The Sunday Times and The Financial Times review Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. By Rowan

Via: The Invention of the Jewish People.

Simon Schama, for The Financial Times, and Max Hastings, for The Sunday Times, have both reviewed Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. While both reviewers attack the book’s title –  with Hastings calling it ‘foolishly provocative’ and Schama ’splashy’ – both recognise the power of Sand’s seminal text.  Hastings states that the book ‘represents, at the very least, a formidable polemic against claims that Israel has a moral right to define itself as an explicitly and exclusively Jewish society, in which non-Jews, such as Palestino-Israelis, are culturally and politically marginalised.’

“Sand’s fundamental thesis is that the Jewish people are joined by bonds of ­religion, not race or ancient nationhood. He deplores the explicitly racial basis of the Israeli state, in which the Arab minority are second-class citizens. No Jew who lives today in a ­western democracy would tolerate the ­discrimination and exclusion experienced by the ­Palestino-Israelis… The state’s ethnocentric foundation remains an obstacle to [its liberal democratic] development.

It is easy to see why Sand’s book has attracted fierce controversy. The legend of the ancient exile and modern return stands at the heart of Israel’s self-belief. It is no more surprising that its people enjoy supposing that Joshua’s trumpets blew down the walls of Jericho — at a time when, Sand says, Jericho was a small town with no walls — than that we cherish tales of King Alfred and his cakes.

The author rightly deplores the eagerness of fanatics to insist upon the historical truth of events convenient to modern politics, in defiance of evidence or probability.” – Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

Read Max Hastings’ review of The Invention of the Jewish People here and Simon Schama’s review here.


6 thoughts on “The Sunday Times and The Financial Times review Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. By Rowan

  1. “both recognise the power of Sand’s seminal text.”

    No “they” don’t. Schama is extremely critical, as are most British academics in Jewish history that I know. And Hastings is no authority on Jewish history whatsoever.

  2. ” It is undoubtedly right to say that a popular version of this idea of the exile survives in most fundamentalist accounts of Jewish history. It may well be the image that many Jewish children still have. But it is a long time since any serious historian argued that following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans emptied Judea. But what the Romans did do, following the Jewish revolt of AD66-70 and even more exhaustively after a second rebellion in AD135, was every bit as traumatic: an act of cultural and social annihilation – mass slaughter and widespread enslavement. But there was also the mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture; the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, the obliteration of the Temple, the prohibition on rituals and prayers. Sand asserts, correctly, that an unknowable number of Jews remained in what the Romans called Palestina. The multitudes of Jews in Rome had already gone there, not as a response to disaster but because they wanted to and were busy proselytising.

    All this is true and has been acknowledged. But Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning – the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away.

    There are many such twists of historical logic and strategic evasions of modern research in this book. To list them all would try your patience. Scholarly consensus now places the creation of the earliest books of the Old Testament not in the 6th or 5th centuries BC, but in the 9th century BC, home-grown in a Judah which had been transformed, as Israel Finkelstein has written “into a developed nation state”. The post-David kingdom of the 10th century BC may have been a pastoral warrior citadel, but the most recent excavations by Amihai Mazar have revealed it capable of building monumental structures. And the Judah in which the bible was first forged, its population swollen with refugees from the hard-pressed northern kingdom of Israel, was a culture that needed a text to bring together territory, polity and religion. It was a moment of profound cultural genesis. And don’t get me started again on the Khazars. No one doubts the significance of their conversion, but to argue that the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewry must necessarily descend from them is to make precisely the uncritical claim of uninterrupted genealogy Sand is eager to dispute in the wider context of Jewish history.

    His assumption that the Jewish state is an oxymoron built on illusions of homogeneity is belied by the country’s striking heterogeneity. How else to explain the acceptance of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews or the Bene Israel Indians as Israeli Jews? Certainly that acceptance has never been without obstacles, and egregious discrimination has been shown by those who think they know what “real jews” should look like. Sand is right in believing that a more inclusive and elastic version of entry and exit points into the Jewish experience should encourage a debate in Israel of who is and who is not a “true” Jew. I could hardly agree more, and for precisely the reason that Sand seems not to himself embrace: namely that the legitimacy of Israel both within and without the country depends not on some spurious notion of religious much less racial purity, but on the case made by a community of suffering, not just during the Holocaust but over centuries of expulsions and persecutions. Unlike the Roman deportations, these were not mythical. “

  3. I am a PhD student immersed in many of the primary sources to which Shlomo Sand, specialist in modern French history, refers. There are plenty of British academics in Jewish history. Conspicuously, none were present here, or in any discussion with Sand.

    The exile is assumed in rabbinic and Talmudic literature, as it is in Christian and Islamic. The Talmud is an expression of the rabbis’ resolve that every scrap of Jewish law, lore, custom and memory be retained in the face of the catastrophic loss of temple, Jerusalem, Judea and state.

    In the Bellum Judaeorum. Josephus is too early to realise the loss of temple and Jerusalem is permanent, and he likely hoped for their return to the Jews. But there is no question that he perceives the loss of a Jewish state, of which Jerusalem is the capital.

    Soon after Jews fall from favour. We hear no more of Hellenistic Jewish intellectuals, like Philo, whether Roman citizens or no. The destruction of the Alexandrian Jewish communities signals a decline in Hellenistic Jewish civilisation, a decline completed by the Christians. Jews no longer write Greco-Roman historiography. Hellenistic and Roman Jewish works, the provenance, in any case, of an elite, are lost. All Jews, empirewide, are punished for the rebels of Judea by collection of the temple tax. Indeed this likely plays a part in triggering the revolts in Alexandria and Cyrenaica. All Jews are thus identified as “Judeans”, and the Christians continue the policy. But now Jews are not only treated as de facto rebels, or potential rebels, against the Roman state and its gods, they are rebels against their own God, who now favours Greco-Roman gentile Christians, who inherit Jerusalem and Judea, now renamed “Palestine”, from their pagan predecessors, who acted as agents of divine wrath against Israel for rejecting or slaying Christ.

    The “myth” of exile arises precisely because it is no longer possible to retain or research information about the past in detail. Except, for Jews, in the Talmud. It is a shorthand that most neatly encapsulates the Jewish experience of dispossession, disfavour, subjugation and displacement. Jews intermingle and intermarry, and the rabbis forge a pan-Jewish identity precisely because they fear Israel will be lost among the nations. Thereafter the tendency is less to convert new as to retain old Jews.

    The assumption, indeed the necessity, that Jews are a people dispossessed of temple, city and land for their rejection of Jesus and the prophets only bolsters Jewish self-definition.

    And the Christians continue the process of Jewish dispossession of the land of Israel by laws seeking to alienate or marginalise them. Yes, a sizable Jewish community remains in the land, largely in the Galil, whither many Judean refugees likely went.

    Shlomo’s assertion that Romans did not exile peoples is idiotic: they certainly carried out tranfer or genocide against Dacia, the only other province, other than Judaea, to be renamed as a consequence.

    Cassius Dio says 500 000 Judeans were killed during the suppression of the second Jewish revolt. Exaggeration? Possibly. But ethnic cleansing even by modern standards (and the Palestinian Arab Muslim and Christian experience springs to mind).

    Judaea is changed to Syria Palaestina both to likely reflect that “demographic” change and to alienate Jews from the land for ever. It was never complete, sure. But I can tell you that every ancient Christian author, even those living in Palestine, speaks as though Israel has been completely dispossessed from the land, not because it necessarily reflects reality, but because it reflects things as they think they should be.

    Which is why Jews have been regarded as a people dispossessed of temple, city and land, in Christendom and Islam, for most of Christian and Islamic history.

    Especially Palestinian Christian and Islamic history.

    In any case, one consequence of this is that, even in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews in Europe, North Africa and Asia are regarded as more nationally Judean than, say, European or Arab, and are either killed, or effectively driven out: before 1914, mostly to America, after 1914, mostly to Palestine, or what became Israel.

    Which is why the Jewish state of Israel is the second or largest Jewish community today, and certainly the one most identifiably Jewish (hence, unsurprisingly, the especial focus of hatred of antisemites today).

    Sand’s holding a post-Revolutionary French notion of nationality as the touch stone of its definition is absurd: the Greeks and the Romans regarded Jews as a distinct ethno-national group, along with Syrians and Egyptians.

    But, more to the point, Sand’s criterion proves the very opposite of his thesis: the granting to Jews of French citizenship was significant precisely because it was the first time since antiquity that Jews could transcend their (anciently regarded) Jewish ethno-nationality without having first to convert from Judaism to Christianity.

    The intellectuals of the French Republic all assumed the Jews were an ethno-national group historically dispossessed because this was not merely how Jews saw themselves, it had been a datum of European culture for nearly 2000 years.

    It was precisely this identity Jews were supposed to surrender in order to become French citizens. That was why orthodox rabbis viewed emancipation with such ambivalence, and why Liberal Judaism evolved as a response.

    Conte de Clermont-Tonnerre to the General Assembly of the Republic ‘To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation nothing.’

    It goes without saying that this presupposes Jews to have been a national group of some kind, although this was what Jews needed to abandon to become French citizens.

  4. Professor Shlomo Sand`s respond to Simon Schama’s critical review, would be an answer to some of your points.

    “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

    Link: The Invention of the Jewish People.

  5. And what about this history?

    “The Canaanites (Phoenicians to the ancient Greeks), the other indigenous people of Syria, inhabited the southern and the coastal parts of Greater Syria. Canaan was a distinct political entity formed by a loose confederation of city-states during the third millennium BC. Their main cities were Damascus, the coastal cities of Akko (Acre), Sidon, Tyre, Arwad and Ugarit, all the Palestinian cities and other smaller cities extending to Kadesh in upper central Syria.
    The Canaanites’ main achievement was to create the first letter-based alphabet (as opposed to syllable-based cuneiform). Later on, in the first millennium BCE, this alphabet was simplified by “re-born” Amorites: the Aramaeans. Aramaic (the language of Christ) became the spoken language of the Middle East, from Egypt to Persia, for almost one thousand years.”

    For full article here is the Link: Le Monde diplomatique.

  6. zkharya, when you call others “idiots” while arguing, it shows how you think of others, and the strength of your logic. That’s why I dismissed your latest comments.
    you said you are Ph D student, this is a good reason to stay away from this level of discussion, I am wondering what kind of words and names you would use when you get your degree?

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