Shlomo Sand’s ‘The Invention of the Jewish People,’ reviewed by Jack Ross

By JACK ROSS, FROM MONDOWEISS

Last Spring, I asked my father over dinner why it was such an outrageous proposition, leaving aside whether or not true, that Judaism is solely a matter of confession, as opposed to an ethnonational identity. He answered with some trepidation “because it contradicts 2,000 years of history.” When I went on to concede that for most of Jewish history there existed isolated ethnic-tribal groupings who adopted Judaism – in other words, numerous Jewish peoples – but that the idea that they constituted a single pan-Jewish volk was absurd, my father rigidly retorted “they just are.”

I was struck, first, by the sharp contrast to a Reform Rabbi friend who had months earlier given a thoughtful if less than satisfactory answer to the question. But the reality exposed right before my eyes was stunning. I remember growing up how odd I found it that my father, a serious Jew and a physicist, was deeply ambivalent about any notion of reconciling science and religion, and more recently was practically on the fence about even believing in God. But the quasi-racialist imperative of “Jewish peoplehood” – this was what, in the phrase of Maimonides, he believed with a perfect faith.

Norman Podhoretz, in his recently published angst asking why Jews are liberals, finally concludes what may be his most totally self-regarding work yet by describing the “Torah of liberalism” to which most American Jews subscribe. This Torah of liberalism does exist, and I am not a fan (notwithstanding my own lefty shul which the Commentary set would surely argue is its ultimate expression). The bottom line is that Podhoretz and his followers are the last people who can credibly criticize the Torah of liberalism, for it merely follows in the precedent set by their Torah of Jewish nationalism.

I frankly never got the Torah of Jewish nationalism until I was an adult. My formal Jewish education (Conservative) very clumsily hobbled together Hebrew instruction so that one could recite but not understand a traditional prayer service with the teaching of Zionist history to 5th graders at an 8th grade level, with the apparent intention of instilling an identification with these things deliberately lacking in substance. Never was it spelled out for us explicitly that this meant we were some kind of nation within a nation and not merely what we were instead of being Christian – presumably even the teachers were not quite credulous enough to say so. Finally, by the time I grew up my father would say to me point blank that “Judaism is a national religion” and that he had no problem with me being a “secular Jew”, from both of which statements I recoiled. For a time I completely despaired that there was no alternative.

For God so loved the Jews that he sent unto them his only begotten nation-state so that the Jewish people would not perish but have everlasting life – this is the Torah of Jewish nationalism in a single verse, the thing that, whatever their attitudes about the existence of God or the Jewish religion generally, Jews are expected by their self-appointed leaders to believe with a perfect faith. And now, at long last, we have a definitive and learned polemic against this idea which has caused so much terror in our world today with The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, finally released in its English translation.

At NYU, devilish Shlomo Sand predicts the Jewish past and pastes the Zionists

By PHILIP WEISS, FROM MONDOWEISS

Of all the events I’ve covered surrounding Jewish identity and Israel in the last year, none has given me so much pleasure as the lecture last night by Shlomo Sand at NYU on the Invention of the Jewish People. Most events I go to are grinding, awful, heartrending, often with lamentations and pictures of mutilated children. This one was pure intellectual deviltry of the highest order by a Pavarotti of the lecture hall. And while it was fiercely anti-Zionist and included references to the mutilated children, it left me in just an incredibly elated mood. For I saw real light at the end of the tunnel, and not the horrifying dimness that surrounds almost all other events that deal with Israel politics here– for instance with the neoconservative Weekly Standard’s disgusting pursuit of J Street.

This pleasure was entirely Shlomo Sand’s achievement. He walked by me going down to the lectern and I noticed his physical vanity at once. He had expensive shoes on, designer jeans or cords, a zipup black jacket and a black shirt under that unbuttoned to the sternum. He is lean and mid-60sish, and behaves like a player. His beard is cut in an interesting manner, he wears designer glasses. I wondered if he dyed his hair. All glorious devil.

Sand has an excitable, self-referential style, and he began the lecture by breaking his guitar. “Jewish history is not my field.” No, but once he had discovered that the story of the connection of the Jewish people to the Holy Land was a myth, he decided that he would secretly explore the history but not publish until he got tenure for doing other work. Because if he published this first, “there would not be any chance of being a full professor. Not only in Tel Aviv. But at NYU too.”

Everyone laughed, but Sand said, “That is not a joke. I must write the book after I see that no one could touch me really.” More devil. Though Sand is right. This is no joke.

Reviews

“Shlomo Sand has written a remarkable book. In cool, scholarly prose he has, quite simply, normalized Jewish history. In place of the implausible myth of a unique nation with a special destiny – expelled, isolated, wandering and finally restored to its rightful home – he has reconstructed the history of the Jews and convincingly reintegrated that history into the general story of humankind. The self-serving and mostly imaginary Jewish past that has done so much to provoke conflict in the present is revealed, like the past of so many other nations, to be largely an invention. Anyone interested in understanding the contemporary Middle East should read this book.” — Tony Judt

Tom Segev in Haaretz: “One of the most fascinating and challenging books published here in a long time.”

Jonathan Cook in The National: “Shlomo Sand’s latest work has spent 19 weeks on Israel’s bestseller list.”

Morgan Strong in Consortium News: “There has been no serious rebuttal to Sand’s book, which has been a bestseller in Israel and Europe.”

Israel Bartal in Haaretz: a “learned, captivating study … certainly worthy of a serious discussion”.

Anita Shapira in the Journal of Israeli History: “a sharp, pointed polemic drawing on much varied historical material”.

Eric Rouleau in Le Monde diplomatique: “Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state, but a democratic and secular one which belongs to all its citizens.”

In French

Shlomo Sand in Le Monde diplomatique

Jacques Julliard in Le Nouvel Observateur

Eric Marty on the UPJF website and Sand’s reply in Le Monde

Marc Riglet in Lire

In Hebrew

Tom Segev in Haaretz

Israel Bartal in Haaretz

Yaacov Shavit in Haaretz, Shlomo Sand’s reply, Shavit’s reponse

Yitzhak Laor in Haaretz

In Arabic

Raban Halabi

News website

Writer and musician Gilad Atzmon reviews ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’

Converts to Colonizers?

By Gabriel Piterberg

The foundational myths of the state of Israel rest on the notion that, throughout history, the Jews have been descended from a single ethno-biological core of Judean exiles who had been removed from their ancestral lands in the first two centuries CE. Shlomo Sand’s [The Invention of the Jewish People] sets out to refute such claims of organic ethnic continuity, arguing that the idea that the Jews had been exiled across the Mediterranean world was a creation of the Christian Church—mass displacement as punishment and constant reminder of who is Israel Veritas—which was conveniently embraced by 19th-century Jewish scholars. Their narratives of a centuries-long Galut, ‘exile’, and by extension the Zionist project of ‘returning’ to reclaim ancient territories, are based on historical fictions.

Against these, Sand offers an alternative history in which the striking demographic growth of the Jews in the Hellenistic Mediterranean was the product not of mass exile, but of an energetic drive of proselytism and conversion that had begun under the Hasmonean Kingdom in the second century BCE and lasted till the fourth century CE. Conversions were also, Sand holds, the source of the large Jewish populations at the margins of the Hellenistic world—Arabia, North Africa and the area between the Black and Caspian Seas—as Judaizing currents met repression in Christian territories and fanned out into the largely pagan lands beyond. Sand offers a cautious endorsement to the thesis, earlier popularized by Arthur Koestler, that East European Jewry—what he and others call the Yiddish Nation—originated not from any eastward migration of ‘German’ Jews, themselves supposedly descended from pure Judean exiles, but from the Khazars, Jewish converts whose empire on the Volga–Don steppe disappears from the historical record in the 13th century. This contention has far-reaching implications, for it is the Yiddish Nation that is in many ways the real foundation for the two largest and most vociferous Jewish communities of the past half-century—the Israeli and the American.

New York Times on Sand and Jewish Origins

New studies in Nature magazine and the American Journal of Human Genetics have revived the debate on Jewish origins.

The New York Times, Newsweek, and UPI, reporting on these studies, have placed them in counterpoint to Sand’s argument. In his new afterword for the paperback edition of THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE, Sand writes:

After exhausting all the historical arguments, several critics have seized on genetics. The same people who maintain that the Zionists never referred to a race conclude their argument by evoking a common Jewish gene. Their thinking can be summed up as follows: “We are not a pure race, but we are a race just the same.” In the 1950s there was research in Israel on characteristic Jewish fingerprints, and from the 1970s, biologists in their laboratories (sometimes also in the USA) have sought a genetic marker common to all Jews. I reviewed in my book their lack of data, the frequent slipperiness of their conclusions, and their ethno-nationalist ardor, which is unsupported by any serious scientific findings. This attempt to justify Zionism through genetics is reminiscent of the procedures of late nineteenth-century anthropologists who very scientifically set out to discover the specific characteristics of Europeans.

As of today, no study based on anonymous DNA samples has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews, and it is not likely that any study ever will. It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased! And it is all the more repulsive that this kind of research should be conducted in a state that has waged for years a declared policy of “Judaization of the country” in which even today a Jew is not allowed to marry a non-Jew.

Shlomo Sand responds to Simon Schama’s review in the Financial Times

The debate about The Invention of the Jewish People continues in the FT here [http://www.ft.com/comment/letters]. Shlomo Sand was keen to respond to Simon Schama’s critical review of his book from last Saturday’s FT. However, the paper would only consider publishing a very short one paragraph response. Shlomo declined and has asked us to present the complete text of his response below.

 

“Dear Editor,

One of the most effective techniques adopted to ridicule or marginalize one’s ideological opponents is to create a caricatured and extreme version of their thesis. Some Zionist historians have become past masters with such methods, and Simon Schama seems to want to emulate them in his review of my book in the FT of 13 November.

Although most Zionist thought was ethnocentric and in some cases even defined Judaism in racial terms, I insisted in my book that Zionist thinkers had not thought in terms of a pure race and had no intentions of “purifying” it. After all, the Jewish religion would not have permitted such a conception (see pp. 265-6). Zionism did however reconfigure the many and diverse Jewish communities into an “ethnic” people in which most of its members were to be seen as the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. As is well-known, a religious community cannot possess historical ownership rights over a land, whereas a people can. Thus the famous Zionist motto, “A people without a land for a land without a people”. Thus also the evolution of the profoundly rooted myth concerning the “Exile of Jewish people” by the Romans in the first years of the first millennium. It is indeed true that specialists of Jewish antiquity knew that the Exile had never taken place, yet up to and including the present day, most ordinary Israelis are convinced that it did indeed occur – after all, it’s inscribed in the “Declaration of Independence of Israel” and even on Israeli money bills.

Schama’s remark regarding the question of the Khazars is even more problematic. It is not surprising that the young Schama had heard about the Khazars and I did not argue that I, or before me Arthur Koestler, had discovered the issue. I repeatedly emphasize in my book that, up until the 1960s, the best historians in the world, including Zionists, wrote extensively on the Kingdom of Khazaria. Moreover, almost everyone – from the Jewish-American historian Salo Baron to Ben-Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography and minister of education in Israel in the 1950s – explained the widespread Jewish presence in Eastern Europe by way of the Khazar immigration thesis (the Zionists added to this the absurd assumption that Palestine was the origin of the Jews in Khazaria). The problem is that ever since Abraham Pollack, the founder of the history department at Tel Aviv University, conducted his wide-ranging research, no serious work concerning the origins of the demographic weight of Yiddish-speaking Jews has been carried out. Maybe this is also the reason that Schama is the only historian who claims that the Kingdom of Khazaria converted to Judaism in the 10th century and not in the 8th.

And if we want to turn to questions of historical accuracy, Schama’s statement that the “mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture” in Judea after the two religious revolts at the beginning of our era is very odd: The Mishna, the greatest Jewish work after the Bible, was completed in 200 A.D – not long after those revolts. It is also quite peculiar that a serious historian should assume that in the 9th century B.C there was a “developed nation-state” in the Middle-East. Perhaps we are to imagine the existence of a flourishing print industry, book market and compulsory education during that period, thereby forging ancient Israel into a nation-state?

Nevertheless, the most surprising elements in Schama’s review are his notes regarding the Jews’ relationship to Palestine. If Schama had seriously read my book he would have learnt that there was indeed a profound affinity of Jewish believers with Jerusalem, but that it was a deep yearning for a sacred place. Jews, even those who lived nearby, never thought of immigrating to the holy city of Zion. Furthermore, even the few who lived within it saw their life as a kind of “Exile”. Jerusalem could not be ascended to without the arrival of the messiah and, with him, the revival of all the dead Jews. With all their great talents, the Zionists turned the metaphysical-theological paradigm “Exile–Redemption” into a physical-national paradigm of “Exile–Homeland”.

But the truth is that, even if there was great appeal in the Zionist myth, most of the Yiddish-speaking Jews did not want to emigrate to their “ancestral land”. Instead, they chose to emigrate to America. If the US had not blocked East European immigration from the 1920s onwards, it is highly questionable whether the state of Israel would ever have been founded. This merciless closing of the gates continued, as is well-known, before and after the Second World War and thus caused great suffering to the victims of the Nazi regime. It was much easier to compel the Arab population in Palestine to accept these miserable strangers that Europe had expelled rather than to receive them in the US. The majority of immigrants from Soviet Russia in the 1980s would also have preferred to emigrate to the West, but the State of Israel pressured the American president to help prevent such anti-patriotic tendencies. Eventually, these immigrants were obliged to land in Israel.

Most of those who see themselves as Jews, up until today, prefer not to live under Jewish sovereignty and not to send their children to risk death in Israeli wars. It seems to me that Schama can be counted amongst these, even if he thinks that Israel is his “ancestral land”. As for me, in contrast, I live in Israel and justify its continued existence, not on the grounds of past Jewish suffering – no suffering in the past can excuse creating suffering in the present – but because I have lived here all my life and I know that the denial of its existence would only lead to a new tragedy.

Professor Shlomo Sand

Tel Aviv University

19-11-2009″

BBC says Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People is “an international news story”

Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People, was interviewed on the BBC World Service’s News Hour last night. In an e-mail exchange between Sand’s UK publicist and the producer of last night’s programme, it was emphasised that the BBC were “interviewing Mr Sand on the basis that the controversy over his book is an international news story.”

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‘The Invention of the Jewish People’ has now been translated into more languages than any other Israeli history book. Currently the book is available in 3 languages (Hebrew, French, and published just this week, English), and in 2 months time the book will be translated into Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, German, Italian, Arabic, Turkish and Indonesian. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, the translator has just finished translating The Bible, and is now starting work on The Invention of the Jewish People.

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Professor Sand will be speaking at SOAS in London  tonight at 6.30. Lecture details here (http://inventionofthejewishpeople.com/events/)

Listen to Shlomo Sand on BBC World Service News Hour here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004v8lm)

Watch Kirsty Lang interview Shlomo Sand on BBC World News Today here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00ntrjz/World_News_Today_10_11_2009/)

Gabriel Piterberg on Shlomo Sand in the latest New Left Review

The foundational myths of the state of Israel rest on the notion that, throughout history, the Jews have been descended from a single ethno-biological core of Judean exiles who had been removed from their ancestral lands in the first two centuries CE. Shlomo Sand’s [The Invention of the Jewish People] sets out to refute such claims of organic ethnic continuity, arguing that the idea that the Jews had been exiled across the Mediterranean world was a creation of the Christian Church—mass displacement as punishment and constant reminder of who is Israel Veritas—which was conveniently embraced by 19th-century Jewish scholars. Their narratives of a centuries-long Galut, ‘exile’, and by extension the Zionist project of ‘returning’ to reclaim ancient territories, are based on historical fictions.

Against these, Sand offers an alternative history in which the striking demographic growth of the Jews in the Hellenistic Mediterranean was the product not of mass exile, but of an energetic drive of proselytism and conversion that had begun under the Hasmonean Kingdom in the second century BCE and lasted till the fourth century CE. Conversions were also, Sand holds, the source of the large Jewish populations at the margins of the Hellenistic world—Arabia, North Africa and the area between the Black and Caspian Seas—as Judaizing currents met repression in Christian territories and fanned out into the largely pagan lands beyond. Sand offers a cautious endorsement to the thesis, earlier popularized by Arthur Koestler, that East European Jewry—what he and others call the Yiddish Nation—originated not from any eastward migration of ‘German’ Jews, themselves supposedly descended from pure Judean exiles, but from the Khazars, Jewish converts whose empire on the Volga–Don steppe disappears from the historical record in the 13th century. This contention has far-reaching implications, for it is the Yiddish Nation that is in many ways the real foundation for the two largest and most vociferous Jewish communities of the past half-century—the Israeli and the American.