Book review: Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People”

22 October 2009

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In 1967 the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish published his poem “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies,” only to be accused of “collaboration with the Zionist enemy” for his sympathetic depiction of an Israeli soldier’s remorse of conscience. Forty years later that soldier has identified himself as the historian Shlomo Sand. He has translated his remorse into a book that has become a bestseller in Israel and France, where the award of the Prix Aujourd’hui has made the author something of a TV star.

Indeed, few recent books have aroused more interest and been more frequently reviewed in the US and Europe prior to the appearance of an English version. Translator Yael Lotan has chosen to follow the example of her French predecessors by telescoping the interrogative Hebrew title (When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), which here becomes The Invention of the Jewish People, thus misleadingly and (deliberately?) provocatively implying that such inventiveness was unique to the Jews. However, Sand clarifies that worldwide in the 19th century “[t]he national project was … a fully conscious one … It was a simultaneous process of imagination, invention, and actual self-creation” (45).

Sand traces how Zionist ideology drove the project of Jewish nationalism by turning Judaism “into something hermetic, like the German Volk …” (255). He argues that history and biology were enlisted “to bind together the frangible secular Jewish identity.” Together, these engendered an “ethnonationalist historiography” which was typified by the mid-19th century German Jewish historian Heinricht Graetz and his friend Moses Hess, who “needed a good deal of racial theory to dream up the Jewish people” (256).

According to Sand, the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70 AD left the indigenous Jewish population of Judea and Samaria in place. “[T]he Romans never deported entire peoples. It did not pay to uproot the people of the land, the cultivators of produce, the taxpayers” (130). Furthermore, at that time there were already Jewish communities numbering up to four million persons in Persia, Egypt, Asia Minor and elsewhere (145). Palestine’s status as the unique “ancestral homeland” of the Jews collapses together with the myth of David and Solomon’s imposing kingdom.

Against the ethno-biological concept of a Jewish people — a “race” — whose linear descendants returned from exile to (re)found today’s Israel, Sand posits a religious community proliferating throughout and beyond the Mediterranean region by means of proselytism and conversion. He offers a detailed rebuttal of the conventional wisdom whereby “Judaism was never a proselytizing religion,” a view disseminated by historian Martin Goodman and others (150, note 42).

Most importantly, he concentrates attention on Khazaria, that “Strange Empire” that flourished in the Caspian region between the seventh and tenth centuries AD. By the eighth century the Khazars had adopted Hebrew as their sacred and written tongue, and “[a]t some stage between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth centuries, the[y] … adopted Jewish monotheism” (221). Sand speculates that this conversion was calculated to save them from absorption into either the Roman or the Islamic empires. The Khazars, he contends, engendered those Askhenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe who would later invent the myths of Zionism to justify their colonization of Palestine, a land to which they had no “ethnic” connection and where they remain the dominant elite.

So if the exile was a myth — fomented, Sand writes, by the Christian church as an image of divine punishment (“The Wandering Jew”) — what happened to the indigenous Jews? Sand’s answer: they converted to Islam and survive as today’s disinherited Palestinians. This seemingly radical thesis was once shared by, among others, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister who in 1918 still believed that (in Sand’s words) “the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam … for material reasons … Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland” (186).

Ultimately, the case against the Jewish state cannot be based on an unseemly tussle for genetic primacy, but on a discourse of fundamental political and human rights. Sand turns toward such a discussion in the final chapter, describing it as the raison d’etre of The Invention of the Jewish People, which he admits essentially contains nothing not already found in the work of other historians and archaeologists.

Today’s Israel is not a democracy but a “liberal ethnocracy” (307) that assumes its “growing and strengthening” Arab minority “will always accept its exclusion from the political and cultural heart” (309). Ultimately we may see “an uprising in the Arab Galilee, followed by iron-fisted repression,” which would constitute “a turning-point for the existence of Israel” in the region. Hence, Sand states that the ideal solution would be the creation of a democratic binational state.

Sadly, Sand hastily dismisses this “ideal project.” In terms all too drearily reminiscent of Zionist apologetics he states that to “ask the Jewish Israeli people, after such a long and bloody conflict, and in view of the tragedy experienced by many of its immigrant founders in the twentieth century, to become overnight a minority in its own state may not be the smartest thing to do” (311-312). Instead, he falls back on a sequence of rhetorical questions: “[h]ow many Jews would be willing to forgo the privileges they enjoy in the Zionist state? … will anyone dare to repeal the Law of Return …  To what extent is Jewish Israeli society willing to discard the … image of the ‘chosen people,’ and to cease … excluding the ‘other’ from its midst?”

What is behind this sorry post-Zionist anti-climax to a book that seemed to presage a heady anti-Zionist conclusion? In an interview Sand admitted that he “waited until [he] was a full professor” before publishing the book, adding that there “is a price to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort.” In providing the premises for radical conclusions without either drawing or excluding those conclusions, Sand has the best of both worlds with few if any consequences.

Ultimately, Shlomo Sand is a little like Moses, unable to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The journey so far, however, is instructive, and very stylishly accomplished; one hopes that the “soldier dreaming of white lilies” may eventually be emboldened to complete it.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist (www.raymonddeane.com).

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