A Diverse Collection of Peoples
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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