Israeli Scholar Disputes Founding Myth

From the Archive: Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich seems to be laying the groundwork for ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Greater Israel, calling them “an invented people” who “had a chance to go many places.” But an Israeli scholar offered a contrary view, as Morgan Strong reported.

By Morgan Strong (Originally published April 12, 2009)

The founding narrative of the modern State of Israel was born from the words in the Torah (or Old Testament), that God granted Abraham’s descendants the land of Israel and that Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt to conquer it.

A second part of the narrative was the story of the Diaspora that after Jewish uprisings against the Romans in the First and Second centuries A.D., the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the Western world. They often were isolated from European populations, suffered persecution, and ultimately were marked for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust.

Finally after centuries of praying for a return to Israel, the Jews achieved this goal by 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.

Israeli historian Shlomo Sand

But a recent book by Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges this narrative, claiming that beyond the religious question of whether God really spoke to Abraham and Moses the Roman-era Diaspora did not happen at all or at least not as commonly understood.

In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? [published in English as The Invention of the Jewish People], Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Diaspora was largely a myth that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later.

Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand’s historical analysis, they are descendents of European converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D.

The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasion and conquest and through migration created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, Sands writes. Similarly, he argues that the Jews of Spain came from the conversion of Berber tribes from northern Africa that later migrated into Europe.

The Zionist Narrative

Sand, himself a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.

However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.

The Zionists also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.

Like almost everything in the Middle East, Sand’s scholarship is fraught with powerful religious, historical and political implications. If Sand’s thesis is correct, it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.

Indeed, Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.

Despite the political implications of Sand’s book, it has not faced what might be expected: a withering assault from right-wing Israelis. The criticism has focused mostly on Sand’s credentials as an expert on European history, not ancient Middle Eastern history, a point that Sand readily acknowledges.

One critic, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, attacked Sand’s credentials and called Sand’s thesis “baseless,” but disagreed mostly over Sand’s assertion that the Diaspora story was created as an intentional myth by Zionists seeking to fabricate a direct genealogical connection between many of the world’s Jews and Israel.

“Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions,” Bartal wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.

“The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews’ exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.”

In other words, Bartal, like some other critics, is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.

But there can be no doubt that the story of the Diaspora has played a key role in the founding of Israel and that the appeal of this powerful narrative has helped the Jewish state generate sympathy around the world, especially in the United States.

“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,” reads the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Reality from Mythology

In January 2009, as the Israeli army bombarded Palestinians in Gaza in retaliation for rockets fired into southern Israel, the world got an ugly glimpse of what can result when historical myths are allowed to drive wedges between people who otherwise might have a great deal in common.

After the conflict ended with some 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many children and other non-combatants the Israeli government investigated alleged war crimes by its army and heard testimony from Israeli troops that extremist Rabbis had proclaimed the invasion a holy war.

The troops said the Rabbis brought them booklets and articles declaring: “We are the Jewish people. We came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land, and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land.”

In his book and in an interview with Haaretz about his book Sand challenged this core myth. In the interview, he said:

“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land – a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country.

“The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th Century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”

The True Descendants

Asked if he was saying that the true descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians, Sand responded:

“No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents.

“The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-1939], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled.

“Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ‘the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'”

Sand argues further that the Jewish people never existed as a “nation race” but were rather an ethnic mix of disparate peoples who adopted the Jewish religion over a great period of time. Sand dismisses the Zionist argument that the Jews were an isolated and seminal ethnic group that was targeted for dispersal by the Romans.

Although ruthless in putting down challenges to their rule, the Romans allowed subjects in their occupied territories a great many freedoms, including freedom to practice religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.

Thousands of Jews served in the Roman legions, and there was a sizable Jewish community in Rome itself. Three Jewish descendants of Herod the Great, the Jewish Emperor of Jerusalem, served in the Roman Senate.

Jewish dietary laws were respected under Roman law, as well as the right not to work on the Sabbath. Jewish slaves 1,000 carried to Italy by Emperor Titus after crushing the first Jewish rebellion in 70 A.D. were bought and set free by Jewish families already long settled into Roman society.

After the final Jewish rebellion, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 A.D., historians say the Romans placed restrictions on Jews entering Jerusalem, which caused other areas, such as Galilee in northern Palestine, to become centers of Jewish learning. But there is little or no evidence of a mass forced relocation.

Sand says the Diaspora was originally a Christian myth that depicted the event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

Genetic Evidence

There has been no serious rebuttal to Sand’s book, which has been a bestseller in Israel and Europe. But there were earlier genetic studies attempting to demonstrate an unbroken line of descent among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe from the Hebrew tribes of Israel.

In a genetic study published by the United States National Academy of Sciences, the Y chromosomes of Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian Jews were compared with 16 non-Jewish groups from similar geographic locations. It found that despite long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level.

Although the study also demonstrated that 20 percent of the Ashkenazim carry Eastern European gene markers consistent with the Khazars, the results seemed to show that the Ashkenazim were descended from a common Mid-Eastern population and suggested that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the supposed Diaspora.

However, a monumental genetic study entitled, “The Journey of Man,” undertaken in 2002 by Dr. Spencer Wells, a geneticist from Stanford University, demonstrated that virtually all European males carry the same genetic markers found within the male population of the Middle East on the Y chromosomes.

That is simply because the migration of human beings began in Africa and coursed its way through the Middle East and onward, stretching over many thousands of years. In short, we are all pretty much the same.

Obsessive Delusion

Despite the lack of conclusive scientific or historical evidence, the Diaspora narrative proved to be a compelling story, much like the Biblical rendition of the Exodus from Egypt, which historians and archeologists also have questioned in recent years.

It is certainly true that all nations use myths and legend for sustenance; some tales are based on fact, others are convenient self-serving contrivances.

However, when myth and legend argue for excess, when they demand a racial, ethnic or religious purity to the exclusion of others so that some prophecy can be fulfilled or some national goal achieved reason and justice can give way to extremism and cruelty.

The motive for creating the state of Israel was to provide respite for the Jews of Europe after World War II, but that worthy cause has now been contorted into an obsessive delusion about an Israeli right to mistreat and persecute Palestinians.

When right-wing Israeli Rabbis speak of driving non-Jews out of the land that God supposedly gave to the Israelites and their descendants, these Rabbis may be speaking with full faith, but faith is by definition an unshakable belief in something that taken by itself cannot be proven.

This faith or delusion also is drawing in the rest of the world. The bloody war in Iraq was an appendage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as is the dangerous rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the region. There is also now the irony that modern Israel was established by Jews of European origin, many of whom may be ethnically unconnected to Palestine.

Another cruel aspect of this irony is that the descendants of the ancient Israelites may include many Palestinians, who are genetically indistinct from the Sephardic Jews who were, like the Palestinians, original and indigenous inhabitants of this ancient land.

Yasir Arafat told me quite often that the Israelis are really cousins of the Palestinians. He may have been wrong; they are more likely brothers and sisters.

Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an advisor to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East.

9 comments for “Israeli Scholar Disputes Founding Myth

  1. tedbohne
    December 14, 2011 at 18:17

    religion is the most poisonous, deadly, destructive notion ever created by humankind. worse than nuclear war by far. perhaps humankind will someday evolve beyond this idiocy. most likely not though.

    • Ma
      December 15, 2011 at 14:09

      Not religion itself but those who corrupted it for their self-intrest. Most religions originated as strugles against existing corrupt and exploitatory systems.

  2. Victor
    December 14, 2011 at 03:16

    I am not surprised at the comment of Mr Solomon Sand. He relied on his carnal knowledge to Challenge the Spiritual Truth about the Jews. One thing he and people like him must understand is that Israel is a Nation single handedly founded by GOD and irrespective of human assumptions, conspiracies and propositions, the Jews will never be conquered not by the Arabs, Russians, and Chinese includingf the rest of this evil world population. History had it that the Palestinians of today are results of Jewish disobedience to GODs commandment, and Palestinians will remain on the land of Israel as long as GOD is in support of it, but the Palestinians must forget about ever going to conquer Israel or to exile them because the Jews rightfully owns the entire land of Palestine whether they like it or not, and occupation theory is just human invention and Jews will expand their territory whether the world like it or not, hence human beings will be confronted by the might of the Living GOD and then we see who tells the Truth and who does not.

    • John
      December 14, 2011 at 23:50

      Victor, your mind is obsessed with fantasy. How old is the world? Where did the first human forms originate? I don’t think many Jews would feel comfortable with your line of thought which I percieve as racist and elitist. Perhaps Jewish women should worry more about Jewish fundamentalism and its limitations on them as is becoming more and more the case as Hillary Clinton pointed out recently. The (g)od you speak of is a nationalistic fantacy of a early tribal people. God help us all from such outlandish and poisonous concepts.

  3. Hillary
    December 13, 2011 at 19:05

    “Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land.”

    Not new but new to the MSM & dumbed down Goyim who will shout “Antisemitic”.

    Millions of dumbed down Jews for Jesus (Christians)will never believe it.

    European and by extension American Jews aren’t cousins to the Arabs.

    European Jews descend for the Kazhar Empire, a west asian empire that was established in the eighth century and converted the population to Judaism to avoid taking sides in the Islam vs Christianity battle. In the 13th century the mongols rolled in and shut the empire down and the Kazahrs fled into Europe & established Jewish communities throughout Europe & their Israelite descent is more Jewish mythology.

    Another top Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has denied the existence of Jewish roots in the city of Jerusalem, contrary to Israel’s claims that have prompted continued Judaization of the city.

    Finkelstein, a professor at Tel Aviv University, said Jewish archaeologists have failed to unearth historic sites to support some of the stories in the Torah. Among those stories are the Jewish Exodus, the forty-year wandering in the Sinai desert, and Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites.
    He also said there was no archaeological evidence that concludes that the alleged Temple of Solomon ever existed.

    Imagine what would happen if these experts were not Jewish.

    The foundation of Israel is totally founded on myths & lies.

    Remember these Jews for Jesus (Christians) who went on the early Christian Crusades were promised by their God (Pope) forgiveness for sins past & future.

    Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University Raphael Greenberg said that the Israelis should have found something after digging for six weeks in the City of David in East Jerusalem’s Silwan district, but have found nothing in two years of continuous excavations.

    Prof. Yoni Mihrazi, an independent archaeologist who has worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency, agreed with Finkelstein’s findings, saying that top settler organization Elad had not stumbled upon even a banner saying “welcome to the city of David”, given that claims were made to have been relying on sacred texts to guide them in their work.

    “Archaeologists of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) discovered in the Sinai desert the ruins of a fort with four rectangular towers, which date from the eighteenth pharaonic dynasty. This fortress is now considered the oldest
    structure on the military line of defense, also known as Route Horus. But there was not the slightest proof of the story of the Old Testament, the story of Moses and the Jews, and their exodus from Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness. Two female skeletons, pottery and jewelry were recovered. Those remains were members of the civilization hyksos, an enemy of the people of the ancient Egyptians.”

    Jews have been prisioners of their Myths & fairy tales since they were “dreamed” up some time around 500 BC.



    • flat5
      December 14, 2011 at 10:40

      These statements in Israel would be laughable or discussed; in medieval Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia you would be executed, like the woman was this week. Your fananatic love of those states defies any sense of logic or reason.

      • Eddie
        December 14, 2011 at 21:02

        “…fanatatic love of these state(s)…” sounds like psychological projection coming from a hasbarat referring to his relationship to Israel, rather than a factual criticism of the poster…

  4. flat5
    December 13, 2011 at 18:44

    As usual, this pro Arab anti Israeli site shows 1 side only.

    Michael Berkowitz, review of The Invention of the Jewish People, (review no. 973)

    Date accessed: Wed 19 October 2011 20:24:17 BST

    Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, which appeared in Hebrew as Matai ve’ekh humtza ha’am hayehudi? [When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?] (1) elicited a thunderous response that has yet to abate. Beginning with an interesting and very personal introduction, Sand proceeds to engage, chronologically, the thought of Jews about their own character as a ‘people,’ ‘nation,’ and occasionally, ‘race’ (sic), largely by examining the published writings of figures known to scholars in Jewish Studies, but less familiar to historians generally – including Josephus, Isaak Markus Jost, Heinrich Graetz, Simon Dubnow, Yitzhak Baer, Ben-Zion Dinur, Hans Kohn, and Salo Baron. Sand’s preface to the English language edition states that ‘the disparity between what my research suggested about the history of the Jewish people and the way that history is commonly understood – not only within Israel but in the larger world – shocked me as it shocked my [Hebrew] readers’ (p. xi). Sand insinuates that this ‘shock’ accounts for the excitement surrounding the book – which is a more reasonable assessment regarding its reception in Israel than in the English-speaking world.

    To his credit, Sand admits that there is almost nothing original in his work, as it is mainly a synthesis and counter-narrative. He writes that ‘I found myself being shaken repeatedly as I worked on the composition’ of the book.

    The moment I began to apply the methods of Ernest Gellner, Benedict

    Anderson and others, who instigated a conceptual revolution in the field of

    national history, the materials I encountered in my research were illuminated

    by insights that led me in unexpected directions (p. xi).

    But have not historians of Zionism, such as Steven Zipperstein, Derek Penslar, and David Myers, been utilizing the ideas of Gellner and Anderson, and other cultural theorists, since their appearance?(2) Indeed, a weakness in historiography, and confusion of history with historiography, render this book deeply problematic. ‘I should emphasize,’ Sand continues,

    that I encountered scarcely any new findings – almost all such material had

    previously been uncovered by Zionist and Israeli historiographers (sic). The

    difference is that some elements had not been given sufficient attention,

    others were immediately swept under the historiographers’ rug, and still

    others were ‘forgotten’ because they did not fit the ideological needs of the

    evolving national identity. 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 organize the historical information

    in a new way, 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 (p. xi).

    Had Sand read more carefully Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s classic, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), he would not have been surprised.(3)) One of the themes of the book is the ongoing, profound rift, and continuing tension, between ‘Jewish history’ as seen by scholars and ‘Jewish memory’. To write the book Sand professes to write, and to note Zakhor only fleetingly, by citing it as support for ‘the lack of Jewish historiography’ (p. 66, n. 4), indicates something seriously amiss in the author’s preparation for his task. But while he may lack knowledge there is no shortage of bravado, as he laments that

    few of my colleagues – the teachers of history in Israel – feel it their duty to

    undertake the dangerous pedagogical mission of exposing conventional lies

    about the past. I could not go on living without writing this book (p. xi).

    Of all of the sins of modern Israel, putting their historians in intellectual straight-jackets and censoring their writing is not high on the list.(4)

    Similar to the buzz that accompanied Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (5) (and likewise netted its author hefty returns), there are many expressing strong opinions about Sand’s book who do not seem to have read it, and have little or no basis for offering an informed judgment as to its merits or defects. What Sand shares with Goldhagen is the reason for their books’ flying off the (actual and virtual) shelves: an apparent willingness and passion to simplify and distort scholarly discourse in order to produce a seductive, monocausal explanation. This fires the gut-instinct of thousands of avid readers who style themselves as educated – yet who mainly seek scholarly sanction for their existing worldview. For both Goldhagen and Sand this is marketing to the converted and giving them what they want which is not to say, though, that Goldhagen and Sand are in any doubt as to the veracity of their arguments. The reception of The Invention of the Jewish People, like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, has been dominated by emotion. We can assume that Sand’s brisk sales (outside of Israel) primarily are of those of the ‘for’ camp – those in agreement about the degree to which the Jewish people was ‘invented’ for Zionist and Israeli purposes. The cover of the (British) English-language edition, in bold Zionist azure, acclaims its status as an ‘INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER’. The myth of the Jewish people, as propagated by modern Israel, in Sand’s terms, exists in inverse proportion to the authentic historical basis of Jewry’s claim to peoplehood, and even more tenuously (and disturbingly), its ancestral homeland of Palestine.

    Yet there is a bizarre symmetry to this book, as a phenomenon, and Sand’s argument about Israel. Sand infers that Jews are not an authentic people (compared to other nations), and Israel, contrary to the old tourist slogan, is not ‘real’. With a little critical distance, it is possible to criticize this book as a far cry from a ‘real’ work of scholarship. It is flimsy, haphazardly built, slap-dash. There is no foundation in archival research, and Sand does not seem to have fully read (or understood) many of the secondary works on which his thesis relies. He apparently has never heard of Aviel Roshwald and George Mosse, who are among the first names that should spring to mind in any consideration of Jews and nationalism.(6) Shlomo Sand may be a genius for cultivating and managing the hype for his book. But its success as a ‘bestseller’ is no more indicative of the insight of his argument than, he might say, Israel’s military prowess reflects a humane and democratic national character.

    With some exceptions, The Invention of the Jewish People has been ardently embraced by those who wish to either weaken or totally undermine the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and the territory that became the State of Israel. Interestingly, it is not as hostile to Zionist ideology and the foundational legitimacy of the State of Israel as are two recent books published under the same imprint: The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel by Gabriel Piterberg and Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel, by Arno J. Mayer.(7) Sand’s book is superior to those of Piterberg and Mayer. The Invention of the Jewish People also is more serious than From Time Immemorial (8) by Joan Peters, which tried to do to the Palestinian Arabs what Sand does with Israeli Jews – show that they aren’t really a ‘people’ and that their claim to Palestine is dubious.

    With somewhat less exuberance compared to those calling for the outright destruction of Israel, The Invention of the Jewish People has been championed by those who share the author’s demand for a dramatic shift in the way that Israel defines itself, and its treatment of those who do not fit Israeli officialdom’s increasingly narrow concept of the proper constitution of the state and its highly contested occupied territories. One suspects that that are many more who support the aims of the book than are impressed with its execution. Sand is not, as one might think from much of the clamor, asking for Israelis to fold their tents and go elsewhere –as much as this sentiment may propel the robust sales of the book. He is slightly more circumspect, at least in terms of rational expectations: ‘if it is senseless to expect the Jewish Israelis to dismantle their own state, the least that can be demanded of them is to stop reserving it for themselves as a polity that segregates, excludes, and discriminates against a large number of its citizens, whom it views as undesirable aliens’ (p. 312). But there are any number of books with similar underlying sympathies that comprise more formidable contributions to scholarly discussion, and lead to greater comprehension of how the current state of affairs came to be. Sand is not in the same league with the best of Israel’s ‘new historians’ such as Avi Shlaim, Gershon Shafir, and Amnon Raz-Kratkotzkin (9), and he has not excavated the deep structures of Zionist politics and Israeli culture as have, say, Meron Bevenisti, Mitchell Cohen, Yael Zerubavel, Derek Penslar, and most recently, Arieh Bruce Saposnik.(10)

    To a much lesser extent than high-pitched praise or condemnation, The Invention of the Jewish People has been subject to more mundane academic scrutiny about whether or not it is a good book – although these reviews often reveal political overtones as well. It is indeed possible, however, to sympathize with Sand’s politics, while simultaneously calling into question the book’s merits as a contribution to scholarship. Perhaps the fundamental problem with this book, which also applies to the above mentioned works of Goldhagen, Piterberg, and Mayer, is that the thesis runs way ahead of the supposedly dispassionate investigation (despite Sand’s protest to the contrary), and therefore the book assumes the character more of a legal brief than a scholarly monograph.

    In another respect Sand’s book belongs to a self-consciously incendiary, or gadfly-like trend in Jewish studies – which ironically, is rather quaint. What’s more Jewish than a Jewish intellectual saying that everyone else has got it wrong? The Jewish studies field is no stranger to books that style themselves as audacious. Almost every few weeks works appear that aspire to debunk, or aggressively challenge some aspect of received wisdom concerning the Jewish experience. One of the most successful of the recent, intentionally destabilizing books in Jewish history is Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century.(11) Slezkine attacked the notion that Jews in Europe and the United States had largely assimilated, acculturated, or otherwise accommodated themselves to the powers-that-be and dominant mind-sets of their host communities. No, Slezkine writes, they helped make the world into something they thought would be amenable to themselves – which had, however, unforeseen consequences. As much as Slezkine’s book was strongly criticized by many experts, it stands on far sounder footing than Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People. It is truly brilliant, while Sand’s book is, well, plodding and dull.

    In short, Sand wishes to convey the message that Jews, as a collective entity in the modern world, have an unusually slender claim on people-hood, or status as a nationality, and even worse, a particularly questionable tie to Palestine and the Land of Israel. Didn’t Hobsbawm and Ranger tell us, some time ago, that all of modern nationalism, and claims on tradition since the 18th century, were ‘invented’?(12) Is there anything new or different in Sand’s grab-bag? Even the establishment Zionist historians such as Walter Laqueur and David Vital were emphatic that the nationalist impulse was largely dormant, if not moribund, until Herzl came on the scene.(13) Carl Schorske, in his seminal essay on ‘Politics in a new key’ (14) reminded us how Herzl thought to ‘shake the tree that fantasies had planted’, conspicuously drawing on the example of Bismarck’s appropriation of myths and symbols in his creation of a unified Germany. But Schorske, and even Herzl, evince infinitely more historical savvy than Sand. Although there were obviously different preconditions, including shockingly few prerequisites for Jewish statehood in 1896, Herzl saw that his own effort at nation-building demanded practices akin to those of Bismarck.(15)

    Sand does not seem to understand the complex relationships and tensions between Central European nationalisms and Zionism, as illuminated by scholars such as Mark Gelber, Steve Aschheim, and Adi Gordon.(16) Sand likewise falls flat in several comparisons with France. Sand, appropriately, cites the foundational work on the erection of the French nation by Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France.(17) Yet he fails to appreciate that nationalization, as expertly detailed in Weber’s classic, is a process. What makes Peasants Into Frenchmen so remarkable is its survey of how remote most Frenchmen were to national ideals, even well into the nineteenth century. Given Sand’s old-fashioned type of ‘history of ideas’ that favors ‘great men’ (as much as he means to criticize them), it is little wonder that signal moments are given short shrift. To give but four examples: James Renton has shown, in his analysis of the politics surrounding the inception and early implementation of the Balfour Declaration (1917), how much Zionism was shaped by British perceptions of race, nationality, and empire.(18) Regarding the United States, Marc Dollinger argues that American Jewish expectations and ideals concerning Zionism came to be bifurcated with their liberalism at home, beginning with the rise of Hitler.(19) Zeev Mankowitz, and later Avi Patt discuss how Zionism came to be seen as agreeable to a broad Jewish consensus in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in part through the agency of Jewish Displaced Persons themselves.(20) In terms of understanding how modern Israel, after 1967, emerged as it did, Sand might have turned to the trenchant analysis of Gideon Aran, who examines how the ideology of Gush Emunim (literally, the ‘Block of the Faithful,’ a combination of religious fundamentalism and integral, right wing nationalism) infiltrated the Zionist mainstream.(21) These were critical junctures where, it may be said, the Jewish people were ‘re-invented’.

    Generally speaking, the author also underestimates the radicalization of Zionist Revisionism (the right-wing, anti-socialist, militaristic branch of the movement) during the Second Word War, as recently illuminated by Colin Shindler (22), and too easily subsumes their luminaries, Joseph Klausner and Vladimir Jabotinsky, into the mainstream. Zionists continually defined themselves over and against each other. None of this is to deny that Israel, especially since the 1990s, has lurched toward policies normally associated with European right-wing nationalism, Christian and Islamic religious extremism, and racist xenophobia. Sand paints this as part of a long-term, intentional progression, as largely a reaction against its ephemeral people-hood. In this he misses or undervalues a great number of salient points. The study of accommodation to right-wing ideologies in the name of consolidating power (especially during and after wartime), the piecemeal integration of religious fundamentalism, restrictions on liberties of individuals and minority groups in the name of national security, and greed under the guise of national self-interest may not be sensational, or sexy ways to move books – but they remain a large part of the story.

    In Sand’s bizarre concoction, nearly everyone who written about the Jews, in any collective form, has contributed toward the venal fiction of a Jewish nation. If not, the engines of nationalization have done their utmost to muzzle or force-fit them into the mold. He includes a few generous assessments of Israel’s ‘new historians’ and ‘post-Zionist’ thinkers, despite the harsh appraisal of his colleagues at the book’s outset. He relies too heavily, however, on Paul Wexler’s controversial linguistic theory of ‘relexification’ in order to historicize the growth and sustenance of medieval and early modern Jewish communities.(23)) The shining example of a counter-narrative, which Sand sees as decisive, is the ‘Khazar’ theory, asserting that European Jewry was largely the consequence of a mass conversion in the 8th century. As much as some aspects of this episode have been substantiated, the scale of conversion suggested by its proponents is highly questionable, and the theory is still too reliant on supposed similarities between ‘Khazars’ and European Jews. But it remains an extremely attractive theory to those who maintain that there is no connection whatsoever between Jewry, historically, and Palestine. This is one of numerous segments of the book that can be easily picked apart. Likewise he pays too little attention to the interplay between rootedness in the diaspora and the sense of a primordial, national homeland of ‘Zion’ in Jewish discourses; that ‘exile’, consciousness of ‘Zion’, and belongingness in the diaspora could exist simultaneously, as opposed to being mutually exclusive.(24) Sand’s handling of investigations into Jewish heredity and genetics, which he conflates with ‘race science’, is likewise ham-handed. He does not, for instance, grasp the extent to which much of this work, such as that pioneered by Tudor Parfitt, explicitly contradicts the absurd notion of a ‘Jewish race’.(25)

    It is indeed true that it took a great amount of effort to nationalize Jews in the form of modern politics. Such activities were creative and borrowed heavily from the cultures Jews knew, as the historiographical investigations of scholars such as David Myers and Natalia Aleksiun have shown.(26) But one of the things upon which Jews generally agreed is that they, somehow, comprised a people – not exclusively a fragmented religious community. Rather than ‘religious’ and ‘national’ being distinct categories and diametrically opposed, many facets of Jewish life and culture embodied both. The challenge to the national-minded among the Jews was to make the national dimension vital, meaningful, and the pretext for action. Zionism was, after all, but one of several manifestations of nationalism, while the Bund, which envisioned national-cultural autonomy in Europe based on Yiddish culture, was a more popular alternative in late 19th and early 20th-century Eastern Europe.(27) When Herzl proclaimed in Der Judenstaat ‘we are a people, one people’, he fervently believed it to be true. The problem was not whether or not Jews were a people – but what kind of people they should become, and the specific means by which they should transform themselves. According to Sand, though, the Roman Empire, Christendom, and Islamic civilization must have suffered fantastic common delusions in recognizing Jewry as a people, as well as members of a religious community. The modern nationalization of Jewry was a process that began late, and proceeded with fits and starts. Yet the notion that a Jewish nationality, per se, was something that had to be conjured from thin air makes little sense.

    Certainly Zionism and other varieties of Jewish nationalism did not have to materialize as they did. In 1982 David Vital, a colleague of Sand’s from Tel Aviv University, asserted that Zionist historiography suffered from perceiving the ascendance, and dominant institutions of the movement, as fait accompli and more generally, from Zionist and Hebrew-centered parochialism.(28) But the idea that Jewish society would, in different times and places, come to assume various national forms, is not shocking. That there should be dissonance between what academic historians understand as the emergence of a nation, versus the way that that nation chooses to represent itself, is not in the least bit surprising. Nations are supremely guilty of reading backwards, and seeing continuity and consistency where it does not belong – making the peoplehood of its own nation a dominant motif, as well as a value unto itself. Sand himself says: ‘Every large human group that thinks of itself as a people, even if it never was one and its past is entirely imaginary, has the right to national self-determination’. But then he qualifies: ‘This does not, of course, give a particular group that sees itself as a people the right to dispossess another group of its land in order to achieve its self-determination’ (p. 282). Sand seems to have missed the point: that this is, far too often, what nationalism has been about.

    1. Matai ve’ekh humtza ha’am hayehudi? [When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?] (Tel Aviv, 2008).Back to (1)
    2.2 Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (Berkeley, CA, 1993); Zipperstein, Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity (Seattle, WA, 1999); Derek J. Penslar, Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective (London, 2007); Penslar, “Radio and the Shaping of modern Israel, 1936–1973,” in Nationalism, Zionism, and the Ethnic Mobilization of the Jews in 1900 and Beyond, ed. Michael Berkowitz (Leiden, 2004), pp. 61–82; Penslar, Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in Palestine, 1870–1918 (Bloomington, IN, 1991); David N. Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past: European Jewish Intellectuals and the Zionist Return to History (New York, 1995), Myers, Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton, NJ, 2003). Only Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past, is mentioned in Inventing the Jewish People, in a footnote, p. 96, n. 90.Back to (2)
    3.It appeared originally as the Stroum Lectures with the University of Washington Press (Seattle 1982).Back to (3)
    4.Although not considered a ‘new historian,’ the work of anthropologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a former Dean of the Hebrew University, may be seen as iconoclastic; see Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Amherst, NY, 2003); Ben-Yehuda, Political Assassinations by Jews: A Rhetorical Device for Justice (Albany, NY, 1993).Back to (4)
    5.Published originally by Vintage Books. For a comprehensive treatment, see The ‘Goldhagen Effect’: History, Memory, Nazism, ed. Geoff Eley (Ann Arbor, MI, 2000).Back to (5)
    6.Aviel Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas (Cambridge, 2006); George L. Mosse, Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism (Hanover, NH, 1993); see also Mosse’s foundational The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York, NY, 1964).Back to (6)
    7.Both published by Verso, London, 2008. For a polemic from across the divide, likewise appealing to a predictable subculture, see Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (New York, NY, 2001). Hazony alleges that Zionism was undermined by the founding professoriat of the Hebrew University and leftists in its midst, and that ‘real’ Zionism as conceived by Herzl and Nordau was regenerated in the right-wing variety advocated by Vladimir Jabotinsky and the Revisionists; see David N. Myers, ‘”Hazono Shel Hazony”: or “Even If You Will It, It Can Still Be a Dream”’, in Israel Studies, 6, 2 (Summer 2001), 107–17.Back to (7)
    8.Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (San Francisco, 1984).Back to (8)
    9.Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (London, 2009), Gershon Shafir, Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (Cambridge, 2002); Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, ‘History textbooks and the limits of Israeli consciousness’, in Israeli Historical Revisionism from Left and Right, ed. Anita Shapira and Derek J. Penslar (London, 2003), pp. 155–72.Back to (9)
    10.Meron Benvenisti, Conflicts and Contradictions (New York, NY, 1986); Mitchell Cohen, Zion and State: Nation, Class, and the Shaping of Modern Israel (New York, NY, 1992); Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago, IL, 1995); Penslar, Zionism and Technocracy; Arieh Bruce Saposnik, Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine (New York, NY, 2008).Back to (10)
    11.Published by Princeton University Press.Back to (11)
    12.The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, (Cambridge, 1988). This appeared in 1983.Back to (12)
    13.Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (New York, NY, 1976); David Vital, The Origins of Zionism (Oxford, 1975).Back to (13)
    14.Carl E. Schorske, ‘Politics in a new key’, Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York, NY, 1981), p. 165.Back to (14)
    15.Michael Berkowitz, Zionist Culture and West European Jewry before the First World War (Cambridge, 1993).Back to (15)
    16.Mark H. Gelber, Melancholy Pride: Nation, Race, and Gender in the German Literature of Cultural Zionism (Tübingen, 2000); Steven E. Aschheim, In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans, and Jews (Madison, WI, 2001); Adi Gordon, Brith Shalom and Bi-National Zionism: The ‘Arab Question’ as a Jewish Question (in Hebrew) (Yerushalayim, 2008).Back to (16)
    17.Eugene Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Palo Alto, CA, 1976).Back to (17)
    18.James Renton, The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918 (Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2007).Back to (18)
    19.Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton, NJ, 2000).Back to (19)
    20.Zeev W. Mankowitz, Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany (New York, NY, 2002); Avinoam J. Patt, Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Detroit, MI, 2009).Back to (20)
    21.Gideon Aran, ‘The Father, the Son, and the Holy Land: the spiritual authorities of Jewish-Zionist fundamentalism in Israel,” in Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East, ed. R. Scott Appleby (Chicago, IL, 1997), pp. 294–327.Back to (21)
    22.Colin Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right (London, 2006).Back to (22)
    23.Paul Wexler, Two-tiered Relexification in Yiddish: Jews, Sorbs, Khazars, and the Kiev-Polessian Dialect (New York, 2002).Back to (23)
    24.See Erich S. Gruen, ‘Diaspora and homeland’ and Daniel J. Schroeter, ‘A different road to modernity: Jewish identity in the modern world’, in Diasporas and Exiles: Varieties of Jewish Identity, ed. Howard Wettstein (Berkeley, CA, 2002), pp. 18–46, 150–63.Back to (24)
    25.Tudor Parfitt and Yulia Egorova, Genetics, Mass Media and Identity: a Case Study of the Genetic Research on the Lemba and Bene Israel (London, 2006).Back to (25)
    26.Myers, Re-Inventing the Jewish Past; Natalia Aleskiun, ‘Polish Jewish historians before 1918: configuring the liberal East European Jewish intelligentsia’, in East European Jewish Affairs, 34 (2004), 41–54.Back to (26)
    27.Ezra Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Workers’ Movement in Tsarist Russia (Cambridge, 1970); Gertrud Pickhan, ‘Gegen den Storm’: der Allgemeine Jüdische Arbeiterbund ‘Bund’ in Polen, 1918–1939 (Stuttgart, 2001); Jack Jacobs, Bundist Counterculture in Interwar Poland (Syracuse, NY, 2009).Back to (27)
    28.David Vital, ‘The history of the Zionists and the history of the Jews’, in Studies in Zionism, 6 (Autumn 1982), 159–70.Back to (28)

  5. Laird Wilcox
    December 13, 2011 at 11:50

    If this guy is on to something, and I’ve heard the argument before, it certainly throws a kink into the conventional account of the foundation of the Jewish State.

    What would be so nice is if a respected field of scholars, each meeting standard requirements of roughly equal nature, put together a non-emotional, non-namecalling book containing the best cases for the positions involved. This done, then a series of debates set up to get a good hearing, as on National Public Radio or somewhere else, with input from involved individuals and spokespersons and then go on to community forums on this issue. Once hashed out in this arena of public opinion in a forum-type setting, we could at last become acquainted with all points of view.

    Let the public become aware that these issues exist and where the evidence lies, what is plausable and what is not, and then let the chips fall where they may. This would, I think, be the honest and democratic way to deal with this issue or any other issue of a controversial nature.

Comments are closed.