Shlomo Sand Responds to Critique of His Book: Good History Must Inflict Pain

If myths are ideologies in the form of narratives, history books are, when all is said and done, myths with footnotes. A response to last week's review by Moshe Sluhovsky.

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Shlomo Sand.
Shlomo Sand. The historian needs to be more conscious of historiography’s inherent bias.Credit: David Bachar

When I wrote my book “History in Twilight: Reflections on Time and Truth,” I assumed it would stir up a ruckus among pedigreed Israeli historians. My previous books were also the objects of scorn and derision in the local historiography community. Yet I never imagined that such a vitriolic and hostile critique would be voiced over less “provincial” matters.

History books nearly always contain errors, mistakes and, frequently, conscious and unconscious deviations as well. Newspaper book reviews should include many fewer of these, owing to their extreme brevity. That is not the case, however, in Prof. Moshe Sluhovsky’s article about my new book. I will not enumerate here all of the mistakes and contradictions that overcrowd his article, but will instead offer only a few representative] examples.

In Sluhovsky’s opinion, in my discussion of the subject of the Jewish Khazar Empire in my earlier “The Invention of the Jewish People,” I preferred “to present 19th-century romantic and nationalistic representations of the tribe as a historical reality, ignoring the overwhelming historical consensus that they had never existed.”

Nationalistic? I don’t quite understand. True, anyone who reads my book knows that I based myself mainly on “Khazara: History of a Jewish Empire in Europe,” the detailed book (in Hebrew) by Abraham Pollack, founder of the Middle East history department at Tel Aviv University. Of course, by virtue of his findings and conclusions, he does not belong to the “accumulation of the body of scientific knowledge of the 20th century” even though he was acting within the academic establishment (translations here and below are mine, based on the original Hebrew review).

Anyone who reads Sluhovsky is supposed to believe that I assume that, “Any time it is possible to offer several interpretations of a certain event or chain of events... [it is up to the historian] to choose the interpretation that best serves his immediate political needs.” Not only did I not write any such rubbish, but the core of my book is a critique of this inherent bias of historiography – a bias from which it is impossible to break away totally. The historian needs only to be more conscious of it and more torn and uncertain when confronting it.

This is a position that Sluhovsky doesn’t quite understand, just as he was unable to grasp that history as a supra-pedagogical profession that is forced on the young public in all modern states, has from its outset been complicit in construction of the national ethos.

Even though I spent at least nine years of my life studying, researching and even teaching at the primary institution that teaches the Annales School of historiography, it seems that I did not properly understand it. To those who have not and will not read my book, I must emphasize that significant aspects of the direction of my historiographic development and of my sensibilities and tastes were formulated thanks to the Annales heritage.

True, in recent years I have become increasingly more critical of it, due to its continual retreat from political history, mainly conflictual history. For instance, from the establishment of the journal Annales, in the late 1920s, until World War II and even afterward, although 40 percent of the articles in it were about contemporary history – not a single article appeared in it about World War I, anti-Semitism or the Dreyfus trial, or about murderous collectivization in the Soviet Union.

“Faire de l’histoire” (“Making History”), a brilliant lighthouse composition that extends over three volumes, and which included dozens of articles, appeared in the mid-1970s. The articles were about climate, quantitative history, demographics, mentality, cinema, sexuality, family and even contemporary politics. The writers were the most prominent actors in the Annales School, some of whom were my teachers and friends. Of course, not a single article appeared about nation-building, Vichy or the Algerian War.

The first serious book about the shaping of the French nation-state, which was also about the Vichy regime, was written, at the very same time, by two American historians. Nor is it a coincidence that the first history book about the Algerian War was written by a British historian. The flight from political history was always a sort of politics in itself, as well.

What remains is for me to merely smile (albeit sadly) when Sluhovsky writes that Foucault and Barthes did not claim that ideology and control of power are intertwined with forms of discourse (historiographic and other) and that these two brilliant thinkers were only holding up for examination the “concept of the instability of the text.” A significant portion of Foucault’s writings has been translated into Hebrew, and I recommend that everyone read them and judge for himself. Since Barthes has been translated relatively sparingly, I refer the readers to my article “The Discourse of History,” which can be found in English on the Internet, and which is one of the points of departure of my new book. In this pioneering article, Barthes emphasized that“historical discourse is in its essence a form of ideological elaboration, or to put it more precisely, an imaginary elaboration.” But evidently Sluhovsky thinks he understands Barthes better than Barthes himself.

Footnotes do not make history scientific, nor do they make it into a discipline that bears any moral commitment to truth. All of the historians under the Third Reich or under Stalinism or fascism – precisely like the historians in the liberal nation-states – used a lot of footnotes. I myself use them a lot (a bit too frequently, my students say). This does not make the discipline a science, either rigid or not. If myths are ideologies in the form of narratives, history books are, in some sense, myths with footnotes. This doesn’t mean that there are not better historians and worse historians, in the same way that there are better tailors and worse tailors. However, historians are not scientists, and will never be. Moreover, I still subscribe to the idea that writing good history always means writing history that inflicts some pain.

In summary, I will refer to the review’s last mistake, or to its last intentional deception, which truly annoys me. Sluhovsky writes: “Indeed, his latest work ends with a bitter lament over the fate of Sand himself – the victim of persecution by the entire establishment for his courage to speak truth to power.” At the end of my last book, I briefly commented that, to my dismay, no one would permit me to teach Jewish or Zionist history in Israel. If Sluhovsky doesn’t believe me, he should ask his colleagues in the departments of history of the Jewish people at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv University.

Nevertheless, I have never lamented my bitter fate and have not for a moment felt that the establishment is persecuting me. True, I do not expect to be granted the Israel Prize for my problematic writing, or that I will be elected to the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. But that is not so awful; I spent years at Tel Aviv University as a full professor, and now, as I head into retirement, the “establishment” has asked me to continue to teach classes. My books in Israel, as in Europe, have become best sellers and have been translated into over 20 languages.