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Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, translated by Yael Lotan (London and New York: Verso, 2009). First published in 2008 as Matai ve’ekh humtza ha’am hayehudi? (‘When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?’). [Thesis. 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.] Preface to the English-Language Edition. Sand wrote this book out of a sense of duty to the historical profession, which in Israel is divided between departments of “general history” and “separate departments of Jewish (Israeli) history” (x; ix-xi). Introduction: Burdens of Memory. Sketch of his father’s life (1-3). Sketch of his wife’s father’s life (3-5). Two ‘native’ friends (6-9). Two students (9-13). The Israeli national myth, like other national myths, is an invention of the era of nationalism (14-18). ‘New historians’ have turned up many findings threatening the myth, but they have been forgotten or buried (18-20). This book transgresses academic boundaries (20-22). Ch. 1: Making Nations: Sovereignty and Equality. On general concepts (23-24). The rise of ‘peoples’ coincided with the rise of democracy; when these were purged of race concepts, similar and equally fictitious notions of ethnicity have been adopted, beginning in the 1950s (24-31). In terms of intellectual history the concept of nation has been a laggard, but recent work by Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner establishes that “the advanced consolidation of a nation is closely connected with the formation of a unified culture, such as can only exist in a society that is no longer agrarian and traditional” (37; 3139). Nation as ideology (40-43) and as religion (43-45). Hans Kohn showed that “all the liberal democracies have given rise to an imagined citizenship in which the future is more significant than the past” (49; 43-49). But in contrast to this “citizenship nationalism,” an “ethnicist nationalism” prevailed in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Russia due to the lack of a long-standing high culture (49-54). In nationalism, a ‘theology’ of the intellectuals can become a ‘mythology’ promulgated by educators for the masses bereft by modernity of old traditions (54-63). Ch. 2: Mythistory: In the Beginning, God Created the People. Flavius Josephus [37-95? CE] took the divinely sanctioned truth of Jewish scripture as the basis for his pioneering attempt to write the history of the Jews (64-65). The next history of the Jews did not appear until 1706-1707, by Jacques Basnage, a Huguenot theologian (66-67). In 18201828 the German-Jewish historian Isaak Markus Jost’s history of the Jews in nine volumes “skipped over the biblical period” (67; 67-71). Heinrich Graetz’s history of the Jews (1853-1876) was highly influential; it was “the first work that strove, with consistency and feeling, to invent the Jewish people”: “Henceforth, for many people, Judaism would no longer be a rich and diverse religious civilization that managed to survive despite all difficulties . . . and became an ancient people or race that was uprooted from its homeland in Canaan and arrived in its youth at the gates of Berlin” (73; 72-77). Moses
Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem: The Last Nationalist Question (1862) was imbued with the racial theories that flourished in Europe after 1850 and embraced a racial interpretation of Jewish history (78-81). In 1879 Heinrich von Treitschke, a prestigious historian at the Univ. of Berlin, warned against Jews against embracing racialist notions (81-84). “Low-level anti-Semitism” was spreading through society; Theodor Mommsen [1817-1902] prominently opposed it (8487). Meanwhile, the Old Testament became “the book of the Jewish national revival”; Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1882) and before he died in 1891 Graetz attacked its skeptical questioning as “anti-Jewish” (87-88). Simon Dubnow of Belorussia translated Graetz into Russian; he considered the Jews a “world-people” in need of a fully autonomous space and wrote a World History of the Jewish People (1901-1921) that selected some elements of the Book of Genesis, which he regarded as having been written in the time of David and Solomon, as historical and the others as symbolic—an approach “adopted by all the Zionists historians who followed him”; he began the “history of Israel” in the 20th century BCE (92; 88-95). Ze’ev Yavets’s Book of the History of Israel (1932) and Salo Wittmayer Baron’s A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1937; rev. ed. 1952) were, “just before the advent of professionalization and specialization in the discipline of history, “two final attempts to produce a total history of the Jews” (95; 95-100). In 1938 Yitzhak Baer, a German Jew who had moved to Palestine in1929 and taught history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, criticized Baron for adopting an exilic perspective on Jewish history; what was needed, he said, was an “organic understanding,” by which he meant that (as he wrote in Galut [‘Exile’]) in 1936) “The dispersion of Israel among the nations is unnatural,” that “to the Jews [God] gave Palestine,” and
therefore the Jews had to return to Palestine; by the mid-1950s Baer was endorsing the biblical narrative’s historicity and Abraham as “a historical figure” (101; 100-04). “Ironically, [Baer’s] self-consciousness drew on the same imaginary idea of nationhood that had nurtured his [German] mentors for several generations” (102). In 1936 Hebrew University decided to have not one but two history departments: a “Department of Jewish History and Sociology” and a “Department of History,” and “all the other universities in Israel followed suit” (102). Baer had founded Zion with Ben-Zion Dinur (Dinaburg) in 1935; Dinur would be “the chief architect of all history studies in the Hebrew educational systems” (105). In 1918 Dinur had produced a compilation of sources and documents he titled Toldot Yisrael (‘History of Israel’); “[f]or Hebrew readers in Palestine, it became the dominant narrative,” and he began to publish an expanded version in 1938 (105). “Dinur discarded the religious metaphysics of the holy book and turned it into a straightforward nationalhistorical credo” (he claimed the Bible, not the Greeks, was “the beginning of modern historiography”) (106). BenGurion was deeply engaged in the use and promotion of “biblical mythistory” (109; 107-10). “During the early years of the State of Israel, all the intellectual elites helped cultivate the sacred trinity of Bible-Nation-Land, and the Bible became a key factor in the formation of the ‘reborn’ state” (110; 110-15). The archeological work carried on after the 1967 war posed more and more historical problems, which finally came to public consciousness at the time of the first Intifada (1987): the dating of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the existence of the supposedly glorious kingdom of David and Solomon, the monotheism of the population were all discredited (115-23). Sand doubts the conclusions of the ‘Tel Aviv school,’ which attributed the invention of the
Bible and its myths to a political project of the kingdom of Judah, and attributes them instead to “the remarkable encounter between Judean intellectual elites, in exile or returning from exile, with the abstract Persian religions,” adopting the “theory of the CopenhagenSheffield school” (125; 123-27). Review of the history of the status of the Bible (127-28). Ch. 3: The Invention of the Exile: Proselytism and Conversion. The concept of exile is “deeply embedded in Jewish tradition in all its forms” (129). In fact, though the exile is asserted in Israel’s founding document, it never happened: Romans never deported entire peoples, and neither did the Assyrians or the Babylonians; Josephus is the only source, and, as a notion, its establishment (like the myth of the Wandering Jew) depended on promotion by Christians who considered it punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus (130-34). “Only when the American borders closed in the 1920s, and again after the horrendous Nazi massacres, did significant numbers migrate to Mandatory Palestine, part of which became the State of Israel. The Jews were not forcibly deported from their ‘homeland,’ and there was no voluntary ‘return’ to it” (134-36). Graetz gave the impression of mass deportation without asserting it, and Baer and subsequent historians also described a sort of “exilewithout-expulsion,” and promoted the idea of an “exile” without expulsion at the time of the Arab Conquest, (137-43). But long before 70 CE there were large Jewish communities outside Judea, in numbers that are hard to explain (14349). It appears that a Hellenistically influenced Judaism became a proselytizing religion and that growth took place through conversion (150-54). In the case of the Hasmoneans vis-à-vis the Edomites, by force (154-60). The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Bible, was a proselytizing text, as were
the works of Josephus (161-66). The Roman Empire afforded opportunities and Roman documents (Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal) cite Jewish proselytizing, which continued until repressive Christianity impeded it (167-78). It is “reasonable to assume” that the disappearance of a Jewish majority in Judea was due to “a slow, moderate process of conversion” from Judaism (178-82). Many early Zionists were convinced that Muslim inhabitants were “people . . . of our own flesh and blood” (184; 182-87). After the massacre in Hebron in 1929 and the Arab uprising of 1936-1939, historical accounts changed, and “early Islam did not convert the Jews but simply dispossessed them” (188; 187-89). Ch. 4: Realms of Silence: In Search of Lost (Jewish) Time. In pre-Islamic period Judaism continued to proselytize and “must have helped prepare the spiritual ground for the rise of Islam,” (191; 190-92), e.g. in the kingdom of Himyar at the end of the 4th century CE (192-99), among the Phoenicians, the Berbers, and in Spain (199-210). The medieval Jewish kingdom of the Khazars (210-29). Jewish historians in the early 20th century took an interest in the Khazars but later ones have been “scared off” (248; 230-38). Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe was attacked by Israeli historians as an antiSemitic fiction; Sand, however, believes the hypothesis that Khazar kingdom was the origin of Eastern European Jews is worth exploring (238-49). Ch. 5: The Distinction: Identity Politics in Israel. “The Zionist idea was born in the second half of the nineteenth century in Central and Eastern Europe, in the lands between Vienna and Odessa . . . part of the last wave of nationalist awakening in Europe . . . exactly like the surrounding national enterprises that were then starting to take shape” (252; 250-52). A “secular, modern Yiddishist civilization . . .
incubated protonationalist and nationalist ferment” and produced “many . . . socialist revolutionaries and democratic innovators, and a few became Zionists” (252). Modern anti-Semitism less virulent in “territories where civil and political nationalism prevailed,” but “ethnobiological and ethnoreligious ideologies triumphed in the regions between Germany and Russia, AustriaHungary and Poland,” with Zionism, ironically, borrowing many of its traits (254; 252-55). “Jewish nationalism had undertaken an almost impossible mission —to forge a single ethnos from a great variety of cultural-linguistic groups, each with a distinctive origin. This accounts for the adoption of the Old Testament as the storehouse of national memory. In their urgent need to establish a common origin for the ‘people,’ the national historians embraced uncritically the old Christian idea of the Jew as the eternal exile” (255). Some early Zionist intellectuals like Nathan Birnbaum (who coined the word ‘Zionism’) were explicitly racialist thinkers, especially Max Nordau, the early Martin Buber, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, Arthur Ruppin (256-65). Such ideas were “popular in all currents of the Zionist movement, and its imprint can be found in almost all its publications, congresses, and conferences” (266). Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, a physician and biologist at Hebrew University, considered Zionism “a eugenic project to improve the Jewish race”; the role these views played cannot be lightly dismissed, as Zionist discourse now tends to do (267; 267-68). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more clear-sighted figures like Ernest Renan and Karl Kautsky rejected the concept of a Jewish race (268-71). After 1950 the concept of “the Jewish race” disappeared from “conventional research,” but Zionism has transferred these interests to “Jewish genetics” (272; 272-80). The U.N. voted to establish a “Jewish state” in 1947; it did not define “Jewish” but did mandate minority rights (280-81). In 1948, the
Proclamation of Independence was ambivalent, proclaiming “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants” but also “the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country” (281-82). Every large group that sees itself as a people has the right to national self-determination, but not to dispossess another group of its land to achieve it (282). “Israel” was chosen as a name for the state, over “Judea” and “Zion” (282-83). Israel did not adopt a formal constitution because this was opposed by the rabbinate (and Ben-Gurion); in 1953, in an example of how the dominant socialist Zionism “harnassed” religious traditions, rabbinical courts were given exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jews in Israel (283-84). While a new secular Israeli culture arose, “Zionist thinking has always been careful not to call the new Israeli society a people, much less a nation”; instead, “the Zionist identity contains a very distinctive blend of ethnocentric nationalism with traditional religion, where the religion becomes an instrument serving the leaders of the imaginary ethnos” (28586). In the first years of Israel’s existence, there was ambiguity about how one’s status as a Jew was determined (286-88). In 1962 a Jew who had converted to Catholicism and become a priest but who claimed he was a Jew by “nationality” was denied citizenship by the High Court of Justice (288-89). After a controversial 1968 decision, the Law of Return was amended to state: “A Jew is one who was born to a Jewish mother, or converted to Judaism and does not belong to another religion” (290; 289-90). The High Court denied that an “Israeli nationality” existed (29091). The strict definition was eased [in 1970] by a “grandchild clause” (291-92). In the 1980s and 1990s a vigorous “postZionist” debate on how Israel could be both Jewish and democratic arose (29295). According to an analysis by Sammy Smooha, a sociologist at Haifa University,
Israel is an “incomplete” or “low-grade democracy,” and not a liberal (e.g. the U.S.), republican (e.g. France), consociational (e.g. Belgium), or multicultural democracy (e.g. Great Britain) because it lacks basic civil and political equality for those living within its boundaries (295-97). Sand critiques a series of prominent Israelis, many of them Israel Prize laureates, who maintain that Israel is both Jewish and democratic (297-304). Though Israel has “many liberal features,” nevertheless “civil rights violations are commonplace in the Jewish state” (304). Israel is not a democracy but an “ethnocracy”—a term coined by Nadim Rouhana, As’ad Ghanem and Oren Yiftachel—or, if you will, “a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features—that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation” (307; 304-07). Because of its political logic it has “become immured in an oppressive colonial situation from which it is still unable to extricate itself” (307-08). “Today Israel’s strength no longer depends on demographic increase, but rather on retaining the loyalty of overseas Jewish organizations and communities. It would be a serious setback for Israel if all the pro-Zionist lobbies were to immigrate en masse to the Holy Land. It is much more useful for them to remain close to the centers of power and communications in the Western world—and indeed they prefer to remain in the rich, liberal, comfortable ‘diaspora’” (309). Sand rejects a onestate solution as impracticable, and limits himself to recommending “a process of Israelization, open to all citizens,” embracing a “democratic multiculturalism” similar to that of the United Kingdom—but says that “Today this forecast seems fantastic and utopian” (312; 309-12). He is “more pessimistic than hopeful” (313).
Acknowledgments. Colleagues, students, friends, family, translator. Index. 18 pp. About the Author. Shlomo Sand studied history at the University of Tel Aviv and the École des hautes etudes en sciences socials in Paris. He teaches contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv. Four of his works have been translated into French: L’illusion du politique: Georges Sorel et le débat intellectual 1900 (‘The Illusion of the Political: Georges Sorel and Intellectual Discussion around 1900’); Georges Sorel en son temps (‘Georges Sorel in His Own Time’); Le XXe siècle à l’écran (‘The 20th Century on the Screen’); and Les Mots et la terre: les intellectuels en Israël (Words and the Land: Intellectuals in Israel’). Sand wrote the last chapters of this book while at the Univ. of Aix-en-Provence; he is married with two daughters (314). [Additional information. Shlomo Sand was born on Sept. 10, 1946, in Linz, Austria, to Polish Holocaust survivors. His family moved to Jaffa in 1948. He was expelled from school at 16. His military service coincided with the 1967 war. He was politically active on the left and was a member of the antiZionist group Matzpen from 1968 to 1970. He received a B.A. in history from the Univ. of Tel Aviv in 1975, then studied and taught in Paris from 1975 to 1985, earning a doctorate with a thesis on “George Sorel and Marxism.” Sand has also taught at UC Berkeley. This book has been denounced as “pure fantasy” by Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at Hebrew University. But Simon Schama in the London Financial Times and Max Hastings in the London Sunday Times reviewed the book favorably. It was on the best-seller list in Israel for 19 weeks and sold well in France, where it received a journalists’ award, the ‘Aujourd’hui Award.’ There is
a website for the book: http://inventionofthejewishpeople.com/] [Critique. This bold, highly intelligent, artfully written, and well translated 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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