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


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


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.


“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