Books interview: Shlomo Sand

The author of 'Twilight of History' on growing up with tales of the Wild West, learning how to do history and deconstructing Jewish and Israeli mythologies

April 13, 2017
Shlomo Sand, Tel Aviv University

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
As a young boy, the books by Karl May about the Wild West and a bit later the mystery stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were always my favourites. I still love thrillers to this day, and I’ve even tried to write a few myself!

Which books first spurred your passion for history?
The Bible, which I was forced to read at school (not even as a theological text, but as a historical work). This was then supplemented by a healthy dose of Marxist historical works that I was made to read at home – particularly the writings of Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky.

Your new book, Twilight of History, raises many questions about the way history is studied. Which books encouraged you to embark on this analysis?
Perhaps most influential for me when I was developing my craft were The Historian’s Craft, by the great founder of the Annales School, Marc Bloch, and What Is History? by that other giant of historiography, E. H. Carr. Alongside these were the works of the French historian Paul Veyne, particularly his Writing History: Essay on Epistem­ology, and Hayden White’s Meta­history, which revolutionised writing on history by uncovering the specific codes that underlie historical narratives. However, I have to be honest and admit that the main challenge to free myself from many of the conventions of academic history didn’t come from historians at all but instead the work of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.

Which texts helped you start deconstructing Jewish and Israeli national mythologies?
The myths that surround Israeli history are everywhere, so this was a very difficult task. Perhaps, though, there were three principal sources that allowed me to think beyond them. First were the texts of Benedict Anderson, Ernst Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm on nationalism. These created in my mind a kind of theoretical frame to start understanding concepts such as “Nation” and “the People”. After this came the decisive discoveries of many Israeli archaeologists. These all blew up the mythologies that dominated this image of the Jewish past through concrete discoveries. The third “text” that enabled me to start deconstructing Zionist historiography was the letter that I got from my university declaring me a full professor!

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I gave my latest book, Twilight of History, to a group of young French students who came to visit me at Tel Aviv University. However, as historians in training they might not enjoy it so much!

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Robert Rosenstone’s Adventures of a Postmodern Historian, Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders and Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt’s Dark Secrets. I try to never forget that originally “history” meant “inquiry” in ancient Greek.

Shlomo Sand teaches contemporary history at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is Twilight of History (Verso).

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