The Invention of the Jewish People


Introduction to Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People
by Bertell Ollman

The Invention of the Jewish People is divided into two parts.  The first is a long section on the theory of nationalism, whose main characteristic, according to Sand, is the tendency to invent a past that suits the current needs and goals of the people in question.  This is not a new idea (Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner have presented versions of it), but this is the best account of it that I have read.  Second, there follows a much longer section on Zionism, Judaism, and Israel in light of the earlier discussion of nationalism.  Most of this long book is devoted to showing with a great deal of evidence and arguments from several different disciplines that most of Jewish history has been invented.

The turning point is the supposed expulsion of the Jews from Palestine by the Romans after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. (apparently, there is no evidence for this; the Roman’s never engaged in such mass expulsions; and most of the Jews in Palestine at the time were peasants living in the countryside, who would not be directly affected by the destruction of Jerusalem).

This raises two key questions: 1) Where did the large Jewish populations that turn up later throughout the rest of the Middle East and Europe come from, if they were not descended from people who were expelled from Palestine by the Romans?  Sand’s answer is that most of them came from mass conversions of peoples to Judaism that occurred in at least three different places and times between the destruction of the Second Temple and the early modern period.  (He also shows that some mass conversions of people to Judaism took place in Palestine even before the destruction of the Second Temple.  So the practice of converting people, even large groups of people, to Judaism is not as unknown to the history of Judaism as is commonly believed.)

Probably the biggest mass conversion took place in Khazaria, a Turkmen empire between the Caspian and the Black Sea between the 8th and 11th century A.D., which was destroyed in the 11th century by attacks from Russians, with most of its Jewish population migrating west into eastern Europe.  Together with a somewhat later, smaller, more prosperous and more cultured Jewish migration from Western Europe through Germany, they became the future Jews of Poland, Russia, Hungary, etc.

A second mass conversion in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple took place among several Berber tribes in North Africa in the 6th century A.D., though many conversions to Judaism occurred in and around what had been Carthage and other coastal towns in North Africa before that.  When the Arabs brought Islam to these lands a century later, they showed their typical respect for the “people of the book” by not forcing them to adopt their religion.  Then, when North African Muslims (not Arabs from Arabia) invaded Spain in 711 A.D., Jewish Berbers made up a good part of their army, and included at least one general.  Many of them settled in Spain, and became the core of what we call the Spanish Jews.  The third big conversion(s) occurred in Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, which had a large number of Jews from very early on, including at least one Jewish king in the 6th century A.D., who tried  to convert his subjects to Judaism.

Granted that some Jews already lived throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe before the destruction of the Second Temple — but if we add up all the mass conversions to Judaism that occurred after this event, it appears that the bulk of world Jewry from the early Middle Ages on were descended from people who never set foot in Palestine.  Which raises, of course, the next key question — what happened to the Jews who were still in Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple?  Where did they go?  Sand’s answer is that they didn’t go anywhere.  They are today’s Palestinians, most of whom converted to Islam in the early years of Islam’s expansion into the rest of the Middle East.  These are not unsupported conjectures, for the great strength of Sand’s book lies in the enormous wealth of evidence and careful, scholarly argumentation he offers for each of his claims.

Where does all this leave the central idea that underlies the whole Zionist project — that Jews everywhere have not only a duty but a right to return to “their original homeland,” Palestine?  I can’t think of a more fundamental critique of Zionism and therefore of Israel too than the one found in Sand’s book.  No serious reader who is interested in Zionism or Israel — whatever their personal views — can avoid being shaken up “big-time” by Sand’s impressive redrawing of the major religious and “racial” boundaries that are usually taken for granted in most discussion of these subjects.

Shlomo Sand was born in Linz, Austria in 1946, to Jewish-Polish Communist survivors of the Holocaust.  He is professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009).  Bertell Ollman is professor of politics at New York University and author, most recently, of Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method.  This lecture by Sand was delivered at the Marxist Theory Colloquium at New York University on 16 October 2009.  See, also, Schlomo Sand, “Comment fut inventé le peuple juif” (Le Monde diplomatique, August 2008); Schlomo Sand, “Israel Deliberately Forgets Its History” (Le Monde diplomatique, September 2008); and Philip Weiss, “At NYU, Devilish Shlomo Sand Predicts the Jewish Past and Pastes the Zionists” (Mondoweiss, 17 October 2009).

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