The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand
The Sunday Times review by Max Hastings
Every nation cherishes its own myths and legends. Most Americans believe themselves to be anti-imperialists, though their ancestors colonised a continent, almost annihilating its native inhabitants. The French fancy themselves descended from ancient Gauls, though like the rest of us they are mongrels.
But Israel’s favoured historical narrative possesses *special significance, because it defines the state’s *proclaimed right to existence. It holds that the world’s Jews are descended from the ancient tribes of Israel, evicted by the Romans following the fall of the temple in AD70, and today permitted to return to their rightful homeland after almost 2,000 years of foreign persecution.
Shlomo Sand, who teaches contemporary history at Tel Aviv University, rejects most of this as myth. He argues that the alleged history of the Jewish people has been distorted, reshaped or invented in modern times to fit the political requirements of Zionism.
His book, first published in Hebrew, has caused widespread outrage in his native land. But it represents, at the very least, a formidable polemic against claims that Israel has a moral right to define itself as an explicitly and exclusively Jewish society, in which non-Jews, such as Palestino-Israelis, are culturally and politically marginalised.
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He disputes the claim that Israel existed for thousands of years as a nation. This, he says, relies chiefly on a *willingness to suppose that the Old Testament story is broadly valid, in defiance of archeological and other *historical evidence. He refuses to believe that a unified Jewish nation occupied Canaan in the era of David and *Solomon, or that the flight from Egypt occurred as described. The Old Testament “is not a narrative that can instruct us about the time it describes” — centuries before it was written — “but is instead an *impressive didactic theological discourse”.
He rejects the assertion, dependent on the testimony of the 1st-century Hellenised Jewish historian Josephus, that Jews were forcibly deported from Jerusalem after the fall of the Temple. Rome behaved savagely to defeated rebels, but never expelled whole populations, not least because it required their services.
Historical evidence, says Sand, shows large Jewish communities living all over the Mediterranean, including Rome, before AD70. Cicero complained in 59BC: “You know how numerous that crowd is, how great is its unanimity, and of what weight it is in popular assemblies.”
The author suggests that there was steady economic migration from Palestine after the fall of the Temple, but most Jews remained, eventually to be converted to Islam following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century and afterwards. Some modern Palestinians are more likely to be descended from the ancient Israelites than are modern Israelis who have migrated from Russia.
Acknowledging uncertainty about much that happened in the last millennium before Christ and the first thereafter, Sand dismisses the proposition of Zionist historians that the Jewish communities that grew up all over Europe were descended from Jews driven out of Israel. Many, he says, were *indigenous
*peoples converted to Judaism by small numbers of wandering, literate Jews.
He focuses special attention on the Khazar empire
, the Jewish society that flourished around the Volga and Caucasus between the 4th and 13th centuries, and provided seed for the large Jewish communities of eastern Europe. Zionists assert that those Jews had migrated east from Germany. Sand says there is no evidence for this, save that they spoke Yiddish.
He believes, instead, that these were locals who adopted the Jewish religion. He claims that modern Israeli historians refuse to study the Khazar empire honestly, lest they find themselves confronted by *evidence that might seem to delegitimise Israel. He writes scornfully of Zionists “entirely caught up in the mythology of an eternal ‘ethnic’ time”
Sand launches a further broadside at Israeli geneticists who have devoted much energy to identifying a common “Jewish gene” among diaspora communities around the world. He is scornful of such research, perhaps not least because of the ghastly memory of Nazi scientists who *pursued alleged Aryan identity.
Sand’s fundamental thesis is that the Jewish people are joined by bonds of *religion, not race or ancient nationhood. He deplores the explicitly racial basis of the Israeli state, in which the Arab minority are second-class citizens. “No Jew who lives today in a *western democracy would tolerate the *discrimination and exclusion experienced by the *Palestino-Israelis… The state’s ethnocentric foundation remains an obstacle to [its liberal democratic] development.”
It is easy to see why Sand’s book has attracted fierce controversy. The legend of the ancient exile and modern return stands at the heart of Israel’s self-belief. It is no more surprising that its people enjoy supposing that Joshua’s trumpets blew down the walls of Jericho — at a time when, Sand says, Jericho was a small town with no walls — than that we cherish tales of King Alfred and his cakes.
The author rightly deplores the eagerness of fanatics to insist upon the historical truth of events convenient to modern politics, in defiance of evidence or probability. No modern British historian’s reputation could survive, for instance, claiming the *factual accuracy of all the charming medieval stories in Froissart’s Chronicles, which nonetheless bear a closer relationship to events than does the Old Testament.
Yet Sand, whose title is foolishly provocative, displays a lack of compassion for the Jewish predicament. It is possible to accept his view that there is no common genetic link either between the world’s Jews or to the ancient tribes of Israel, while also trusting the evidence of one’s own senses that there are remarkable common Jewish characteristics — indeed, a Jewish genius — that *cannot be explained merely by religion.
Jewish faith is visibly declining, in Israel as much as anywhere else. There is much dismay among diaspora communities about the steady increase in the frequency of their members “marrying out”. Yet who can doubt that Jews possess a social *identity that transcends any narrow issue of belief? Sand produces some formidable arguments about what Jews may not be, but he fails to explain what it is they are.
His book serves notice on Zionist traditionalists: if an Israeli historian can display such plausible doubts about important aspects of the Israeli legend, any Arabs hostile to the state of Israel can exploit a fertile field indeed.
Yet whatever the rights and wrong of the past, Israel has established its existence. If the Middle East is to advance beyond *perpetual conflict, all parties must abandon both claims and grievances rooted in *history, and address the now and the future.