The Invention of the Jewish People

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Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2010) Paperback £9.99 stg.

Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, an academically minded historical work that nonetheless spent nineteen weeks on the bestseller list in Israel, is a book that is much more incendiary than it ought to be. Sand’s basic thesis – that the Jews are a people whose identity was forged in modern times much like any other national group – is no more controversial than the theories fostered over two decades ago by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, Ernest Gellner in Nations and Nationalism or by the various writers assembled by Hugh Trevor-Roper in the 1983 volume The Invention of Tradition. Nor is it a theory that would have seen as particularly dubious until recently enough.

What gives Sand’s book its notoriety – for such it is, among many of his compatriots, and probably more of the Jewish diaspora – is the implication by many that he is questioning the very right of Israel to exist. As Sand remarks in an afterword ‘A Reply to My Critics’, written for the English-language paperback edition, the assertion of denying the existence of the Jewish people is ‘often burdened with an evident and offensive accusatory slant that insinuates an equivalence with the outrage that is holocaust denial’.

Sand, a professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv, is sceptical that a pure, Jewish people, descended from the Tribes of Judea and Samaria, exists. For all his apparent radical background – he is a former member of the Israeli Communist Party but now describes himself as a social democrat – and his assertion that the land of Palestine was not the British Mandate’s to give away, Sand has no wish to see history rolled back and the Jewish citizens of Israel pushed out. He is not a supporter of a one-state solution, but only because he sees it as a pipe dream, and he is a passionate advocate of creating a state of Israel within its 1967 borders that is for all its citizens and not merely the Jews. This, of course, puts him in the front line of anti-Zionism, and makes him someone easy to dismiss for his opponents.

Taking Anderson and Gellner as references, Sand traces the roots of Zionism to 19th-century Mitteleuropa, and observes that, unlike the slightly older nationalisms of Western Europe (except Ireland) these nationalisms were shaped from outside, by the glacial heaves of declining imperial powers and the dynamism of Napoleon’s eastward match. Zionism had much in common with Slavic and Germanic nationalisms of the day, which were largely predicated on blood and ethno-territorial exclusivity. One of the nationalisms that it resembled most closely was the Völkish national cult fostered in Germany prior to Unification and after. With the levelling of the historical horizon that major events such as World War II and the Holocaust provide, such a parallel may seem perverse and even tendentiously offensive. But Jewish fascist groups existed in the 1930s (even if they were marginal) and on one particular occasion attempted to liaise with the Nazis to ‘export’ the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement. This is not to load ever more opprobrium on the Zionist project but it is key to Sand’s idea that the creation of a Jewish people sharing the same bloodline is at best a fiction, at worst a fantasy.

None of these observations are in themselves particularly original but they provide vital ballast for Sand’s argument, which he continues in a long chapter on early Jewish historiography. He draws the roots of Zionist historiography from the Jewish historians of the early to mid-19th century, the Germans Isaak Markus Jost and Heinrich Graetz, who were the first to explicitly give an ethnic slant to the narrative of the people of Judea expelled from their homeland following the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This, Sand is quick to point out, is a valorisation of the old Christian anti-semitic tale of the Wandering Jew. The final solidification of this nascent tendency came with the Belarusian Simon Dubnow, who cast the history of the Jews in a hue closer to secularism, albeit infused with the ‘boundless spiritualism’ of German Romanticism. Dubnow, according to Sand, would be the first to adopt the strategy that ‘the Bible is indeed full of imaginary tales, but its historical core is trustworthy.’

Even if Dubnow, like Graetz and the later Jewish-American historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, was not an avowed Zionist, his efforts helped reformulate the Bible as a folk-mythological source, a founding text of a nation, much like those of other nationalisms in the 19th century from Ireland to Romania. David Ben Gurion would later hold weekly Bible readings at his home in the Jewish state’s early days with Yitzak Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur, the architects of Israel’s education system. Ben Gurion would adapt this strategy, with the Bible serving as a secular folk history for the nascent state.

But archaeology proved recalcitrant in the matter of the Old Testament as history. No evidence was forthcoming for the existence of Moses leading the Tribe of Israel through the desert for forty years, or of Mount Sinai. What evidence was available for the time of the Patriarchs shifted it forward by as much as a millennium. Similarly, an Egyptian presence has been detected in Judea in the time following the return of the Children of Israel recounted in the Book of Joshua (Sand cannot resist calling this ‘ruthless myth of settlement’ ‘one of the earliest genocides’ even if he affirms it never happened). News that the Bible is dubious history is hardly earth-shattering stuff, given that Spinoza and Hobbes were casting doubt on the contemporaneity of its authors as early as the 17th century. But Sand is thorough in his dissection of the debate, because so much is riding on it. Even if the number of Israelis given to a literal reading of the Old Testament is in the minority, the Bible nonetheless serves as a secular national primer, one that eases the incorporation of the West Bank – the modern-day Judea and Samaria – into Israel’s imagination and territory.

But the Bible is small fry compared to Sand’s other rebuttals. These are the exile and the diaspora. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel contains the following passage: ‘After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom’. But were the Jewish people actually exiled? Sand starts off sceptical and ends up scornful. First of all, he says, the Romans did not deport entire populations, for obvious logistical and economic reasons, and Graetz and Dubnow never mentioned deportation either. In fact even early right-wing Israeli historians such as Joseph Klausner were reticent on the matter. Secondly, he calculates the population of Jerusalem at the time of the Fall of the Second Temple at 60-70,000, from that he extrapolates a population of between half a million to one million for the extended kingdom of Judea. Those Judeans who did emigrate most likely numbered no more than a few thousand, which could hardly grow into a population of several million across the Mediterranean over two centuries. Sand sees rather ‘exile-without expulsion’ – ‘galut’. The exile is more an absence of salvation that followed the fall of the Second Temple and the defeat of the Bar Kokhba uprising in 132BC, under the reign of Hadrian. The end of this exile would only come at the End of Days, and, in the words of the Babylonian Talmud, Jews were exhorted not to ‘rise up beyond the wall’ i.e. return to Jerusalem. This extreme rabbinical diktat endures in the form of the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta, familiar at many pro-Palestinian demonstrations, who see the establishment of a State of Israel as heresy. By and large, though, it has long vanished from most Jewish congregations.

Ironically, the cult of exile most likely grew within Judaism in the face of anti-semitism following the rise of Christianity and the charge of deicide. The demands of the two monotheistic religions dovetailed nicely, even if exile-as-expulsion never fully caught on until the late days of Mandatory Palestine.

So what happened to the Jews of Palestine and whither the Jews elsewhere in the world? The former, Sand says, simply converted to Islam in the face of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. The Jews were relatively well treated by the Muslims compared to their previous Byzantine masters. They were not forced to convert but the attraction of conversions would probably have been too much to resist: infidels were taxed while Muslims were not. Sand enlists none other than a young David Ben-Gurion and his collaborator Itzhak Ben-Zvi. The two published a sociohistorical book in 1918 called Eretz Israel in the Past and Present in which they declared that the Palestinian fellahin (i.e. today’s Palestinians) ‘are not descendants of the Arab conqueror’ and ‘the Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with his sweat and the sweat of his forebears… Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remained unchanged.’

Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi also pointed to the fact that 210 villages in Palestine still bore Hebrew names. Ben-Zvi later moderated his views, saying – not unreasonably – that not all fellahin were descended from the Jews. By the time the State of Israel was established the theory had been discarded entirely. Sand attributes the decline of integrationalism to the 1929 Hebron massacre and the Arab revolt of 1936-39. Extreme Zionism would later attempt to obliterate the Palestinians entirely by denying their historical existence, as Golda Meir notoriously did. This culminated in Joan Peters’ 1984 book From Time Immemorial which posited the claim that all but a tiny number of the Arab population of Palestine were descended from 19th century economic migrants. Peters’ book was eviscerated by Norman Finkelstein in his doctoral thesis, which earned the American academic the first of many brickbats from the Zionists that have dogged him throughout his career.

As for the diaspora, it developed over time, for the most part by conversion and proselytism. Though some Talmudic strictures forbid proselytizing, it has a long history among the pre-rabbinical Judeans, with the Hasmonean Kingdom of the first century CE forcibly converting many of its neighbours. Jewish communities have also existed for thousands of years in Yemen, Persia, Egypt and among the Berbers of North Africa, none of whom Sand is convinced were descendants of the Judeans. The Hasmoneans themselves did not claim descent from the House of David, which complicates matter further. The wave of proselytism lasted for six centuries until the 4th century CE, by which time the retribution meted out for it by the now dominant Christians put the brakes on it.

The big plank in Sand’s argument however, and one which has caused the book to be dismissed outright by many of his Zionist critics, is the Khazars, the now vanished ‘Mountain Jews’ who ruled a kingdom stretching from the Northern Caucasus across south-western Russia and eastern Ukraine from the 8th until the 11th centuries before falling to the Russians and being wiped out by Genghis Khan two-hundred years later. The Khazars were a Turkic or Bulgar-Hunnic people who migrated from central Asia and who converted en masse to Judaism sometime in the mid-8th century. Sand, along with many early modern Jewish scholars in Eastern Europe, is convinced the remaining Khazars fled the Mongols and moved eastwards, settling in Russia, Lithuania and Poland. By this reckoning the Khazars are the ancestors of most Ashkenazi Jews. The alternative theory is that they were descended from western German Jews who migrated east, which Sand, once again, rejects on the grounds of there not being enough such Jews to form the base for such a mass population flowering.

There is ample historical evidence for the existence of the Khazars and, even in the 1950s Ben-Zion Dinur, Israel’s ‘high priest of memory’, as Sand calls him could confidently say Khazaria was the ‘diaspora mother’ of Eastern European Jewry. Since the 1970s however, such a view is enough to draw charges of anti-semitism. Such was the fate of Arthur Koestler, whose 1976 non-fiction bestseller The Thirteenth Tribe, about the Khazars, was savagely criticised by Zionists and has only ever been privately published in Hebrew. Koestler, a strong supporter of Israel, foresaw this, as he suspected it would be used to question the state of Israel’s existence. But for him, the rule of law and the 1948 UN resolution ensured that. The Zionist establishment in Israel however are not so convinced. Study of the Khazars suffered from an ideological shift just as Ben-Gurion’s earlier theory of the fellahin being descended from Jews. In the aftermath of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli historians became less interested in exploring the heterogeneous roots of European Jewry and more interested in establishing a continuous ethnic bloodline. Khazar studies have been sidelined – and even smeared – much as they were in Stalin’s Russia decades earlier, where they posed their own challenge to ethnic purity. The craze for DNA testings aimed at biologically ‘uniting’ the Jewish people continues apace, which Sand rightly views with distaste, with all their connotation of eugenics and ethnic correctness from the last century. A report of one such ‘study’ popped up in the New York Times a couple of months back, and the author couldn’t resist having a dig at Sand, saying that this refuted his claims in this book.

It’s easy for Sand’s detractors to dismiss him as a radical given his left-wing origins but many of his grievances with the ethnocratic Jewish state are perfectly reasonable. Israel is a curiosity in that Israeli nationality does not exist; one is classified as either ‘Jewish’ or ‘non-Jewish’. Consequently some gentile citizens of Israel are left in the absurd position of retaining, in the eyes of the state, the nationality of long-defunct states, such as East Germany and Yugoslavia. The mark of religion on civil society is striking, and in recent years, getting greater. There is no provision for civil marriage while public transport largely shuts down on the Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. And by way of the 1950 Law of Return, citizenship is explicitly offered to all Jews throughout the world, giving preference to nationals of other countries ahead of non-Jews, be they Palestinian Arabs or spouses of Jewish citizens. A new law introduced in 2003 prevented Palestinians who married Israelis from living in Israel, while we saw recently the incredible case of a Palestinian being convicted of ‘rape by deception’ for consensual sex with a Jewish woman who thought he was Jewish. This amounted to a legal sanction of anti-miscegenation. Israel’s Arab citizens face discrimination in daily life and, to all intents and purposes, cannot by law buy property earmarked for Jews. Unemployment is also higher than the national average and than it is among Jewish Israelis. Reports this week that the life expectancy of Israeli Arabs (or Palestino-Israelis, as Sand prefers to call them) is four years less than that of Israeli Jews make a mockery of the hasbara mantra that says Arab citizens of Israel have the highest standards of living of Arabs anywhere. And even Zionists are not safe now, with the religious far right aiming to narrow citizenship eligibility for converts passed through Conservative or Reform synagogues, which are the majority of North American temples

Though Sand is strongly agitated on the matter of the Nakba and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, his greatest rallying point in this book is Israeli society itself, or rather what he thinks it should be. He recognises a multi-ethnic polis cobbled together by the confluence of the original inhabitants of Palestine, both Arab and Jewish; the immigrants and refugees that arrived either side of the Second World War; the Mizrahim or Eastern Jews who were uprooted from Arab countries following 1948, and more recent immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, many of whom have only the most tenuous link with the Jewish religion. Where Sand wants a multi-ethnic democracy, he sees only an ethnocracy. He ends the book with a warning that Israel’s ever increasing retreat into ethnocentric exceptionalism could result in its destruction, raising the not improbable scenario of the next intifada starting not in the Occupied Territories but among its own Arab citizens. One can imagine that not all of the considerable amount of Israelis that bought this book were in agreement with Sand, but its very success is indicative that, amid the rampant isolationism and siege-mentality of the contemporary Israeli state, there is some budding introspection.

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5 Responses

  1. John Goodwillie

    August 13, 2010 4:13 pm

    “By this reckoning the Khazars are the ancestors of most Ashkenazi Jews. The alternative theory is that they were descended from western German Jews who migrated east, which Sand, once again, rejects on the grounds of there not being enough such Jews to form the base for such a mass population flowering.” If so, how did the small number of German Jews get the Khazars to adopt their language (Yiddish)?

  2. John Goodwillie

    November 26, 2010 9:44 pm

    Since my comment of Aug. 13th, which no-one has replied to, I have read the book. Sand’s explanation for the Yiddish language is a bit unconvincing: the Khazars, having moved westwards, became mediators between German “commercial and artisanal populations” who had moved east into Poland and the local nobility and peasantry. He does point out, however, as the reviewer Oliver Farry does not, that the Khazars were a federation of tribes speaking different languages, which would create an impetus towards language change as scattered groups settle down.

    Sand’s view that Yiddish speakers were predominantly of Khazar ancestry depends on four arguments:
    (1) There were only a few hundred or a few thousand Jews in Germany in the 11th -13th centuries, and they could not have multiplied sufficiently.
    (2) Yiddish appears to be derived from a “southeastern” dialect of German (he seems to mean the vicinity of the modern Land of Saxony), whereas any Jews there were in Germany were in the Rhine area.
    (3) “There is no historical evidence showing that Jews migrated from western Germany to the Continent’s east.”
    (4) The urban Jews of Germany seem unlikely to be founders of Yiddish-speaking peasant villages.

    If there is no historical refutation of these points it seems to me that Sand must be correct, despite the weakness of the language-change argument.

  3. Eve Jackson

    November 27, 2010 1:47 am

    Ah John, if only the Green Party had revised its opinion on the bank bailout and NAMA in such a short time as yourself on the origins of Yiddish, it might not now be heading for oblivion.