About a fifth of this book shows how Biblical criticism and archaeological discoveries have undermined the reliability of the Hebrew Bible as history. Archaeology, among other things, has played havoc with the chronology of the Bible, especially in connection with the invasion of Canaan, nor has it found any evidence that would support the story of the Exodus or the splendour of Solomon's kingdom.
But the main subject of the book is the denial that there is such a thing as the Jewish People, descended from the inhabitants of Biblical Palestine from which they have been scattered, and that they are a nation which has now returned to the land of its ancestors. This undermines one of the principal arguments with which the State of Israel legitimizes itself. (There are, of course, other arguments which Sand does not discuss in any depth.)
He says that the Jews began to see themselves as an ethnic people, rather than as a religious community, in the 19th century. (In a 40 page long and massively theoretical opening chapter, Sand explains why for him the word `people' implies ethnicity - hence the provocative title of his book. Others might well say that what has for centuries kept the Jewish `people' together was not their ethnicity but their religion, and even secular Jews belong to that people because their ancestors were religious Jews.) He traces the claim of the Jews to be a nation from the 1880s - when scholars like Heinrich Graetz described the work of Julius Wellhausen, the father of modern Biblical Criticism, as anti-Jewish - to those who present the Biblical account as the foundation charter of the State of Israel, where it is the staple of the state educational system.
During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, aided by the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), "hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions" of gentiles around the South-Eastern Mediterranean, from Rome to Armenia, converted to Judaism. A substantial proportion today's Jews cannot be linked genetically to the Jewish Homeland at all. Roman writers expressed unease at the growing number of converts. Around 400 CE the king of Himyar, in Yemen, converted to Judaism and so did many of their Arabic subjects in his and the following reigns during the next century. Most of the strong Yemenite community of Jews would be descended from these converts. There was a strong Jewish presence among the Berbers of North Africa, who took such a part in the later Arabic conquest of Spain. Sand thinks that many of these Berber Jews were also converts, though his formulations here are more tentative than elsewhere, and to support this idea he produces few hard facts beyond a complaint by the Christian Tertullian (2nd c.) against proselytes in North Africa and one quotation from the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (14th c.). The best known conversion is that of the Khazar kingdom (between the Volga and the Dnieper) in the 8th century CE. In his famous book Arthur Koestler called the Khazars `the Thirteenth Tribe', and Sand espouses the notion that after the Khazar kingdom was destroyed in the 11th century, many of its people fled westwards to form a substantial proportion of the Jews in the Ukraine, in Poland and in Hungary.
Sand shows the resistance of many Israeli historians to the idea that so many Jews might not be descendants of the Jews of Israel and Judah: they either deny it or ignore it in their researches and their text books.
He also supports the notion, advanced in 1918 even by the young Zionists Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi, that the majority Muslim fellahin in Palestine were the descendants of Jewish peasants who had converted to Islam, perhaps to escape the jizyah (poll tax) which was levied on all non-Muslims after the Arab conquest. This idea was swiftly abandoned in the face of Arab nationalism, to be replaced by the notion that the Arab invaders had expelled the Jews (for which there is no evidence) and therefore had no right to the land which the Jews who had been forced into exile were now reclaiming.
The last chapter falls into two parts. The first part discusses the debate about whether there is any genetic evidence for the theory that most Jews are descended from the original Jews of Palestine. Students of genetics are apparently divided about this, and while Sand gives the supporters of the theory a good run for its money, it is clear that he sides with their opponents, and sees a conscious or unconscious agenda in those Israeli studies which have been looking for a widespread common ancestry. Sand quotes many Zionist sources which claimed (as the Nazis did) that the Jews were indeed a race. That EXPRESSION has now lost all respectability, but the debate is still carried on, though now in terms of genetics rather than of `blood'.
Sand never leaves any doubt about the political conclusions he draws from all this. They are spelt out most explicitly in the second, hard-hitting, part of the last chapter, which dismisses the definition of the State of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state. It not only implies but in many ways acts in such a way that its non-Jewish people, though technically Israeli citizens, cannot be part of an Israeli nation, in the way in which, for example, Scots and Welshmen are part of the British (not English) nation. With little hope that it can happen, Sand calls for the Jews of Israel to transform their ideology into one that would "grant the Palestino-Israelis not only complete equality but also a genuine and firm autonomy" - not only in the interests of justice, but also to save the state from ultimate disaster.
With its political implications, it is no surprise that this book has attracted both hatred and enthusiasm.
on 16 October 2009
Shlomo Sand's `The Invention of the Jewish People' is fascinating. It is a wide ranging study that is well written, well translated and easily read. It is about how, when, why and by whom the notion of the Jews as a people was invented and the consequences of this invention.
Sand starts with an exploration of theoretical understandings of nationalism and references such authors as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson. I found this chapter a little bit scatter-gun and readers don't really need to read chapter 1. Nevertheless, Sand makes his case that nations are the product of nationalism - not the other way around.
Chapter 2 launches straight into what Sand calls `Mythistory'. Here he examines the evolution of historiography of the Jews and how this has been distorted by both the Bible and by nationalist and racial ideologies. When was the Old Testament written? By whom? Why? Sand then goes on to show that philological and archaeological research has undermined the notion that the Old Testament is older than the Persian and Hellenistic periods and that events such as the arrival of the Patriarchs and the Exodus did probably not occur.
Sand then tackles the myth of exile. The fact that Jews were not exiled from Judea in 71 CE upon the destruction of the Temple. Nor were they exiled after the Bar Kochba revolt some 80 years later. Sand follows the Zionist historiography as it tries to settle on it's third choice of when exile occurred after the 7th century Arab conquest. Here Sand is a little weak, I feel, in that he doesn't make the obvious link in Zionist ideology between the concept of Arab dispossession and the later justification of the dispossession of Arabs in 1948. Sand also points out that the idea of exile was initially a Christian idea that was adopted by Jews.
As Sand points out, the logical conclusion for the disappearance of Jews in Palestine after the Arab conquest was that they converted to Islam and that today's Palestinian are the descendents of these converts. Such was recognized by Zionists such as Ben-Gurion, although here Sand again fudges somewhat as he seeks to blame Palestinian resistance to Zionist colonisation for the fact that Zionist and Palestinian societies did not merge in the Mandate period and ignores the inbuilt urge to ethnic cleansing in Zionism as something which would always have precluded such a merging. It's a failing which runs through Sand book that he sees Zionism as simply a nationalist movement rather than appreciaiting it's inherent racism and colonialism.
Sand points out and amply illustrates the rise of Jewish proselytism from Hasmonean times onwards as Judaism merges with Hellenism to form a dynamic monotheistic religion that spreads throughout Judea and then beyond into the Greek and then Roman world. Sand takes us through the spread of Judaism to the kingdom of Himyar in Yemen, the conversion of the Berbers in N.Africa and the origins of the great Jewish society in Spain - all of these the product of proselytisation rather than emigration. Sand then moves on to the Khazar Kaganate in S.Russia/Caucasus, itself also the product of proselytisation, and the relationship between this society and the emergence of the E.European Ashkenazi Jewish society and Yiddish civilization. The evidence here is not quite so clear cut, but Sand makes a good case that Yiddish civilization owes a great deal to the Khazars.
Sand next tackles modern controversies and handles well the attempts by Zionists to bring genetics to the rescue of the failing notion that Jews are a race-nation. He points to contradictory findings, dubious sampling techniques and the financing of research by interested organizations to cast doubt on the validity of this approach.
Sand concludes with a chapter on Israeli politics and, essentially, a plea to create a secular democratic state for all the people rather than a Jewish democratic state which, as Sands rightly points out, is an oxymoron.
Very little of what Sand says is actually new. What Sand does is draw together all the diverse scholarly objections from, for example, history, philology and archaeology to the notion that Jews are a distinct race/nation/people into a coherent synthesis.
Essential reading for the debate around Zionism and racism.
on 21 October 2014
It was only by accident that I started reading this book but it immediately bought to mind, in its scope, ambition and erudition, the great work of Edward Said, `Orientalism'. Both works chart the creation of a grand `mythistory' - or in simpler terms, `fantasy' - which now grips the minds of millions and shapes political conflict in the Middle East. The strength of this work is the number of disciplines and lines of study that it brings together with a clear evaluation.
Of particular value is Sand's comprehensive survey of Zionist historiography and its evaluation of the biblical text. This is both illuminating - as in the account of Ben Gurion's biblical soirees - and very fair, according with my own reading. It is a supreme irony that the Zionist claim to the land has been most emphatically discredited by the land itself! After 1967 it was confidently expected that the archaeological excavations in the Occupied Territories would provide the final touches in providing evidence for the biblical account of history. It did just the opposite. The invasion of Canaan was seen never to have happened, the grand Solomaic temple with its cult of monotheism never existed, the famous Kingdom of David was seen to be a later retrojection of the Omride achievement, excoriated in the bible as apostates. In short the biblical narrative has been revealed to be entirely fabricated for polemical purposes.
So staggering is the scale of this deception that most Jews as well as Christians have largely chosen to remain in a state of denial. I am shocked as I look back over my own life and the credence I gave to many distinguished scholars who have now been proved to be utterly mistaken. One particularly feels a sense of shame and guilt when one has taught such falsehoods under the assumption of truth.
Of particular value is Sand's discussion of the emergence of monotheism which he places after the Babylonian exile in the Hasmonean period. He emphasises the important influence of Persian beliefs (Zoroastrianism)and the new cultural milieu of Hellenism but could have given more emphasis to the influence of philosophical monism that arose in what A.N.Whitehead called the Ionian Enlightenment. This dispels the fanciful notion that somehow monotheism originated with Abraham or Moses: the discovery of the pottery shard at Kuntillet (Horvat Teman) dated about 800BCE in northern Sinai with the inscription "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" together with a drawing of the god and his consort clearly indicates a tribal deity. Its significance was evaluated by Hershel Shanks but strangely this unique and invaluable fragment 'disappeared' during the Israel occupation of Sinai!
The central issue of this book is whether there is a distinctive Jewish people, with a concomitant right to a specific land, as distinct from a Jewish faith. Sand makes the subtle but crucial distinction between Jews as a religious group and Jews as a putative racial group. It was the latter claim in the nineteenth century that led to new and more virulent form of hatred for Jews - 'anti-Semitism' - all the more dangerous because, in contrast to earlier forms of prejudice, it claimed to be based on science.
In the chaos that now grips the Middle East it is another irony that it is the Palestinians, now Muslim in faith, who are the closest genetic descendants of the Biblical `people of the land' and its rightful inheritors. It is to Sand's immense credit that he has the courage to point this out and challenge the fantasies of fundamentalist zealots who pretend otherwise.
What is disturbing about reading Sand's account of the attitudinal dynamics that fuelled a spiral of ant-Semitic/Zionist hatred in the nineteenth century is the way this seems to be being replicated today with regards the Muslim community and host societies in the West with the growth of so called identity politics, resistance to integration and calls for a 'homeland' or caliphate where Muslims can live out their dream. This just happens to be in the same part of the world as Israel!
More disturbingly, the modern invention of a Jewish `people' - on the basis of a pseudo-historical biblical pastiche - undermines the great prophetic tradition of the Jewish religion. It was exactly such fear that motivated the rejection of the aspirations of the First Zionist Congress by American rabbis (how times change!) and, more recently (1992) the Orthodox Professor Yeshayshu Leibowitz to warn that the continued "occupation and oppression of the Palestinians must eventually lead to a fully fledged fascist regime within Israel."
If the the social philosopher Isaac Deutscher asserted that Israel had become the Prussians of the Middle East then Sand compliments this observation by showing how modern Jewish Nationialism not only has its roots in the same Germanic culture but, more disturbingly, the increasingly extreme racists views of modern Israeli politicians in some ways replicate the mindset that lay behind Nazi racist ideology. Just as they sought to create a racially pure Aryan state Israel now seems determined to create an ethnically pure Jewish state- Sand calls it an 'ethnocracy' - from which even some Jews who do not have the appropriate pseudo-credentials are excluded. In an echo of a previous decade, when Israeli troops invaded Sinai in 1957 Ben Gurion excitedly asserted that this would become "a part of the third kingdom (reich!) of Israel." It was Nietzsche who warned that those who fight with monsters should take heed not become one!
In contrast the great prophetic religious tradition of Israel envisaged universal respect with equitable justice for all and was summarized by the Sage of Israel, Hillel, in the golden rule of morality, not to do to others what you do not want them to do to you. It is a tradition which found its modern incarnation in, for example, the philosophy of Martin Buber, and the hope of an inclusive state. In so far as the state of Israel does not represent all its residents equally it may regard itself as a democracy but, as Sand makes clear, it is a very defective, discriminatory one.
Zionism now traduces Judaism in the eyes of the world and belittles a great faith. In doing so it also stokes a new and virulent anti-Semitism which is a form of hostility to Israel's politics. The forensic narrative and searing honesty of Sand's book will, perhaps, prompt a reassessment of the assumptions that legitimize the present Jewish state in the minds of many, or at least some. In this, and its search for truthfulness, it also stands in the great prophetic tradition of Judaism. But don't hold your breath!
on 23 March 2014
Like all other people, the Jewish people is an invented concept. Although for long the Jews have been forced to live apart from the rest of the society and as a result there has been a great deal of intermarriage and therefore genetic similarity among them, this has not been the case throughout the history. The Jews have mingled with other races and people and there is plenty evidence to show that the Palestinians have a closer genetic link to the original Palestinians and Hebrews who inhabited Palestine than many of the modern Jews do. The concepts of mass migration, the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and all the stories about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, etc, are literary myths similar to Arthurian legends or many other myths beloved by many other nations about their ancestors. That such unsubstantiated myths should form the basis of bringing millions of East Europeans, Russians and other Jews to Palestine, to displace the original inhabitants and to continue occupying their lands and resources is totally abhorrent. The Jews may claim that they need a national home in order to live in peace and safety, but it also means that they should recognise the rights of the Palestinians who have lived in that land from time immemorial and who being severely oppressed. This book should be read by Netanyahu and all other ultra-nationalist and ultra-fanatical Jews who believe that they have a historical and God-given right to occupy other people's territory and oppress them.
on 30 September 2013
Until recently I naively assumed that if you were Jewish you were directly descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This book pointed out what I should have realised already, that in the ancient world Judaism was a missionary religion that was embraced by many people who were not ethnically Jewish. It also made me aware of a side of history I knew nothing about - the existence of Jewish kingdoms in the early Middle Ages. In particular, there was the quite powerful and long-lasting Khazar kingdom in the northern Caucasus and along the Volga River, which the author claims could account for the huge number of Jews with an Eastern European background.
This book deals not just with Jewish history but also in great detail with the way Jewish history has been written. The author claims that much of the history has been suppressed as it is inconvenient to the claim that all Jews have a right to live in Israel because it is their ancestral home. The book is also directly and controversially political, with observations about the present State of Israel.
It is very long, and I must confess I skipped many of the details, especially those about other historians. However, it is very informative and thought-provoking, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history.
on 16 July 2014
Why read this book? Because the Israelis treat the Palestinians like animals. They're walled in, their lands are routinely confiscated and 'settled upon' and whenever Islamic terrorists cause trouble, which admittedly they do, they attack, kill, and maim the civilian population as retribution. If any other country did this, America would send in the 82nd airborne. Why not Israel? Because of the Jewish-American vote, and the fact that Israelis have a 'right' to be there, because the land of Israel is by rights, the land of the Jewish people.
Well, turns out, that's bulls***.
An academic work which seems to be as rigorously researched as it is readable. If like me you see rights and wrongs on both sides of the argument, Israel vs Palestine, this work will teach you why it's important not to forget that though most modern Israelis were born there and have as much right to remain as any other 2nd generation immigrant anywhere, their arrogance, violence, and bombast in pursuit of their sole claim on the land is reprehensible, racist, and should be revealed for the ugly lie that it is.
on 14 December 2009
Most of what you think you know about Jewish history is a myth, from the kingdoms of David and Solomon, through the Romans' exile of the Jews from Palestine, to the emergence of the Yiddish-speaking milieu of Eastern Europe by German Jews migrating eastwards to escape persecution.
That's the claim of Shlomo Sand's book, provocatively titled "The Invention of the Jewish People". By choosing the word `invention', Sand begins to stake his claim that the account of Jewish history with which we are familiar is not reliable - so `invention' in the sense of inventing the facts - and has been consciously created.
This is a fascinating, dense but patchy work, and one that requires careful reading.
Some of the patchiness comes from the fact that this is really three quite different books locked inside a single cover.
The first book is a scholarly account of developments in the writing of Jewish history - a history of historians and histories. Here we are introduced to pioneers like Isaak Marcus Jost, to Heinrich Graetz, and to the arrival of Zionism in the making of Jewish history (and History Departments). This part of the book is based on a very strong theoretical approach to the relationship between nationalism and emergent national intelligentsias; Sand argues that though we tend to think of nationalism as premised on a pre-existing entity called the nation, in real history nationalism often comes before the nation - with nationalist movements bringing into being the entity that they claim to represent. This is particularly the case in the multi-national empires of Central and Eastern Europe, where intellectuals who couldn't get their share of state patrimony created their own small ponds in which they could be the big fish. Sand recognises that all nations are to some extent "invented" - not only the later arrivals of Eastern Europe but also the major players like the English and the French.
The second book is a popular account of some key episodes in Jewish history. Sands debunks the widely held belief that the Bible can be relied on as a historical source, marshalling arguments from Biblical criticism and archaeology. (This shouldn't really be necessary at all in the twenty first century, but a surprising number of intelligent people think that the stories in the Bible of the Exodus, or the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, are grounded in history rather than in myth).
More important, he examines the historical evidence for the Romans' exile of the Jews from their land, and finds it wanting. And he shows the importance of conversions in the creation of large Jewish populations, both in the ancient world and in the middle ages - there are long treatments of the Jews of Southern Arabia, North Africa and Spain, and of course the Khazars.
The third book is the most polemical, focusing on the way that the specifically Zionist account of Jewish history has been used to construct a sense of Jewish identity that serves particular political ends. It looks at the impact of this process on Palestinian Arabs, Jews in Israel, and Jews elsewhere. It's hard to find fault with much of this analysis, or with Sand's conclusion that Israel is a `liberal ethnocracy' - with the word `liberal' used in a technical sense rather than as a term of approbation. One almost wishes that Sand had also taken aim at diasporic constructions of Jewish identity - the recent rows over the admissibility of converts to faith schools in the UK would have been an interesting addition to the story.
However, while this section will certainly be the part that is most interesting to readers of Jewish Socialist, but the latter should be aware that Sand is throwing a lot of secular Jewish identity baby out with the Zionist bathwater. He quotes with approval Rabbi Yeshaiahu Karelitz's dictum that "the [secular-Jewish] cart is empty", to bolter his argument that "There has never been secular Jewish culture common to all the Jews in the world". He puts the boot in Simon Dubnow as a proto-Zionist, even though Dubnow's thinking on Jewish nationality inspired alternative strands of Jewish nationalism and Dubnow himself was an inconstant Zionist and more often association with Diaspora autonomism.
Sand seems to be a very nice, thoughtful person. Some of the hatchet-job reviews on his book are unfair, if not unsurprising. Although he's been accused of lack of sensitivity to the Jewish predicament, a prologue to the book full of quite moving personal anecdotes shows the very opposite. On the issue of how Israelis and Palestinians might be reconciled he is a pragmatic post-Zionist rather than an `Arab Nationalist of the Jewish Persuasion', with lots of useful insights - and some wonderful stories about the early Zionist settlers hoped to recruit the Palestinian fellahin to an ethnically-based secular Jewish identity.
But he's not been too well served by his editors. The book contains at least one howler that I spotted (in which the `Marxist Zionist' Borochov changes his mind as a result of an episode twelve years after his death), and there may be more. There's a long digression on recent research into Jewish genetics that doesn't seem particularly well informed or useful. There are some odd omissions in the sources that Sand acknowledges - no mention of Ilan Halevi's `History of the Jews' which covers much of the same ground, no mention of Abram Leon (though a longish account of Kautsky's views on the Jewish Question), not even a mention of Hobsbawm on `the invention of tradition'. The discussion of Khazar history says much about how it has been ignored by Zionist historians, but nothing about how it has been appropriated by anti-semites (including Henry Ford's "Dearborn Independent").
Ultimately, Sand's book is an important one. It deserves reading, and Sand deserves some support for writing it - though of course, in the great tradition of the left, such support should be critical if unconditional.
on 14 September 2013
It is difficult to avoid the robust display of the author's effort to give a balance and fair view in offering a new and enlightening perspective on what the world had been led to believe. Such fastidious courage is worth every admiration if it can assist in helping
the world to appreciate how we have arrived at our present position.
on 23 April 2013
A book with important conclusions - a 'must read' debunking the genetic claim to Israel - that are somewhat obscured by discursions into a raft of previous scholars of the history of the Jews. Would have merited editing for the general reader without loss of crucial content.
on 23 November 2014
First a criticism of this edition, which is unusually poor even by the low standards of Kindle editions. Full of typos and minor omissions! That said...
Whether you are interested in Jewish history or the politics of Israel, this book is essential reading. It traces the development of different historical narratives about Jewishness, and relates them to the constitution and predicament of modern-day Israel.
Sand is a historian of nationality, and clearly states that he did not intend to write a new history of Jewish people. For me however, and I suspect many general readers, the fascination of this book lies in the revelation of a different history of Jewishness from the one which is widely accepted.
The well-known narrative describes Jewish people as a homogenous ethnic group who were expelled from their homeland by the Romans, and later returned to it in large numbers in the twentieth century. Sand shows how historians and politicians developed this version of events during the twentieth century, in order to support the creation of modern-day Israel.
At the same time he reveals a much more interesting and seemingly accurate historical narrative. Almost all of this has been recorded previously, but much of it has been suppressed for political reasons. This narrative has two key elements. First, Biblical-era Jews were not expelled in large numbers from the Roman province of Palestine. Indeed, many of their descendants are probably among the present-day Palestinian population. Second, millions of Jewish people who lived in Europe throughout recorded history were the descendants of local populations who converted to Judaism in two waves. The first wave took place between 100 BCE and 200 CE in the Mediterranean, the second in the eighth century CE in the Khazar kingdom between the Caspian and Black Seas.
This book reshaped my understanding of key chapters in world history, and as such gets a rare five stars.