The Invention of the Jewish People

The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand. London: Verso, 2009. 332 pp.

This book has been promoted as “an international bestseller” that demolishes all previous connotations of the Jews as a people. Shlomo Sand approvingly quotes the French historian, Marcel Detienne, “How can we denationalise national histories?”— and this seems to be the motivation behind the work. It proceeds from the thesis that generations of academic historians have got it wrong, that Graetz, Dubnov, Baron, Baer, Dinur, and others were so influenced by the times in which they lived and the societies in which they dwelled that they unwittingly served the malign designs of unscrupulous politicians. Perhaps all writers are fashioned by their epoch to some extent, including both Sand and this reviewer; however, all professional historians struggle against this tendency from a sense of academic integrity and responsibility to their readers. Yet Sand characterizes many as intellectually unworldly and ever willing supplicants at the altar of Zionism. Departments of Jewish history throughout the world, it is argued, have seemingly been blinkered for a long time with crucial material secreted away in dusty archives until the publication of this work.

The debunking is initiated by exploding “the myth of exile.” Sand argues that there is no evidence for either mass deportation or refugee flight. Israeli schoolchildren, it is revealed, are told that it was Hebrew slaves who were carrying the menorah as depicted on Titus’s Arch, not Roman soldiers. Yet it is also clear that Vespasian desperately needed to impress his new subjects in Rome after he usurped the throne. The year 69 deserved its title of “the year of the four emperors.” Josephus’s vivid description of Vespasian’s entry into Rome can be questioned in terms of its exuberance, but can it also be questioned in terms of its occurrence? The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian continually promoted the symbolism of the destruction of Jerusalem throughout their imperial tenure and in the context of its vast construction projects and general reshaping of Rome.

The reductionist approach of Sand also leads to selectivity. Some facts are chosen, others are not. Those selected are stretched to sketch out a generality. Max Nordau’s Degeneration was certainly an attack on fin-de-siècle political correctness, which would be considered reactionary by some today, yet included within this was also the antisemitism of the bourgeoisie, which Sand omits. Nordau further criticized the progressive belief that since the Jews had been emancipated by the French Revolution a century before, their situation was simply idyllic. As Nordau commented, “the great men of 1792 emancipated the Jews according to logic,” not according to the reality in which they found themselves. This also seems to be Sand’s difficulty as well. All national movements have their myths and imagined history. Sand’s “discoveries” are not new. Ahad Ha’am commented in “Moses” (1904) that he cared not whether Moses actually existed, but the persona of Moses had been enshrined in the hearts of the Jews for generations. Such proof of the nonexistence of Moses would not “detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses.” Such highly unscientific, emotional comments would leave Sand uncomfortable, yet the Haggadah at Passover has been recited for centuries. In one sense, this was the backdrop of Jewishness which enveloped all sorts of nineteenthcentury Jews—from believing Hasidim to disbelieving Marxist Zionists. Quotations are often selected to fit an explanation while the context is missing.

Sand quotes Jabotinsky’s belief in “Jewish blood” and reaction against assimilation. Yet this was written in June 1904 and was one of Jabotinsky’s earliest articles on the Jewish question. Like many other Russian intellectuals at that time, he was casting off his earlier beliefs and embracing positivism and Jewish nationalism. The context here was Jabotinsky’s intellectual explorations of Jewish identity during a period of expected pogroms. Moreover, Sand generalizes frequently. He depicts Jabotinsky as someone who generally detested concession and compromise. There are numerous examples of his obduracy, but why then did Jabotinsky offer concession and compromise to the Arabs of Palestine in his famous essay “The Iron Wall” of November 1923? And then there are the inaccuracies, Borokhov seemingly retracted his view that the local Arabs were descendents of the ancient Israelites after the killings of 1929. Unfortunately Borokhov had been dead for at least twelve years.

Sand tends to underscore the enormity of the Shoah in the psyche of the Jews just as he diminishes the importance of the destruction of Jerusalem in the minds of that generation two millennia before. It was the reality of May 1945 that turned the Jews towards Zionism. It was a pragmatic reorientation, but later embellished by mythology. Eric Hobsbawm, quoted by Sand, commented that nations “cannot be understood unless also analysed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings, and interests of ordinary people.”

Sand begins the book with warm renditions of his forebears’ participation in the revolutionary movements of the early twentieth century. Like the Jewish Communists of Iraq after 1950, such people ended up in Israel, almost by accident, and found it very difficult to come to terms ideologically and practically with the existing society. Zionism did not fit comfortably into classical political theory. Many on the non-Zionist Left perceived that because it was different, it was also wrong. Sand rightly draws attention to the quirkiness of Israeli society and the political stagnation, engendered by recycled politicians. Yet there is a real sense of frustration and a feeling of nihilism behind his words which colors the discussion. Sand rightly wrote this for a Hebrew speaking audience, yet it has ironically been appreciated by a mainly English speaking one, essentially for other reasons.

Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 31, Number 2, Winter 2013,

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