secular Zionism as well: a type of evolved redemption and return to the land without The Purpose.
I see a parallel in the advent of Sands’ and others’ works in terms of how these portray the relationship between Judaism, the land of Israel, and the Jewish people. The aim of their respective contributions to the world is to separate the Jew from his neshama, the land of Israel from its destined inhabitants. In this case, by calling into question the very existence of a Jewish people, Sands also removes the purpose of our existence in history and geography. His surprising popularity, however, amongst Israelis themselves, I believe, is indicative of a epidemic of confusion regarding Jewish identity. I think that his warped idea gives perverse hope to those people who have been trying to figure out since the First Zionist Congress how to be Israeli without being Jewish.