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07 March 2013

The Invention of the Jewish People: By Shlomo Sand - Book Review

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In 1967 the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish published his poem “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies,” only to be accused of “collaboration with the Zionist enemy” for his sympathetic depiction of an Israeli soldier’s remorse of conscience. Forty years later that soldier has identified himself as the historian Shlomo Sand. He has translated his remorse into a book that has become a bestseller in Israel and France, where the award of the Prix Aujourd’hui has made the author something of a TV star.
Indeed, few recent books have aroused more interest and been more frequently reviewed in the US and Europe prior to the appearance of an English version. Translator Yael Lotan has chosen to follow the example of her French predecessors by telescoping the interrogative Hebrew title (When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), which here becomes The Invention of the Jewish People, thus misleadingly and (deliberately?) provocatively implying that such inventiveness was unique to  the Jews. However, Sand clarifies that worldwide in the 19th century “[t]he national project was … a fully conscious one … It was a simultaneous process of imagination, invention, and actual self-creation” (45).
Sand traces how Zionist ideology drove the project of Jewish nationalism by turning Judaism “into something hermetic, like the German Volk …” (255). He argues that history and biology were enlisted “to bind together the frangible secular Jewish identity.” Together, these engendered an “ethnonationalist historiography” which was typified by the mid-19th century German Jewish historian Heinricht Graetz and his friend Moses Hess, who “needed a good deal of racial theory to dream up the Jewish people” (256).
According to Sand, the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70 AD left the indigenous Jewish population of Judea and Samaria in place. “[T]he Romans never deported entire peoples. It did not pay to uproot the people of the land, the cultivators of produce, the taxpayers” (130). Furthermore, at that time there were already Jewish communities numbering up to four million persons in Persia, Egypt, Asia Minor and elsewhere (145). Palestine’s status as the unique “ancestral homeland” of the Jews collapses together with the myth of David and Solomon’s imposing kingdom.
Against the ethno-biological concept of a Jewish people — a “race” — whose linear descendants returned from exile to (re)found today’s Israel, Sand posits a religious community proliferating throughout and beyond the Mediterranean region by means of proselytism and conversion. He offers a detailed rebuttal of the conventional wisdom whereby “Judaism was never a proselytizing religion,” a view disseminated by historian Martin Goodman and others (150, note 42).
Most importantly, he concentrates attention on Khazaria, that “Strange Empire” that flourished in the Caspian region between the seventh and tenth centuries AD. By the eighth century the Khazars had adopted Hebrew as their sacred and written tongue, and “[a]t some stage between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth centuries, the[y] … adopted Jewish monotheism” (221). Sand speculates that this conversion was calculated to save them from absorption into either the Roman or the Islamic empires. The Khazars, he contends, engendered those Askhenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe who would later invent the myths of Zionism to justify their colonization of Palestine, a land to which they had no “ethnic” connection and where they remain the dominant elite.
So if the exile was a myth — fomented, Sand writes, by the Christian church as an image of divine punishment (“The Wandering Jew”) — what happened to the indigenous Jews? Sand’s answer: they converted to Islam and survive as today’s disinherited Palestinians. This seemingly radical thesis was once shared by, among others, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister who in 1918 still believed that (in Sand’s words) “the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam … for material reasons … Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland” (186).
Ultimately, the case against the Jewish state cannot be based on an unseemly tussle for genetic primacy, but on a discourse of fundamental political and human rights. Sand turns toward such a discussion in the final chapter, describing it as the raison d’etre of The Invention of the Jewish People, which he admits essentially contains nothing not already found in the work of other historians and archaeologists.
Today’s Israel is not a democracy but a “liberal ethnocracy” (307) that assumes its “growing and strengthening” Arab minority “will always accept its exclusion from the political and cultural heart” (309). Ultimately we may see “an uprising in the Arab Galilee, followed by iron-fisted repression,” which would constitute “a turning-point for the existence of Israel” in the region. Hence, Sand states that the ideal solution would be the creation of a democratic binational state.
Sadly, Sand hastily dismisses this “ideal project.” In terms all too drearily reminiscent of Zionist apologetics he states that to “ask the Jewish Israeli people, after such a long and bloody conflict, and in view of the tragedy experienced by many of its immigrant founders in the twentieth century, to become overnight a minority in its own state may not be the smartest thing to do” (311-312). Instead, he falls back on a sequence of rhetorical questions: “[h]ow many Jews would be willing to forgo the privileges they enjoy in the Zionist state? … will anyone dare to repeal the Law of Return … ? To what extent is Jewish Israeli society willing to discard the … image of the ‘chosen people,’ and to cease … excluding the ‘other’ from its midst?”
What is behind this sorry post-Zionist anti-climax to a book that seemed to presage a heady anti-Zionist conclusion? In an interview Sand admitted that he “waited until [he] was a full professor” before publishing the book, adding that there “is a price to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort.” In providing the premises for radical conclusions without either drawing or excluding those conclusions, Sand has the best of both worlds with few if any consequences.
Ultimately, Shlomo Sand is a little like Moses, unable to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The journey so far, however, is instructive, and very stylishly accomplished; one hopes that the “soldier dreaming of white lilies” may eventually be emboldened to complete it.
Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist (www.raymonddeane.com).
http://electronicintifada.net/content/book-review-shlomo-sands-invention-jewish-people/3561
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New book by Tel Aviv historian uncovers "Land of Israel" myths


Shlomo Sand is a history professor at Tel Aviv University. His charismatic, readable style was evident in his previous book The Invention of the Jewish People, the English edition of which kicked up quite a controversy in 2009. The title alone seemed designed to shock.
But in fact Sand was arguing a fairly banal truism: there is no such thing as a unified, national “Jewish people.” As a globalized religious community (due to proselytizing before the rise to power of Christianity in the fourth century) there are instead multiple different Jewish communities across the world.
A Jew from Yemen would have no distinctive secular points of reference in common with a Jew from France, Russia or Poland. For example: before Zionist reinvention from the end of the 19th century, Hebrew was a purely liturgical language. Jews from different countries naturally spoke in local languages.
That book was a fascinating journey through centuries of Jewish history, much of it swept under the carpet by Zionist historiography. Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, is essentially a direct sequel, focusing on the nature of an idea central toZionism: the “Land of Israel” — Eretz Israel in Hebrew.
Sand explains that in Israel, “in the Hebrew-language edition of foreign books, the word ‘Palestine’ is systematically replaced with the words Eretz Israel … Even when the writings of important Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Ber Borochov and many others [who also used ‘Palestine’] … are translated into Hebrew” (23).

Holy land or homeland?

In the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), the geographic area roughly corresponding to the land of Palestine (between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea) is mostly called the “land of Canaan.” The area “never served as a homeland for the ‘children of Israel,’ and for this reason, among others, they never refer to it as ‘the Land of Israel.’” Most Israelis, Sand argues, are not aware that the term is not found in the the Hebrew Bible “in its inclusive meaning” of a wide geographic area (86).
Later Jewish religious law “does feature the debut of the term ‘Land of Israel’ ” but, Sand explains, this was a “holy land” rather than a “homeland” (102). Most Jews did not seek to live there. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, lived in Egypt — right next to Palestine. He could have moved to Jerusalem, since both regions were under Roman rule — but instead, like most people, he chose to live and die in his original homeland (96).
Furthermore this Eretz Israel was traditionally considered by mainstream Judaism to be so holy the devout were positively forbidden to move there (183). Even pilgrimage was a rare, and later phenomenon. Between the years 134 and 1099, “we know of no attempts by the followers of rabbinical Judaism to make pilgrimages to the holy city” of Jerusalem (123).
All this stands in stark contrast to the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence which claims that “the Jewish people … never ceased to pray and hope for their return.” In contrast to this “mythos,” Sand writes: “most of the world’s Jews … did not regard Palestine as their land … they did not strive ‘in every successive generation to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland’ ” (175).

Ever-shifting borders

“Settlement Zionism, which borrowed the term ‘Land of Israel’ from the Talmud, was not overly pleased with the borders it had been assigned by Jewish law … extending only from Acre to Ashkelon … [it was] not sufficiently contiguous to serve as a national homeland,” argues Sand (214).
He then reviews the history of the ever-shifting definition in Zionist thought of where exactly its “Land of Israel” is — something undeclared till this day.
Early Zionists drew on God’s promise in the book of Genesis to give the mythical patriarch Abram’s children “this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” in modern day Iraq.
In 1897, the same year as the first Zionist congress, Israel Belkind (“the first practical Zionist”) drew a map: “ ‘The Jordan splits the Land of Israel in two different sections,’ asserted Belkind, whose assessment was subsequently adopted by most [Zionist] settlers of the period” (216).
For the future first prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion, these borders “were too expansive and untenable, while the borders of the Talmudic commandment were too narrow.” In 1918 he gave his own take: “In the north — the Litani River, between Tyre and Sidon [in Lebanon] … In the east — the Syrian Desert. The eastern border of the Land of Israel should not be precisely demarcated … the Land’s eastern borders will be diverted eastwards, and the area of the Land of Israel will expand” (217).
Not for nothing were the borders of the new state unmentioned in its declaration of independence (233).

Incendiary

Ben Gurion later scaled back this conception, but even mainstream Labor Zionist figure as Yigal Allon would still at times refer to the whole of historic Palestine as the “western Land of Israel” as late as 1979 (237).
There’s also a brilliant chapter on the origins of Christian Zionism in the protestantism of nineteenth-century British imperialists.
Sand stops short of calling for implementing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. His concluding chapter is a history of al-Sheikh Muwannis, the Palestinian village that Israel ethnically cleansed in 1948 and in place of which his own university now stands. Unfortunately, he counterposes removing the university, on the one hand, with the Palestinian refugees never being able to return en masse, on the other — as if those are the only two options (280).
It’s a useful book for debunking Zionist myths, which, due to the legacy of Protestant Christian Zionism in the west are surprisingly resilient. But as Sand’s slightly flaky post-Zionist politics demonstrates, a more realistic knowledge of history doesn’t necessarily translate fully to a rights-based understanding of the Palestinian plight.
Still, there is much to enjoy and learn in the evidence in the potentially incendiary material he assembles here.
Asa Winstanley is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, and a journalist in London who has also worked in Palestine.
http://electronicintifada.net/content/new-book-tel-aviv-historian-uncovers-land-israel-myths/12116
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