The first time Shlomo Sand was disappointed by the working class was when he was 16. He had just been expelled from high school in Jaffa and had started to work in a factory. “I was a working lad,” the professor relates. “I went to work and I was full of enthusiasm about the proletariat, in light of the values with which I’d been inculcated by my father, who was a communist. But I was really disappointed: the contempt the old-timers had for the young people, the way they exploited me and other working youths. Because I was younger, I had to serve them. I had to sweep the factory. I told my father, ‘Just look at your proletariat.’ I was disappointed.”
A few years later, after seeing action in the 1967 Six-Day War, the young Sand joined Matzpen, a radical socialist, anti-Zionist organization. There the young man from Jaffa became acquainted with a group of intellectuals, most of them from well-off families. “They were a group of nice bohemians with big souls. But the gap between utopia and reality was too large. There was tension between me and them: I was a manual worker, so I found their fantasies of a revolution to be improbable. I believed in a struggle, but not in a proletarian revolution. And that was actually on the basis of my acquaintance with workers. I left Matzpen without recriminations.”
Sand, 75, is one of Israel’s best-known left-wing intellectuals. Having gained fame primarily thanks to his controversial book “The Invention of the Jewish People” (published in Hebrew in 2008, and in English the following year), he is identified with scandalous theses that have been perceived as an assault on the foundations of Zionist ideology.
Now the post-Zionist historian is casting his critical spotlight on his home camp: the left. In his new book, “A Brief History of the Left” (published in Hebrew by Resling), Sand examines trenchantly the history of the left at the beginning of the modern era, its metamorphoses around the globe and also its profound failures.
His point of departure is today’s gloomy situation of the left worldwide. “I decided to write the book because of the present state of the left,” he says. “Because I have always seen myself as a person of the left, all my life, the present situation spoke to me, and I also thought I could sum up a few things. So the book is also something of an autobiography.”
According to the conventional wisdom, the left has a precise date of birth: 1789, the year the French Revolution broke out. In the National Assembly that was established that July, the delegates initially sat in mixed fashion, but very soon the king’s loyalists sat on the right side and their opponents on the left side. A representative of the nobility, the Baron de Gauville, wrote in his diary at the end of August 1789: “I tried numerous times to sit in the different parts of the room and to not adopt the marked spaces… but I was obliged to completely abandon the party on the left.” That was the moment at which the “left” morphed from being an arrangement of chairs in the National Assembly into a highly charged political concept.
Sand, though, locates the birth of the left earlier: in 1649, in the Puritan uprising in England. “It is generally accepted to say that the left was born in France. But in Britain, after the execution of Charles I, a quite significant political stream, called the Levellers, formed. They published a newspaper in which they raised the idea of political equality for all males. That was the first time in history that the idea of social-economic equality was put forward.”
But there were revolts of oppressed groups even earlier.
“There were uprisings, but there was no left. In Rome, there was the revolt of the slaves led by Spartacus, but that was not a left-wing revolt, because it wasn’t based on egalitarian ideas – he just wanted to turn the masters into slaves and the slaves into masters. The Jewish religion also liberated imagined slaves in Egypt and turned them into slaveholders in Canaan. But before the 17th century, the idea of equality did not exist. Equality was a central myth that emerged together with capitalism. It was actually the mobility created by capitalism that led to the rise of the ideal of equality – political and judicial equality.”
Different definitions of the left also exist; for example, as the camp of progress, universalism or human rights. Why the focus on equality?
“The principal engine for the emergence of the left is the ideal of equality. All citizens are equal in their participation in shaping the government. That becomes the central myth of the left. Some say that the left has two legs: freedom and equality. But the left is based solely on equality. Freedoms are not ingrained in the left, they are related to liberalism. There is a great deal of confusion regarding the definition of the left, especially in the Israeli press, including Haaretz. In Israel, every liberal act is called ‘left-wing.’ But in fact, for the most part, there is no affinity between the left and liberalism. Their sources also differ: The sources of liberalism lie in affluent bourgeois circles. In their resistance to the government’s arbitrariness, they foment liberalism.
“In contrast,” Sand continues, “the idea of equality between human beings unites the entire left – for better and for worse. Because sometimes you lop off heads in order to achieve equality. If you look at things coldly, you see that even in the oppressive Stalinist regime there was more equality than in the periods before and after Soviet communism. That is why there were advocates of the Soviet Union, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, who were ready to ignore the suppression because of the equality it brought. They were ready to forgo freedoms in order to achieve equality.”
You have engaged in myth-busting quite a bit in your career. When you speak of the “myth” of equality, do you mean that striving for equality is an illusion?
“As in every great faith, in the left, too, there is a considerable intermixture between rational thought and beliefs that falsify reality because of the desire to believe in something. If you want to change the world, you have to do it not only by means of a rationale but also by means of myths. Myths belong not only to the right but to the left as well.”
According to Sand, the myth of equality constitutes the greatest achievement of the worldwide left. “The left imprinted the idea of equality in all societies,” he says. “Even fascism and Nazism took something from the myth of equality. Democracy, too, is connected with the left. The birth of the left is linked to political equality. Democracy means speaking in the name of the people and putting it into practice through elections. But democracy can also be totalitarian. In North Korea, the most totalitarian country on the planet, the democratic principle of elections is retained. In Iran, too.
“From this point of view, democracy triumphed,” he elaborates, “because the sovereign cannot rule without representing the people – even if only ostensibly. There is no sovereign who does not purport to rule in the name of the people. Every politician today will talk about democracy. This, of course, is something new in human history. But today this sensitivity is in regression. There is a great rupture in the myth of equality.”
One of your surprising claims is that the capitalist economy actually brought about increased equality. You write that over the past 40 years, the income of millions in Asia has risen substantially; poverty has subsided significantly; globalization has helped reduce inequality. It sounds like you’re saying that capitalism worked.
“I read Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed book, ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ which depicts the expansion of inequality in recent decades. His fundamental emphasis is correct: Economic disparity in the Western world has increased in the past 40 years. In that he’s right. But what about equality worldwide? Here the picture is different, especially if one takes into account what is happening in China: the rapid industrialization, the rise in incomes. I found a different scholar, Branko Milanovic, who said that, in the end, capitalist globalization did what Marxism didn’t do: It started to raise the living standards of very broad groups of people. And overall, equality on the planet increased. That is an amazing revolution. Far fewer people are hungry today in China, in India, in Vietnam. Not in all countries, but in many of them.
“I checked the numbers and I found that when it comes to the expansion of inequality, Piketty is wrong, in that it is precisely capitalist globalization that has brought very decisive changes. And that is no less important than the salary of a French worker. It’s the large capitalist monopolies that fomented this – but only in places like China, where there is a regime that mediates between foreign capital and the wages of workers. This is a type of regime that protects workers.”
Election day in North Korea, 2019. Democracy, says Sand, “can also be totalitarian.”
ED JONES / AFP
That sounds like heresy. If globalization is generating equality, why is the left needed?
“I haven’t become a capitalist or an admirer of capitalism, even though it’s very important that a Chinese family need not subsist today on the brink of hunger, as was the case 30 or 40 years ago. And that transformation was brought about with much less violence, even if China is an authoritarian dictatorship. Many Chinese families have a living standard that was unimaginable 40 years ago. Also in terms of sexual and gender equality – it’s impossible to disparage what has happened thanks to capitalism.”
What, then, is the problem with capitalism?
“It’s a different problem. All this consumerism, whose impulse is hedonistic, is destroying the planet. Beyond basic human traits, it’s capitalism that is responsible for the destruction of the world. Capitalism lives, at times barely, because it persuades you to acquire things you don’t need. Turn on television and look at the car commercials.”
Which is why in our time the environmental argument has become the most potent anti-capitalist contention. But the environmental agenda doesn’t actually correspond to the aspirations of the working class.
“The ecological demand is new to the left. Ecology is alien to the left; in the past it was actually identified with the right, and even the extreme right. Today, too, the ecological demand to reduce production is contrary to the interests of the lower class. The cutback in heavy industry – in Michigan, for example – conflicts with the interests of the working class; they can’t connect with it. An antithesis exists between the affluent high-tech classes and the lower classes, which leads workers to connect with Trump-style populism.”
Is there a way to weld the two agendas together?
“I was never a good strategist, and I also tried not to be a prophet. But I don’t believe in idealism as such. Ideals don’t walk alone on the street, someone has to hold them by the hand. The working class chose populists – right-wingers or left-wingers. In Europe there were attempts to create a populist politics of the left, too. But I criticize left-wing populism, too, because of its nationalist demagoguery.
“On the other hand,” he continues, “we see in the high-tech classes, people who earn well and are liberal in their views. The question is whether these liberals can connect with very broad groups that haven’t enjoyed economic prosperity, that are outside these large high-tech bubbles. It needs to be seen whether these liberals in high-tech will understand that their political-social fate depends not only on they themselves. Otherwise they will discover that liberal freedoms are liable to be reduced very quickly.”
During the past 200 years, the struggle between right and left has become such a basic element of modern politics that we find it difficult to recall that it needn’t be like this. But in fact humanity got along in the past without the left, and it will probably get along without it in the future as well. And that might happen soon. According to Sand, the global project of the left, which began at the start of the modern era, is drawing to a close. Humanity is turning its back on the values of the left. As he sees it, the principal cause for this is the shrinking of the working class in the Western world, which was the traditional base for left-wing parties. But there are other reasons, too. Sand believes that the left’s vision of the future, which nourished left-wing politics, has sustained a mortal blow. When there is no belief in the future, it’s also difficult to believe in reforming and repairing the world.
Do you not see a future for social democracy in the world?
“Social democracy has failed, and not only in Israel. It is not attractive – not in Germany, not in France and not in most of the world. A new myth is being sought desperately. Something more radical than social democracy, both ecologically and to address relations between the state and private capital.”
So now you’re a disillusioned leftist?
“Not at all. It’s clear to me that if we don’t take part in the struggle for equality and freedoms, the political situation will not stand still – it will regress. Catastrophes will occur, from colonialism to worsening exploitation – and I cannot be indifferent to that. But the left is in a state that is perhaps terminal. The level of solidarity worldwide has weakened greatly. The basis of social values has been very much enfeebled. Masses of people are turning to right-wing philosophies that are quite racist. Sliding more and more to the right. In Israel there is a regression of certain values that had been valid since the inception of Zionism. We have reached a situation in which the majority of our society doesn’t care in the slightest about what’s going on 40 kilometers from Tel Aviv. But the truth is that Israel is not an exception. There is lack of caring in other places, too. I just saw on French television refugees trying to get to Britain jettisoned along the English Channel. Dreadful images.”
If the situation of the left is so dire, maybe this isn’t the right time to be publishing a book that critiques it.
“I gave it a lot of thought. But I have learned one thing from my life experience in the left: We must not cover up mistakes and crimes. Covering something up only makes it worse. No one will think that this book was written by someone cynical and uncaring. But it’s true that I am feeling bewildered, because one of the important things in the left and in socialism is that there was an optimistic vision of the future. A guiding positive vision. The book doesn’t have that.”
It sounds like you’ve written an obituary.
“Yes. I am trying to restrain myself. All my life I struggled with the left, abandoned the left, betrayed the left – so I was told by friends. As one who devoted years of his life to the left, it caused me no little inner turmoil to write a melancholy book, and still to say that perhaps something will be born in the future. I don’t want to bury the left. But that is the situation. The myth of equality was a tremendous engine in altering the fabric of the social classes in the modern world. But that doesn’t mean it is eternal. Everything that is born dies. Other than the Jewish people, which is eternal.”
That last comment was of course spoken in irony. Later in the conversation we would come back to the responses to Sand’s earlier book – which denied the existence of a Jewish people that was exiled from its land and returned to it – and which generated a huge controversy.
Protesters at the Glasgow climate summit.
Andrew Milligan /PA Images via G
From reading “A Short History of the World Left,” one might get the impression that the history of the left is a series of shattered illusions. “The impulse for social equality brings about both illusions and lies,” Sand says. “Marx’s immense thirst for revolution, for example, led him to idealize the proletariat. But in practice, national consciousness turned out to be more effective than international class consciousness.”
In Israel, too.
“True. One of the great blows to the vision of the left is its failure in the face of national sentiment. Marx was right in almost everything he said about capitalism, and wrong in almost everything he said about the proletariat.”
A large part of the working class also supported fascism and Nazism.
“The left always hid the fact that a very substantial part of the working class supported fascism, and still more, Nazism. In contrast to what the ideological left conventionally says, fascism is not a petit-bourgeois movement or an invention of the haute bourgeoisie.”
It looks as though the revolutionary left always has to make the same choice. One possibility is to be a joke. Disconnected from reality. The second, and worse, option is to resort to violence, and even terror, as with Stalinism and many other regimes in the last century.
“Stalin’s Great Terror was not intended to create a socialist society, but to consolidate strong rule by a party that would come to be a social class. At the same time, there is anti-communist exaggeration in the description of Soviet violence. In the 1970s, as a student in Paris, I experienced anti-communism at its peak. A book was published in France about the gulags, and it was claimed that 20 million prisoners were slaughtered in them. The more moderate British [historians] said 11 million. Today, if you check you will discover that between half-a-million and a million people died in the Gulag. It’s true that around three million died of hunger in Ukraine, another million in Kazakhstan. But in the Gulag itself – about a million.
“The Stalinist regime was murderous and totalitarian, but it can’t be compared to Nazism. I think there was truly great exaggeration, including by historians. Besides which, the West is no less violent, but against external populations. You know, the nice British are responsible for the death of more Indians and Chinese than the deaths caused by Stalin. Britain caused the starvation of seven million people in Bengal under the East India Company in the 18th century. Colonialism killed no fewer than Stalinism. Under Belgian rule, nearly six million Congolese died in diamond mines and in the rubber industry. But that doesn’t reach the popular consciousness.”
It sounds like you’re somewhat forgiving of the crimes of communism.
“I broke all my ties with communism at the time of the occupation of Prague in 1968. I signed a petition against the invasion, and the party severed its relations with me. I don’t make excuses for the left. I also don’t deny that it’s still as if I, Mao and Stalin are part of the same family, even though I don’t like it. Conceptually, I do not deny the fact that Pol Pot, who is responsible for the genocide in Cambodia, took stands that partially match my ideology. We are all enveloped by the myth of equality. They are sort of despised cousins of mine.
“Still, unlike others, I did not support Pol Pot. Noam Chomsky, that anarchist, defended Pol Pot because of his [Chomsky’s] enmity for American hypocrisy. Enmity for the lies of the powerful leads you to undertake a certain rehabilitation of crimes. There were Maoists in Matzpen, too. They were nice people privately, but I never understood how it was possible to show understanding for authoritarian regimes.”
What about Lenin?
“I still have a warm spot in my heart for Lenin – not because he was a great Marxist, but because he ended the most terrible slaughter of humanity, namely World War I. Other than that, however, he was bedazzled by the power he had in his hands. Not for a moment did Lenin think that socialism could be introduced in Russia, with a proletariat of 4 percent. He was certain that the world revolution must begin in Germany. But he sat and waited for it to happen, and the moment he saw that it wasn’t happening in the West, he did not forgo the power he had already accumulated. No one forgoes the power they have. He remained in power and entered a world of illusions.”
Ultimately, you maintain that the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism stem from the Russian and the Chinese mentality, not from Marxist ideology.
“In the West, socialism does not become violent even when it attains power. A case in point is France during the period of the Popular Front in the 1930s. A left wing that springs up within liberal frameworks is not capable of wielding violence. Population slaughters occur in pre-industrial societies. Violence from the left is characteristic of regimes with an extra-European, non-liberal tradition. I would say that they are anti-liberal cultures, and when a Marxist-Leninist left wing arrives in one of them, it wields violence, and sometimes horrific violence, in order to realize goals that it cannot realize non-violently.
“One of the conclusions I drew from working on the book is that you need to take the longue-duree [long-term] view. Everywhere there are structures of long-term pre-capitalism that condition the attitude toward liberalism. I reached the conclusion that in both the Soviet Union and in China, the long term is more important than ideology or the change in social relations that politics generates. There is continuity between Ivan the Terrible, Stalin and Putin. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, for example, is considered an economic liberal, there is nothing socialist in him – and he is authoritarian.
“It’s the same with China, which also taught me that there is a continuity of long-term structures that are more decisive than ideologies. It’s the same in the Middle East. In the world of Islam, left-wing movements were crushed with an army. In the end, in Syria, Iraq and also Algeria, the army was decisive. I put forward a hypothesis that Marx and Darwin got here too early. And both of them were accepted only in Jewish and Christian circles.”
That sounds very essentialist.
“Edward Said would say I am an Orientalist. But I really don’t care. Because according to Said’s book [“Orientalism,” from 1978], one might think that what caused the East to lag behind is Orientalism. I think there really was Orientalism, but the foundations of the lag are related to social processes, and also to the Muslim religion. The long term is decisive in history. That is also the case with social democracy in the Nordic countries.”
What do you mean?
“There are those who say that we need Swedish-style social democracy in Israel. All kinds of highly regarded intellectuals in Israel say this. But when I examined the subject and asked why it is that Scandinavia has a workers movement that is strong but that preserves a very deep liberal tradition, I discovered that neither Sweden, Norway nor Finland ever actually had an institution of fiefdom of the sort that existed in other regions of Europe. The peasants there were free for a longer time, so that with industrialization, the birth of the proletariat occurred in a different form – and that explains the difference. There is a long tradition there of autonomy among a peasant class that becomes a working class. The long term is decisive in history.”
Shoppers at a branch of IKEA in China. “Families there have a living standard that was unimaginable 40 years ago.”
Peng Huan / Costfoto/Barcroft Me
Are you saying that social democracy can’t exist in Israel?
“In general, I don’t believe it’s possible. Social democracy can’t be a model here. Social democracy in the liberal West did not spring from ideas, but from a conflict between capital and labor. The great achievements in northern Europe stem from the strength of the workers organizations in the conflict with big capital. Without a conflict of this kind, social democracy will not emerge. But no such thing occurred in this country. The Zionist left was born out of settlement needs. But it is not social democracy. There is no connection between social democracy and the Israeli left. So all the quite pathetic attempts of the Israeli left have ultimately, over 40 years.”
The left tries to appeal to the working class. For years it has been trying to connect with the “periphery” and the Mizrahim.
“Those attempts are pathetic and dumb. Because one of the important things about the Western left is the encounter between intellectual groups and very strong labor organizations. Those attempts recall the Narodniks, the 19th-century revolutionaries in Russia who made an effort to appeal to the people and tried to find socialism among peasants. It’s the same with the Mapainiks’ [referring to the forerunner of the Labor party] search for Mizrahim, which brought to the fore tragicomic figures like Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz. They are very nice people but there is no connection between them and socioeconomic conditions in Israel.”
The connection between Mizrahim and the left is a lost cause?
“The way that group clings to [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who is the symbol of all things Ashkenazi, is of course disheartening. The offspring of the Arab Jews who were brought or came here learned that in order to be integrated they had to be as minimally Arab as possible. But I don’t reject them, because my future depends on them. I believe that in the longer term, they will discard the syndrome of not being Arabs under any circumstances.”
‘We remained in Jaffa’
Shlomo Sand was born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Linz, Austria, to Polish-Jewish parents who had fled to Uzbekistan during the war. His mother’s native tongue was Yiddish, and in his childhood his nickname was Samek. His father had forsaken religion in his youth, joined the Communist Party and was imprisoned in Poland for his activity in the party. Even though they were not Zionists, the family immigrated to Israel in 1948, settling in a one-room apartment in Jaffa.
“My father was a laborer who held all kinds of jobs, from porter to night watchman. My mother was a maid in the home of a north Tel Aviv family. Because of his communist ideology, my father refused to accept reparations from Germany, along with the Herutniks [Menachem Begin’s Herut party, forerunner of Likud]. The upshot was that the majority of my parents’ family moved to north Tel Aviv, and only we remained in impoverished Jaffa.”
As noted, Sand was expelled from school. “I went through a period with drugs,” he relates. “Not hard drugs, but nafas [marijuana], all the time. My best friend and I sank into smoking, until we met some American volunteers who had come to Israel because they didn’t want to go to Vietnam. One of them introduced us to heroin. I stayed ‘Polish’ [square] and didn’t indulge. My friend started with that, and in the end drugs killed him. I was in very great despair.”
After the army, and after he did make-up matriculation exams, Sand entered Tel Aviv University. “I had long hair and wore chains around my neck,” he says, “and suddenly, when I started to study history, I was outstanding.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation (about the political theorist Georges Sorel) in Paris, and became a lecturer in the history of the modern era. “That was the first thing in which I succeeded – until then I had failed in most of what I did.”
He met his future wife, Varda, in 1973, when he was sent to the Sinai Peninsula, during the Yom Kippur War. “I was at Moshav Neviot there, and I stopped her on the road, because there was an order not to allow civilians to pass,” he recalls. “She was a hippy from a kibbutz.” Indeed, she too came from a devoutly left-wing family. Her father, a non-Jew, was an anarchist in Barcelona who came to Israel because he’d heard that there were anarchist communes here.
The Sands, who live in Tel Aviv, have two daughters and three grandchildren. Varda is a painter and designs the original cover illustrations for most of his books, including his best-known work, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” which has been translated into 23 languages since its initial publication, in 2008.
The book depicts the concept of the Jewish people as a Christian myth that was adopted by Zionism, and maintains that the Romans did not exile the Jews, but that the forebears of the Jews of Ashkenaz (associated with Germany and northern Europe), Yemen and North Africa converted to Judaism. In particular, Sand revived the hypothesis that the roots of the Ashkenazi Jews lie not in the Promised Land but in the kingdom of the Khazars, a Turkic people whose land was located in the Volga and Caucasus region and whose kings converted to Judaism at some point in the Middle Ages.
Sand notes that he continues to receive letters from readers of the book around the world, including some who attested that their family had upheld Khazar tradition for generations. The subject of the Khazars apparently continues to haunt Sand. In 2019 he published a campus-based detective novel, “To Live and to Die in Tel Aviv” (Hebrew), about a historian from Tel Aviv University who does research about the Khazars and is murdered mysteriously, with the involvement of Shin Bet security service personnel.
Did you ever fear you would be killed?
“There were things. Even now there are serious manifestations of hostility.”
Do you think it’s possible that a historian in Israel would be murdered for questioning the Zionist myth?
“As of today, no. One of the strong things in Zionism is that Jews are rarely murdered [by Jews]. Jewish blood is not shed – not in an organized manner and not spontaneously. The Shin Bet does not behave toward Jews the way it does toward Arabs, absolutely not. That is the situation in the meantime, but it could change. In the past, Jews who endangered the national project were harmed and murdered. But I am not such an impediment, a danger or all that important to the national enterprise. I don’t think there is a reason to kill me. If I were to organize a large non-Zionist movement, that would be something else. But frustrated intellectuals aren’t harmed. In any event, in the novel there is a double motive for the murder: pain and homosexual love, as well as the political aspect. But things are intermingled. The political-intellectual threat is not sufficient to commit murder; it is connected to sexual frustrations.”
Shlomo Sand. “Sometimes you lop off heads in order to achieve equality.”
The book doesn’t seem to have been a great success. Were you disappointed?
“The book was a great success in France. I didn’t make an effort to get it translated into more languages. I like detective novels, and I had dreamed of writing one for a long time. Since my youth, I no longer read Dostoevsky – I read detective novels.”
You put a lot of intrigues from the corridors of the university into the book. That’s a popular genre lately: academics who expose the dirty secrets of humanities faculties. Does this interest anyone outside the university?
“It’s true that academic novels don’t work well. The subject is of less interest to the general public. But for years I had wanted to write about what I experienced: 34 years in the corridors of the Gilman Building [in Tel Aviv University]. I was actually very pampered. My way was paved in the history department, which adopted me, and I was allowed to be tenured very quickly. On the other hand, hypocrisy can be especially rampant in academic and intellectual venues. I saw cases in which [academic] advisers were apprehensive that their student was liable to outdo them, and saw to it that those who were promoted were not necessarily the brilliant ones.”
You said once that the future of humanities faculties resembles the future of theology faculties, and that they need to be given dignified burials.
“Yes. That is the trend. History is dying, too. The historians fulfilled their great role of creating nations, and now they are less needed. The humanities faculties are in a twilight mode. What will be born in their place? That is a different question. Although I don’t think there was very much humanity in the faculty of humanities in the past, either.”
Maybe part of the attraction of intellectuals to the left stems from the significant roles that intellectuals played in those [communist] regimes. From a certain point of view, the intellectuals were in power.
“Public intellectuals have an important role in transforming instincts into coherent ideas and political programs. An intellectual is one who creates opinions through words. In workers parties in the West, intellectuals were generally not allowed to run the party, but in the non-Western revolutions, the place of the intellectual is central. Lenin was an intellectual, per se; Mao in China – even Stalin. I was surprised when I read Stalin. I had an image of him as a semi-boorish Georgian, but that is totally not the case. He had all sorts of complexes, but he was an intellectual. Afterward, when they become leaders, they no longer have time to write.”
You wrote a book titled “The End of the French Intellectual?” Is the situation really so dire?
“There is no longer any such thing as intellectuals in France. There are no longer people such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. In France, more than anywhere else in the world, intellectuals occupied a very important place in crystallizing the ideas of the left, following the Dreyfus Affair. There was an array of intellectuals at a very high level, which no longer exists today. People from the universities also allowed themselves to burst onto the public stage. But something happened. There are no more stars. There are wise university people, but they are occupied with smaller and smaller things. They are not intellectuals. They do not dare to speak out, because they know they must not take the risk. At the same time, the media loves simplicity. The moving picture is responsible for the creation of the new intellectual. It builds up a type of public intellectual who has no depth. People like Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut are successful because they make impressive television appearances. But they are not philosophers. No one will teach a seminar about their philosophy.”
But you actually were able to package your ideas in media-wise fashion. “When and how” – the phrase appears in the titles of several of your books [in Hebrew] – is a powerful brand.
“That is a slightly painful question. I want to disseminate my views. The original title of the book was ‘Haleom Kehalom’ [The Nation as a Dream], and then I changed it to ‘When and How [was the Jewish People Invented?’]. That is a very intriguing title, a very large trigger. But I was truly surprised when I saw that it had become a best seller.”
There were those who complained that you were writing outside your field of research.
“There are also other historians who moved to a different field, and no one said a word to them. But when it came to Shlomo Sand, there were suddenly problems because I wasn’t writing about my field. That is not the point. Very quickly I realized that I had touched on one of the elements that shape the whole Jewish-Israeli consciousness.”
Do you really think that what you wrote is so scandalous? Is the Khazar hypothesis so much of a threat to university academics?
“Never mind the Khazars. The fact is that to this day not one book has been published about the act of exile in connection with the destruction of the Second Temple. Because there was no exile. Yet, no high-school graduate knows that there was a kingdom in Yemen that was converted to Judaism in the fifth century C.E. How can that be? The convention that the Jews are a people, a race, that was uprooted and is wandering the world has tremendous force.”
So you think you were courageous?
“I played a certain role as a critical intellectual in Israel. But I did so after becoming a tenured professor. I don’t have very much courage. If I had published the book before getting tenure, I would not have been promoted. Unequivocally. There are illiberal mechanisms in place in the university. Today I would not get a teaching post, and if I did, I would not achieve the rank of professor. I have no illusions about that.”
Now you’re going to have problems with the left – aren’t you afraid they will say you are a defeatist?
“I am past that. I have long since ceased to perceive myself as a hero of the working class.”