The Invention of the Jewish People

I. Thesis

Israel seems to be a good laboratory for the study of mass delusion. Not just the delusional nature of Israeli ideas and feelings about other people’s behavior, say that of the Palestinians, Lebanese Shiites, or Iranians. Not just the delusional nature of their understanding of their own behavior as perennial victims. Israel’s potential for mass delusion turns out to be much broader and deeper. With Israel one can study an entire population and its network of worldwide supporters in terms of their delusional understanding of who they historically are.

Shlomo Sand’s recent book The Invention of the Jewish People is just such a study. The book’s thesis is that the obsessively held Zionist/Israeli notion of the Jews as an ethnically identifiable people existing since biblical times and having their origins in the ancient land of ancient Israel is unsupportable. It is a myth, an invention.  The book makes Sand one of the very few contemporary Israeli historians claiming that all of Zionist historiography is wrong, and insisting that (following the lead of French historian Marcel Detienne) we all must find a way to “de-nationalize national histories….[and] stop trudging along roads paved mainly with materials forged in national fantasies” (p. 22). And so, predictably, this book, which came out originally in Hebrew in 2008, was greeted with “academic fury” (p. ix). The author, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, was, again predictably, labeled “an enemy of the people” (p. ix). Only time will tell what professor ultimate Sand’s fate will be. The loss of friends is probable. However, unless he moves from academia into the realm of activism (as say, in the case of Ilan Pappe who use to teach history at the Haifa University), he should keep his job.

II. National Identity 

Sand begins by explaining that national identities are most often established in the mind of citizens “well before a person has acquired the tools for thinking critically about it” (p. 14). This is accomplished through “history lessons, civics classes…national holidays…[and] state ceremonies [until] various spheres of memory coalesce into an imagined universe representing the past”(p. 14). Some processes of national indoctrination integrate the myth of national ethnicity — an “ethnos” — into this mix.

He points out that in those countries where a firm public belief in ethnicity underlies nationalism most scholars of nationality are themselves true believers. The few who are not insist that since ethnicity carries such a ” powerful sense of origin, “it is unwise to even investigate the claim” (p. 28).

Such is the case with the vast majority of Israeli scholars. It is clear from Sand’s review of the work of Zionist historians, anthropologists, sociologists and archeologists, those he refers to as “the authoritative priesthood of memory” (p. 14), that they see their job as reinforcing the myth of ethnos and not challenging it. According to Sand it is, after all, just such a “priesthood” who usually evolve the myth of ethnos in the first place, and then pass it on to the population in general. He quotes Carlton Hayes to the effect that the “nationalist theology of the intellectuals becomes a nationalist mythology for the masses” (p. 54). Thus, over time, the citizenry (be they the professors or the plumbers) became steadfastly loyal to their mythological culture and, in the case of Israel, wholly identified with an a priori belief in the ethnic/genetic bases of the Jewish people.

As a consequence, Israelis “know for a certainty that a Jewish nation has been in existence since Moses…and that they are its direct and exclusive descendants.” Their “nation” then “wandered in exile for two thousand years” all the time managing to “avoid integration with or assimilation into” the gentile sea around them (p.16). There is a tragic irony in this belief when, as Sand explains, one remembers that “there were times in Europe when anyone who argued that all the Jews belonged to a nation of alien origin would have been classified at once as an anti-Semite. Nowadays, anyone who dares to suggest that the…Jews have never been, and are still not, a people or a nation is immediately denounced as a Jew-hater” (p. 21).

III. The Claims of the Zionist Ethnos

However, in order for this ethnos of the Jewish people to become the sole “imagined community” of the Jews, the Zionists had to rewrite the history of the entire religious group. Sand takes up two main claims of the Zionist version of Jewish history. The first claim is that the Jews are all descended from an ancient biblical people with their origins in ancient Israel. Or, as Sand poetically puts it, the Zionist version of Jewry depicts an immortal “people-race originating in the distance past, whose weight determines and outlines collective identities in the present” (p. 83).

This initial claim rests on the Zionist assertion that the Bible is an historically accurate account of the origins of the Jewish people, and so offers incontrovertible evidence not only of the Jewish people’s origin, but also their claim to the land of Israel. In such a way the Zionists have “nationalized” the Bible (pp. 101 and 107). David Ben Gurion pushed this process hard. He realized that the Bible could serve as a “central repository of ancient collective imagery, [and] help forge…new immigrants into a unified people, and tie the younger generation to the land” (p. 108). And, consistently, this how the Israeli state has used the Old Testament.

In opposition to this Sand asserts that the original Jewish monotheists were not a product of some mythical list of biblical “begats” (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, et al), but rather began to evolve as a core group through the 6th century BCE interaction of an exiled Judean intellectual elite with “abstract Persian religions.” This ancestral sect did not really solidify until Judaism’s encounter with Hellenistic polytheism three hundred or so years later (pp. 125 and 161). During that time the multiple authors of the Old Testament (6th to early 2nd century BCE) were concerned to create a stable conceptual storyline for monotheistic Judiasm. To do so they “invented the category of Israel as a sacred, chosen people whose origins lay elsewhere…” That is outside of Judea. Why so? This was done to distance Judaism from the agricultural population of ancient Judea which was as yet unreliable in their monotheism (p. 126). In other words, at this early time the bulk of the common “Jews” were heathens. It was not until the time of the Hasmonean dynasty of 140 BCE that one gets “the first Jewish kingdom that unquestionably deserved to be described as monotheistic….” (p. 156).

In the process the authors of the Old Testament were not concerned with fine historical details and so you get many inconsistencies in their now sacred storyline. One that Sand calls particular attention to concerns Moses and the escape from Egypt. “In the 13th century BCE, the purported time of the Exodus, Canaan was ruled by still powerful pharaohs. This means that Moses led the freed slaves out of Egypt…to Egypt?” (p. 118).

The Second Claim Sand takes up has to do with the status of Jewry as an exiled people. As Sand explains, “The ultra-paradigm of deportation was essential for the construction of a long-term memory wherein an exiled people-race could be described as the direct descendants of the former ‘people of the Bible.’”( p. 130). In other words, the ancestors of all modern Jews had to have been forcibly displaced from ancient Israel and caused “to wander over lands and seas to the far corners of the earth until the advent of Zionism prompted them to turn around and return en masse to their orphaned homeland”( p.188). And indeed, according to the Israeli Declaration of Independence “the whole [Jewish] people was forcibly uprooted” from ancient Israel (p. 186).

Sand proceeds to show that this claim makes no historical sense. First of all, the Assyrians and Babylonian policy of exile concentrated on local administrative and cultural elites while leaving the majority of the population in place, and the Romans were probably laxer than that. Sand points out that “nowhere in the abundant Roman documentation is there any mention of a deportation from Judea” (p. 131) and concludes that “the Judean masses were not exiled in 135 CE” (though the Romans probably did remove circumcised men from Jerusalem and deport enemy soldiers).

The author, quotes research by Israel Belkind (which was later “erased from national historiography)” to the effect that “the land was abandoned by the upper strata….Perhaps too, so did many of the mobile urban people. But the tillers of the soil remained attached to their land” (p. 184). Even the young David Ben Gurion, writing in New York City in 1918 recognized that the Jewish peasantry was never uprooted and exiled by the Romans from what was by this time Palestine (p. 185). If the agricultural population was not exiled en masse, what happened to them? Here is Sand’s conclusion, “in 324 CE the province of Palestine became a Christian protectorate, and a large part of its population became Christian” (p .179). However, a reduced Jewish presence remained. When, in the 7th century CE, there came the Arab conquest of Palestine there was no renewed exiling of the Jewish population and no initial drastic reduction in its numbers. Jews welcomed the Muslim conquerors and aided them. However, there was a slow but sure process of conversion to Islam and “it is reasonable to assume” that many Jews were among those who became Muslim (pp. 180 and 182).

In addition, there is the fact that “long before 70 CE there were large Jewish communities outside Judea” (p. 143). Given the relatively small number of those who did voluntarily or involuntarily abandon Judea over the ages, where did all these Jews come from? Sand asserts that between 150 BCE and 70 CE” Judaism possessed a ” strong proselytizing zeal” and this, along with the population movements that characterized the period during and after the Hellenistic wars, contributed to something of a Jewish ” population explosion” throughout the Mediterranean world. Most of these additional Jews were converts (pp. 135 and 146). Sand estimates that “at the height of Judaism’s expansion, in the early 3rd century CE” the Jewish population constituted “7 to 8% of all the [Roman] empire’s inhabitants” (p. 167). Finally, Sand spends time examining the claims for the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar in southern Arabia and the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria along the Volga river. He suggests that “a large part of Eastern European Jewry originated in the territories of the Khazar empire” (p. 241).

IV. The Necessary Historical Rewrite

Sand asserts that this rich and varied Jewish history had to be erased if Zionism was to triumph. In its place the movement created an identity politics that was characteristic of the “last wave of nationalist awakening in Europe” (p. 252). That being the case, it “included traces of German Volkism, while Polish romantic nationalist features characterized much of its rhetoric” (p. 255). To these elements was eventually merged “traditional religion, where the religion becomes an instrument serving the leaders of the imaginary ethnos” (pp. 285-6).

Sand spends a lot of time toward the end of the book showing how just about every Zionist intellectual of the Israeli founding generation supported the myth of ethnos. Not even the Nazi legacy could wipe out the Zionist affinity for proving a “blood community” of Jews. And, in addition, he shows how Zionist contemporaries have tried to prove the myth is fact by using “Jewish” genetics – an effort that “cannot be entirely free from crude and dangerous racism” (p. 279). In his estimation all of this has failed to actually prove that the Jews are one big ethnic group, though the Israeli intellectual and political community, to say nothing of Israel’s “race-hungry public” would never admit it (p. 297ff).

The consequence of the myth of ethnos has been uniformly bad for Israel. It meant that, upon its creation, “the first important mission to be undertaken by the new state was the removal, as best it could, of those who definitely did not regard themselves as Jews” (p. 281). In other words, Israel inaugurated its creation with a process of ethnic cleansing. Subsequently, Israel turned itself into what Sand describes (here using the terminology of the Israeli sociologist Sammy Smooha) as an “ethnic-democracy” which makes it “incomplete” and a “low-grade democracy” (p. 295). As he conclusively demonstrates, Israel is certainly not the Western style liberal democracy its Jewish population fancies it to be. The country simply refuses to institutionalize the qualities of civil and political equality necessary to such a democracy. And, its Basic Law forbidding any political party that denies the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, makes it impossible to “transform the Jewish state into an Israeli democracy by a liberal-democratic process” (p. 295).

In a harshly critical conclusion Sand shows that Israel and its Zionist infrastructure is “exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation” and its main purpose is to serve “a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically (p. 307). As a consequence, he laments, Israel is “committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity (p. 307).

V. The Fatal Wall

All nation states have their myths. And, it is usually the case that the public at large buys into these myths to one degree or another. However, this process exists along a continuum at the extremes of which lie inevitable racism, chauvinism, ethnocentrism and a sort of ethnic/national megalomania that can be nothing but self-destructive. Sand’s book is a demonstration that Israel has always existed at an extreme end of the continuum. So indoctrinated are most of its citizens that, according to Sand, they would isolate themselves from “the rest of humanity” to preserve their ethnic myth and its accompanying territorial claims. But we know from real history, history that is no myth, that such peoples and nations do not survive in the long run. Extreme isolation means eventual national death in the modern world. Even now, as Sand points out, Israel is connected to its Western lifeline only by way of the political influence of pro-Zionist lobbies in the diaspora (p. 309). Yet that influence is eroding largely due to the racist behavior of successive Israeli governments. It is a no win game for the Zionists, but they cannot see it through their myth inspired blinkers. As it turns out, the most potent wall the Zionists have built is that which holds up the myth of who they are suppose to be. That wall may appear to the Zionists to keep the non-Jews out. However, its real purpose is to shut the Israeli Jews in.

Lawrence Davidson is Professor of History at West Chester University and a contributing editor at Logos.


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