A Diverse Collection of Peoples
- BuyThe Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand
Verso, 344 pp, £9.99, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 623 1
- BuyThe Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland by Shlomo Sand
Verso, 295 pp, £16.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 84467 946 1
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 eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
So says the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, issued in Tel Aviv on 14 May 1948. Shlomo Sand’s last two books have questioned the document’s assumptions: were the Jews ‘forcibly exiled’ or did they go abroad in search of new opportunities? If they ‘never ceased to pray and hope for their return’, why did so few bother to visit their homeland for centuries on end? How do we know that the people who ‘kept faith’ throughout the Diaspora were the same as the ones who headed out to begin with? Did they share the same genes? Or were they as far removed from the original Jews as, say, Polish Galicians are from the Galicians of Spain?
Vol. 35 No. 13 · 4 July 2013
Shlomo Sand may well have ‘a shaky concept of Jewish history’, but Daniel Lazare’s is hardly more secure, despite the several good points he makes (LRB, 20 June). According to Lazare, ‘the words “Judean” and “Jew” did not mean the same thing,’ but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek the same word covers both ‘natives of Judea’ and ‘Yahwists who genuflected towards Jerusalem’, which suggests that ancient speakers of these languages saw no essential difference between them. Lazare speaks of a ‘growing international movement’ of Yahweh-worshippers, but when does he think it began? It appears that a prince of Hamath in northern Syria in the eighth century BCE bore a name compounded with Yahweh’s, but the first evidence of an extensive diaspora emerges only in the sixth century, after the devastation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had dispersed many of the surviving inhabitants. The mildly syncretistic religion of the Jews of Elephantine derives all its elements from Palestine: contrary to what Lazare suggests, there is no detectable influence from the Egyptian context. It is far more plausible to suppose that they were descended from a mercenary unit recruited in Israel and Judah than that they were Egyptians recruited into an international religious movement.
And if the Jews only become ‘a people apart’ in early modern Poland, how is it that they were so brutally persecuted by Christians in England and the Rhineland in the 12th century and expelled from Spain in the 15th?
In this area Sand is much nearer the truth than Lazare. But both make the fundamental mistake of assuming that ethnicity is a matter of DNA, and that genetic diversity in the Jewish population invalidates the Zionist claim. The fact is that an ethnos is defined in whatever way its members choose to define it. That does not, however, give them exclusive rights to land also claimed by other ethnic groups, whatever the biblical assumptions.
Vol. 35 No. 14 · 18 July 2013
Since the initial publication of my first book, The Invention of the Jewish People, in Hebrew the book has been the subject of dozens of reviews, some praising it and others taking a more critical tone. As a result, I have long since become used to the fact that some people do not appreciate my historical work. However, most of my serious detractors at least bother to read my work carefully before criticising it. Daniel Lazare has not done so (LRB, 20 June). Instead he has restricted himself to compiling a collection of points in it that he didn’t like.
This is not the appropriate place to enumerate all the factual errors contained in Lazare’s review. Instead, I would like to offer the readers the following extract from it, which effectively illustrates the degree of negligence in his reading and writing:
Sand thinks of Jewish influence as proceeding in one direction only: from Judah outwards. He tries to show that the notion that the Jews were forcibly expelled from their homeland after the abortive Jerusalem revolt of 66 to 70 is a myth and that many simply drifted off in search of economic opportunity: ‘Jewry’s amazing expansion between 150 BCE and 70 CE was the result of an extensive migration of Judeans to all parts of the world … [a] dynamic, if painful, process that produced the thriving Israelite diaspora.’
The problem is that in the passage from which that quotation is taken, I am advancing precisely the opposite argument. I am not only critical of the myth of exile, but I explicitly criticise the thesis that the Judeans ever migrated away from ‘their homeland’ of Palestine in the first place. Throughout the book, I seek to show that Judaism was not the product of massive migration but rather the outcome of a dynamic process of conversion and the spread of an important monotheistic religion. Jews did not ‘disperse’ from Judah and certainly never lived in a diaspora. This, in fact, is the main thesis of my book. It is also a point that, for reasons known only to him, Lazare apparently had trouble understanding.
Tel Aviv University
Daniel Lazare writes: Shlomo Sand accuses me of numerous factual errors, but doesn’t say what they are. He insists that my quotation from The Invention of the Jewish People is misleading because it is part of a passage in which he presents ‘precisely the opposite argument’: that the dispersion thesis is incorrect and that Judaism is really the result ‘of a dynamic process of conversion’. To be sure, he takes issue with the dispersion thesis by questioning how many Judeans actually went abroad. But nowhere does he question the underlying assumption that Judaism was something that flowed from Judea into the wider world when in fact ideological influences flowed in the opposite direction as well.
In fact, we know that Judea was part of an international Yahwist movement and that ‘mono-Yahwists’ who advocated the exclusive worship of Yahweh were an even smaller element. The story of Judaism’s coalescence out of this broad Yahwist milieu is much more complex than both he and the Zionists realise.
Daniel Lazare mentions a study from 2010 which ‘found that Ashkenazic Jews are more genetically diverse than a comparable sample of non-Jewish Europeans, possibly because they “arose from a more genetically diverse Middle Eastern founder population” than previously believed.’ This does not necessarily follow. The study could be read as supporting the opposite of Lazare’s interpretation, and as bolstering the traditional case for the Middle Eastern origin of Ashkenazic Jews, if one allows for the possibility that in the course of the presumed initial exile and the subsequent migrations that wound up in Northern and Central Europe, and then in subsequent attacks, there were extensive episodes of rape. The heightened Ashkenazic genetic diversity would then flow from the history of where they lived and who was besetting them. The heightened ‘Italian and French’ genetic contribution (especially if one includes Roman soldiers) would make sense in this context.
University of California