After He Stopped Being a Jew, Shlomo Sand Ceases to Be a Historian

In his latest work, 'History in Twilight: Reflections on Time and Truth,' Sand clearly demonstrates he has difficulty understanding the role of critical thinking.

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Shlomo Sand. Mistakenly declares that as opposed to physicians, historians do not have any moral obligation.
Shlomo Sand. Mistakenly declares that as opposed to physicians, historians do not have any moral obligation.Credit: David Bachar

“Historia Bedimdumim” (History in Twilight: Reflections on Time and Truth), by Shlomo Sand; Resling Books (Hebrew); 300 pages; 72 shekels

In his previous books about Jewish history and the geographical entity known as the Land of Israel, Shlomo Sand has demonstrated an inability to differentiate between the process of structuring historic knowledge and the conscious and unconscious biases of researchers, on the one hand, and the ideologically motivated politicization of knowledge and the ways to interpret it, on the other. Sand, professor emeritus of history at Tel Aviv University, has also demonstrated a flair for mixing up history and folklore, such as when he chose to present 19th-century romantic and nationalistic representations of the Jewish Khazar tribe as a historical reality, ignoring the overwhelming historical consensus that they had never existed.

For those who may not understand how the veteran Israeli historian could have offered such erroneous interpretations while presenting himself as a Don Quixote who was fighting single-handedly against the entire despicable and subjugated academic establishment that is enslaved to the mechanisms of power and state – Sand’s new book provides the answer: Sand has a hard time understanding not Jewish history per se, but the methods of history, the unique qualities of the discipline, and the role of critical thinking in general and of postmodernism in particular.

In “The Invention of the Jewish People” (published in English in 2010), Sand informed us that aside from himself, no one – or at least no one else in the realm of history in Israel – has ever told the truth about how the Jewish people was invented from a jumble of various and sundry tribes and ethnic units that were recruited by Zionist historians for the purpose of fashioning an imaginary nation. At the same time, his alternative interpretation was entirely built on research conducted by local scholars – the very same people who supposedly did not know and did not understand the truth, and who ostensibly refused to publish it.

In “The Invention of the Land of Israel” (2012), he continued in this vein, nullifying the existence of this geographic entity because its boundaries were neither eternal nor clearly demarcated. In so doing, Sand fell yet again into the romantic, nationalistic trap of the 19th century.

However, his critical process did not end there. In the lifetime of every nation (every invented nation, of course...), there are moments whose memories will never be expunged. In the life of the Jewish nation (the nonexistent Jewish nation, of course...) there have been such moments, for instance, the Exodus from Egypt, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – and April 18, 2013, the day that Sand declared, in a public lecture in Tel Aviv, his “withdrawal” from the Jewish people. He then went on to publish an entire booklet on this dramatic event, "How I Stopped Being a Jew" (2014).

While the latter event did not spark the anticipated shock waves, Sand’s turning of his back on the Jewish people was accompanied by his diverting his gaze from the Jewish and Land of Israel realms (which do not exist, of course...) to the realm of history in general, and European history in particular.

“History in Twilight: Reflections on Time and Truth” is essentially an expansion on Sand’s earlier works, meaning that after previously ceasing to be a Jew, in this latest book he ceases to be a European and a historian. All historians, in his opinion, suffer from an inability to think about the reliability of the methods and categories they employ and through which they think. All are negligent in the way they use concepts, and all his peers are always anachronistic and uncritical. Only Sand acts courageously, driving in a car with a shattered windshield into a fierce wind with his eyes wide open (his imagery, not mine).

Early in the book, Sand talks about his encounter with the prolific and important French historian François Furet. Sand provided him with a reading list on a certain subject, from which Furet chose, according to Sand, only those sources which were suited to the argument he wished to make. It was a moment of revelation for Sand, he tells us, the moment he realized how biased historians are. But while other historians would have learned the lesson that one is to weigh all the evidence and then choose that which they find most credible and most supported by the documents – Sand seems to have drawn the opposite conclusion: Any time it is possible to offer several interpretations of a certain event or chain of events (and there is no such thing as an event or events that does not have several explanations), Sand, who is critical of Furet, goes on in this book, as in all his previous recent books, to choose the interpretation that best serves his immediate political needs, even if the status accorded said interpretation by the community of historians is dubious at best.

All of this happens because in any event, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin-addicts: We supply the essential raw material for the market,” says Sand, quoting historian Eric Hobsbawm, thus denigrating the profession and all its practitioners (all but himself, of course).

Attacking truisms

Over four chapters, Sand goes on to attack four truisms of historiography. The entire first part chapter is devoted to a summary of the annals of humankind – that is, essentially to a summary of Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” With the speed of a race-car driver driving with the strong wind and not against it, he reviews the entire history of the human race, primarily the history of the West, to prove that progress has not been the monopoly of Europeans, and that the dawn of civilization actually occurred in the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Valley – a fact that he presents as radically new, but that every Israeli learns in the fourth grade.

Sand also claims to be breaking new ground when he explains that various societies developed in different manners, in accordance with their particular agricultural and economic needs; that human societies have always borrowed and learned from one another; and that only when societies acted in unison were cultures created. The myth of progress is a racist European invention, he claims, like the very term “European continent.” The same holds true for other concepts employed by Europeans, such as antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance and modernity.

Not only is there not a single other historian who is unaware of the arbitrariness of these terms, but on every page in this first chapter, Sand talks about geographic and cultural realms that “prospered up to a certain level of complexity, from which it was no longer in their power to deviate,” about “a dynamic uniqueness of northwest Europe,” about “a long-term process of ripening” and about “a jump in production.” Yet, all of these are linguistic formulations embedded entirely in the Western lexicon of progress, which assumes an increased accumulation of knowledge, manufacturing processes and technological complexity over time.

At the end of a long chapter, which is phrased in the positivist language of progress of the 19th century, Sand alleges that he is the only one who has succeeded in “shattering the continuum of history” and breaking free not only from the nationalistic concept of time but also from the illusion of Marxist time and the Western perception of time. Maybe so, but we will have to wait for his next book to see it, because in this one he is still completely mired in the experience of modernity.

The second chapter in the book engages in an attack on the French social history of the  Annales School. This school, which was created in the late 1920s, shifted the perspective of historians from a focus on political events to social, economic and demographic processes, and subsequently to long-term mental processes, as well. It invented the historiography of climate, families and sexuality, and developed research techniques (statistical, demographic, etc.) that made it possible to ask historical questions that had never previously been asked.

However, if in Sand’s opinion, political history is invalid because it serves the national entity, then French social history is invalid because it is not political enough. The study of long-term structures and processes, he says, supplanted the study of political events. He accuses the leading historians of the Annales School of dealing with peasants rather than with workers, and argues that by immersing themselves in numbers and statistical analyses, they “sanctified reality” instead of undermining it. “What is the function of history if its consumer does not find in it any response to his spiritual or political needs?” he asks – a mere 20 pages after having attacked the phenomenon of enlisting history to fulfill political needs.

There is no reason to expand on the more minor misunderstandings in this chapter – that is, with respect to the question of what the history of mentality is, what micro-history is, what the study of memory is, and what the political (yes, political) significance was of the study of lower socioeconomic classes whose voices had not been heard in traditional historic sources, and which until the 1960s had been virtually unrepresented in historic research as proactive forces, but rather always portrayed as victims of processes larger than them.

The third chapter ridicules the worship by historians of historic sources, since the choice of sources and the way they are analyzed always serves, per Sand, the needs of a nation. To gauge the superficiality of this argument, I propose that readers consider how research conducted on out-of-wedlock births among peasants' daughters in 19th-century France – a typical example of of the subjects of the French social history that is assailed by Sand – serves the French national ethos in the 21st century.

A historian’s lament

The fourth and last chapter is a superficial survey of what the author calls “post-modernist approaches,” and of course of all the historians who preceded him and developed these research approaches. Even the most critical of them, he charges, have failed to insist that history is nothing more than the opium of nationalism, that there is no written history that is not influenced by special interests, and that there is no historian except for Sand himself who has not been subjugated to the needs of cultural elites and state mechanisms.

As such, this line of argument itself testifies to his absolute failure to understand the claims of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, whom he reads not as scholars who scrutinize and probe the concept of the stability of all truths, including textual, but as those who maintain that ideology and control of power, and these two motivations only, dictate how historical texts are composed and read.

What, then, are Sand’s conclusions from lamenting the submissiveness of historians whoever and wherever they are, their acceptance of the party line, and their moral corruption and their desire to placate the organs of power? He contends that, already at the fact-finding stage, one should cast doubt on any historical discoveries. This is an ironclad prerequisite for the writing of a “more credible” history. And it should also be borne in mind that historiographic truisms are always a matter of relativism and fragmentation. Sand does not put quotation marks around those terms, and instead presents them as his own radical new ideas, but they are declaratively stated not only by Leopold von Ranke, the leading positivist historian of the 19th century, but as early as the 15th century, by Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla.

Among his other superficial claims, Sand declares that as opposed to physicians, historians do not have any moral obligation to anyone or anything. This, too, of course, is a flawed assertion. Every scientific discipline possesses a concept of truth, and the truth of historians is not “rigid,” like the truth of the laws of physics, and is rather more similar to the truth of jurisprudence. Historians are morally obligated to present their readers with what they assume to be the truest and most accurate explanation to a series of events, and they are morally obligated to provide their readers with the ability to judge the correctness of their statements.

We are talking about “footnotes” – a seemingly technical device that actually reflects not only a historian's moral pledge but also a readiness to submit to the readers’ test. Sand does not put himself to the readers’ test. Anyone who does not agree with him is defined a priori as someone who has sold his soul to the mechanisms of power. Indeed, his latest work ends with a lament over the bitter fate of Sand himself – the victim of persecution by the entire establishment for his courage to speak truth to power.

Prof. Moshe Sluhovsky is chair of both the department of history and the school of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.