“At a time when Israel has built a Wall that is a ghetto wall for Israel as well as the Palestinians, and is adopting policies that are more and more undemocratic, in order desperately to try to maintain its ethnic Jewish majority, this Israeli Jewish historian pleads for a return to long-forgotten Jewish openness to the outside world.” Thus Deborah Maccoby, ICAHD UK board member, summarises the purpose of Shlomo Sand’s much debated new book The Invention of the Jewish People in her review of it. The full review appears below.
Maccoby comments that the book “written to debunk popular mythology about the Jewish people and its relation to its Holy Land, has itself created its own mythology among people who don’t appear to have read it.” She outlines how Sand is not saying, for instance, as some have tried to suggest, that Palestinians are the real Jews and that the people identifying as Jewish today are not authentic Jews. But he is addressing the general public, most of whom – especially Israelis, including himself in his youth – have swallowed the popular myth of the “Wandering Jew” of Christian mythology, who were all expelled from their land two thousand years ago, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and have now miraculously returned. He wants to put the Jewish identity in its true historical context of spiritual and cultural descent from times when Judaism was a powerfully proselytising, outward-turned religion. Through assisting a process of re-education, Sand’s book pleads for an open, outward-looking, variegated Jewish identity, on the part of both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. He hopes that this may lead to a shift in Israeli society itself to a more open, inclusive attitude to its Arab inhabitants and neighbours.
Maccoby recommends the book, apart from an “impenetrable” first chapter, as compulsive reading, “written in a style that is often amusingly ironic”.
“The Invention of the Jewish People” by Shlomo Sand. Translated by Yael Lotan. (Verso, London and New York). 2009. 313pp.
Reviewed by Deborah Maccoby
Shlomo Sand’s controversial book, written to debunk popular mythology about the Jewish people and its relation to its Holy Land, has itself created its own mythology among people who don’t appear to have read it.
Thus Sand is said to deny the right of Israel to exist, on the grounds that the Jewish people of modern times has no genetic connection with the ancient Jewish inhabitants of the land. As a corollary to this, Sand’s claim that the Palestinians are (allowing for historical admixtures) the genetic descendants of the ancient Jews of the Holy Land ( who were, Sand writes, mostly converted to Islam at the time of the Arab conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century CE – is taken to mean that he is saying that the Palestinians, not modern people identifying as Jewish, are the real Jews.
If Sand were actually saying this, it would be easy to argue against him that a) Jewish identity and the connection of Jews with the Holy Land are based upon cultural and spiritual descent, not upon ties of blood and genes; and b) even if it could be proved that modern Jews were genetic descendants of the people exiled 2000 years ago, this would still not be a justification (as Sand’s alleged argument implies) for establishing a ethnic nation-state based upon driving out most of the people already living in the land.
But anyone who actually reads the book will discover that Sand does not at all base his views upon blood and genes – on the contrary he is deeply opposed to arguments founded upon racial descent. He is not denying the right of Israel to exist. He believes that – however wrong the circumstances of its birth – an Israeli-Jewish nation has arisen in the ancient Jewish Holy Land and its existence is a fact of history that cannot and should not be reversed. Nor does he deny that Jewish identity is based upon cultural and spiritual descent. As he pointed out in a recent lecture on his book at SOAS, he is not saying at all that Palestinians are the real Jews and that the people identifying as Jewish today are not authentic Jews. He added that he did not think many Palestinians would agree with this idea either!
Indeed, this book, controversial though it is, does not claim to be saying anything new. As Sand writes in his preface: “I should emphasise that I encountered scarcely any new findings – almost all the material had previously been uncovered by Zionist and Israeli historiographers. “ Various professors of Jewish history have sneered at the book for its alleged “truisms” and setting up of straw men. Sand, a professor of contemporary history at Tel Aviv University, is regarded by these experts in Jewish history as a naive encroacher on their territory. But Sand is not writing for these professors. He is addressing the general public, most of whom – especially Israelis – have swallowed the popular myth of the exiled, miserable, isolated, wandering people – the “Wandering Jew” of Christian mythology – who were all expelled from their land two thousand years ago, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and have now miraculously returned. As Sand puts it in his preface: “What is so amazing is that much of the information cited in this book has always been known inside the limited circles of professional research, but invariably got lost en route to the arena of public and educational memory. My task was to organise the information in a new way, to dust off the old documents and continually reexamine them. The conclusions to which they led me created a radically different narrative from the one I had been taught in my youth.”
Sand points out that – as scholars have always known – there was no exile in 70 CE; the Romans never deported whole populations. And he draws attention to something that is again well known to scholars but has never got through to the popular mind – that by the first century CE the majority of Jews were already settled outside the Holy Land, and that these Diaspora Jewish communities were mostly communities of people who were originally non-Jews but who had converted to Judaism. And Sand points out something that is again known to scholars but contradicts common perceptions – that at this time Judaism was an open, proselytising religion that actively sought converts and was in fact immensely popular. Before the rise of Christianity, there was even a prospect of Judaism becoming the main religion of the ancient world. It was only the later persecution and ghettoisation of Jews under Christian rule that led to Judaism becoming a closed, inward-looking religion with a reputation for not welcoming converts, in contrast to Christianityand Islam. Sand writes: “The Mishnah, Talmud and the many commentaries are full of statements and debates designed to persuade the Jewish public to accept the proselytes and to treat them as equal.” ( Here, incidentally, Sand performs a very valuable service in correcting the many current misrepresentations about the Talmud, based on xenophobic statements by some rabbis that are contradicted by many other, very different Talmudic sayings.)
Some of the theories that Sand subscribes to are very much in dispute – in particular, his adoption of the ideas that the Hebrew Bible was composed during and after the Babylonian Exile, and that the Khazars – an early mediaeval kingdom of Turkic-Slavs who converted to Judaism – were the main ancestors of East European Jews. But one does not have to agree with all Sand’s hypotheses to applaud the main purpose of his book, which is to plead for an open, outward-looking, variegated Jewish identity, on the part of both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. This is why the whole book leads up to the fifth, final chapter, which is concerned with modern-day Israel/Palestine. Sand calls for an Israel that is no longer a Jewish State in the current sense of belonging to the Jews of the world and not to its own citizens, 20 per cent of whom are Palestinians. This is not the same as calling for the end of Israel. Sand points out that Israeli-Jewish national culture – which is something very different from the variety of worldwide Jewish cultures – would still exist in a binational state (which in the book is his solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, though Sand has said in recent talks that, as Israeli Jews will never accept a binational state, he now supports a federated two state solution). Sand explodes the myth of the “Jewish and democratic state”, pointing out that, in terms of modern Western liberal democracies, in which all citizens, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, are included in the nation, Israel is not a democracy but an ethnocracy.
At a time when Israel has built a Wall that is a ghetto wall for Israel as well as the Palestinians, and is adopting policies that are more and more undemocratic, in order desperately to try to maintain its ethnic Jewish majority, this Israeli Jewish historian pleads for a return to long-forgotten Jewish openness to the outside world.
A final word of warning: Chapter One, which explores Zionism in relation to the meaning of modern national identity – and establishes that all peoples, not just the Jewish people, are inventions – is convoluted and rather impenetrable compared to the rest of the book and might be better skipped out at first and read at the end. The rest of the book – written in a style that is often amusingly ironic – is compulsive reading.