What Kind of Jew is Shlomo Sand?
After a highly respectable academic career as an intellectual historian of France, with publications on Georges Sorel and Ernest Renan, Shlomo Sand burst onto the international scene in 2008 with The Invention of the Jewish People, a bestseller in the original Hebrew and subsequently translated into at least 20 languages. Applying the investigative model of “invented traditions” (as in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger) to the neat geographical circle of Jewish history, beginning with exile by the Romans and ending two thousand years later with “return” from diaspora and the establishment of the state of Israel, Sand found no evidence that the Romans had ever exiled the ancient Israelites. Little by little, he undercut the foundational myth of Zionism. Undaunted by the fury his results elicited in certain quarters, he went on to apply the same methods in The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012) and to draw political conclusions from his work in How I Stopped Being a Jew (2013).
The short film only scratches the surface of Sand’s opinions and his life, from the displaced persons camp near Munich where he spent his infancy and the Arab working-class neighborhood in Jaffa where he grew up to the politicizing effect of his participation in the 1967 war in Jerusalem. It leaves to the side the strong influence of his Communist parents and the long history of his engagement with the Israeli left, now sadly enfeebled, and his endorsement of the BDS campaign launched by Palestinian civil society (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). Hopefully the film will make viewers want to find out more about Sand’s uncompromising leftist internationalism, displayed in The End of the French Intellectual (2016), his controversies with geneticists in search of a “Jewish gene,” and most recently the two novels that make use of his historical research, the first translated from Hebrew into French as La Mort du Khazar Rouge (2019).
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the author and editor of several books, including Perpetual War: Cosmopolitanism from the Viewpoint of Violence, and Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State. This short documentary was released by Mondoweiss in the spring of 2020.