Reader reviews for The Invention of the Jewish People

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"Unsparing assault on Jewish historiography and Israel's Zionist edifice" Reviewer Koutsoukis
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A very informative book which raises a serious question: what does this do to the claim by Israelis that the land they occupy is somehow their 'right'? Since so little is reliably known about the movements of the various tribes of mankind (that is, according to their ethnicities) through the surface of the world at large throughout history, books such as this are most useful. Whether this conversion of peoples to Judaism was a counter to the growth of membership of Christianity is worth considering.
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The author sets out to explain how the Jews went from being people to being "a people". It's an intriguing walk through history by a man who doesn't set out to be for or against the Jews. His only objective is understanding the history, and he does a good job of exploring a touchy topic.
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This book argues that despite its claims, Zionism has produced in the Israeli state not a democracy, but a “liberal ethnocracy” (307) based on fictitious claims about “the Jewish people” that derive from a “nationalization of the Bible and its transformation into a reliable history book” that took place between the 1850s and the 1930s. Bold, highly intelligent, artfully written, and well translated, this scholarly volume on the historiography of the notion of a “Jewish people” was a best-seller in Israel in 2008. Sand is a notable historian of ideas with extraordinarily acute powers of analysis, and he is able dispassionately and with flair to unravel the elements of intricate combinations of history, culture, and religion. Americans used to reading mainstream media fodder about Israel and the Middle East will find Sand’s approach eye-opening and presented at a level that is several orders of intellectual magnitude removed from the tired shibboleths with which they are familiar. The book is addressed to an educated readership cognizant both of world history and of modern politics.
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Shlomo Sand is a scholar, and a brave man. He takes on a most daunting and difficult task -- to challenge the myth of the Jewish identity. In this book, he takes down the myth piece by fabricated piece, block by invented block on which the Jewish ethnos is based and at the same time irrevocably dismantles too what we thought we knew about the Jewish people. The central myth that he explodes is that of the forced exile that took place in the 1st century -- which means the "wandering Jew" never existed. Let me give here a summary of each of the five chapters of this important and fascinating work. Sand begins with an overview of the making of nations -- how the concept of national identity arose and the tools that were used to construct and shape the so-called national consciousness (tools such as myths, flags and symbols, maps and museums, and other cultural artifacts). He traces the history of the meanings of the word "people" (the German Volk, the Russian Narod, the French peuple, and the English "people") and ethnos -- how they acquired the meaning they did. The rise of nationalism in Europe in the 18th and early 19th c. saw the constant use of the term "people" apparently to stress the antiquity and continuity of the nationality it sought to construct -- the collective origin of "the people" an insurance against the risks represented by fragmentary though persistent subidentities that swarmed beneath the unifying modernity. Sand also outlines the schools of thought that shaped nationhood, most notably on race and ethnicity, which produced different histories in Europe and elsewhere. He talks about the spread of nationalism, and the role of intellectuals (or prior to the invention of the word intellectuals in the end of 19th c., those from the class which produced and manipulated cultural symbols and signs, e.g. royal scribes and priests, sorcerer or shaman, church clerics) in the accumulation of knowledge and development of ideologies that would preserve the social order -- a fundamental element in the formation of the nation. The second chapter talks about the early shaping of Jewish history and the Old Testament as mythistory. He goes into detail about the writing of the history of the Jews -- beginning from the first modern attempt in the 17th century of Jewish historians to tell the complete history of the Jews. The methodical study of the history began and largely took place among German-Jewish intellectuals in post-Napoleonic Germany. Along the next two centuries, the entire story would change emphasis, leave out certain parts, according to developments in German identity politics. This period marked a major realignment where the miraculous works of Providence were suddenly rejected as untrue while the human story in the Old Testament that was closely intertwined with the Jewish people was upheld as historical fact. In this chapter, Sand discusses "biblical historiography" and its affirmation of the connetion to the "Land of Israel." He quotes Jewish scholars who had recourse to the Scriptures to prove the centrality of the Land of Israel in the life of the nation, which had longed to return to it throughout its long "exile." And here, he discusses Israeli archeological research and its use in furthering the national myth. Evidence had to be found to corroborate stories in the Old Testament, e.g. Abraham's migration to Canaan, the 40 years of wandering to Canaan, existence of the mighty kingdom of Solomon. The evidence, however, was problematic, to say the least -- the scientific historicity not only shook the entire story's chronology, but no evidence pointed to the existence of a marvelous and powerful nation that emerged from the desert. In the next chapter, Sand talks about uprooting and deportation -- central concepts in the Jewish tradition. He argues that no forced exile took place after the destruction of the Temple. He cites Jewish scholars who have found evidence in numerous rabbinical sources that in the 2nd and 3rd c., the word for exile (galut) was used in the sense of political subjugation rather than deportation. Other historians even go further to say that the renewed Jewish myth about the exile rose fairly late and was due mainly to the rise of Christian mythology about the Jews being exiled in punishment for their rejection and crucufixion of Jesus. Also in this chapter, Sand talks about proselytism by the Jews in history. The concept of proselytism is a crucial one in the context of Jewishness. Proselytism and conversion shatter the myth of all Jews having ethno-biological origins in the Land of Israel, hence the claim that Judaism does not proselytise. Sand, however, mentions evidence of extensive Judaizing, the first mention of which was in Roman documents. The Romans were polytheists, tolerant toward other beliefs, and Judaism was legal. For a long time conversion to Judaism was not illegal, but eventually posed a threat to the political order as more and more people rejected the gods of the empire. Several expulsions of the Jews in Rome took place precisely because of proselytization. In the next chapter, he talks about the the "realms of silence" or the "forgotten" Jews. Here, Sand explores the impacts and the scope of this proselytization, and the recent rejection of this aspect of Judaism. He argues that before Judaism turned inward, mainly due to the exclusionary walls built around it by Christianity, it continued to proselytize in far-off lands still unreached by monotheism -- from the Arabian peninsula, to the Caucasus, pre-Muslim Iberian peninsula, and the Maghreb. A very interesting question Sand discusses here is the origins of the East European Jews. This chapter mentions the archelogical and epigraphic evidence of the Himyar kingdom (now areas in Yemen) embracing Judaism, around 4th c. AD. This kingdom has been erased from the historical memory of Israel, as that of the converted Jews in Northern Africa. The most fascinating story, though, was that of the Khazars -- a powerful kingdom that stretched all over the Caucasus from the 4th c. to the 13th c. -- who converted collectively to Judaism. The Khazars were from nomadic Turkic or Hunnic-Bulgar tribes who built a great empire in the steppes. Little is known about this mysterious people, as the empire collapsed and disappeared with the coming of the Mongols. Sand devotes more than half of the chapter to the Khazars and the process of Judaization in their kingdom. The adoption of Judaism as the empire's religion was apparently a strategic choice -- Islamization was rapidly advancing from the South while on the other side, Orthodox Christianity was growing more and more influential. The choice of a third religion kept the Khazars "independent" from their neighbors' creeping domination. Here, Sand makes an interesting assertion that the Khazars who were dispersed by the Mongol invasions reached parts of now East and Central Europe, to form what would eventually become Eastern European Jewry. The book's closing chapter is about Israel's identity politics. Sand talks of Zionism and heredity, and the use of "substantial reification" of the nationalist ideology through genetic studies in the search for the common biological origin of the "real" Jews. He mentions the awkward difficulties to explain findings by those investigating the Jewish DNA, especially the data which showed that Jews and Palestinians had some ancient ancestors in common. Some of those findings were related to a so-called "Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA", or the cohanim or ancient blood-aristocracy descended from Aaron (Moses' brother) or "priestly gene." The book then goes on to the founding of the State of Israel. Identity was the primary issue from the very beginning so that even the choice of a name posed challenges -- should it be State of Judea or State of Zion? But if Judea, citizens will be Judeans meaning Jews, and if Zion, Zionists. The former would infrige on all Jewish believers worldwide, and Arab citizens would become Jewish citizens who have full civil rights. With the latter, the Zionist movement would have had to disband after independence, and well, Arab citizens would then be oddly called Zionists. A mess, indeed, and it was just the beginning. Sand then goes on to mention the absence of civil rights for all citizens of Israel (he meant the inclusion of Arabs of course), the legal and social framework which defines this "apartheid" within the state -- including the explanation by leaders why there was a Jewish nation but not an Israeli one. All these chapters lead up to Sand's main thesis that "Jewish democracy" is an oxymoron and that to be able to claim its place in the world, the Jewish supra-identity has to be completely transformed and an Israelization that welcomes the "other" has to be undertaken through a policy of democratic multiculturalism, essentially a creation of a democratic binational state.
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