Deconstructing the Foundational Myths of Israel

Shlomo Sand.  The Invention of the Jewish People.  Verso, 2009.

By this time already, after 60-plus years of heatedly arguing the topic back and forth, is there anything new and insightful to be said that might have a bearing on the Israel-Palestine conflict and help to bring some political and intellectual closure at long last — at least for those who have an open mind?  Yes, in fact there actually is!  And the left-wing Israeli-born historian Shlomo Sand, the son of Holocaust survivors, has said it in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, a book that first came out in Hebrew in 2008 and which has now been translated and published in English by Verso Press.  Shlomo Sand goes right to the heart of the matter.  He attacks and dismantles the foundational myths of the State of Israel that have provided the Zionists with rationalizations for taking over and occupying the homeland of the Palestinians, driving a stake right through them.  The terms of the discussion should never be the same again, once people have read and digested Prof. Sand’s book.

The basic foundational myths (of a verifiable historical variety) are twofold: Firstly, that Jews were expelled from the Holy Land by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and then dispersed to various geographical locations around the Mediterranean and beyond.  Secondly, that the present-day Jewish citizens of the State of Israel are by and large the descendants of those early Jews.  Thus, according to the logic of the apologists for the establishment of a settler state in Palestine, Jews are simply (and justly) re-inhabiting the land from which they originally came, thus finally bringing to a close a long and painful exile.  On the surface, this argument might seem to have validity — even if we cannot buy into the chauvinistic foundational religious myth that Jews are the Chosen People of God and that the deed to the Promised Land, which they have kept with them all through two thousand years of their absence, was awarded to them through Abraham and Moses by the Great Jehovah himself.

First of all, as Sand points out, while the Roman Empire did brutally put down Jewish revolts in A.D. 70 and A.D. 135, the Romans were not in the business of ethnic cleansing.  Taxes and tribute could only flow into Roman coffers from people who were continuing to work the land and otherwise laboring.  In any case, even if they were so inclined, the Romans did not have the technological means to accomplish such a dastardly thing.  So where did the Jewish diaspora come from?  Sand’s answer is simple and logical and backed up with ample evidence from the primary and secondary sources: While it is not so today, Judaism at that time was a proselyting religion (like Christianity and, later, Islam).  The Jews living elsewhere are mainly the descendants of converted peoples.  Ashkenazi Jews (Jews in Eastern Europe) are mainly descendants of Khazars whose King converted in the 8th Century.  Sephardic Jews (on the Iberian Peninsula and north Africa) come from converted Berbers.

Most of those original Jews who remained in Israel under the Romans (and after them) converted — either for pragmatic or religious reasons — to Christianity or Islam.  Thus, it follows — if it matters — that the closest genetic descendants of these Jews today would be the Palestinians who have lived there all along — not 20th century immigrants from Germany, Poland, Russia, Morocco, or Brooklyn.  The notion of the  “wandering Jew,” as Sand shows, was concocted by early Christians who saw this as divine punishment for the so-called “Christ killers” who had refused conversion to their new faith.  Somewhat oddly then, given its profoundly anti-Semitic origins, it was taken up later by the Zionists.

For Sand, Jews are not a single “People.”  Jewishness is not an essententialized, ethno-national identity.  Rather it is a religious affiliation (just like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.).  Judaism in that sense has proved attractive in the past to a variety of different peoples.  Accordingly, Jewish communities, in terms of their cultural, non-religious practices, have differed a lot from place to place.  Sand draws from the work of Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner on European nation-building during the 18th and 19th centuries to show how the founders of Zionism like Theodor Herzl, aided and abetted by an array of historians and intellectuals, invented an “imagined community” to foster their nationalist project that they thought would save European Jews from anti-Semitism.  They invented what had never existed before — a Jewish People.  Today, as Sand illustrates in his opening chapter with a series of sad and convoluted stories about persons of his own acquaintance, trying to define who is truly and genuinely Jewish and thus entitled to citizenship in Israel leads to all kinds of absurdities.  In Israel, this determination is left to religious authorities, but being a Jew by faith is not sufficient, or in some cases, as with many of the recent immigrants coming from Russia, necessary.

Sand has nothing but contempt for the repeated efforts of Zionist scientists to identify a “Jewish gene” held in common by Jews regardless of their diverse cultural backgrounds.  In an afterword to a new English-language paperback edition, Sand declares:

This attempt to justify Zionism through genetics is reminiscent of the procedures of late nineteenth-century anthropologists who very scientifically set out to discover the specific characteristics of Europeans.  As of today, no study based on anonymous DNA samples has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews, and it is not likely that any study ever will.  It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased!  And it is all the more repulsive that this kind of research should be conducted in a state that has waged for years a declared policy of “Judaization of the country” in which even today a Jew is not allowed to marry a non-Jew.

Sand deconstructs one further myth, a contemporary falsehood used to justify the state of Israel, which is the notion that Israel is a democratic state — supposedly the only one existing in the Middle East.  If this is a democracy, Sand notes wryly, it is a rather unusual democracy with special rights, such as the Right of Return, for its Jewish citizens and not for the 20% who are Palestinians (not to mention the populations of the occupied territories, non-citizens who are daily subjected to all kinds of humiliating abuses and land-grabs).  (Since the book was written, laws considered by the right-wing-controlled Knesset would move Israel in an even less democratic direction — e.g., criminalizing any discussion of a boycott against Israel or calling into question the Jewish nature of the state.)  Sand takes what has come to be known in recent years as a “post-Zionist” position, maintaining that, while the State of Israel is a given after so many years since its 1948 founding, it must turn itself into a modern secular state equally representing all of its citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.  However, how such a transformation might happen, he does not spell out in any detail.

Shlomo Sand’s book, with its well-documented historical truth-telling, has stirred up a substantial amount of controversy in Israel.  Hopefully, with this translation, it will do so now in the English-speaking world, especially among those liberal Jews and Gentiles who continue to think it makes good rational sense to support the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East — thereby enabling with their monetary donations and through their political sway in Washington Israel’s egregious violations of Palestinian rights and the system of apartheid that has been growing up there.  While it might be hoped that Sand would have taken a straightforwardly anti-Zionist position, as does his fellow revisionist Israeli historian Ilan Pappé (the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine) who now lives in exile because of it, The Invention of the Jewish People is a book of great and timely importance.  It needs to be on the must-read-soon booklist of every right-thinking and caring person.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.

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