We're not a 'people'? Outrageous

A new Israeli book arguing that there is no ‘nation-race’ of Jews will be pounced upon by anti-Zionists

As the Jewish people prepare for the 60th birthday of the re-establishment of the Jewish state, the detractors of that state, and of the people whose national interests it was re-established to serve, are also preparing themselves for this event. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, for instance, is calling upon its followers to demonstrate at Windsor Castle against the JNF’s gala banquet there on April 7, with the slogan “Come Spoil Israel’s 60th Birthday Bash”, and we can be sure that the spoilers will be out in force. We can also be certain that, as the 60th anniversary (14 May) approaches, the spoilers will make every effort to focus the media’s attention on Jewish opponents of Jewish nationalism — Zionism — and I fully expect the usual suspects to be wheeled before the media.

With this prospect in mind, and mindful also of the adage that to be forewarned is to be forearmed, let me therefore also bring to your attention a relative newcomer to the brigade of Jewish enemies of Jewish nationalism, Shlomo Sand, who is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University.

In a work recently launched by the Hebrew-language publishing house Resling, entitled Matai ve’ech humtza ha’am hayehudi? (When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), Professor Sand announces that the Jews who now live in Israel are in no sense the descendants of the Jews who dwelt in the kingdom of Judea 2,000 and more years ago. Modern Jews are for the most part descended, in Professor Sand’s considered opinion, from converts — either north African pagans who converted around 1,500 years ago, or Khazars (inhabitants of the northern Caucasus, adjacent to the Caspian Sea) who converted around 1,200 years ago and from whom Ashkenazic Jews are descended.

“The people did not spread,” declares the professor, “but the Jewish religion spread.” There is, therefore, no such entity as a Jewish “nation-race”, and the idea that Jews constitute or could ever have constituted a “nation”, or a “people”, is a “national mythology” invented by Zionists in the 19th century. No one exiled the Jews from their land (he continues) because there was never a Jewish exile, except as another myth, namely that invented by Christians to bolster the authenticity of the Christian faith, which the Jews rejected and for which they incurred the (mythical) divine punishment of exile. In fact, according to Professor Sand, “the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt (1936), knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land.”

Why am I troubled by this book?

It is not simply because it is controversial. I defend Professor Sand’s freedom to be controversial. It is not merely because his conclusions are sure to be seized upon by the enemies of the Jewish people and of the Jewish state. If his conclusions were soundly based, I would ignore their cries of delight, and defend his scholarship instead.

The difficulty is, his conclusions are anything but soundly based, and I find myself unable to defend his scholarship.

To begin with, there is a great deal of DNA evidence to support the view that Jews originated as a genetically homogenous people or group of peoples. Professor Sand’s argument that “there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish” is contradicted by and in numerous studies of the history of Yiddish literature. But most worrying of all is Professor Sand’s apparent inability to grasp the theory of peoplehood, which is actually an ethnic rather than a racial concept. When Professor Sand argues that because most Jews in the contemporary world “have no desire to live in the state of Israel …. therefore, they cannot be seen as a nation”, he reveals this incapacity in a startling fashion.

Members of an ethnic group may indeed have common racial characteristics. But their common characteristics are equally likely to be religious, cultural, geographical or linguistic, or a combination of two or more of these. And, even if religious, any history of conversion is irrelevant, a red herring.

Professor Sand is said to be an authority on the intellectual history of modern France. The best advice I can give him, as a fellow historian, is to stick to this specialism. If, that is, he values his reputation as an academic.

    Last updated: 2:00pm, June 4 2008