Quotes of the Day – April 11, 2012: On Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People

I picked up Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People over six months ago in a book store in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, but I finally sat down today to give it a close reading. I have not read the book in Hebrew, nor could I attempt to do so. But from what I can tell, the English translation is great. The prose is quick and pointed. It manages to maintain its polemical intensity up until the afterword.

The controversy surrounding this book is quite overblown, and most of the book is actually unnecessary. Sand could have easily presented his political platform for the future of Israel, revealed in the last chapter and in the afterword, without the preceding four chapters devoted to debunking the myth of Jewish “peoplehood.” That he reveals the idea of the Jewish people to be a complete construction is irrelevant to his policy prescriptions. Nonetheless, the are a number of passages worth noting that I think summarize Sand’s argument and point out its flaws.

At the beginning of the book, Sand’s argument is based on the following claims; there was a real Judean kingdom, but most Jews are not actually descendants of those Judeans.

“The documents from el-Amarna, dating from the fourteenth century BCE, indicate that already there were two small city-states in the highlands of Canaan – Shechem and Jerusalem – and the Merneptah stela shows that an entity named Israel existed in northern Canaan at the end of the thirteenth century BCE” (121).

One of the points Sand makes is that the Arab fellahin who inhabited Mandatory Palestine alongside the Jewish settlers are closer ethnically/genealogically to the Judeans than the Jews who claim to be the “children of Israel.” Since the expulsion never happened, Sand argues, the “real” Jews are the Palestinians and the Jews in the Diaspora are actually the progenies of proselytized pagans.

This finding is largely irrelevant to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The political significance of Sand’s book is the claim that Israel is an ethnocracy, as it protects rights for an ethnos rather than a demos. That the ethnos is a historical/political construction, he argues, makes things even worse. In reality, the historical legitimacy of theethnos served by the Israeli government does not matter. An ethnocracy, whether founded on fact or fabricated pseudohistory, is still fundamentally illiberal. The political solution to such an illiberal state- universalism, egalitarianism, and multiculturalism – does not change.

“The central myths about the primeval origin of a marvelous nation that emerged from the desert, conquered a spacious land and bult a glorious kingdom were a boon for rising Jewish nationalism and Zionist colonization. For a century they provided textual fuel of canonical quality that energized a complex politics of identity and territorial expansion demanding self-justification and considerable sacrifice” (122).

My first blog post ever stressed the importance of semantics in framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is sloppy scholarship to call the Jewish settlers colonists, as they were not acting on the behalf of a colonial power. There was no greater Jewish motherland that benefited economically from early Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine; early Jewish settlers were not establishing a colony on behalf of another, already existing entity. Waves of settlement should be viewed as migrations – a natural part of human history – or as refugee crises – caused by pogroms in Eastern Europe and later the Holocaust.

To challenge the idea of a Jewish ethnos, Sand makes the point that there was no forced expulsion of the Jews from Judea. But, he does not deny that there was some kind of dispersal. To back up his claims, he references Simon Dubnow (known for his support of Jewish Autonomism as opposed to Zionism).

“Simon Dubnow also makes no mention of deportation. Moreover, unlike Graetz, the Russian-Jewish historian avoids associating the destruction of Jerusalem with a forced exile. He follows the literary examples of Josephus and Graetz in describing the fall in shocking and dramatic terms. Thousands of captives are carried away to the ends of the empire, leaving Judea thinly populated. A similar description follows the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt: a great number of captives are sold into slavery, and an equal number of rebels become fugitives. But Dubnow does not create a meta-image of the Jewish people going into exile after the destruction of the Temple, and it is clear to readers that the people was not forcibly uprooted from its country” (138).

This strikes me as a somewhat silly distinction. “The people was not forcibly removed from its country,” but instead it left after its capital city was destroyed. Leaving a destroyed homeland as a refugee, slave, or fugitive may not technically fall under the category of expulsion, but it certainly is a tragic national event. Moreover, recognition of this dispersal casts doubt onto Sand’s hypothesis that the expulsion never happened and that the real Jews never left and became Palestinians.

“Emperor Hadrian’s decrees had, of course, expropriated lands in the second century, but the arrival of the Muslims greatly accelerated the process and eventually led to the emigration of the Jews and “the creation of a new national majority in the country. Until that time, the Jews had constituted the majority of the population, and Hebrew was still the dominant language. The arrival of the new settler-conquerors altered the country’s cultural morphology and put an end to the presence of the Jewish people in its land” (141).

Land has traded hands throughout history. Populations have migrated and morphed into new groups. While generally history is important to a nation, this back and forth about the true inhabitants of what is now Israel/Palestine adds nothing to our understanding contemporary politics in the region.

“It is true that there was no deliberate policy of expulsion, but that does not mean that exile was undertaken voluntarily – God forbid. Dinur was worried that if it were accepted that the Jews left their country of their own volition, it would undermined their renewed claim to it in modern times” (141).

Sand’s real gripe is with Zionist historiography, not historical reality. While most nations attempt to portray their primeval founders as bold, strong, and heroic, Zionists are obsessed with victimhood. Eternal Jewish victimhood, not historical conquests or ethnic supremacy (or at least until recently) entitles the Jews to a state. Sand rightfully points out that the Zionist preoccupation with victimhood has warped the depiction of the Jews as a collective. The dispersal may have been volitional. It may have been motivated by the desire to proselytize. Admitting this, though, does not necessarily undermine the idea of a unique Jewish collectivity.

Sand is at his most insightful when discussing historiographical methods. One of the challenges of reading ancient documents, he notes, is that religion, tribe, and people were until recently inexact and often fluid terms.

“Henceforth, the Edomite people would be seen as an integral part of the Jewish people. At that time, joining the religion of another group was regarded as joining its people – its cult community. But it was only the progress of monotheism that made the attachment to faith as important as the traditional association with origin. This was the begininning of the slide from what we might call Judeanity – a cultural-linguistic-geographic entity – toward Judaism, a term denoting a broader kind of religion-civilization” (158).

In a book filled with ridiculous phrases, the above passage is one of the most absurd. The mingling of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups was not a phenomenon unique to the Jews. The Gauls, Goths, Teutons, and so on cannot be considered to be any more ethnically homogenous than the Jews. Furthermore, the idea of Judaism as a “religion-civilization” is not controversial, nor does it undermine the idea of Jews as a people. In fact, Mordecai Kaplan, father of the Reconstructionist movement, wrote a book calledJudaism as a Civilization.

Throughout the book, Sand routinely refers to instances when Jews married members of other “tribes”, or when entire tribes adopted Judaism and began to marry other Jews. This, he argues, suggests that there is no Jewish ethnos.

“The converted Jews of Edomite origin intermarried with the Judeans and gave Hebrew names to their children, some of whom would play important roles in the history of the Judean kingdom. Not only Herod came from among them; some of the disciples of the strict Rabbi Shammai and he most extreme Zealots in the great revolt were also of Edomite descent” (158).

Contrary to what Sand suggests, this intermarriage does not imply the notion of Jewish peoplehood is entirely factitious. Indeed, by noting intermarriage, rather than conversion and continued ethnic distinction, Sand inadvertently furthers the idea that there exists a common Jewish DNA. Even if descended from an Edomite mother and a Jewish father, a person still possesses Jewish heritage.

In the chapter entitled “Realms of Silence” Sand claims to reveal aspects of Jewish history that have been intentionally shrouded or forgotten by Zionist historiography. But in doing so, he frequently contradicts himself.

“Proselytizing Jews were driven from the arena of rival monotheisms, Christianity or Islam to the lands of paganism” (220).

Presumably, the “arena” is modern day Israel/Palestine. The contradiction lies in the statement that the proselytizing Jews were driven out. “Driven” implies a forced or non-volitional movement. Yet “proselytizing” is an intensely volitional action. It appears that Sand cannot choose the narrative he wants to present. Is world Jewry the result of active proselytization? Or, as, Sand seems to suggest, does a somewhat non-volitional “dispersal” explain the scatterings of the Jews?

“The uncomfortable explanation was that Jewish men had come from the Near East unattached and were forced to take local wives, whom they undoubtedly converted to Judaism in the proper manner” (277).

Uncomfortable? If the wives are converted “in the proper manner,” this is a non-issue. Sand argues that this contradicts the Halakhic definition of a Jew based on matrilineal descent, because the mothers are not ethnically Jewish. Yet, again, Sand’s purportedly earth-shattering claims are rather mundane. The above passage proves Jewish ethnic continuity. It may not have been done in a way that satisfies contemporary Jewry or Halakhic definitions, but even Sand, I think, would be hard pressed to deny that his above statement actually supports the notion of an ethnically-based Jewish people.

The real value of Sand’s work is the final chapter, “Distinction,” and the afterword. In these two sections, Sand offers an astute critique of contemporary Zionism.

“A national consciousness is primarily the wish to live in an independent political entity. It wants its subjects to live and be educated by a homogeneous national culture. That was the essence of Zionism at its inception, and so it remained for most of its history until recent times” (303).

The crisis of Zionism has nothing to do with disaffected liberal Jews or even the settlements. Instead, the crisis of Zionism, and perhaps the failure of Zionism, is the fact that the majority of Jews continue to reside outside the Jewish state. A country that was created to offer a collective national culture for Jews has been turned down by the vast majority of American Jewry; most American Jews continue to call themselves Zionists despite their conscious refusal to take part in the Jewish national consciousness. To assuage their guilt, they visit Israel as if it were an ethno-religious amusement park. They throw checks and change at various organizations like the JNF of AIPAC. These Jews believe they should have a say in Israeli policy. They agitate for sanctions and war with Iran, knowing that their children will not be endangered at all by a conflagration in the Middle East. The real crisis of Zionism is that American Jews are comfortable parting with merely their money while forcing Israelis to part with their sons and daughters.

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