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.



Kevin Brook said...

Sand is right that there were mass conversions to Judaism in history and that they had an impact on the makeup of Jewish populations worldwide. But his book pretends that modern Jews have no connection to ancient Israel, and that is decidedly false.

He picks and chooses evidence to suit his own needs, which is not the way of a proper historian. An example is the way he talks about DNA studies. He tries to get the reader to believe the geneticists are working for Zionist politicians and manipulating data on Jewish groups, yet he accepts wholeheartedly the DNA evidence that connects half of Palestinian Arabs to the land of Israel.

The fact is the reason Palestinian Arabs, Ashkenazic Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Samaritans, Egyptian Karaites, and Crimean Karaites are all closely related to each other is because they all descend from the same root: the Israelite people. The DNA evidence alone is enough to discredit Sand's book.

You will find an accurate assessment of Jewish history and origins in my book "The Jews of Khazaria, Second Edition". So if you want to get the other side of the argument, check it out, especially chapter 10 and appendix D. The first edition of my book doesn't contain the genetic data (which came later) and some of its statements turned out to be incorrect and were modified or removed in the second edition. Unlike Sand I have no political agenda and therefore I'm always open to new evidence. That's why the first and second editions of my book are different.