Reading When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?

When and How Was the Jewish People InventedReading Shlomo Sand‘s book When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? (Resling, 2008), I realized that there are actually several, not all related, arguments and debates within it.  In other words, it does not have one thesis that can be accepted or rejected as a whole, but an attempt to address various historical issues in a speculative manner (without offering a conclusive answer, which is impossible in any event due to the fragmentary and meagre nature of data).

What all the different strands have in common is a challenge to the Jewish nationalist paradigm (which precedes and is not identical with Zionism) that sees a historical continuity between the biblical Hebrews — whether before or after the ‘kingdom’ period — and present-day Jews.  But, there is no logical or historical need to accept all aspects of the challenge as a single package, since they are largely unrelated.

Using secondary literature, drawing mostly on Finkelstein and Silberman’s work, Sand argues against the biblical narrative: the ‘founding fathers’ from Ur or Haran, the Exodus from Egypt, the Joshua conquest, the David and Solomon kingdom, and so on.  All these are later-day fabrications aimed to give the post-exilic state of Judea (after the return of leading elements from Bablyon in the 5-6th centuries BC) a historical depth and glorious past — much of this past was based on the achievements of the Israel kingdom rather than Judea, but the Israelites did evil in the eyes of god, so were demoted.  Given that they were no longer around, no-one was to complain.

The basic set-up (according to Finkelstein and Silberman) was a strong Israel and weak Judea, both of which were formed from indigenous people with perhaps some flow of migrants, and both speaking related dialects of Hebrew.  None of this account is original or terribly controversial, I guess; of course it does not fit traditional historiography, but it covers the same ground as revisionist biblical studies.  It is not really related to the rest of the book.

Sand then challenges the central notion in Jewish history (again, nothing specifically Zionist about it) of destruction and exile, which argues that Jews were sent into exile by the Romans and have since then (70AD) wandered around the world in a state of exile.  Arguments, briefly, are that:

(1) exile never happened (except perhaps for certain thin layers of political and religious leaders;

(2) Jews in any event had already spread voluntarily into a diaspora long before the Roman conquest, in Babylon, Egypt, North Africa, Greece, and so on;

(3) the ranks of Jews worldwide by Roman times consisted of some original Judeans, but mostly of converts to Judaism, through conquest (the Hasmoneans forcibly Judaized their subjects), slavery (non-Jewish slaves were Judaized by their masters), and individual and collective conversion of groups: in ‘Kurdistan’, Yemen, north Africa, Rome itself, and so on.  The same yearning for spiritual salvation that later saw the rise of Christianity and Islam made Judaism an appealing alternative to Roman paganism.  Many of the converts were not fully Jewish in today’s sense, and the boundaries between different religions and practices were a bit blurred.

In other words, most Jews (or rather Judeans) were never exiled, and most Jews outside Palestine were the descendants of converts rather than of exiles from the original country.  What happened to those who remained in the country?  They continued to live and create until the Byzantines took over and oppressed them.  Even after that they remained the majority in the country, welcomed the Arab invasion and gradually converted to Islam over the subsequent centuries (in short, the Ben Gurion/Ben Zvi thesis of the ancient roots of the Palestinian Arab fellahin. . .).  As for the rest of the Jews, although not of ‘Palestinian’ origins they adopted the myth of exile and dispersion as their own, partly as a reflection of the Christian counter-myth of divine punishment for failing to recognize the messiah.  Their appeal to potential converts declined with the rise of more universalist and less demanding monotheist religions, which also made conversion to Judaism illegal.

The one big exception was the Khazars, who lived between the Black and Caspian seas, converted to Judaism in the 9th century and declined two centuries later: many of their descendants moved to eastern Europe and became the ancestors of the present-day Ashkenazim (together with some eastward-moving migrants from Germany).  The latter were a minority though contributed much of their evolving language (Yiddish).

I must confess I find this the weakest part of the book: if indeed the Ashkenazim are mainly the descendants of the Khazars, how come there are so few traces of that, hardly any linguistic commonalities, and no historical memory (in a culture in which literacy was common)?  Sand’s explanations are unconvincing, which is not to say that the Khazars were not real, or that they did not contribute to the Ashkenazi population (but most likely on the margins).

Another weakness is his discussion of historiography, attributing to nationalism, and even more so Zionism, the attempt to erase the memory of the non-Judean origins of the Jews.  Beyond the obvious fact that there were many historical versions put forward by historians (Graetz is not Dubnow, who is not Dinur, and so on), and that they emerged before Zionism and proceeded independently of it, much of his own evidence shows that there was an ongoing dialogue and elaboration of perspectives rather than a single line dictated from a national-political centre.  Some of his villains recognized the importance of the Khazars, not all of them argued for the Roman exile paradigm, etc.  Some of the discussion consequently feels like a demolition job on straw men rather than debate with real positions that can form the basis for legitimate historical exchanges.

Also, one needs to understand the mass appeal and consequent political purchase of historical narratives that exist even without coercive capacity or state resources — they are rooted in popular culture and social movements, and Sand’s discussion of a few celebrated historians does not really explain their impact.  Further, Sand correctly accuses mainstream historians for ignoring evidence contradictory to their Jewish uniqueness thesis, but part of the problem is that the evidence is meagre, fragmented, sometimes contradictory, and not backed up by solid documented record.

The book concludes in advocacy for a non-ethnically exclusionary Israel, which may reflect the Jewish historical heritage of mixture, incorporation of different groups as converts, neighbours, allies.  But there is no real link between the past historical debates and the current political positions or between the different historical positions: accepting that Jews were never forcibly exiled has nothing to do with accepting the role of the Khazars in Ashkenazi history, or the non-existence of a great kingdom of David and Solomon, or the true ethnic origins of Palestinians.  The book is best read as a series of chapters that are only loosely interrelated.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born academic based in South Africa.

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