'Zionist myth' book on prize shortlist

A controversial book which argues that the idea of a Jewish people descended from the ancient Israelites is a Zionist myth, has been shortlisted for British Jewry's main literary award.

The Invention of the Jewish People by Tel Aviv University Professor Shlomo Sand is one of four books up for the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize.

But the choice has already come under fire. Mark Gardner, the communications director for the Community Security Trust, who has previously attacked the book, said this week: "The accuracy and originality of this book have been challenged by serious critics, including Anita Shapiro of the Journal of Israeli History, whose review was entitled The Jewish-people deniers. This properly summarises the book's attack upon our notions of Jewish heritage, history and peoplehood.

"Sand's logic is directed against modern Israel, but it subverts Jews everywhere, reducing them to little more than a random assortment who happen to share a religion."

Alan Mendoza, director of the Israel-Diaspora Trust, said: "The cultural, historical and religious roots of the Jewish people are self-evident and Sands' desire for self-immolation is not shared by Anglo-Jewry. Was this decision motivated by intellectual navel-gazing of the most banal kind, or does it reflect an attempt to appease those viscerally anti-Israel elements within the broader liberal intelligentsia? Either way, this is a pathetic attempt at gesture politics, and one that cheapens the Wingate Prize."

The four judges were chaired by the broadcaster Anne Karpf, a founding member of Independent Jewish Voices, formed to promote alternative views of Israel. Another was musician Joseph Finlay, who has been involved with the alternative cultural group, Jewdas.

Ms Karpf did not want to comment on the shortlist before the June prizegiving, adding: "I don't want to jump the gun."

Prof Sand's book disputes that there was a mass exodus of Jews from Palestine in Roman times and suggests that many are descended from converts.

The idea of a Jewish nation based on a common ethnic origin emerged among 19th century Jewish historians, he argues. It was used by Zionists to make the case for a Jewish homeland.

In a review for the FT, the historian Simon Schama said the book "fails to sever the remembered connection between the ancestral land and the Jewish experience ever since" and he attacked Prof Sand's "many… twists of historical logic and strategic evasions of modern research".

Masorti senior rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, wrote in the Guardian that the book was "marred by tendentious premises, the misreading of key events and the ignoring of central texts".

In the JC, reviewer Rabbi David Goldberg described the book as "overblown, learned, occasionally brilliant and always polemical".

But one Wingate judge, Naomi Gryn, said she was "unhappy that the book was on the shortlist", adding: "I bowed to the democratic process. I thought the arguments he used to support his thesis were spurious."

    Last updated: 12:31pm, April 4 2011