Compared to his previous work, Shlomo Sand’s recent op-ed in Haaretz was relatively restrained.
"I don’t understand why all cats have to be called cats and all the dogs, dogs – and only one cat has to be called a dog...The ‘exile’ [of the Jews] is a formative event that never took place...[It doesn’t confer] on the Jews some sort of imagined ‘historic right’ to the Holy Land."
This was low-energy Sand compared to the usual standards of the Tel Aviv University emeritus professor of history, whose writing has proved ripe for weaponizing by anti-Semites from Damascus to the Daily Stormer.
That Sand has declared that Jewish continuity and identity is a great deception, that most Jews hail from the medieval (and perhaps legendary) Turkic empire of Khazaria, not the Holy Land, that we have "a moral obligation to break definitively" with the identity of a "race-people such as the Jews," AKA the "exclusive club of the elect and their acolytes," and decried the Jews’ profiteering exploitation of the "Holocaust industry" that seeks to "maximize" its political and financial "capital."
He has publicly declared he wished “to resign and cease considering [him]self a Jew" because ethnocentrism and racism are a function of Jewishness.
Shlomo Sand’s fame, or notoriety, has lasted decades, and shows no sign of ebbing. His piece in Haaretz was shared over 11,000 times on Facebook; his books are routinely translated in 20-plus languages. The only problem is one of his keenest fan bases is constituted by those with a marked distaste for, if not violent hatred of, Jews.
Indeed, Sand is considered a "first-rate authority on Jews by lots of first-rate Jew-haters."
Sand has the unique distinction of attracting an incredibly broad spectrum of anti-Semites who follow different schools of anti-Semitism, from theological to political to racial to cultural. Sand functions as the symbolic destination for an "ingathering of the anti-Semites," as it were.
But does it matter who adopts his theses with such alacrity? Is he really responsible for where his work is received, and by whom?
Let’s take one of the stranger claims the historian (not ethnologist) Sand has made: That the real origins of most European Jews are the Khazar tribe ("ignoring," as a historian peer commented, "the overwhelming historical consensus that they had never existed").
The "Khazar origin" theory for Ashkenazi Jews was first popularized by Arthur Koestler in his 1976 book "The Thirteenth Tribe." That swiftly became "an article of faith among anti-Semites and anti-Israel Arab politicians. … The neo-Nazi National States Rights Party in the U.S. declared [it] to be ‘the political bombshell of the century’ because ‘it destroys all claims of the present-day Jew-Khazars to any historic right to occupy Palestine.’"
That dovetails neatly into two directions: First, theological – such as the literal replacement theology of Louis Farrakhan.
According to a fellow Nation of Islam leader, Farrakhan has "boldly" declared that "the Jewish people who currently hold sway in Israel and throughout the world...[have] no biological, anthropological, historical, scientific or scriptural evidence to support the assertion that...[they] are the Hebrews of the Bible." No wonder Farrakhan is a Sand fan.
The second direction is political. As Syrian state TV reported several years ago, "Jewish nationalism is invalid...[Jews] invented legends...to cover for this new Zionist imperialist project against the Arab nation." That was taken from the blurb of a Damascus University symposium dedicated to Sand’s "Invention of the Jewish People," and organized by The Syrian Arab Popular Committee for Supporting the Palestinian People and Resisting the Zionist Project.
For the anti-Zionist far left, Sand is a godsend.
Corbynista and co-founder of a far-left media outlet, Aaron Bastani, enthusiastically interviewed him on "The Invention of the Land of Israel," and Sand’s books have come up constantly as required reading on Israel-Palestine in Facebook groups for the Corbyn left, mired in accusations of anti-Semitism. Avowedly anti-Zionist site Mondoweiss gave copies of the "Invention of the Jewish People" as a gift to new subscribers in 2012. Self-declared anti-Semite, ex-Israeli, Holocaust denier and pro-Palestinian activist Gilad Atzmon called it a "must read."
Similarly, where the far left and the Iranian regime media meet, Sand can be sure of a delightful reception. Back in 2009, he was interviewed on Press TV by none other than friend-of-Hamas-and-Hezbollah George Galloway, and again in 2013 on the occasion of the second book’s publication.
So far, so revolting, or so thrillingly taboo-breaking, depending on your view.
But it’s surely unavoidable for Sand to take a pause when his work is endorsed by the neo-Nazi far right – after all, his own parents were Holocaust survivors. So what about when ex-KKK head David Duke plugged his discussion of "the amazing recent pronouncements of Israeli Shlomo Sand who reveals the truth about hyper Jewish racism in Israel and all over the world"?
Duke has also remarked that Sand’s "observations about the true nature of Jewish racist tribalism are accurate," and has engaged at great length with Sand’s Khazar theory, which he once backed before realizing it wasn’t reductive enough of Jewish history – it wasn’t anti-Semitic enough: "The problem we face is not a ‘Khazar’ problem, it is a Jewish problem, it is a problem of extremist Jewish racism and supremacism which continually plunges our world into war, hatred, tyranny and degradation."
When Sand declared through the pages of The Guardian that he no longer wanted to be considered a Jew, his erstwhile far-right fans were scathing: “Shlomo Sand Resigns from Being a Jew as if It will Magically Turn Him Into a Human Being” was the Daily Stormer headline. The article elaborated further: “There is no getting away from it, Shlomo, the blood of Christ is upon you and your children for ever, whether you go to the synagogue or not is immaterial.”
Sand has been asked whether he’s concerned by the unappetizing characters who flock to his work. In one 2009 interview in the Wall Street Journal, he countered: "I don’t care if crazy anti-Semites in the United States use my book." (I’m sure he wouldn’t mind including a crazy Brit in that – the conspiracist and anti-Semite David Icke.)
Sand added: “Anti-Semitism in the West, for the moment, is not a problem.”
Ah. Perhaps this is where the issue of responsibility gets more complicated. Is Sand suggesting that if anti-Semitism in the West becomes a problem (and right now, we’re talking after Pittsburgh and a decade of particularly ferocious terrorist attacks against Jews in Europe), he would reconsider his language?
When it comes to how words can be weaponized for hate and hate crimes, there must clearly be a question of intent. The most current example is clearly Donald Trump. For some, his racist incitement has obvious real-world consequences, a conclusion rejected by others.
Another, perhaps closer, example is the Italian-Israeli academic Ariel Toaff, scion of a community in Rome with thousands of years’ experience of Catholic theological anti-Semitism, who decided to write a book entitled “Bloody Passover: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders.”
A member of the Italian-Jewish community in Jerusalem noted that despite Toaff’s subsequent attempt to clarify – no, he didn’t think 15th-century Jews ritually murdered a 2-year-old boy – the damage was already done: "The simple people don’t read professors’ articles. The simple people will only remember that Toaff’s son said that Jews murdered Simonino."
Toaff eventually withdrew the book from circulation. But there's a guerrilla translation available to buy on Amazon which amps up the title towards its intended audience: "The Bloody Satanic Sacrifice Rituals of the Jewish Race: Blood Passover, English Version," whose blurb announces that Jews didn’t want the Gentiles to know about the "murders they had committed" and enjoins readers to "Come out of the darkness and strike a blow for the light. READ AND PASS ON."
The defense of naivety is no defense, as Sand is entirely aware how his language has been applied, and of the rise of anti-Semitism in the past decade. This is not to suggest silencing him, but it seems reasonable to reassess what platforms should be volunteered – and for Sand himself to reassess the language in which his theses are couched.
There’s a lesson here for a wide range of people legitimately opposed to Israel’s policies and the occupation about whether the language they use strays into anti-Semitism – and provides sustenance for violent anti-Semites.
There is one final irony to Sand’s Haaretz piece, and not one he intended. The photo illustrating his op-ed is a Jew entering a synagogue in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb that is 25 percent Jewish and which was, as Anshel Pfeffer reported, “the  scene ... of the first pogrom in Europe in the 21st century” – an anti-Jewish riot that took violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza as a trigger for a rampage.
That seems to indicate that, despite Sand’s contention that "the Jewish people" is a damaging imaginary fiction, there are plenty of Jews whose lives pivot around just that identity. And plenty of anti-Semites who target that collective identity, too.
Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon
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