A historical tour de force, the amazing book “The Invention of the Jewish People” offers a groundbreaking account of Jewish and Israeli history.
Exploding the myth that there was a forced Jewish exile in the first century at the hands of the Romans, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argues that most modern Jews descend from converts, whose native lands were scattered across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
In this iconoclastic work, which spent nineteen weeks on the Israeli bestseller list and won the coveted Aujourd’hui Award in France, Sand provides the intellectual foundations for a new vision of Israel’s future.
A Confused Nation Pretending to be a Wandering People
Although he never mentions the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in “The Invention of the Jewish People” Israeli historian Shlomo Sand implicitly rejects it in favor of what has come to be called the “one-state solution”:
“The ideal project for solving the century-long conflict…would be the creation of a democratic bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” (p. 311)
Sand, however, is deeply pessimistic concerning the likelihood of any solution being reached at all. Implicitly he takes the position that the possibility of peace rests not so much on the Palestinians, or on the Arabs in general, as on the Israeli Jews themselves.
They must somehow come to understand that the Israeli policy of apartheid (Sand’s term, p. 309), and the false notion that Israel can be a “Jewish state” and yet a democracy at the same time, doom the chances of peace. But is it possible that the Israelis will ever come to believe that they must share the land on an equal basis with the Palestinian non-Jews?
Sand identifies two major factors – two associated myths — which stand in the way. These have served the Zionist cause well but they are historically false: the myth of the Jewish “people” and the myth of the “exile” of this people from the land of Israel.
If essentially there is no Jewish people — rather only a Jewish religion; and if the Jewish diaspora was driven not by forced exile — rather by the impulse to proselytize, then the Zionist-sponsored “return” of the Jewish “people” to the land of Israel in the mid twentieth century has lost its entire theoretical framework.
Sand is a scholar and in style the book is a scholarly work. The general reader may be put off at first. I suggest the book may be more approachable if you begin by reading Chapter 2, “Myth history: In the Beginning God Created the People”.
The first chapter “Making Nations” is a bit difficult to get through, and might be dispensed with. The Introduction contains four personal histories whose relevance is at first obscure. I suggest you read the Introduction after you finish the rest of the book, not before. For only then is the point of these personal stories, which are quite moving, readily understood.
According to Sand Zionism’s traditional discrimination against non-Jews (“gentiles”) has rested upon and required the false notion that Jews constitute a distinct biologically-grounded race. This idea originated and first thrived amidst the nineteenth century obsession with “nations”.
Political Zionism grew up in the atmosphere of that obsession. But the history of Judaism undercuts it. In three cases in particular Sand demonstrates that gentile populations found the religion attractive enough to adopt it en masse.
Thus there is no racial or biological distinction between Jews and gentiles. These are the case of the Himyarites in what is now Yemen, the Berbers in northwest Africa and the Khazars who lived in what is now southern Russia. Zionist historians, for whom Sand has special scorn, have downplayed or ignored the facts surrounding this history.
If proselytizing Jews has spread Judaism to gentile populations, it could still be true that the movement of Jews into gentile lands in the first place was due to their having been expelled long ago from the land of Israel.
According to traditional Jewish thinking, this expulsion happened after the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 70AD – or, perhaps it was after 135AD when the Bar Kochba revolt was put down by the Romans. Or again, perhaps the forced exile of the Jews occurred in the 7th century after the Muslims took ownership of Palestine. In fact the historical record contains no evidence of any forced exile of Jews from Palestine – ever — according to Sand.
He believes that a significant portion of the Arab population in Palestine is probably descended from early Jewish inhabitants of that land – who were never expelled but who were eventually converted to Christianity or to Islam in later centuries. Sand points out that some of the early Zionists, including Ben-Gurion himself, believed the same thing (until it eventually became inconvenient for them to do so.)
Unsurprisingly “The Invention of the Jewish People” has aroused controversy well before its publication in English translation. That will only increase now. The fact that it is the work of an Israeli academic will make it so much harder for Zionists in America to ridicule or ignore it.
Shlomo Sand studied history at the University of Tel Aviv and at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in Paris. He currently teaches contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv. His books include The Invention of the Jewish People, On the Nation and the Jewish People, L’Illusion du politique: Georges Sorel et le débat intellectuel 1900, Georges Sorel en son temps, Le XXe siècle à l’écran and Les Mots et la terre: les intellectuels en Israël.