|Ethiopian and Orthodox Jews at the western wall|
The Invention of the Jewish People
By Shlomo Sand
Translated by Yael Lotan
Verso £18.99, 398 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19
From its splashy title on, Shlomo Sand means his book to be provocative, which it certainly is, though possibly not in the way he intends. Its real challenge to the reader is separating the presentation of truisms as though they were revolutionary illuminations and the relentless beating on doors that have long been open, from passages of intellectual sharpness and learning.
Sand’s self-dramatising attack in The Invention of the Jewish People is directed against those who assume, uncritically, that all Jews are descended lineally from the single racial stock of ancient Hebrews – a position no one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews would dream of taking.
Sand’s sense of grievance against the myths on which the exclusively Jewish right to full Israeli immigration is grounded is one that many who want to see a more liberal and secular Israel wholeheartedly share. But his book prosecutes these aims through a sensationalist assertion that somehow, the truth about Jewish culture and history, especially the exile which never happened, has been suppressed in the interests of racially pure demands of Zionist orthodoxy. This, to put it mildly, is a stretch.
To take just one instance: the history of the Khazars, the central Asian kingdom which, around the 10th century, converted to Judaism and which Sand thinks has been excised from the master narrative because of the embarrassing implication that present day Jews might be descended from Turkic converts. But the Khazars were known by every Jewish girl and boy in my neck of Golders Greenery and further flung parts of the diaspora, and celebrated rather than evaded.
For Sand, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, the antidote to a national identity based on what he argues are fables, is to shed the fancy that there is any such thing as a shared Jewish identity independent of religious practice.
By this narrow reckoning you are either devoutly orthodox or not Jewish at all if you imagine yourself to have any connection to Israel past or present. Sand confuses ethnicity – which, in the case of the Jews, is indeed impure, heterogeneous and much travelled – with an identity that evolves as the product of common historical experience. Rabbinical arguments may rest on an imaginary definition of ethnicity, but the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland does not. Ultimately, Israel’s case is the remedy for atrocity, about which Sand has nothing to say.
His book is a trip (and I use the word advisedly) through a landscape of illusions which Sand aims to explode, leaving the scenery freer for a Middle East built, as he supposes, from the hard bricks of truth. This turns out to require not just the abandonment of simplicities about race, but any shared sense of historical identity at all on the part of the Jews that might be taken as the basis of common allegiance, which is an another matter entirely. En route, he marches the reader through a mind-numbingly laborious examination of the construction of national identities from imagined rather than actual histories. A whole literature has been devoted to the assumption that nations are invariably built from such stories, in which, nonetheless, grains of historical truth are usually embedded. The important issue, however, is whether the meta-narrative that arises from those stories is inclusive enough to accommodate the tales of those whose experience is something other than racially and culturally homogeneous.
Sand’s point is that a version of Jewish national identity was written in the 19th and early 20th centuries – by historians such as Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow – which took as its central premise a forced dispersion of the Jews from Israel. But, he argues, there actually was no mass forced exile so there can be no legitimate return. This is the take-away headline that makes this book so contentious. It is undoubtedly right to say that a popular version of this idea of the exile survives in most fundamentalist accounts of Jewish history. It may well be the image that many Jewish children still have. But it is a long time since any serious historian argued that following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans emptied Judea. But what the Romans did do, following the Jewish revolt of AD66-70 and even more exhaustively after a second rebellion in AD135, was every bit as traumatic: an act of cultural and social annihilation – mass slaughter and widespread enslavement. But there was also the mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture; the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, the obliteration of the Temple, the prohibition on rituals and prayers. Sand asserts, correctly, that an unknowable number of Jews remained in what the Romans called Palestina. The multitudes of Jews in Rome had already gone there, not as a response to disaster but because they wanted to and were busy proselytising.
All this is true and has been acknowledged. But Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning – the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away.
There are many such twists of historical logic and strategic evasions of modern research in this book. To list them all would try your patience. Scholarly consensus now places the creation of the earliest books of the Old Testament not in the 6th or 5th centuries BC, but in the 9th century BC, home-grown in a Judah which had been transformed, as Israel Finkelstein has written into a developed nation state. The post-David kingdom of the 10th century BC may have been a pastoral warrior citadel, but the most recent excavations by Amihai Mazar have revealed it capable of building monumental structures. And the Judah in which the bible was first forged, its population swollen with refugees from the hard-pressed northern kingdom of Israel, was a culture that needed a text to bring together territory, polity and religion. It was a moment of profound cultural genesis. And don’t get me started again on the Khazars. No one doubts the significance of their conversion, but to argue that the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewry must necessarily descend from them is to make precisely the uncritical claim of uninterrupted genealogy Sand is eager to dispute in the wider context of Jewish history.
His assumption that the Jewish state is an oxymoron built on illusions of homogeneity is belied by the country’s striking heterogeneity. How else to explain the acceptance of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews or the Bene Israel Indians as Israeli Jews? Certainly that acceptance has never been without obstacles, and egregious discrimination has been shown by those who think they know what real jews should look like. Sand is right in believing that a more inclusive and elastic version of entry and exit points into the Jewish experience should encourage a debate in Israel of who is and who is not a true Jew. I could hardly agree more, and for precisely the reason that Sand seems not to himself embrace: namely that the legitimacy of Israel both within and without the country depends not on some spurious notion of religious much less racial purity, but on the case made by a community of suffering, not just during the Holocaust but over centuries of expulsions and persecutions. Unlike the Roman deportations, these were not mythical.
Sand would counter that such a refuge for the victims could have been in China, or on the moon, for all that Palestine had to do with the Jews. But since his book fails to sever the remembered connection between the ancestral land and Jewish experience ever since, it seems a bit much to ask Jews to do their bit for the sorely needed peace of the region by replacing an ethnic mythology with an act of equally arbitrary cultural oblivion.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor