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In a Compelling Book, Israeli Historian Calls Jewish People an “Invention” and Disputes Zionism’s Underpinnings

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Spring - Summer 2010

By Shlomo Sand,  
Verso, 332 Pages, $34.95.  
Many popular beliefs about Jewish history are more myth than reality. There was, for example, no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in 70 CE. Beyond this, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of the biblical era. Other theories which challenge the common understanding include the idea that many of today’s Palestinians can legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews.  
In this compelling book, Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University argues that most Jews actually descend from converts, whose native lands were scattered far across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The formation of a Jewish “people” and then a Jewish “nation” out of these disparate groups could only take place, in Sand’s view, under the sway of a new historiography, developing in response to the rise of nationalism throughout Europe.  
After a long stay on Israel’s bestseller list, and winning the respected Aujourd’hui Award in France, “The Invention of the Jewish People” is now available in English. Without an adequate understanding of Israel’s past, future diplomatic solutions are likely to remain elusive. While some of the theories he sets forth remain open to question, he invites his readers to view the history of Zionism, the creation of the State of Israel, and the continuing conflict in the Middle East in a new way.  
Undercut Zionist Claims  
Professor Sand candidly states that his aim is to undercut the Zionist claims with regard to Israel by demonstrating that Jews do not constitute “a people,” with a shared ethnic or biological past. He seeks to deconstruct the Zionist narrative that Jews, until the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, had been farmers in what is now Israel/Palestine. They had then been forced yet again into exile by the Romans and wandered the earth: homeless, rootless, and outcast. Now, at last, they were “returning” and would once again farm the soil of their ancestors.  
In many ways, Sand’s assessment of the nature of Jews and Judaism is not far different from that which characterized Classical Reform Judaism which held that Judaism was a religion of universal values, not a nationality, and that Jews sought only to be free and equal citizens of the countries in which they resided and held citizenship and sought no return to the ancient Holy Land.  
In the Preface to the new English-language edition, Sand writes that, “I live in a rather strange society … Israel cannot be described as a democratic state while it sees itself as the state of the ‘Jewish people,’ rather than as a body representing all the citizens within its recognized boundaries (not including the occupied territories). The spirit of Israel’s laws indicate that, at the start of the 21st century, the state’s objective is to serve Jews rather than Israelis, and to provide the best conditions for the supposed descendants of this ethnos rather than for all the citizens who live in it and speak its language. In fact, anyone born to a Jewish mother may have the best of both worlds — being free to live in London or in New York, confident that the State of Israel is theirs, even if they do not wish to live under its sovereignty. Yet anyone who did not emerge from Jewish loins who lives in Jaffa or in Nazareth will feel that the state in which they were born will never be theirs.”  
Key Terms  
“The Jewish people,” “the ancestral land,” “exile,” “diaspora,” “aliyah,” “Eretz Israel,” are key terms in all reconstructions within Israel of the national past, and the refusal to employ them is seen as heretical.  
“Admittedly,” writes Sand, “the disparity between what my research suggested about the history of the Jewish people and the way that history is commonly understood — not only within Israel but in the larger world — shocked me as much as it shocked my readers … I encountered scarcely any new findings — almost all such material had previously been uncovered by Zionist and Israeli historiographers. The difference is that some elements had not been given sufficient attention, others were immediately swept under the historiographers’ rug, and still others were ‘forgotten’ because they did not fit the ideological needs of the evolving national identity. What is amazing is that much of the information cited in this book has always been known inside the limited circles of professional research, but invariably got lost en route to the arena of public and educational memory. My task was to organize historical information in a new way, to dust off the old documents and continually reexamine them. The conclusion to which they led me created a radically different narrative from the one I had been taught in my youth … I could not go on living in Israel without writing this book. I don’t think books can change the world, but when the world begins to change it searches for different books. I may be naVve, but it is my hope that the present book will be one of them.”  
Jewish Israelis, Sand argues, know “for a certainty” that a Jewish nation has been in existence since Moses received the tablets of the law on Mt. Sinai, and they are its direct and exclusive descendants (except for the ten tribes, who are yet to be located). “They are convinced,” he writes, “that this nation ‘came out’ of Egypt; conquered and settled ‘the land of Israel,’ which had been famously promised it by the deity; created the magnificent kingdom of David and Solomon, which then split into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They are also convinced that this nation was exiled, not once but twice, after its periods of glory — after the fall of the First Temple in the sixth century BCE, and again after the fall of the Second Temple, in 70 CE. Yet even before that second exile, this unique nation had created the Hebrew Hasmonean kingdom, which revolted against the wicked influence of Hellenization.”  
2,000 Year Exile  
In this narrative, Sand points out, it is believed that these people — their “nation” — wandered in exile for nearly two thousand years and yet, despite their prolonged stay among various peoples, managed to avoid integration with, or assimilation into, them. In this story, the “nation” scattered widely, its wanderings taking it to Yemen, Morocco, Spain, Germany, Poland and Russia and beyond, but it always managed to maintain close relations among the far-flung communities to maintain its distinctiveness.  
Sand asks: “If world Jews were indeed a nation, what were the common elements in the ethnographic cultures of a Jew in Kiev and a Jew in Marrakech, other than religious belief and certain practices of that belief? Perhaps, despite everything we have been told, Judaism was simply an appealing religion that spread widely until the triumphant rise of its rivals, Christianity and Islam, and then, despite humiliation and persecution, succeeded in surviving into the modern age. Does the argument that Judaism has always been an important belief-culture, rather than a uniform nation-culture, detract from its dignity, as the proponents of Jewish nationalism have been proclaiming for the past 130 years?”  
Yet another historical irony, Sand points out, is that there were times in Europe when anyone who argued that all Jews belong to “a nation of alien origin would have been classified at once as an anti-Semite. Nowadays, anyone who dares to suggest that the people known in the world as Jews (as distinct from today’s Jewish Israelis) have never been, and are still not, a people or a nation is immediately denounced as a Jew-hater.”  
Jewish History  
With the end of the ancient world and the decline of the Roman Empire, there was little interest in Jewish history. During the first two decades of the l9th century, Sand notes, the self-perception of German-Jewish intellectuals, who initiated the modern writing of Jewish history, was largely cultural and religious: “Most literati of Jewish background were gripped by the project of emancipation, namely the process of achieving equal civil rights, that had begun to be implemented in part in various German principalities and kingdoms in the second decade of the century, and was a crucial element in the nationalization of politics. Everyone was hoping that the longed-for German state would break away from its clerical foundations and completely privatize its religions.”  
With a number of Jewish friends and colleagues, Isaak Marcus Jost took part in creating a “science circle,” out of which would emerge the important current that would come to be known as the “science of Judaism.” They set out to research the Jewish past and highlight its positive aspects in order to build a bridge that could enable the Jewish community to participate in the future Germany.  
“Thus,” writes Sand, “at the early stages of writing Jewish history in modern times, the project was not characterized as a national discourse. For Jost, as for Leopold Zunz, the second important historian in the early days of the science of Judaism, Jewish history began not with the conversion of Abraham, or the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, but with the return of the exiles from Babylon. It was only then, they argued, that historical-religious Judaism began, its culture having been forged by the experience of exile itself. The Old Testament had nurtured its birth, but it then grew into a universal property that would later inspire the birth of Christianity.”  
Not “Alien”  
Jost’s approach sought to convince German readers, Jewish and Christian alike, that despite the distinct faith of the “Israelites” they were not an “alien” people in their far-flung habitations. Long before the destruction of the Second Temple, he showed, their forefathers preferred to live outside the Holy Land and, despite their traditional religious self-isolation, they were always an integral part of the peoples among whom they lived. “They remained Jews, although also members of other nations,” Jost reiterates. “They loved their brethren in Jerusalem and wished them peace and prosperity, but they cherished their new homeland more. They prayed with their blood brothers, but they went to war with their country brothers.”  
These early Jewish historians, declares Sand, “saw themselves as German, and insofar as they continued to believe in a providential deity, they described themselves as members of the Mosaic religion and supported the lively Reform current. To most of the literate heirs to the Enlightenment, Judaism was a religious community, certainly not a wandering people or an alien nation.”  
Slowly, a different approach to Jewish history began to emerge. The first volumes of “The History Of The Jews From The Oldest Times To The Present,” by Heinrich Graetz, began to appear in the l850s. This work, which was to prove influential, is described by Sand: “ … this was the first work that strove, with consistency and feeling, to invent the Jewish people — the term ‘people’ signifying to some extent the modern term ‘nation.’ Although he was never a complete Zionist, Graetz formed the national mold for the writing of Jewish history … Henceforth, for many people, Judaism would no longer be a rich and diverse religious civilization that managed to survive despite all difficulties and temptations in the shadow of giants, and became an ancient people or race that was uprooted from its homeland in Canaan and arrived in its youth at the gates of Berlin. The popular Christian myth about the wandering Jew, reproduced by rabbinical Judaism in the early centuries of the Common Era, had acquired a historian who began to translate it into a prenational Jewish narrative … To begin the construction of a nation, it was necessary to reject those writings that failed to recognize its primary scaffolding.”  
Stress on Peoplehood  
The new historical stress on peoplehood rather than faith, Sand believes, reflected the weakening ties to religion as a new, secular age progressed: “ … educated Jews who were feeling the effects of the secular age and whose metaphysical faith was beginning to show a few cracks, longed for another source to reinforce their uncertain, crumbling identity. The religion of history struck them as an appropriate substitute for religious faith, but for those who sensibly could not embrace the national mythologies arising before their eyes — mythologies unfortunately bound up with a pagan or Christian past — the only option was to invest and adhere to a parallel national mythology. This was assisted by the fact that the literary source for this mythology, namely the Old Testament, remained an object of adoration even for confirmed haters of contemporary Jews. And since their putative ancient kingdom in its own homeland presented the strongest evidence that Jews were a people or a nation — not merely a religious community that lived in the shadow of other, hegemonic religions — the awkward crawl toward the Book of Books turned into a determined march in the imagining of a Jewish people.”  
At the same time, the hardening of German nationalist definitions based on origin and race, especially in the formative years after the failure of the national-democratic Spring of the Nations in l848, stirred new sensitivities among a small group of Jewish intellectuals. Perhaps the sharpest sense belonged to Moses Hess, a leftist and former friend of Karl Marx, whose book “Rome and Jerusalem: The Last Nationality Question” had appeared in l862. This was clearly a nationalist manifesto, perhaps the first of its kind in being secular.  
Emerging Nationalisms  
Sand points to the relationship between an emerging Jewish nationalism and the emerging German nationalism. In the 1870s, Heinrich von Treitschke of the University of Berlin, author of “The History of Germany in the 19th Century,” which began to appear in 1879, published an important essay entitled “One Word About Our Jewry.” He declared: “A full merger of Jewry with the peoples of the West will never be achieved. It may only be possible to soften the opposition, since it is rooted in ancient history … If Jewry even demands recognition of its national status, it demolishes the legal foundation of emancipation. There is only one way to fulfill these aspirations: emigration, the creation of a Jewish state somewhere outside our country, and then it will see if it can win the recognition of other nations. There is no room for dual nationhood on Germany’s soil … ”  
Assessing the similarities between exclusivist Jewish and German nationalism, Sand writes: “Treitschke’s nationalism was suffused with an ethnicist-essentialist outlook, in which the Jew remained a Jew even if his culture and language was purely German. In this he was, in fact, not very different in principle from Graetz, who in the final chapters of his book presented similar, even identical positions … Graetz was one of the first thinkers who helped construct a new secular link between the Jews and their ‘ancient homeland,’ but remained, unlike his opponent Treitschke or his friend Hess, skeptical about Jewish migration to that homeland.”  
There were many non-Jewish German intellectuals who disputed this pessimistic and deterministic position. Many liberals, as well as most social democrats, believed in an inclusive republican identity, of which German Jews were an integral part. Similarly, the German Jewish intelligentsia, which was appalled by Treitschke’s hostility, was sharply at odds with the national-ethnicist position of Graetz and Hess. From Moritz Lazarus, a professor of philosophy at Berlin University, to Harry Bresslau, his colleague in the history department, to Hermann Cohen, Graetz’s former student who became a well-known Kantian philosopher at the University of Marburg, all were strongly critical of Graetz’s Jewish nationalism. They all agreed that there should be diversity within the unifying nation, as did such prominent non-Jewish German intellectuals as the historian Theodor Mommsen.  
Russian Empire  
In the vast Russian empire, there existed a huge Jewish population, most of whose language differed from that of the majority. “While the religion that had held it together for generations was weakening,” notes Sand, “it had a thriving secular culture of its own … The rise of nationalism in the surrounding societies — Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and others — in addition to the systemic discrimination in the Tsarist realm, worsened the situation of the growing Yiddishist community … The nationalist feelings that began to simmer in the remaining communities, especially after the wave of pogroms in the early l880s, had no parallel in any contemporary Jewish community. There arose intellectuals and movements that were both prenationalist and nationalist — from the numerous supporters of autonomy to the handful of early Zionists — all searching for an independent collective expression from which to scale the walls of discrimination, exclusion and alienation presented by most of their neighbors.”  
Jewish nationalism grew in both Germany and the Russian Empire as a response to the nationalisms which excluded them. Had the emerging nationalisms in these regions embraced the Jews among them, it is likely that Zionism would not have emerged as a significant force. Yitzhak Baer published his book “Galut” (meaning “exile” in Hebrew) in Nazi Germany in l936. Sand writes that, “The fact that it was published in Nazi Germany is significant in analyzing the character and components of the special national identity that bursts from it … In l936 the expulsion of Jews from the feverish body of the German nation was at one of its high points, and the Zionist historian, harshly rejected by his native Germany, completed the process by developing a painful counterconsciousness Ironically, this self-consciousness drew on the same imaginary idea of nationhood that had nurtured his mentors for several generations: that the source determines the substance, and the goal is a return to the roots, the primeval habitat, be it Teutonic or Hebrew. For Baer, the biblical myth that indicated the origin embraced a distinct national telos that had previously seemed sheepish and timid — leaving the places of alienated exile and returning to the warm womb of the land that had given birth to the chosen people, whose proprietary claim to it was ultimately borne out by the Bible.”  
Bible Is Nationalized  
Slowly, the Bible became nationalized by the advocates of Jewish nationalism who transformed it into a reliable history book. David Ben-Gurion, writes Sand, “ … quite early realized that the holy book could be made into a secular national text, serve as a central repository of ancient collective imagery, help forge the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants into a unified people, and tie the younger generation to the land … In Ben-Gurion’s imagination, the new Israel was the kingdom of the Third Temple.”  
During the early years of the State of Israel, the intellectual elites helped cultivate the sacred trinity of Bible-Nation-Land of Israel, and the Bible became a key factor in the formation of the “reborn” state. Civil servants were pressured to change their names to Hebrew ones, usually chosen from the Bible, and almost every new settlement was given an ancient Hebrew name. “This served a dual purpose,” states Sand, “erasing the local Arab name and leapfrogging over the long ‘exile,’ which had ended with the rise of the State of Israel … the dual function of the Scriptures was in shaping the national identity — the creation of a common ‘ethnic’ origin for the religious communities scattered throughout the world, and self-persuasion in the claiming of proprietary rights over the country.”  
The fact is, however, that the Bible is hardly an accurate history book. According to the Biblical story, after 40 years of wandering, the Children of Israel arrived in Canaan and took it by storm. Following the divine command, they annihilated most of the local population and forced the remainder to serve them as hewers of wood and drawers of water. After the conquest, the people that had been united under Moses split up into separate tribes and divided the territory among them. According to Sand, “This ruthless myth of settlement, described in the Book of Joshua in colorful detail as one of the earliest genocides, never actually happened. The famous conquest of Canaan was the next myth to fall apart. New excavations of Jericho, Ali and Heshbon, those powerful walled cities which the Children of Israel supposedly captured with fanfare, confirmed the old findings: in the late l3th century BCE Jericho was an insignificant little town, certainly unwalled and neither Ali nor Heshbon had yet been settled at all. The same holds for most of the other cities mentioned in the story of the conquest.”  
David and Solomon  
The next biblical story to lose its scientific historicity as a result of new archaeological discoveries related to the united national kingdom of David and Solomon. Sand writes: “Excavation in Jerusalem in the 1970s — that is, after the city had been ‘reunified forever’ by the Israeli government — undermined the fantasies about the glorious past. Explorations at all the … sites that were opened up failed to find any traces of an important l0th century kingdom, the presumed time of David and Solomon. No vestige was ever found of monumental structures, walls or grand palaces, and the pottery found there was scanty and quite simple … Indeed, no trace has been found of the existence of that legendary king, whose wealth is described in the Bible as almost matching that of the mighty imperial rulers of Babylonia or Persia.”  
The conclusion accepted by a majority of the new archaeologists and Bible scholars, reports Sand, is that “there never was a great united monarchy and that King Solomon never had grand palaces in which he housed his 700 wives and 300 concubines. The fact that the Bible does not name this large empire strengthens this conclusion. It was late writers who invented and glorified a mighty united kingdom, established by the grace of a single deity. Their rich and distinctive imagination also produced the famous stories about the creation of the world and the terrible flood, the wanderings of the forefathers and Jacob’s struggle with the angel, the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the conquest of Canaan and the miraculous stopping of the sun in Gibeon.”  
The Bible, in the hands of Jewish nationalists, went from being a theological document to an historical one. “It was only the appearance of prenationalist Jewish historiography in the latter half of the 19th century that gave the Bible a leading role in the drama of the rise of the modern Jewish nation. The book was transformed from the shelf of theological tracts to the history section, and adherents of Jewish nationalism began to read it as if it were reliable testimony to processes and events. Indeed, it was elevated to the status of mythistory … It became the locus of secular sanctity that was not to be touched and from which all consideration of people and nation must begin.”  
Uprooting and Deportation  
In a chapter entitled “The Invention of Exile: Proselytism and Conversion,” Sand explains that uprooting and deportation are concepts deeply embedded in Jewish tradition. “But,” he writes, “their significance has changed over the history of the religion: they did not always bear the secular meaning with which they came to be imbued in modern times. Jewish monotheism began to take shape among the cultural elites who were forcibly deported after the fall of the kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE, and the imagery of exile and wandering already reverberates, directly or metaphorically, in a major part of the Torah … From expulsion to Eden, through Abraham’s migration to Canaan and Jacob’s descent into Egypt, to the prophesies of Zachariah and Daniel, Jewish religion gazed back through a perspective of wanderings, uprootings and returns.”  
The Torah stated: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from one end of the earth even unto the other, and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known” (Deut. 28:74). The ultra-paradigm of deportation, writes Sand, “was essential to the construction of a long-term memory wherein an imaginary, exiled people-race could be described as the direct descendants of the former ‘people of the Bible.’ … The myth of uprooting and exile was fostered by the Christian tradition, from which it flowed into Jewish tradition and grew to be the truth engraved in history, both the general and the national.”  
The fact is, Sand shows, that the Roman Empire never deported entire peoples. Neither did the Assyrians and Babylonians move entire populations in the countries they conquered. Indeed, notes Sand, “Roman rulers could be utterly ruthless in suppressing rebellious subject populations: they executed fighters, took captives and sold them into slavery, and sometimes exiled kings and princes. But they definitely did not deport whole populations in the countries they conquered in the East, nor did they have the means to do so — none of the trucks, trains or great ships available in the modern world.”  
Myth of Exile  
Israel Jacob Yuval, a respected historian at the Hebrew University, proposed to show that the Jewish myth about the exile in fact arose fairly late, and was due mainly to the rise of Christian mythology about the Jews being exiled in punishment for their rejection and crucifixion of Jesus: “It seems that the source of the discourse regarding the anti-Jewish exile lies in the writings of Justin Martyr, who in the mid-second century linked the expulsion of circumcised men from Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt with divine collective punishment. He was followed by other Christian authors who regarded the presence of Jews outside their sacred land as the punishment and proof of their sins. The myth of exile began to be slowly appropriated and integrated into Jewish tradition.”  
Jews did not seek to return to the Holy Land, and the few who did so were denounced as false messiahs. There were some devout pilgrims who were permitted to make an individual act of “going up to” Jerusalem, and many went in order to be buried there. But, notes Sand, “A collective migration for the purpose of living a full Jewish life in the holy city was not part of the religious imagination, and the few who proposed it were exceptional or eccentric.”  
A number of rabbinical prohibitions forbade hastening the salvation, and therefore migrating to the source from which it would arise. The most prominent prohibitions were the famous three vows in the Babylonian Talmud: “That Israel must not (seek to) rise up over the wall; that the Holy One Blessed Be He adjured Israel not to rise up against the nations of the world; that the Holy One Blessed Be He adjured the idolaters not to enslave Israel overmuch.” (Tractate Ketubot 110:82).  
Mass Migration  
“Rise over the wall,” Sand points out, “meant mass migration to the Holy Land, and this clear-cut prohibition affected Jews throughout the ages, instilling an acceptance of exile as a divine ordinance not to be broken. It was forbidden to hasten the end and rebel against God’s spirit … Therefore, when the Jewish cultural centers in Babylonia declined, the Jews migrated to Baghdad, not to Jerusalem, although both cities were ruled by the same caliphate. The Jewish deportees from Spain migrated to cities all around the Mediterranean, but only a few chose to go to Zion. In the modern age, with its ferocious pogroms and the rise of aggressive nationalism in Eastern Europe, masses of the Yiddish people migrated westward, mainly to the U.S … The Jews were not forcibly deported from their ‘homeland’ and there was no voluntary ‘return.’”  
Sand then confronts the idea that Jews are, somehow, a homogeneous ethnos descended from biblical times.  
While it is assumed by many that Judaism has never been a missionizing religion, Sand shows that this is clearly not the case. The Second Isaiah, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Jonah and the apocryphal Book of Judith all call for Judaism to accept gentiles, and even for the whole world to adopt the “religion of Moses.” Some of the authors of the Book of Isaiah proposed a universalist telos for Judaic monotheism: “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it. And many people shall go and say, Come yet, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his path.” (Isa. 2:203).  
Isolationist Cast  
Thus, despite the isolationist caste tendency implanted in the Jewish religion in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which would return in response to the harsh strictures of the Christian church, other voices in the Old Testament calling on the gentiles to accept Yahweh are found not only in Isaiah but also in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Zechariah and the Book of Psalms. In Ezekiel, God says, “Thus I will magnify myself, and sanctify myself; and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ez. 38:23).  
In the ancient world, Judaism spread widely and attracted many converts. In “Antiquities of the Jews,” Josephus, the Jewish historian of antiquity, tells the story of the conversion to Judaism in the first century CE of the rulers of Adiabene. “As this conversion is described in other sources,” writes Sand, “there is no reason to doubt its broad outline. The kingdom of Adiabene was in the north of the Fertile Crescent, roughly corresponding to today’s Kurdistan and Armenia. Jewish proselytizing led to the conversion of the kingdom’s much-loved heir to the throne, Izates, as well as his mother Helena, herself an important personage in the kingdom.”  
At its high point in the Roman Empire, Judaism was professed by 7 to l0 per cent of all the empire’s inhabitants. Sand reports that, “The word ‘Jew’ ceased to denote the people of Judea, and now included the masses of proselytes and their descendants. At the height of Judaism’s expansion in the third century CE, Cassius Dieo described this significant development: ‘I do not know how this title (Jews) came to be given to them, but it applies also to all the rest of mankind, although of alien race, who affect their customs.’” His near contemporary, the Christian theologian Origen wrote: “The noun Ioudaios is not the name of an ethnos, but of a choice (in the manner of life). For if there be someone not from the nation of the Jews, a gentile who accepts the way of life of the Jews and becomes a proselyte, this person would properly be called a Ioudaios.”  
Discussing the question of the Khazars, the Caucasian tribe that is said to have converted to Judaism in the 8th century, Sand quotes Arthur Koestler, a Zionist pioneer in his youth who grew disillusioned with the settlement project and the Jewish national movement, who wrote “The Thirteenth Tribe.”  
Koestler writes: “The large majority of surviving Jews in the world is of Eastern European — and thus perhaps mainly of Khazar origin. If so, this would mean that their ancestors came not from the Jordan but from the Volga, not from Canaan but from the Caucasus, once believed to be the cradle of the Aryan race; and that genetically they are more closely related to the Hun, Uigur and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Should this turn out to be the case, then the term ‘anti-Semitism’ would become devoid of meaning, based on a misapprehension shared by both the killers and their victims.”  
Whatever the merits of the speculation about the Khazars, Sand declares that it is clear that, “ … the mass conversion to Judaism that produced great Jewish communities around the Mediterranean left almost no trace in the national historiography … It was no accident that modern Jewish nationalism opted for the fictitious ethnic element of the long tradition. It fell upon that concept with glee, manipulated it thoroughly in its ideological laboratories, nurtured it with questionable secular historical data and made it the foundation of its view of the past. The national memory was implanted on a base of ritual oblivion, hence its amazing success. Had the memory of the mass conversion to Judaism been preserved, it might have eroded the metanarrative about the biological unity of the Jewish people, whose genealogical roots were believed to trace back all the way to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — not to the heterogeneous mosaic of human populations that lived in the Hasmonean kingdom, in the Persian domain and in the far-flung expanses of the Roman Empire.”  
“Jewish” and “Democratic”  
Basing a state on the myths of Jewish exile — and now return — and on the notion of a homogeneous Jewish ethnos makes it impossible, in Sand’s opinion, to be both “Jewish” and “democratic,” a phrase which Israeli leaders frequently use.  
He notes that a whole generation of Palestinian intellectuals have pointed out that the State of Israel, into which they were born, in which they constituted one-fifth of the population, and of which they were formally full citizens, “insisted that it was not their state but belonged to a different people, most of whom remained overseas. An outstanding early figure in this protest against Jewish exclusivity was the writer and translator Anton Shammas. A gifted bilingual intellectual and the author of the novel ‘Arabesque,’ which deals with his divided national identity, he issued a challenge to Israeli society, let us all be multicultural Israelis, and create a common national identity that will not erase our identities of origin but aim for an Israeli symbiosis between its Jewish and Arab citizens.”  
Such an idea found little support among Israeli Jews, even those on the Zionist left. A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading writers, rejected the proposal, declaring that, “Israel must remain the state of the dispersed Jewish people, and must not become the state of all its citizens. The Law of Return is the moral basis of Zionism.”  
In most democracies, Sand writes, in which there are cultural and linguistic minority groups, “it is advisable to include civil symbols and festivals shared by all the citizens. Not surprisingly, no such attempt has been made in the Jewish state. The peculiar character of Israel’s supra-identity, whose primeval code was inherent in Zionism from the start, is what makes it doubtful that a ‘Jewish’ state can also be democratic. The Jewish nationalism that dominates Israeli society is not an open, inclusive identity that invites others to become part of it, or to coexist with it on a basis of equality and in symbiosis. On the contrary, it explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly states that the state belongs only to the majority … moreover, it promises eternal proprietary rights to an even greater human mass that does not choose to live in it.”  
What, then, can such a state be called? Sand calls it an “ethnocracy” and states that, more than this, “it is a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features — that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation. Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity.”  
Even if Israel abandoned the territories taken in 1967, the inherent contradictions in Israeli society would not, Sand believes, be resolved. “Another myth,” he writes, “even more firmly hard-wired than the territorial one, would continue to haunt it. The myth of the Jewish ethnos as a self-isolating historical body that always barred, and therefore must go on barring, outsiders from joining it is harmful to the State of Israel and may cause it to disintegrate from within. Maintaining an exclusionary ‘ethnic’ entity, and discriminating against one-quarter of the citizens — Arabs and those who are not considered Jews in accordance with misguided history and the Halakah — leads to recurring tensions that may at some point produce violent divisions that will be difficult to heal.”  
There is much in this challenging book which requires further exploration. Consider Sand’s assertion that Palestinian Arab villagers are descended from the original Jewish farmers. Nearly a century ago, early Zionists and Arab nationalists promoted the blood relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their struggles for independence.  
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel’s longest serving president, made this very argument in a book they wrote together in l9l8. In l9l9, Emil Feisal, who organized the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and tried to create a united Arab nation, signed a cooperation agreement with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that declared the two were “mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between Arabs and the Jewish people.” When they realized that this proposition was not furthering their political goals, they abandoned it. Professor Harry Ostrer, director of the Human Genetics Program at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, says that, “The assumption of lineal descent seems reasonable.”  
Challenging Book  
Israeli historian Tom Segev provides this assessment of Sand’s thesis: “Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the Jewish people arose in the Land of Israel and was exiled from its homeland. Every Israeli schoolchild is taught that this happened during the period of the Roman rule, in 70 CE. The nation remained loyal to its land, to which it began to return after two millennia of exile. Wrong, says the historian Shlomo Sand, in one of the most fascinating and challenging books published here in a long time. There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile never happened — hence there was no return.”  
Implicit in Sand’s book is the idea that Israel would do better to identify itself as Israel, the state of its own citizens, not the “homeland” of the world’s Jews. Professor Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, laments that, “The perverse insistence upon identifying a universal Jewishness with one small piece of territory is dysfunctional in many ways. It is the single most important factor accounting for the failure to solve the Israel-Palestine imbroglio. It is bad for Israel and, I would suggest, bad for Jews elsewhere who are identified with its actions.”  
Normalized Jewish History  
Shlomo Sand has, in many ways, normalized Jewish history. Instead of the implausible myth of a unique nation with a special destiny — expelled, wandering and finally restored to its “homeland” — he has shown us the history of the Jews as a religious group, incorporating men and women of a variety of backgrounds, joined together by a common religious belief and commitment, not an ethnic identity. The largely imaginary Jewish past constructed by Zionists beginning in the l9th century, has provoked much conflict and, as he shows, is largely an invention.  
For American Jews, the philosophy of the founders of Classical Reform Judaism — that Judaism was a religion, not a nationality and that American Jews were Americans by nationality and Jews by religion — just as were American Catholics, Protestants and Muslims — turns out not only to have been their own belief and interpretation, but to have been far more historically accurate than even they might have imagined. Professor Sand has made a notable contribution in making all of this abundantly clear to all who are prepared to confront the material he has provided. •  
Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and serves as Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and Editor of Issues. The author of five books, he has served on the staff of the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.