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.