The discourse then becomes a history of a Jewish people schooled in the racist nationalism of Eastern Europe, suppressing the history of the local population in Judea. Sand concludes that the national statement of “the people without a land to the land without a people” was a “simplified…and popular slogan for the Zionist movement”, and “entirely the product of an imaginary history grown around the idea of the exile.”

Realms of Silence

This section of Sand’s work discusses various dispersed kingdoms of antiquity that were Jewish in nature. Kingdoms in Arabia, Northern Africa, Iberia, and, significantly, the Khazar kingdom of Eastern Europe and Russia.

With well supported historical references, Sand indicates that Jewish communities existed outside Israel, not because of an exile/diaspora, but because of proselytizing and conversion. Along with the section on the exile, it leads to the suggestion that the mythical wandering Jews of Eastern Europe would then not be descendants of Abraham or Judeans but descendants of Slavic and Germanic peoples – leaving the Ashkenazi Jews as ethnic interlopers into the land of modern Judea-Palestine, where the fellahin carry the ethnic roots of the ancient Judean people.

This “lapse” in Jewish Israeli memory opens significant problems with the Zionist project – its very legitimacy for starters – if the settlers were revealed as being of different ethnicity and “not the direct descendants of the “Children of Israel”. “The proximity of masses of Palestinians began to seem a threat to the imaginary “national” Israel, and called for stronger bonds of identity and definition,” which led to the historical amnesia of other Jewish kingdoms that were created through proselytizing and conversion.

The Distinction

The final section of the work looks at the current situation in Israel, the “Jewish democratic state.” Sand reiterates his previous discourse, saying, “the Zionists needed to erase existing ethnographic textures, forget specific histories, and take a flying leap backward to an ancient, mythological and religious past.”

The arguments return to the racist pseudo-biology – the  eugenics of the early Twentieth Century – of  determining a pure Jewish biology in order “to serve the project of ethnic nationalist consolidation in the taking over of an imaginary ancient homeland.” It continues to the modern calling of “Jewish genetics”, who “regularly blended historical mythology and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings.” After discussing various presentations on Jewish heredity, the conclusion is that “no research had found unique and unifying characteristics of Jewish heredity based on a random sampling of genetic material whose ethnic origin is not known in advance…after all the costly “scientific” endeavors, a Jewish individual cannot be defined by any biological criteria whatsoever.”

The argument then turns to modern politics, with the attempts of the state to be Jewish and democratic at the same time. There is no argument that the infrastructure of the state is superficially democratic; however, Jewish nationalism “explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly asserts that the state belongs only to the majority” and “it excludes the minority from active and harmonious participation in the sovereignty and practices of democracy”. As “sovereignty and equality for all human beings living together in civil society [is] the minimum requirement” for democracy, the current state is “a bio-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation,” creating a “deep-rooted barrier to any kind of democracy.”

Sand’s response is concise. It would be “the creation of a democratic binominal state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.” He recognizes that this might not be the “smartest thing to do.” But given the alternatives, he wonders, “if it was possible to have changed the historical imaginary so profoundly, why not put forth a similarly lavish effort of the imagination to create a different tomorrow,” before what exists now “becomes a nightmare?”

Whither the book?

This is a highly thought provoking and perhaps, for many, an antagonistic examination of the “nation” of Israel. There have been revisionist historians concerning the modern era, in particular with the Nakba and the thoughts and processes that created the new state in its various wars on the Palestinian people. While that is beneficial to the current view of Israeli activities towards the Palestinian people, it still leaves the overall historical mythology in place. This book opens up that whole messy area that basically denies the myth of a wandering nation of people returning to their homeland, replacing it with a story that supports the intent of a particular group within the Jewish religion to claim the right to colonize a land that had continuous settlement of Judean peoples throughout the mythologized years of exile and wandering.

The Invention of the Jewish People is very well written and argued, taking a lot of mind work to assimilate the ideas and their implications. Whether anything real arises from this is uncertain. As the West in particular examines the atrocities that modern Israel perpetrates against the Palestinian people, this critical examination of Jewish history may add to the growing discontent of other peoples towards Israeli militarism and apartheid. Within Israel, the book remained on the best-sellers’ list for nineteen weeks, and in spite of what Sand has written, it ironically became part of the claim that Israel is democratic, as it allows such challenging works to be written, read, and discussed. Regardless, ideas once expressed become part of the national discourse, and this book may open up a new line of revisionist historians able to examine the reality of their past.