The acclaimed and controversial historian turns his critical gaze on the writing of history today
On its publication in 2009, Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People met with a storm of controversy. His demystifying approach to nationalist and Zionist historiography provoked much criticism from other professional historians, as well as praise. The furore gave him a privileged position to consider his academic discipline, which he reflects on here in Twilight of History.
Drawing on four decades in the field, Sand takes a wider view and interrogates the study of history, whose origin lay in the need for a national ideology. Over the last few decades, traditional history has begun to fragment, yet only to give rise to a new role for historians as priests of official memory. Working in Israel has sharpened Sand’s perspective, since the role of history as national myth is particularly salient in a country where the Bible is treated as a source of historical fact. He asks such questions as: Is every historical narrative ideologically marked? Do political requirements and state power weigh down inordinately on historical research and teaching? And, in such conditions, can there be a morally neutral and “scientific” truth?
Despite his trenchant criticism of academic history, Sand would still like to believe that the past can be understood without myth, and finds reasons for hope in the work of Max Weber and Georges Sorel.