A Diverse Collection of Peoples

Daniel Lazare

  • The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand
    Verso, 344 pp, £9.99, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 623 1
  • The 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?

In The Invention of the Jewish People, Sand sought to demythologise his people’s identity. It was a bestseller in Israel and won the Prix Aujourd’hui in France. Eric Hobsbawm called it a ‘much needed exercise in the dismantling of nationalist historical myth’. Sand’s new book, The Invention of the Land of Israel, aims to trace the concept of a Jewish homeland from the vague territorial references of the Torah to today’s armed and embattled Jewish state. The concept has evolved over the years. While Genesis 15 promised that Abraham’s offspring would rule ‘from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’, the actual kingdom of Judah, from which the term ‘Jew’ derives, was never more than a hilltop duchy some thirty miles across. Yet today it is the coastal plain, formerly the haunt of the Philistines, that is in the hands of the Zionists, and Judah for the most part is in the hands of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. So what exactly is this ‘land of Israel’ that everyone argues about, what are its boundaries, and how did it come about?

Sand has set out to explicate the history of a land and a people – or, rather, the idea of a land and a people, since the actual population has changed so much. It’s an ambitious and tricky undertaking. While it’s still permissible to question this or that aspect of Israeli policy, criticism of Zionism as a whole is all too often declared off-limits, and not only by the Anti-Defamation League, so for many people Sand’s attempt to break down Zionism’s ideological assumptions goes beyond the pale. Yet with the Middle East reminiscent of the pre-1914 Balkans, going beyond the pale is not only permissible but de rigueur. Somebody has to figure out how the storm arose, and since Zionism is a big part of the story, there’s no reason for it to be shielded from criticism. The more some people try to bar the door, the more others can’t help wondering what they’re hiding.

Sand’s investigation is more than justified, and it would be nice to report that his effort is subtle, sober and perceptive, as wide-ranging as it is morally serious. But it isn’t. Hobsbawm and the rest notwithstanding, The Invention of the Jewish People was a messy polemic – helter-skelter, tendentious and ill-informed. The Invention of the Land of Israel is better and winds up with a discussion of Zionist territorial ambitions that places Israeli policy in a new light. But it is undermined by a shaky concept of Jewish history. Sand rightly insists on the relevance of the ancient past to contemporary politics, but his distortions are an obstacle to a full understanding of the modern Israeli-Palestinian predicament.

Sand’s problem is that he works from a photographic negative of Zionist ideology. If an idea ‘conforms with the Zionist meta-narrative’, as he puts it, then it must be false. If Zionists, like all nationalists, idealise the nation and insist that it is continuous, unbroken and eternal, then there must have been a rupture at some point between the Jews of the Bible and the so-called Jews of today. If Zionism preaches a glorious history going back to the days of David and Solomon, then that history must be a fiction cooked up centuries later for ideological purposes. If Zionism maintains that Jews longed to go home, then they must have been content to stay put. And if Zionists base their claim to the land of Israel on the Hebrew Bible, then the Bible must be an ‘anti-patriotic’ document that is silent on the question of a Jewish homeland. As Sand writes in The Invention of the Land of Israel, ‘the idea of patriotism that developed in the northern Mediterranean basin was barely known on its southern shores and known even less in the Fertile Crescent.’ The biblical basis for the Jewish state is nil.

Sand is wrong on many points, among them the lessons he draws from the archaeological revolution that began to unfold in the 1980s. Earlier archaeologists had accepted the biblical narrative as more or less accurate, taking it for granted that a flight from Egypt had occurred, followed by a conquest of Canaan under Joshua. But then the narrative fell apart: researchers were unable to find evidence of a Hebrew presence in Egypt at any time, much less the 13th century BCE when the Exodus was most likely to have occurred. The country’s eastern frontier turned out to have been especially well fortified during that period: border guards monitored the comings and goings even of ‘Shasu’ nomads. So why was there nothing about a mass escape of Hebrew slaves? Searches of sites where the Israelites were said to have camped during their forty years in the wilderness came up dry. So did surveys conducted elsewhere in the Sinai. After the 1967 war, when Israeli archeologists gained access to the West Bank, the heartland of ancient Israelite culture, they expected to find the rich cities of the Book of Joshua. But instead they found evidence only of a society impoverished by centuries of Egyptian taxation. Jericho turned out to have been poor and unfortified in the 14th century BCE and totally abandoned in the 13th, when its walls supposedly came tumbling down. The city of Ai, whose destruction is celebrated in Joshua 8, was also found to have been abandoned. The same was true for Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim, mentioned in Joshua 9:17. All were empty. Extensive land surveys revealed something even less expected: a development pattern that, beginning around 1200 BCE, was entirely self-generated. Instead of being implanted from outside, the Israelite hilltop culture had grown up entirely on its own.

Such findings should have been a godsend for Sand since they showed that the Israelites, far from conquering the whole of Canaan, had taken root in one very small corner. And indeed The Invention of the Jewish People eagerly trumpets the discovery of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, the foremost proponent of the new archaeology, that the conquest of Canaan never occurred and that the dual monarchy of David and Solomon, supposedly the wonder of the ancient world, was a myth. But Sand also endorses the hyper-sceptical ‘biblical minimalism’ of Philip Davies, Thomas Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, which regards such findings as irrelevant since, as they see it, the early history of Israel is actually a fiction that returnees from the Babylonian exile made up after the sixth century BCE. Sand seems unaware of the conflict between the two views or of the fact that Finkelstein and the journalist Neil Asher Silberman issued a stinging rebuttal of the minimalist stance in 2006. David may have been little more than a hilltop chieftain, but contrary to the minimalists, the discovery in 1993 of a ninth-century BCE Aramaic victory inscription referring to a royal ‘House of David’ leaves little doubt that he was a real historical figure.

Sand’s discussion of the issue of Jewish conversion is equally confused. Since Zionism plays up the Jews as ‘a people apart’, Sand emphasises the continual infusions of new blood; or, to put it differently, the waves of racial ‘adulteration’ that repeatedly washed over the diaspora, submerging whatever ties it may have had with the homeland. North Africa, he writes, was the scene of an ‘amazing … new wave of Judaisation’ in late antiquity as Berbers and remnants of the old Phoenician stock adopted Judaism wholesale. A Jewish Berber priestess known as Dihya al-Kahina led the Jewish tribes in a great anti-Arab resistance movement in the late seventh century. Al-Kahina ‘was a strong ruler’, Sand writes, ‘and in 689, when the Muslims launched their renewed effort to conquer North Africa, she united several powerful tribes and succeeded in defeating the mighty forces of Hassan ibn al-Nu’man.’ How does Sand know she was Jewish? Well, the renowned Moroccan polymath Ibn Khaldun says she was in his account of the Berbers in his great historical compendium, Al-’Ibar. That Ibn Khaldun was writing in the late 14th century, nearly seven hundred years after the Arab conquest, doesn’t give Sand pause. It doesn’t trouble him either that Ibn Khaldun describes the Berbers as once having been ruled by the biblical Goliath or that earlier chroniclers do not so much as hint at Al-Kahina’s Jewish identity. A sensational revelation that comes to light centuries after the fact would normally raise an eyebrow or two. Instead, Sand accuses the Israeli historian Haim Ze’ev Hirschberg of succumbing to a ‘purifying essentialist ideology’ for daring to suggest that evidence of Berber Judaisation is ‘extremely flimsy’. Given Sand’s disregard for the normal rules of evidence, it’s difficult not to sympathise with Hirschberg.

Sand’s next step in The Invention of the Jewish People is to establish that the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe are actually Khazars, descendants of a Turkic tribal federation that adopted Judaism, probably in the mid-eighth century, in order to distance itself from both the Byzantine Empire and the caliphate. Reports of a Jewish empire somewhere on the Pontic-Caspian steppe have long stirred the imagination. They have also stirred speculation about a connection with the subsequent Jewish population surge in Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine. Where did the Khazars go once their empire melted away? Did they adopt Islam or Christianity? Or, pushed westward by the Mongol invasions, did they become the Ashkenazim, who, even after the Holocaust, still account for some 80 per cent of world Jewry?

The Khazar thesis was made famous by Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe (1976).It is tempting from an anti-Zionist perspective because, if true, it would mean that today’s Jews have no special historical claim to Palestine, especially compared with the Palestinians, whose kinship ties to the people of the Bible are probably a good deal stronger. But is it true? In fact, we know very little about this ‘steppe Atlantis’, as the Soviet historian Lev Gumilev called it. The Khazars’ adoption of Judaism is not in dispute: in 837-38 the empire issued imitation Abbasid dirhams stamped with the Muslim-influenced formula, ‘There is no god but God and Moses is his messenger.’ But the question of the depth of Khazar Judaism – whether it was confined to a narrow ruling-class stratum or filtered down to the population at large – is another matter. D.M. Dunlop, whose History of the Jewish Khazars (1954) marks the starting point for modern Khazar studies, argued that the federation, like other steppe empires, was fast-growing and powerful, but at the same time shallow and unstable. Drawing its income from taxes, tolls and tribute, a military elite was able to keep things together only as long as it could manage a complex chequerboard of ethnic forces. Dunlop described the array: ‘Nomads of the steppes, townsmen of the capital and other cities … cultivators and hunters from the western provinces, Turks, Jews and Arabs, as well as men of Slav and Finnish or kindred race … presided over by an aristocracy, whom we may call the White Khazars, consisting of a relatively small number of partially Judaised Turks’. The elite held on for three centuries, a long time for the steppe, and blocked the caliphate from expanding across the Caucasus. But around 965, the Khazars were defeated by the Rus, and vanished as an independent political force.

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What legacy did they leave? Dunlop quotes the Persian explorer and geographer Ahmad ibn Rustah, who around 903 wrote that the Judaism of the Khazars was a thoroughly upper-class affair: ‘Their supreme ruler is a Jew, and likewise the Isha [vizier] and those of the generals and the chief men who follow his way of thinking.’ But the rank and file, he said, adhered to traditional Turkish beliefs. Dunlop cites another Persian geographer, Al-Istakhri, who about thirty years later wrote that ‘though the king and his court are Jews’, the rest of the population was either Christian or Muslim. If such reports are true, then Judaism’s impact was slight. According to Dunlop it isn’t implausible that the entire Khazar elite went over to the Islamic side in an attempt to drum up support for the battle against the Rus. In the end, all he’ll say is that ‘to speak of the Jews of Eastern Europe as descendants of the Khazars … would be to go much beyond what our imperfect records allow.’ So the Khazar thesis is unsupported by the documentary evidence.

But Sand is undeterred. ‘The Khazar kingdom,’ he writes, ‘remained Jewish for too long … not to warrant the assumption that the practice and the faith trickled down to broader strata.’ Yet he offers no evidence other than the report of a 12th-century German rabbi that local people in a nearby area known as Kedar (located most likely in today’s eastern Ukraine) spent their Sabbaths eating sliced bread in the dark, but were otherwise ignorant of the Jewish prayers and the Talmud. Sand quotes the mid-20th-century historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, who wrote that Khazaria Jews ‘began drifting into the open steppes of Eastern Europe’ after the fall of the empire, and helped lay ‘the foundations for a Jewish community which, especially in 16th-century Poland, outstripped all the other contemporary areas of Jewish settlement’. Sand concludes that Baron is in agreement with the Israeli historian Ben-Zion Dinur that Khazaria was the ‘diaspora mother’ of East European Jewry. Baron insists, Sand writes, that ‘the “born Jews” who were in Khazaria before it was Judaised’ laid the foundations for Polish Judaism, but otherwise assumes ‘that the majority of the Yiddish people did not originate in Germany but in the Caucasus, the Volga steppes, the Black Sea and the Slav countries.’

But Baron assumes no such thing. On the contrary, he writes that with just five thousand people or so as of the year 1300, the Polish Jewish population remained minuscule long after the Khazar empire had faded from memory. Only later – much later – did Polish Jewish numbers start to rise, reaching 30,000 in the year 1500, 150,000 in 1576, and then 450,000 in 1648. This is half a millennium after the Khazar empire’s demise, so what did the one have to do with the other? Once immigration began to accelerate, Baron leaves no doubt as to where it came from:

A major propelling force was the progressive shrinkage of the outlets still open to German Jews in the territories of the Bohemian Crown and Hungary during the 16th century. In fact, the numerous local expulsions from Bohemia and Moravia, the decline of Hungary, and its final division into Habsburg, Ottoman and Transylvanian sections after 1526 sent out new waves of Jewish wanderers looking for havens of refuge. The Czech areas now became the main source of Jewish manpower entering first western Poland, and then the other still greatly underpopulated provinces of the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania … Because of their superiority in numbers, wealth and cultural attainments, the new arrivals succeeded, within a relatively short time, in imposing their own rituals, customs and speech upon the local Jews. Even the segment which had originally come from Khazar, Byzantine or Muslim lands became totally submerged in the new Polish-Lithuanian community organised by the Western immigrants.

Despite Sand’s efforts to enlist him in the Khazar cause, Baron maintains that it was German Jewish immigration from the west that overwhelmed the older Jewish presence from the east and not the other way around.

Sand dismisses the possibility that Polish Jewish population growth could have been internally generated, but Baron notes that Polish Jews didn’t serve in the military, didn’t practise celibacy and may have derived certain health benefits from the kosher food laws. In 1618, a Polish anti-semite called Sebastyan Miczyński complained that Jews ‘multiply enormously, for they do not die in wars, they run away before the “air” [i.e. pestilence], and marry very early’. The 18th-century Polish Jewish philosopher Salomon Maimon claimed to have been married at the age of 11 and become a father at the age of 14, while Baron writes that many Jewish parents rushed their children into marriage before the tsarist government could crack down on the practice in 1853. The Polish economy was booming prior to the mid-17th century and conditions for Jews were highly favourable, so internal population growth of this magnitude is hardly unimaginable.

Distortions like these are unfortunate because Sand is essentially correct in arguing that Jews aren’t the people apart that Zionist ideology makes them out to be. But the infusion of foreign genes didn’t occur at the end of the journey, as the Khazar thesis suggests: it occurred at the beginning, as Judaism began to coalesce out of a diffuse ‘Yahwist’ milieu extending across much of the ancient world.

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.’ Spreading the national faith, they won growing numbers to their side through strength of argument or perhaps by force. (When the Persian Jews went forth to slaughter their enemies, Esther 8:17 reports that ‘many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.’) But the more people they converted, the more the original ethnic stock was lost.

The reality was more complex. If Sand weren’t so dismissive of biblical history, he would know that the Israelites – not quite the same thing as the Jews – did not begin as worshippers of Yahweh but of the Canaanite El. The very name ‘Israel’ means ‘El fights’ or ‘El does battle’; as the 19th-century biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen showed, it was an indication of the militancy of the Israelite faith. Only later did the Israelites adopt the cult of a non-Canaanite warrior god known as Yahweh from the Sinai or Arabah to the south. The Song of Deborah (Judges 5), a war chant dating from perhaps 1100 BCE, thus proclaims:

O Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the land of Edom,
the earth shook, the heavens poured,
the clouds poured down water.
The mountains quaked before Yahweh, the one of Sinai,
before Yahweh, the god of Israel …

Israel was merely one element in a growing international movement, one that in the coming centuries would spread from Iraq to southern Egypt and beyond. Moreover, what Sand refers to (after the iconoclastic biblical scholar Morton Smith) as ‘the monotheistic cult of “YHWH-alone”’ was an even smaller subset of the whole, one that other followers regarded as cranky and fanatical. Most people worshipped Yahweh in conjunction with other deities: Ashtoreth and Molech for Solomon; Baal for the ninth-century Phoenician princess Jezebel (though she gave her three children proper Yahwist names); and Anat in the case of a fifth-century BCE Israelite military colony on the island of Elephantine in the Upper Nile. Only the Yahweh-alone party insisted on worshipping him in isolation. Eventually the exclusivists won out, but the process may not have been complete until the Idumean-Roman king Herod finished building a vast new temple in 19 BCE, establishing Jerusalem as the foremost site of pilgrimage in the Roman world.

The words ‘Judean’ and ‘Jew’ did not mean the same thing. One denoted a native of Judea, to use the Latin term for Judah, and the other referred to any Yahwist who genuflected toward Jerusalem. Jews were a religion rather than a nation and, in the New Testament, Jews included everyone from Parthians and Medes to Arabs, Egyptians and Libyans: the entire ethnic panoply from Persia to Rome (Acts 2:9-11). There was no original ethnic stock to dilute, but instead a diverse collection of peoples who looked to Jerusalem as their religious capital but made their homes elsewhere.

Confessional boundaries were at the same time vague. There were Jews; semi-Jews who sacrificed to Yahweh but resisted taking the final step of circumcision; fellow travellers like the Arabs; Christians who continued to visit Jewish synagogues well into the Middle Ages, and so forth. Lines eventually hardened as the rabbis took the reins with the establishment of the Pax Islamica following the Abbasid revolution of 750. But it was probably not until early modern Poland that Jews truly became the people apart of Zionist lore. At a time when Italian Jews were still inviting Christian friends to weddings, circumcisions and musical soirées (much to the Church’s chagrin), Polish Jews spoke a different language, wore different clothes, sported sidelocks and beards and, thanks to the Kabbalah, thought of themselves as existing on a higher spiritual plane. The gulf separating them from the surrounding population had never been greater. What Zionism regards as an eternal aspect of the Jewish condition was actually a product of early modernity.

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The overall trend was from a loosely defined milieu to a tightly bound legal community, and from an international cult to a scattered nation among whom religion and ethnicity were effectively combined. Sand may scorn ‘Jewish genetics’ as racist, but the latest genetic research does in fact seem to tell the same story. A 2010 study by researchers at Emory University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas 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. The researchers also found that Ashkenazim were more closely related to Italians and French than to specific Middle Eastern groups such as Palestinians, Druze or Bedouins, which is consistent with a broadly eastern Mediterranean population flowing into Northern and Central Europe via Italy and the Rhone Valley.

So today’s Jews are in significant measure descended from the Jews of classical antiquity, except that the Jews of classical antiquity were not from Judah, but from the broader region. If anything, this diverse ‘founder population’ renders the notion of a specific Jewish homeland even more dubious than Sand realises. But the question is again more complicated than he appreciates. Palestine was not the birthplace of the Jewish people, but it was the birthplace of the Yahweh-alone movement and, despite Sand’s description of the Bible as anti-patriotic, nothing was more central to the movement than the land issue. One land, one god, one people: this, in essence, was the slogan of the monolatrous – not monotheistic – movement that arose in the ninth century BCE. It was a profoundly xenophobic movement, opposed to the king and queen, Ahab and the hated Jezebel, and their expansionist policy, which threatened to dilute the state’s ethnic character; and it was obsessed with the land question because increased trade and monetisation were undermining the highland peasantry. In response, the prophet Elijah (‘Yahweh is God’), his disciple Elisha and others fashioned a holy trinity consisting of a sacred land, a chosen people and a divine landlord to see to it that they remained united in perpetuity. (The story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21, in which Elijah predicts Jezebel’s downfall for attempting to purchase an Israelite’s property, is the crucial document in this regard, because it accuses the royal couple of using money in violation of the divine trust uniting Yahweh, the Israelite people and the holy land.) When, centuries later, in 587 BCE, the god of the hill country allowed the land to fall to the Babylonians, the exiles blamed themselves and elevated Yahweh to the status of an all-powerful universal monarch in order to compensate for their loss. For the Zionists it’s a powerful package. God gave the land to the Israelites, or so the Yahweh-alone movement maintained, and today’s nationalists believe that they have three thousand years of myth on their side in demanding exclusive ownership.

But ownership of what? The Zionists have always been evasive about their precise territorial ambitions. Did they want the coastal plain, the whole of Palestine, or more? Since the Promised Land was a concept, they could adjust their demands to fit the circumstances. David Ben-Gurion was a maximalist who sometimes argued for a homeland extending from Palestine to the East Bank of the Jordan, as far north as Damascus and as far south as the island of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Yet when the Peel Commission offered the Zionists a relatively small sliver of land in 1937, he grabbed it despite his colleagues’ protests: ‘The debate has not been for or against the indivisibility of Eretz Israel,’ he said. ‘No Zionist can forego the smallest portion of Eretz Israel. The debate was over which of two routes would lead quicker to the common goal.’ The Peel Commission’s offer was just the first step on the path to a greater Israel. As Chaim Weizmann said, the rest of the land was not going anywhere, and the nationalists would get to it in due course.

The strategy can be seen as a slow-motion invasion: the settlers first gain a toehold and then take advantage of every outbreak of armed violence to enlarge their domain. First there were the scattered settlements of the Yishuv; then the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948-49; the seizure of the West Bank in 1967; and, finally, more settlements aimed at harassing the Palestinians. The latest proposal by the ultra-rightist Naftali Bennett, to annex outright the 60 per cent of the West Bank known as Area C, can be seen as the culmination of a century-long process aimed at confining the Palestinians to a few scattered outposts. Assuming the annexation goes through, more provocations will follow until ethnic cleansing is complete. The Palestinian hill country is central to the mythology of the Hebrew Bible, and the West Bank has always been the prime target. But other prizes lie not far off, and there will be no shortage of opportunities for expansion as violence envelops the Muslim world.