We're an invention? Prove it

A book denying the existence of a Jewish ‘people’ makes its own less-than-solid suppositions


Beware of scholars with agendas. When the modern historian, Tony Judt, described The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand as being remarkable, cool, scholarly and vital for anyone “interested in understanding the contemporary Middle East”, was it because he had genuinely been able to assess Sand’s assertions about the historiography of the Jews, or because it resonated with his view that a “self-serving and mostly imaginary Jewish past (had) done so much to provoke conflict in the present”?

I don’t feel I have a dog in this fight. I am not a Zionist and I am not an anti-Zionist and I have no personal connection with Israel. But I have read the book, and some aspects of it stand out for me. Here they are.

First, Sand makes the overall assertion that there is a corpus of “authorised” or “Zionist historiography” that has — more or less since the 19th century — suppressed discussion about the history of the Jews, embellishing a mythical version of the Jewish exile and diaspora, and resisting unwelcome facts and interpretations. Furthermore, this crushing, orthodox claque still has the whip-hand in Israeli and Jewish historical scholarship.

With regard to the 19th century, the century of nationalism, a huge amount of scholarship was, in essence, nationalistic in character. To judge “Jewish” historiography by the works of, say, Heinrich Graetz, is like pronouncing on Niall Ferguson or Ian Kershaw by quoting Lord Macaulay. In the same way, all peoples have national myths, legends and popular “versions” of their histories (think of the role of the French Resistance in maintaining French pride), but this cannot be accounted for by blaming the historians.

So is contemporary Jewish historiography the propagandistic and monolithic creature that Sand represents it to be? I don’t know, but Professor Israel Bartal’s review of Sand’s book in Ha’aretz gives numerous examples of modern historians doing exactly what Sand seems to suggest that they don’t.

Second, there is the frustrating way in which Sand seems to manipulate his sources towards his twin themes, that there never was an exile and that modern Jews have no genetic relationship with ancient Israel, but are the descendants of converts. For example, when it suits him Flavius Josephus is considered to be an authoritative source on events that happened 150 years before his birth, but to be entirely wrong about the “exile” that he wrote about when he was alive and in his adulthood.

The importance of all this to Sand seems to be to sever the link between the existing state of Israel — a modern reality — and what is called the diaspora, who become Jews in the same way as Catholics are Catholics. The Palestinians, he has said, are more genetically Jewish than many of the Jews.

Now, this proposition is either testable through DNA or it’s not. For the present, it doesn’t make much difference. Identity is not just a matter of what you decide to be (though it should be said that all nations are the products of myths, and conscious and unconscious history) but also what others decide you are. The “Wandering Jew” may have been a Christian myth, but by 1492 it had a two hundred-year European reality. The grotesque Jews in Heironymous Bosch’s 16th-century painting of Christ carrying the cross are both religiously and racially separate.

Finally, the Khazars. Now, I don’t mind my grandparents’ thousand-year-old lineage turning out to be some rather fabulous, martial Steppe empire rather than a muddy shtetl near Vilnius or a dusty hilltop near Jericho. Of course, I am slightly put off by the fact that Nazis who write to me are the only ones, till now, who have invoked the Khazars. There is, however, one problem. I can find no concrete or compelling evidence in Sand’s book that there is such a descendancy. None. How Judt is convinced by it, I have no idea. Well, maybe some idea.

    Last updated: 4:45pm, December 10 2009

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