Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand

The invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand (Verso - 2009)

On May 14th 1948 the British Mandate of Palestine and the Jewish People's Council issued 'The Declarations of the Establishment of the State of Israel'. It reads as follows:

"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept their faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and to hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom'.

This is a history I have never questioned, the people of Judea, later renamed Palestine by the Romans, were forced out of their lands, dispersed and lived in exile of thousands of years before their return and the founding of the state of Israel. Throughout the book Sand attempts to undermine some of the central tenets of Zionism and nationalistic right wing politicians in Israel. He attempts to show that the Jewish people aren't all the racially pure descendants of the Hebrews (the chosen people). That there was never a mass exodus of people during the Roman occupation of Judea, that although modern Judaism isn't quite the proselytizing religion now, the ranks of Jews throughout the middle east and the Mediterranean came (at least in part) through mass conversions and that the present day Palestinians (at least in part) do also descend from the ancient Hebrews who after the Arab invasion converted to Islam to reap the tax benefits.

I am no historian therefore I can't tell you about the veracity of the events as he states and whilst the arguments he makes are interesting there is quite a lot of dramatism and hyperbole in the way he makes them. What is more interesting than the book is perhaps the reception it received. Topping the best-selling lists in Israel when it was first published in Hebrew, it has won prizes in its French translation and it has brought itself a considerable reaction in the English translation. Many academics have questioned the author's credentials to write such a book (a history professor but not of Jewish history) and bloggers have been fiercely divided (the book is either essential reading or the work of a Stalinist anti-semite.

Sand's purpose seems to be twofold, to dispel the idea that Judaism is something more than a religion and to undermine the idea of their divine right to the land of Israel. His sights are firmly set on the Zionism and the right wing politicians of modern Israel. It feels as if he sets up a belief system that perhaps few genuinely follow and creates targets for himself that are easy to knock down. I was uneasy about carrying this book with me daily and the reaction of some being to call Sand an anti-semite make me think I do have reason to have felt that way. I feel that Sand's intentions have been honourable but his execution perhaps flawed. Interesting nonetheless.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

I read an awful lot of interesting books last year and I regret that I did not take the time to record them so here seems as good a place as any and if there are nice publishers out there who want to send me preview copies of their books then I'm a more than willing recipient.

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd (Vintage - 2001)

After Peter Ackroyd finished writing this 800 page monster he suffered a heart attack and for Peter this was something quite appropriate of London as a city, an angry and violent place; a place that kills (although I might suggest that his portly stature belies a different truth). This is a history book without chronology which rather than following a standard narrative (Romans, Normans, Plague, Fire, Queen Vic, Empire and Blitz) is more a series of essays on London as Theatre, Crime and Punishment, Mobocracy and Violence etc... As disconnected as that sounds there are themes that penetrate the essays: London's innate theatricality or the continuities that exist and have throughout the centuries. Camberwell, for instance, as the home of disquiet was invaded by Wat Tyler during the peasants revolt, that the Chartist movement grew up there, that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were welcomed there first on their return from Botany Bay, that a revolutionary press was founded upon the green by the likes of Elanor Marx and that during his stay this press was used frequently by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that in the 90s the communist daily the Morning Star had its offices in the area and that now it is inhabited by the magazine for the homeless and unemployed, the Big Issue.

I've learnt some interesting details about events and people some of which leave me wondering how there has never been a film about them. The story of Jack Sheppherd is one such story. He was a criminal hero of london held at the infamous Newgate Prison which once stood where the Old Bailey stands today and who gained notoriety by escaping from confinement six times using his skills gained as a carpenter's apprentice.

The first time he was arrested he escaped within three hours by cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground using the sheets from his bed as a rope. The second time he was pinioned with links and fetters and managed to saw through the fetters, cut an iron restraint and bored through a wooden bar nine inches thick. While out he was recaptured by the notorious criminal taker Jonathan Wild and sentenced to death. Somehow he managed to smuggle in a spike with which he managed to carve an opening in the wall and with the help of friends on the outside was dragged out through it disappearing into the crowds of the Bartholemew Fair. Once again he was recaptured and brought back to Newgate and he was removed to the 'stone castle', chained to the floor, legs secured with irons and hands cuffed and kept under surveillance. Somehow he managed to slip out of the cuffs, loose a link from the chains on his legs, squeeze his body through the chains and then with a nail broke the locks of five doors on the way to his escape. During his freedom he stole some money, bought a suit and hired a coach and following on with the theme of London theatricality, drove the coach right through the front gates of Newgate Prison. This time he was recaptured within two weeks and sentenced to be hanged within the week. Sheppherd had one more escape planned but the pocket knife with which he wished to cut his noose was found upon his body and on the 16th November 1724 he was finally executed. It's a fantastic story with so much intrigue and showmanship, would be a wonderful film, I'm sure Johnny Depp's available.

Now for the confession, I didn't like this book. Peter Ackroyd's pretension strikes you from the off with the title 'The Biography' as if stating its place as the definitive book on London which it certainly is not. There is so much that annoys me, first is that he is a popular historian but his sources are of other popular historians (I can't count the number of times that Jenny Uglow is quoted for instance), there is little evidence of any actual academic historiography in view and in fact the book feels like an aggregation of other people's work. Quite often he uses literature when he's seeking to make a point which also annoys, I'm quite happy with quotations from literature but if you're trying to make a point about a characteristic of London history or people then surely the connections are better made with actual people or events? And speaking of events, some are so horribly glossed over (like the great plague) that you wonder how ever this book could be considered definitive. The interesting facts are too few and far between and the obscure points he makes could be made about any city and its relevance to London appear slim. I really did want to enjoy this book not least because it is about the city I live in and see about me every day but because I was going to be with it for 800 pages however Peter Ackroyd's pomp and arrogance were too much for me too overlook and I am confident that there are far better books on London history to be had out there.

To sum up, it's a bit disappointing.