Via: Socialist Alternative.
Shlomo Sand’s international bestseller, The Invention of the Jewish People sets out to tackle one of the most prominent myths used to justify the Zionist colonization of Palestine: that there is some kind of collective Jewish heritage that has a historical connection and right to the “Land of Israel”.
The traditional Zionist history of the Jewish people begins with the words of Moses in the Old Testament – that God granted the land of Israel to the Jewish people and that it was to be theirs for all time. Following this is the story of exile: thrown out of the Promised Land by the Romans, the Jewish people are forcibly dispersed throughout the Western world. It is here that the Jewish people suffered years of persecution and were finally slaughtered en masse in the Holocaust.
It is only after this genocide (and centuries of prayer) that the Jewish people are finally able to return, defeating the Arab armies in Palestine and establishing Israel in 1948. This narrative, spanning more than three millennia, is the singular, elemental and sustaining claim of the state of Israel as a Jewish nation.
As Sand argues, the ideological justification for Israel demanded the secularisation and acceptance of these biblical stories into mainstream narrative. Just as in the Bible all Jewish people are told to act as if we were at Mount Sinai when the 10 commandments were handed down by God and thus behave accordingly, now the modern peddlers of the biblical myths demand that we all remember our exodus from Israel and our longing to return to the land.
So the Zionist historians created a singular collective memory for all Jewish people and used this historical “fact” to justify the setting up of the state of Israel. Jewish people, people who happen to share a common religion, are thus transformed into the Jewish people who share a collective memory and cultural history – a history of expulsion and exile.
This collective “ethnic” origin is necessary because, as Sand points out: “Membership of a religious community does not provide ownership rights to a territory, whereas an ‘ethnic’ people always have a land they can claim as ancestral heritage.”
To see how fundamental this myth is to the creation of the state of Israel you need look no further than the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
Thus, like all nations the nation of the Jewish people is constructed along with a nationality that can legitimise its existence. Just as the French must be convinced their ancestors were all Gauls and Germans that their sole descendants are Aryan Teutons, so too must Jews believe they all sprang forth from the exiled and persecuted Jewish people.
Sand’s is a valuable contribution for those who wish to destroy the ideological justification for the state of Israel root and branch but stops short at arguing for the destruction of the state itself.
Sand illustrates how the majority of Jews who “returned” to Israel after the Holocaust had no ancestral link with the land. Rather they were from Khazaria, an empire that flourished in the Caspian region between the seventh and tenth centuries AD. Using archaeological evidence Sand shows that the Khazars adopted Hebrew as their sacred and written tongue, and, between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth centuries, Judaism.
Sand theorizes that the empire adopted Judaism out of political necessity to maintain amicable political relations with both the Roman and the Islamic empires. More importantly, on the basis of this research he gives new life to a hypothesis previously suggested by historians in the 19th and 20th centuries: that the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were descendants of the Judaized Khazars. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea knocks the legitimacy out of any concept of Jews “returning” to their homeland.
He argues for the continued existence of the state of Israel on the basis that it “can today claim the right to exist only by accepting a painful historical process led to its creation.” Sand seems stuck within the confines of academia, seeing the ongoing persecution and genocide of the Palestinian people as simply a “painful historical process” rather than a daily and brutal reality.
The Zionist myths that justify not only the setting up of but the continued existence of the state of Israel still have resonance today. And the continued existence of the state of Israel has some very real affects that a historical criticism of its origins doesn’t quiet seem to remedy.
It seems a disappointing conclusion that even after arguing that the state of Israel is not in fact a democratic state – as the concept of a Jewish state can hardly be a state that represents all of its citizens equally – Sand still goes on to justify its existence.
That being said, Sand’s book is definitely worth a read, it effectively destroys one of the most fundamental myths underpinning the Zionist state and consequently (and perhaps accidently) calls into question its legitimacy.