Review: The Invention of the Jewish People

Is Jewish history simply hit and myth?


By Shlomo Sand (Trans: Yael Lotan)
Verso, £18.99

Because the state of Israel has always seen itself as embattled, and because Zionism is such a contentious ideology, it is often impossible to have a reasoned debate about other aspects of Jewish culture, religion and history without contemporary Middle East geopolitics obtruding.

Professor Sand’s book is a case in point. It is overblown, learned, occasionally brilliant and always polemical. A controversial best-seller in Israel last year, it is hardly the revolutionary demolition of Jewish history that the dust-cover claims it to be. No one today, unless a simpleton, believes that all Jews are descended in an unbroken chain from Abraham to the present.

From the clan interminglings in Genesis, through the “mixed multitude” who came out of Egypt with Moses, the worshippers of the false gods of foreigners, the post-Solomon divide into Israel and Judah and the 586 BCE exile, to Ezra’s vain attempt to get the returnees to divorce their foreign wives, the Bible itself makes clear how proximity, syncretism and assimilation broke down the walls a stern God erected between His “chosen people” and “lesser” breeds.

Legends about the Patriarchs, the Exodus and King David are what Sand calls “mythistories”, a word coined by the Greek writer George Sefiris to describe those embellishments with which every people seeks to glorify its origins. For the Romans it was Romulus; for the French, Charlemagne; for the Prussians, the medieval Teutonic knights.

We are a mongrel and widely scattered people

As Sand demonstrates with élan, Jewish history was more contingent and fragmented than the unitary narrative from mass dispersion after 70 CE to Zionist redemption in 1948 would have it. Over the centuries, millions joined Judaism, and a substantial number also left.

For every kingdom of Adiabene — roughly corresponding to modern Kurdistan and Armenia — that, according to Josephus and other sources, converted en masse in the first century CE, there were Jews who defected en masse to the new religion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Sand makes too much of the Khazars being the original Ashkenazi Jews. But no modern historian would take issue with his contention that to call Jews a “race” or a “nation” is a misnomer. We are a mongrel and widely scattered people. Neither ethnicity nor language, culture nor land, link a Jew from the United States with a Jew from Aden. What we do share in common is mythistory and a religious heritage; observing the same Sabbath and festivals, performing the same rituals.

It was the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce who coined the aphorism that “All history is contemporary history”. We view the past through the lens of the present. That is why Heinrich Graetz, the greatest Jewish historian of the 19th century and writing at a time of raucous European nationalism, created an organic nationalist history of the Jews. His 20th-century successors, Salo Baron and Simon Dubnow, were influenced respectively by emergent Zionism and the Soviet experiment with ethnic autonomy.

Sand is not immune to similar zeitgeist factors. He rightly excoriates Zionist historiography that posits an unbroken continuum between the ancient Jewish homeland and its modern inhabitants in order to justify ownership of all the biblical territory. His particular beef is with geneticists who have “discovered” such ludicrous “facts” as the Jewish gene that is shared by Ashkenazim and Sephardim, or make the even more preposterous claim that a single chromosome is common to over 50 per cent of men surnamed Cohen.

But because Sand’s political ideal would be “the creation of a democratic bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan”, he is too cavalier in dismissing all of our standard historical narrative as an “invention”. Shared folk memories, totally accurate or not, have been a vital ingredient in Jewish survival.

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