An unbalanced Philip Adams on your ABC

March 28, 2010 by Henry Benjamin
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ABC’s Late Night Live has given air space to Shlomo Sand author of the controversial book ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’….with no attempt to balance the topic.

J-Wire adds equilibrium courtesy of The Times.

Philip Adams

Renowned broadcaster Philip Adams conducted the interview last week.

Sand, a professor of European History at the University of Tel Aviv, told Adams that he believed that Israel’s Arab citizens, who represent 20% of the country’s population, may one day revolt and that the next Intifada could be in the Galil. Throughout the interviews, Sand makes pronouncements that Sydney and Melbourne Jews believe that Israel is their state.

The interview starts off by claiming that the existence of the Jewish people is a “majestic piece of mythology”. Sand says that a people share the the same language, same food,  same music and “know all the footballers’ names”. He said: “The Australian Jew does not speak my language and does not understand my culture”.

Sand said: “I don’t understand why 200o years of absence gives you  the right and 2000 years of presence doesn’t give you the right.”

But he denies there was a Jewish exile and calls it a myth. Adams himself calls it “the majestic mythology of Israel”.

Stating that Jews have biologically nothing in common genetically, Sand tells Adams that he he will not fight against a Jewish identity. He says: “Jewish identity yes – Jewish people no.”

He added that Israel belongs to the ‘Israelians’ and not to the Jew that are living in Melbourne and Sydney. He said ” They are Australians. Israel cannot belong to Jews all over the world”.

However he did add that “you can have solidarity but don’t think Israel belongs to you.”

Adams told Sand of the modern day practice in Australia of acknowledging “the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures
we celebrate as among the oldest continuing cultures in human history” a phrase use by many public speakers including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Sand thought the idea commendable and told Adams “you can serve as a model”.

At no time in the interview did Adams offer any counter-argument or advise the listeners at the end of the program that a balancing interview was scheduled.

Melbourne’s Paul Rozental spoke to the ABC after listening to the program. He told J-Wire: “I talked to Amruta Slee at the ABC who works with Adams. She showed no interest whatsoever in presenting another point of view and I got nowhere in trying to get the station to show even a modicum of  balance on Sand’s book.”

Federal Labour MP Michael Danby sees this interview striking at the very heart of the ABC. He told J-Wire: “We expect nothing better from Philip Adams. He is a problem for the ABC’s chairman Mark Scott who seeks appropriations from my parliamentary colleagues. On the eve of Pesach, he presents a one-sided interview with the idealogue Shlomo Sand  along with the apparent refusal to entertain a balanced point of view. This is an insolent attack on the Australian Jewish community. The questions asked show his ignorance only matches his malevolence.”

Danby quoted the ancient tenet “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither”.

The Executive Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry Peter Wertheim added: “No Australian Jew has ever claimed ownership of Israel. The country is is in the hands of its citizens’ parliamentary representatives as is is the case in any true democracy.”

Click to listen to the interview

To add  balance, J-Wire  publishes a review of Sand’s book printed in The Times Literary Supplement  [U.K.], written by Martin Goodman.

In 67 AD, a year after the Jews of Jerusalem had begun their war against Rome, a certain Antiochus, the son of the leader of the local Jewish community in the great city of Antioch in Syria, brought about a massacre of some in this community by alleging that his fellow Jews were plotting to burn the city to the ground. Those who survived were compelled, at Antiochus’s instigation, to sacrifice in the pagan manner: Antiochus wanted to prove his change of allegiance, and he knew the most effective way to attack his fellow Jews. Soon afterwards the remaining Jews were accused of responsibility for a fire which did in fact burn down the market square and surrounding buildings. The Roman authorities only with great difficulty restrained the local mob from killing the rest of the Jews in the city, even though it turned out on investigation that the incendiaries had been not Jews, but debtors who had hoped to free themselves from their burdens by destroying the public archives.

What was to happen to these diaspora Jews when, some three years later, the city of Antioch was visited by Titus, conqueror of Judaea, who had destroyed Jerusalem so thoroughly as to “leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing it had ever been inhabited”? The people of Antioch greeted Titus with acclamations and a petition to expel the Jews from their city, to which Titus responded that this was not possible: “their own fatherland, to which, being Jews, they ought to be banished, has been destroyed, and no place would now receive them”.

These stories and quotations come from the last book of Josephus’s account of the Jewish War, which was composed soon after the events as a work of history for Roman readers, including Titus himself. If what Josephus wrote was true, what is one to make of the claim in Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, that there was no exile of the Jews in ad 70, that the notion of such an exile was the product of Christian theology later adopted by the rabbis, that modern Jews are all the descendants of gentiles from outside Judaea who converted to Judaism as a religion, and that the Jews were not, and should not now, be considered as a people until the Jewish people were “invented” in the nineteenth century? Is there anything at all to be said for Sand’s much-hyped hypotheses? Certainly it is true, and has always been well recognized, that the dejudaisation of Jerusalem was not instantaneous in ad 70. A Roman legion was quartered there, but the early rabbinic sources (almost totally ignored by Sand) refer to Jews among the ruins, and it was not until the failure in ad 135 of another uprising, the Bar Kokhba war, that Jews were forbidden to enter into the territory of the city. The explicit testimony to this ban in the writings of Justin Martyr in around the 140s ad is incomprehensibly dismissed by Sand as the product of Christian theological bias, but it is hard to know why Justin, who came from Palestine and was a sophisticated author in the Greek rhetorical tradition, would lay his argument open to easy refutation on the grounds that his assertion about the exclusion of the Jews from their home city was simply not true.

It is also a well-known fact that exile for these Jews was only from Jerusalem and its environs, not from all the areas that had at times been part of the Roman province of Judaea in the first century ad or constituted “the land of Israel” for the rabbis – indeed, much of the rabbinic literature of late antiquity was composed in Galilee, including the Mishnah. It is hard to imagine that this information can come as a surprise to Israelis of any background in the light of the considerable efforts made in recent years to build up tourism to sites of Jewish settlement in late Roman Palestine, such as Sepphoris.

But (as everyone also knows) many Jews in late antiquity were to be found scattered around the wider Roman world, not just in the diaspora in the eastern Mediterranean coastlands where Jews had been established long before ad 70, but also in parts of the western Mediterranean and in northern Europe where they are attested only after Jerusalem had been destroyed. Where did these Jews come from? Sand claims that not just some, but the great majority, of these diaspora Jews were descended not from inhabitants of Judaea, but from converts, and this is where his discussion substitutes belligerence for argument. Sand’s analysis starts from the assumption that the total population of Jews in the Roman Empire was so huge that it can only have come about through widespread conversion, but this assumption itself is faulty. He confidently cites the figure of a total of 4 million Jews in the Roman Empire in the first century ad, a number derived, via a series of wholly random guesses, from a figure which was itself long ago shown to be an error which crept into scholarly literature in the nineteenth century on the basis of a confused reference by the thirteenth-century Syriac author Bar Hebraeus to the total number of Roman citizens in the time of Claudius.

And if the Jewish population did indeed grow disproportionately to the non-Jewish population in the early centuries AD, the impact of Jewish opposition to abortion and infanticide deserves to be taken a great deal more seriously as an explanation than it is by Sand, who seems to be totally ignorant of the standard methods of population control, including child exposure, in the pagan Roman Empire. That some non-Jews converted in this period, not least for intermarriage, is not in doubt, and the evidence adduced by Sand (as for many of his allegedly radical assertions) is all standard. But to imagine that mass conversion to Judaism could have taken place in this period on the same lines as the conversions of whole populations to Christianity within the Christian Roman state from the fourth century, without evoking considerably greater hostile evidence from the Roman state in either its pagan or its Christian guise, is desperately implausible, given the illegality of male conversion to Judaism in the Roman world from the mid-second century.

No less implausible is Sand’s claim that the Jews were regarded only as a religious group after ad 70, and not as a people. It is of course true that the complex identity of Jews as both a religion and a nation is a stock topic of undergraduate essays in the (perfectly respectable) academic field of Jewish History so despised by Sand, and the same topic has recently absorbed the energies of the Supreme Court in London. And the Christian Roman state, which from the late fourth century categorized all its inhabitants to a considerable extent by religious identity, referred to the Jews also primarily in religious terms  as a “secta”, “superstitio”, or (on rare occasions, more politely) as a “religio”.

But there is also no doubt that both pagan and Christian Romans sometimes thought of the Jews as a people (and in this respect the terminology used about Jews is very different from that used about Christians, about whom Sand has remarkably little to say). Near the end of the third century, 200 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple but still under a pagan Roman emperor, the author of a legal tome called the Sententiae referred to these “iudaei” as a “natio”, which is unambiguous, and the same terminology can be found in a law, preserved in the fifth-century Theodosian code, of the Christian Emperor Constantine II: on August 13, 339, he gave judgement on the punishment to be inflicted on Jews who bought a slave “of another secta or natio”. The same term “natio” was employed about the Jews by the aristocratic pagan poet Rutilius Namatianus when he vented his rage in verse against a Jew whose bad temper ruined a visit he made, at some time between 415 and 417, to some particularly pleasant fish-ponds near Faleria, which he encountered on the way from Rome to his property in his native Gaul.

What has possessed Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv historian of contemporary European history, to write about a subject of which he patently knows so little? The answer is refreshingly simple. His aim, which he does not try to disguise, is to undermine the claim of Israeli Jews who come from diaspora communities to have returned to the land from which their people originated. He hopes thereby to help to turn the state of Israel into a more equal democratic society in which the origins of its Jewish and Arab inhabitants are ignored.

Now, Sand’s political concerns for the present and the future may indeed be justified, since there is no doubt that keeping the state of Israel both Jewish and democratic is proving by no means easy – not at all a new insight, as the many studies cited by Sand himself in his final chapter go to show. But this political stance cannot be justified by an appeal to invented history. It is not just Sand’s ancient history that is faulty. His account of the historiography of the Jews over the past two centuries, with his constant polemic against Zionist historians, is ludicrous.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jewish intellectuals referred to the notion of race no more than others in Europe at the time, and such language fell out of use among Jewish historians long ago. A concern with the racial genetics of contemporary Jews is Sand’s, not theirs: anyone walking down the street in Tel Aviv can see the genetic diversity of modern Israeli Jews. It is extraordinary to claim, as Sand does, that Jewish historians have suppressed knowledge of the remarkable conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or around the ninth century; on the contrary, they have frequently revelled in it. Sand’s whole discussion of this topic is, as the historian Israel Bartal put it in a devastating review published in the French journal Cités, “l’invention d’une invention”. One can only speculate about the reasons for Sand’s so frequent misrepresentation of the books he quarries, but the result is farcical.

Why bother at all to review such a book? So far as I know, no scholar who works on Jewish history in the Roman period has deigned to pay it any attention. But such lordly disdain is dangerous. The cover of Sand’s book proclaims it an international bestseller, and it has been widely discussed by journalists and on television and radio both in Israel and France, and now in Britain. For the general public, what catches the attention are the headlines, not the arguments or the evidence, and it is revealing that there is evidently an appetite for such claims among secular Israeli Jews.

But, more worryingly, the book has also received praise from historians and others who ought to have known better. These enthusiasts do not presumably know the material about which Sand writes, but they like his conclusions, and they have presumably been taken in by the impression that his book is scholarly history – an impression created by large numbers of footnotes referring to a wide array of scholarship (much of it only in fact half-digested) and an opening chapter which gallops competently enough through standard discussions about the construction of national identities and the notion of ethnicity before the author turns to his highly dubious claims about the Jews.

In a self-glorifying preface to this book, Sand describes his role as that of a revealer of inconvenient facts suppressed by a malicious political and academic establishment. Some of those who have expressed approval of his book may believe that, like the Israeli New Historians whose discovery of genuinely new data on the events of 1948 has indeed caused much discomfort to that establishment, Shlomo Sand, too, has faced opposition because he has unearthed something new. Nothing could be further from the truth.


8 Responses to “An unbalanced Philip Adams on your ABC”
  1. For once, I find myself in substantial agreement with many people on the right. I’ve read most of Sand’s book carefully, read reviews of it in English, French and Hebrew, and used by own training in ancient near eastern languages to assess the quality of his work. I found myself scribbling on almost every page of the book.

    I’ve spent time on scholarly lists also trying to elicit opinions from people I respect. They decline to take the book seriously.

    Unfortunately, it is a book that is lacking in credibility because of its wholesale adoption of spurious or contentious theories about Jewish origins and Jewish history for grand conclusions which no one with good training would use. His ideology has driven his conclusions. His tried to write a sort of grand French Annales- type historical thesis in the tradition of Braudel and others. Unfortunately for him, they spent their lives working through the minutiae of dusty evidence, something he appears to have forgotten about is the basis of historical theorization.

    He throws methodology and careful assessment of evidence (and particularly non-evidence) out the window to push a very narrow and bizarre line about the history of Jewish identity. It’s a modern version of the ‘Canaanite’ thesis that was around 40 or 50 years ago on the Israeli left/right spectrum.

    Even the most atheistic, secular reader of the siddur or critical reader of the bible would see that the concept of ‘the people of Israel’ , constantly reflected through language that goes back at least 2 millenia is something far more complex and ancient, than the narrow understanding he has of Judaism as a religion- – Jewish identify/culture has preserved something tribal, and bizarre and in modernity, but it is a feature of Jewish history. Some people still take it all seriously, some don’t , but to adduce false arguments to prove that it isn’t at all true is plain silly.

    It’s regrettable that many people will take the book seriously, and use it as political ammunition to discredit Israel, mixing inflammatory statements about culture and origins with politics, when the two should be kept entirely separate.

    For people who don’t know what Near East /Biblical scholarship really is, the book may seem to be the real thing. By way of comparison, look at Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.A. 2001. The Bible Unearthed, which is annotated to death, with real footnotes, based on original research. This is the stuff that my colleagues in Biblical studies pour over.

    Obviously, I can’t comment about his discussion of DNA evidence, but from what I have seen, he is quite off the planet.

    Sand’s misuse of highly contested historical evidence should have been completely separated from his political arguments about the nature of modern Israel and the democracy deficit in the country and the cultural and political crisis (as he, and I, and others see it) in the country.

    This is where I suspect I part ways with the right, and find myself on the same side as Sand. While I don’t agree with all of his political argument, it is something which I, and many on the left, would agree with. It is something that people on the right would reject.

    Sand has done the thinking left a real disservice with his book which would never have passed peer review in a true academic context.

    Phillip Adams should have had someone like Goodman, an expert in the history of Jews in the Roman period as a respondent.

    But at least Sand, according to an interview I saw with him on youtube, thinks academic boycotts are stupid.

    Wikipedia has all the pros and cons. . The pros tend to be non-specialists and political writers, the cons, what I’d call real scholars (and political Zionists with whom I do share some differences over their comments on that front).

  2. Michael Burd says:

    I’m sorry ben.gershon dismissing ”some of my best friends are Jewish’ Adams constant anti Israel/ anti Zionist diatribes as just the loony left wing is dangerous.
    This so called loony left in many cases lead by Jews is becoming main stream particularly with Fairfax, ABC & SBS media.
    We have seen ex PM Fraser duplicate Ex American president Carters obsession with Israel and the Jews both from the loony left. We have seen so called Human rights activists who only believe Palestinians have human rights not Israeli Jews all these activists are from the loony left.
    We see the Socialists here have aligned them selves with the Palestinian lobby / anti- Zionist Jews and have Jewish students at University running scared .
    In the 1930,s Jews would have been saying the newly formed Nazi party are only a fringe group only a Minority group, surely the German masses won’t take them seriously , may be they were even called the ”Loony right’
    Unfortunately the loony left have an agenda and Israel is priority number one followed by America { Obama is desperately trying to remove America from their number 2 spot by appeasing the Muslim/Arab world as we can see]

    Politically speaking as far as Jews [ I.e Jews that believe in a Jewish state of Israel along side a Palestinian state ] are concerned The Loony Left who are aligned with the Islamists & Anti Semites are more dangerous today than the loony right that’s for sure…

  3. eliyho matz matzozky jr says:

    i must admit i am a friend of shlomo sand and as matter of fact helped him even though he calls me a right winger which i am not i only wrote few articles on the irgun and its u s activities during the holocaust which by the way was the first time the issues shlomo raises first appear shlomo is a accurate historian spent quiet a bit of time doing research and as a matter of fact tries and has been trying to sort of solve the central issues of israeli existance i hope nobody forgets that israel has never written a constitution and nefer defined by political law who is an israeli chag shmech

  4. eli ajzenman says:

    Adams and many others from the loony left fringe, find that a diminishing audience and doubtful credabilty leave them no choice but to parade and promote even less credible yet controversial guests. Knowing full well that a spirited and vocal response from affected communities will certainly raise their profiles and perhaps give them some ammunition for an extended season. Thank fully Adams is already beyond being saved and his show, the ABC face a future of ever diminishing returns.

  5. Adon Emmett says:

    The Jews are not a people. What a hoot!
    The sociological argument: Worldwide Jewish day schools teach modern hebrew, the Macabiah games, Jewish youth movements worldwide, Jewish comedy, Yiddish spoken by Jews world-wide, all independent of religion per se. The self-determination that Jews consider themselves as a people – centred on Israel as their state.
    The historical argument: many references to the Destruction of the Second Temple and the exclusion of Jews from Jerusalem, with significant dispersion of Jews from Judea/Palestine to Europe
    The Scientific argument: With human genome studies increasing evidence that Jews are closer genetically to other Jews dispersed through the nations than to their host populations. Evidence of a blood chain going back to 3000 years. No one suggests that there is a genetic determinant for who is or is not a Jew due to the diversity of Jews through conversion, but these DNA mapping tests allow geographical population movements to be traced. Especially with Kohanim (CM Haplotype) it is evident that Jews worldwide can be traced back to biblical times.
    It is something of a chutzpah that Philip (some of my best friends are Jews) Adams does not try to undermine the Armenians, Kurds, Irish, Tibetans etc, only Jews.
    I ask you- Why?

  6. ben.gershon says:

    if Adams wants to present nuts .enjoy i listened and found it a good laugh.

    while his guest was unbalanced .i did not think Adams came across that way.

    we have had history wars before and will again

    get agrip

  7. Jack Chrapot says:

    Earlier this month I attended the Second Annual Jewish Genealogical Conference in Melbourne. One of the keynote speakers, Schelly Talalay Dardashti, has made a study of DNA samples taken from Ashkenazy Jews which links many of them with Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (Sephardi) Jews which, information, in turn, traces them back several centuries to well before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I asked her a question after her presentation and she confirmed that DNA studies can trace many of these people back several millenia to their origins in the Land of Israel. My further enquiries of DNA from the experts confirm that the genetic evidence that Jews originate in the Middle East is incontrovertible.

    Shlomo Sand is a phoney and Phillip Adams, acting true to form, is acting as his megaphone. There are Palestinians who have openly stated that there is no Palestinian people. It was stated by one of the PLO’s leaders in the 1970’s that they were, in truth, one and the same as the Syrian Arabs, yet I have no doubt that if someone put this forward as evidence that the Palestinians have no right to self-determination or to their own State, Adams would put them down as racist. What a sad individual.

  8. Michael Burd says:

    What is it with Phillip Adams [ and your ABC ] obsession with Jews and Israel?

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