By Jim Miles
The Invention of the Jewish People. Shlomo Sand. Verso, New York, 2009.
Historians living within their own nations develop within the mythology peculiar to their nation, in which “various spheres of memory coalesced into an imagined universe representing the past.” The historian is a combination of his own personal experiences and the larger societal “instilled memories.” Recognizing that, Shlomo Sand very capably steps away from the created mythology of Israel, of the national myth of the wandering people for two thousand years before finding home again, in a land that belonged only to that people even though others had lived there during the same two thousand years. The Invention of the Jewish People is his groundbreaking historical study of the nature of the Jewish “nation” and its created mythologies.
This powerful and provocative work is broadly divided into five main sections of critique. Sand first examines the idea of ‘nation’ and all that it entails. The second is “Mythistory: In the Beginning, God Created the People”, dealing with the stories and myths of the original peoples of this part of the Middle East and their development within modern interpretations. The whole idea of the Diaspora is dealt with in “The Invention of the Exile: Proselytism and Conversion” the title itself providing a concise summary of the section. Following this he looks at strong historical evidence for the existence of Jewish realms beyond the now mythical Diaspora, “Realms of Silence” that do not register with the newly created Zionist history. Finally Sand critiques the contradictions inherent in a “Jewish and democratic state” reiterating the idea of what comprises a nation.
While the focus of the book is Israel, this first section deals with the idea of what a nation consists of and what its attributes are. It all comes across as very vague – even while written with strong academic knowledge – as the idea of a nation or a people evolved as technologies and civilizations evolved. Essentially, all ‘nations’ have created myths and histories about their past lives, and the longer and broader these myths can be created, the stronger the unifying power of the literate elites – in association with their political and economic peers – becomes.
The focus through the rest of the work is the deconstruction of the myth that is Israel, not that Israel does not exist now in some form, not that it existed in the past in some form, but that there is a continual story of a “people”, a “nation”, that covers the span of two millennia with an unbroken story of defeat, exile, a wandering Diaspora, and then a coming together, a gathering in the original god given land.
The ideas of Jewish nationalism developed under two intellectual strains of nascent east European nationalities. One was the pseudo-racism of the Darwin/Marxian milieu in which seminal ideas about race and evolution were presented (eugenics) in which true science took (and still takes) a backstage to quasi-scientific reasoning encased in religious mythology. The second factor was that of the developing ideas concerning a German nationality, the Aryan race, and the ethnic nationalities of Eastern Europe where a large Jewish population lived.
From this crucible of war and proto-nationalism, “the nationalization of the Bible and its transformation into a reliable history book” was “completed and perfected by the founders of Zionist historiography.” Writing in Hebrew “erroneously believed to have evolved directly from biblical language,” the first modern writers became “custodians…of the Jewish nation’s “long” memory.” Unfortunately for these writers modern archaeology became a problem as it did not support the created narrative.
After examining the many problems created by archaeology with the narratives of the creation of Israel, Sand provides the conclusion that “The central myths about the primeval origin of a marvellous nation…were a boon for rising Jewish nationalism and Zionist colonization.” However, “Troublesome archaeologists and Bible scholars, in Israel and abroad, undermined these myths…seemed about to be relegated to the status of fiction, with an unbridgeable gulf gaping between them and real history.”
The Invention of the Exile
The Israeli myth of exile is featured at the beginning of The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and receives a strong and well defined criticism within Sand’s arguments.
The first myth questioned is that of the deportation of the people by the Romans, emphasizing from the beginning that “the Romans never deported entire peoples.” The argument is made that “most scholars believe…all demographic figures from antiquity are overstated, and…many have numerological significance.” Sand reiterates after further historical presentations that “the population in and around Jerusalem…was not expelled and, before long, recovered economically.” The myth becomes entangled with Christian beliefs as the “myth of the Wandering Jew, punished for transgressions, was rooted in the dialectic of Christian-Jewish hatred that would mark the boundaries of both religions through the following centuries.”
Although exile is a “central and fundamental event in the history of the Jewish People…it has not resulted in a single such work [of socio-historical investigation]…accepted as self-evident – not discussed and never doubted.”
Another argument bothering the exile myth is the presence of large Jewish populations outside Judea before the 70 CE date. This was achieved “by a policy of proselytizing and dynamic religious propaganda, which achieved decisive results amid the weakening of the pagan worldview.” The historical record indicates that “Judaism’s sudden spread probably resulted from its historic encounter with Hellenism,” that an “important symbiosis [took] place between Judaism and Hellenism.”
After the Greek conquests opened up various regions, the Roman Empire “completed the process.” The opening of the Mediterranean basin “opened a fresh perspective for the spread of Judaism.” The historical record demonstrates that a “substantial presence existed for a long time before the war of 70 CE, and had nothing to do with any imaginary “mass expulsions” from Judea after the fall of the kingdom and the Bar Kokhba revolt.”
During both these times proselytizing and conversion were used as methods of acquiring acolytes. So if the Judeans were not exiled what became of them? For some it was conversion to Christianity. For many others it was the “small army” of the Muslims, for which there is “no shred of evidence in the historical record” for an “uprooting of the Jews from the country.” Instead, they were given legal protection as a monotheistic religion as “people of the Book.” Partly because of the taxation laws under Muslim rule, the “new religion attracted great numbers of converts.” Other factors are discussed, but essentially, it was not a mass movement or exile of the people of Judea but a long historical process of conversion that greatly diminished the number of Jewish people in the region.
Being the crossroads of many empires, the land of Judea certainly received immigration, yet it remains that “the idea that the bulk of the local population descended from the Judeans was accepted by a good many.” including Ben-Gurion. He stated that the “fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors,” whose interest was “to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.” Ben-Gurion’s co-writer said “the great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.”
The discourse then becomes a history of a Jewish people schooled in the racist nationalism of Eastern Europe, suppressing the history of the local population in Judea. Sand concludes that the national statement of “the people without a land to the land without a people” was a “simplified…and popular slogan for the Zionist movement….entirely the product of an imaginary history grown around the idea of the exile.”
Realms of Silence
This section of Sand’s work discusses various dispersed kingdoms of antiquity that were Jewish in nature. Kingdoms in Arabia, Northern Africa, Iberia and significantly the Khazar kingdom of Eastern Europe/Russia.
With well supported historical references, Sand indicates that Jewish communities existed outside Israel, not because of an exile/Diaspora, but because of proselytizing and conversion. Along with the section on the exile, it leads to the suggestion that the mythical wandering Jews of Eastern Europe would then not be descendents of Abraham or Judeans but descendents of Slavic and Germanic peoples – leaving the Ashkenazi Jews as ethnic interlopers into the land of modern Judea-Palestine where the fellahin carry the ethnic roots of the ancient Judean people.
This “lapse” in Jewish Israeli memory opens significant problems with the Zionist project – its very legitimacy for starters, if the settlers were revealed as being of different ethnicity and “not the direct descendents of the “Children of Israel….The proximity of masses of Palestinians began to seem a threat to the imaginary “national” Israel, and called for stronger bonds of identity and definition,” leading to the historical amnesia of other Jewish kingdoms that were created through proselytising and conversion.
The final section of the work looks at the current situation in Israel, the “Jewish democratic state.” Sand reiterates his previous discourse, saying, “the Zionists needed to erase existing ethnographic textures, forget specific histories, and take a flying leap backward to an ancient, mythological and religious past.”
The arguments return to the racist pseudo-biology, the eugenics of the early Twentieth Century, of determining a pure Jewish biology in order “to serve the project of ethnic nationalist consolidation in the taking over of an imaginary ancient homeland.” It continues to the modern calling of “Jewish genetics” who “regularly blended historical mythology and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings.” After discussing various presentations on Jewish heredity the conclusion is that “no research had found unique and unifying characteristics of Jewish heredity based on a random sampling of genetic material whose ethnic origin is not known in advance…after all the costly “scientific” endeavours, a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever.”
The argument then turns to modern politics, with the attempts of the state to be Jewish and democratic at the same time. There is no argument that the infrastructure of the state is superficially democratic however Jewish nationalism “explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly asserts that the state belongs only to the majority…it excludes the minority from active and harmonious participation in the sovereignty and practices of democracy….” As “sovereignty and equality for all human beings living together in civil society [is] the minimum requirement” for democracy, the current state is “a biologic-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation,” creating a “deep-rooted barrier to any kind of democracy.”
Sand’s response is concise. It would be “the creation of a democratic binominal state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” He recognizes that this might not be the “smartest thing to do.” But given the alternatives, he wonders why “if it was possible to have changed the historical imaginary so profoundly, why not put forth a similarly lavish effort of the imagination to create a different tomorrow,” before what exists now “becomes a nightmare?”
Whither the Book?
This is a highly thought provoking and perhaps for many an antagonistic examination of the ‘nation’ of Israel. There have been revisionist historians concerning the modern era, in particular with the Nakba and the thoughts and processes that created the new state in its various wars on the Palestinian people. While that is beneficial to the current view of Israeli activities towards the Palestinian people, it still leaves the overall historical mythology in place. This book opens up that whole messy area that basically denies the myth of a wandering nation of people returning to their homeland, replacing it with a story that supports the intent of a particular group within the Jewish religion to claim the right to colonize a land that had continuous settlement of Judean peoples throughout the mythologized years of exile and wandering.
The Invention of the Jewish People is very well written and argued, taking a lot of mind work to assimilate the ideas and their implications. Whether anything real arises from this is uncertain. As the west in particular examines the atrocities that modern Israel perpetrates against the Palestinian people, this critical examination of Jewish history may add to the growing discontent of other peoples towards Israeli militarism and apartheid. Within Israel, the book remained on the best-sellers’ list for nineteen weeks, and in spite of what Sand has written, it ironically became part of the claim that Israel is democratic as it allows such challenging works to be written, read, and discussed. Regardless, ideas once expressed become part of the national discourse, and this book may open up a new line of revisionist historians able to examine the reality of their past.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.