This article was first published in the Palestine Chronicle. It has been republished here with permission from the author.
The Invention of the Jewish People. Shlomo Sand. Verso, New York, 2009.
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Historians living within their own nations develop within the mythology peculiar to their nation, in which “various spheres of memory coalesced into an imagined universe representing the past.” The historian is a combination of his own personal experiences and the larger societal “instilled memories.” Recognizing that, Shlomo Sand very capably steps away from the created mythology of Israel, of the national myth of the wandering people for two thousand years before finding home again, in a land that belonged only to that people even though others had lived there during the same two thousand years. The Invention of the Jewish People is his groundbreaking historical study of the nature of the Jewish “nation” and its created mythologies.
This powerful and provocative work is broadly divided into five main sections of critique. Sand first examines the idea of “nation” and all that it entails. The second is “Mythistory: In the Beginning, God Created the People”, dealing with the stories and myths of the original peoples of this part of the Middle East and their development within modern interpretations. The whole idea of the diaspora is dealt with in “The Invention of the Exile: Proselytism and Conversion” the title itself providing a concise summary of the section. Following this he looks at strong historical evidence for the existence of Jewish realms beyond the now mythical diaspora, “Realms of Silence” that do not register with the newly created Zionist history. Finally Sand critiques the contradictions inherent in a “Jewish and democratic state” reiterating the idea of what comprises a nation.
While the focus of the book is Israel, this first section deals with the idea of what a nation consists of and what its attributes are. It all comes across as very vague – even while written with strong academic knowledge – as the idea of a nation or a people evolved as technologies and civilizations evolved. Essentially, all “nations” have created myths and histories about their past lives, and the longer and broader these myths can be created, the stronger the unifying power of the literate elites – in association with their political and economic peers – becomes.
The focus through the rest of the work is the deconstruction of the myth that is Israel – not that Israel does not exist now in some form, and not that it existed in the past in some form — but that there is a continual story of a “people”, a “nation”, that covers the span of two millennia, with an unbroken story of defeat, exile, a wandering diaspora; and then a coming together, a gathering in the original god given land.
The ideas of Jewish nationalism developed under two intellectual strains of nascent eastern European nationalities. One was the pseudo-racism of the Darwin/Marxian milieu, in which seminal ideas about race and evolution were presented (eugenics) and true science took (and still takes) a backstage to quasi-scientific reasoning encased in religious mythology. The second factor was that of the developing ideas concerning a German nationality, the Aryan race, and the ethnic nationalities of Eastern Europe where a large Jewish population lived.
From this crucible of war and proto-nationalism, “the nationalization of the Bible and its transformation into a reliable history book” was “completed and perfected by the founders of Zionist historiography.” Writing in Hebrew “erroneously believed to have evolved directly from biblical language,” the first modern writers became “custodians…of the Jewish nation’s ’long‘ memory.” Unfortunately for these writers, modern archaeology became a problem as it did not support the created narrative.
After examining the many problems created by archaeology with the narratives of the creation of Israel, Sand provides the conclusion that “The central myths about the primeval origin of a marvelous nation…were a boon for rising Jewish nationalism and Zionist colonization.” However, “Troublesome archaeologists and Bible scholars, in Israel and abroad, undermined these myths…[which] seemed about to be relegated to the status of fiction, with an unbridgeable gulf gaping between them and real history.”
The Invention of the Exile
The Israeli myth of exile is featured at the beginning of ‘The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel’ and receives a strong and well defined criticism within Sand’s arguments.
The first myth questioned is that of the deportation of the people by the Romans, emphasizing from the beginning that “the Romans never deported entire peoples.” The argument is made that “most scholars believe…all demographic figures from antiquity are overstated, and…many have numerological significance.” Sand reiterates after further historical presentations that “the population in and around Jerusalem…was not expelled and, before long, recovered economically.” The myth becomes entangled with Christian beliefs as the “myth of the Wandering Jew, punished for transgressions, was rooted in the dialectic of Christian-Jewish hatred that would mark the boundaries of both religions through the following centuries.”
Although exile is a “central and fundamental event in the history of the Jewish People…it has not resulted in a single such work [of socio-historical investigation]…accepted as self-evident — not discussed and never doubted.”
Another argument bothering the exile myth is the presence of large Jewish populations outside Judea before the 70 CE date. This was achieved “by a policy of proselytizing and dynamic religious propaganda, which achieved decisive results amid the weakening of the pagan worldview.” The historical record indicates that “Judaism’s sudden spread probably resulted from its historic encounter with Hellenism,” that an “important symbiosis [took] place between Judaism and Hellenism.”
After the Greek conquests opened up various regions, the Roman Empire “completed the process.” The opening of the Mediterranean basin “opened a fresh perspective for the spread of Judaism.” The historical record demonstrates that a “substantial presence existed for a long time before the war of 70 CE, and had nothing to do with any imaginary “mass expulsions” from Judea after the fall of the kingdom and the Bar Kokhba revolt.”
During both these times proselytizing and conversion were used as methods of acquiring acolytes. So if the Judeans were not exiled, then what became of them? For some, it was conversion to Christianity. For many others it was the “small army” of the Muslims, for which there is “no shred of evidence in the historical record” for an “uprooting of the Jews from the country.” Instead, they were given legal protection as a monotheistic religion as “people of the Book.” Partly because of the taxation laws under Muslim rule, the “new religion attracted great numbers of converts.” Other factors are discussed, but essentially, it was not a mass movement or exile of the people of Judea but a long historical process of conversion that greatly diminished the number of Jewish people in the region.
Being the crossroads of many empires, the land of Judea certainly received immigration, yet it remains that “the idea that the bulk of the local population descended from the Judeans was accepted by a good many,” including David Ben-Gurion. He stated that the “fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors,” whose interest was “to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.” Ben-Gurion’s co-writer said “the great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.”