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Shlomo Sand’s ‘The Invention of the Jewish People,’ reviewed by Jack Ross

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Last Spring, I asked my father over dinner why it was such an outrageous proposition, leaving aside whether or not true, that Judaism is solely a matter of confession, as opposed to an ethnonational identity. He answered with some trepidation “because it contradicts 2,000 years of history.” When I went on to concede that for most of Jewish history there existed isolated ethnic-tribal groupings who adopted Judaism – in other words, numerous Jewish peoples – but that the idea that they constituted a single pan-Jewish volk was absurd, my father rigidly retorted “they just are.”
I was struck, first, by the sharp contrast to a Reform Rabbi friend who had months earlier given a thoughtful if less than satisfactory answer to the question. But the reality exposed right before my eyes was stunning. I remember growing up how odd I found it that my father, a serious Jew and a physicist, was deeply ambivalent about any notion of reconciling science and religion, and more recently was practically on the fence about even believing in God. But the quasi-racialist imperative of “Jewish peoplehood” – this was what, in the phrase of Maimonides, he believed with a perfect faith.
Norman Podhoretz, in his recently published angst asking why Jews are liberals, finally concludes what may be his most totally self-regarding work yet by describing the “Torah of liberalism” to which most American Jews subscribe. This Torah of liberalism does exist, and I am not a fan (notwithstanding my own lefty shul which the Commentary set would surely argue is its ultimate expression). The bottom line is that Podhoretz and his followers are the last people who can credibly criticize the Torah of liberalism, for it merely follows in the precedent set by their Torah of Jewish nationalism.
I frankly never got the Torah of Jewish nationalism until I was an adult. My formal Jewish education (Conservative) very clumsily hobbled together Hebrew instruction so that one could recite but not understand a traditional prayer service with the teaching of Zionist history to 5th graders at an 8th grade level, with the apparent intention of instilling an identification with these things deliberately lacking in substance. Never was it spelled out for us explicitly that this meant we were some kind of nation within a nation and not merely what we were instead of being Christian – presumably even the teachers were not quite credulous enough to say so. Finally, by the time I grew up my father would say to me point blank that “Judaism is a national religion” and that he had no problem with me being a “secular Jew”, from both of which statements I recoiled. For a time I completely despaired that there was no alternative.
For God so loved the Jews that he sent unto them his only begotten nation-state so that the Jewish people would not perish but have everlasting life – this is the Torah of Jewish nationalism in a single verse, the thing that, whatever their attitudes about the existence of God or the Jewish religion generally, Jews are expected by their self-appointed leaders to believe with a perfect faith. And now, at long last, we have a definitive and learned polemic against this idea which has caused so much terror in our world today with The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, finally released in its English translation.

To begin with, it is yet another testimony to that beautiful part of Israeli society which gives us Haaretz that a dense academic work could be on Israel’s best-seller list for 19 weeks. The book begins by thoroughly spelling out the theories of nationalism and its rise that I learned in graduate school. Readers may get lost in this, but their patience will be rewarded. Among the most useful parts of this preface is a long overdue explication of the etymology of the Hebrew am and how it was distorted into the German volk and ultimately the English people.
This provides the foundation for a discussion of Heinrich Graetz, whose five-volume History of the Jews in the 19th century remains a standard work. Though this remains a serious work of history and does not have an obvious ideological slant, it is nonetheless thoroughly grounded in the foundations of modern nationalism inspired by Hegel. The translation of this into political Jewish nationalism, however, would be provided by Moses Hess.
It is shocking to consider the vast chasm between the long shadow and brief historical treatment of Moses Hess. The disillusioned “Young Hegelian” comrade of Marx and Engels foresaw the resurrection of the eternal Jewish nation as part of a larger nationalist framework which anticipated both fascism and Wilsonian democracy. Arguably therefore the first neocon, a century before Norman Podhoretz wrote My Negro Problem – And Ours, Moses Hess blazed this dark path by declaring in his manifesto Rome and Jerusalem “that behind the problems of nationality and freedom there is a still deeper problem which cannot be solved by mere phrases, namely, the race question, which is as old as history itself and which must be solved before attempting the solution of the political and social problems.”
Also beginning with Graetz and later elaborated by authors such as Simon Dubnow and Salo Baron was the dramatic revival of historical interest in the Old Testament, which ultimately led to the bizarre Bible study groups of Ben-Gurion and other avowed atheist founders of the State of Israel, and finally the teaching of the Old Testament as a secular “national history” in Israeli schools. And on this foundation was built what Sand calls “the invention of the exile”, that is, the ahistorical notion that the Romans ever expelled the Jews en masse from Palestine which nonetheless forms a crucial component of the Torah of Jewish nationalism.
Here we arrive at the crux of the matter – whether Judaism has historically been a religion or a tribalism – by asserting the incontrovertible historic fact that even Sand’s detractors dare not directly refute but rather obfuscate as best they can: that Judaism was spread far and wide throughout the Hellenistic world by missionaries, and that Palestine had a Judean majority until the rise of Islam. Sand elaborates that Judaism as we know it first emerged out of the universalist and monotheist ferment of Persia and was opposed to the exclusionist sect founded by Ezra and Nehemiah, with numerous biblical texts such as the Books of Isaiah and Ruth originally written as polemics against this sect.
Moreover, as the Jews moved into the Hellenistic world, they were, contrary to the modern telling, more of that world than opposed to it. Traditionalist Jews today will scold any suggestion of Hanukkah as part of some universal “holiday season” because it is precisely the celebration of triumph over assmilationism. But the irony, as Sand points out, is that Hanukkah originated as a Hellenist observance and was only recast as celebrating the military triumph of the (in fact deeply Hellenized) Hasmoneans at the dawn of Rabbinic Judaism, some five centuries after the fact.
The height of Jewish expansion was in fact in the third century, long after the alleged exile and at the time of the completion of the Mishnah, when at least one chronicler wrote “The noun Iuodaios is not the name of an ethnos, but of a choice in manner of life.” Judaism remained an active proselytizing religion well after the triumph of Christianity, but focused itself on what remained the periphery of the Christian world, and here at last is the meat of Sand’s deconstruction of the Torah of Jewish nationalism.
During the early Middle Ages, three separate Jewish kingdoms took hold at the fringes of Christendom, all three born of proselytizing, and to which virtually all Jewish communities of the last thousand years can be traced back. The first two were the Himyar of Yemen and the Kahina of Berber North Africa. Both fell to Muslim conquest by the end of the seventh century, but the Jews were then well represented in the Muslim armies which conquered Palestine and Iberia respectively. Of the Himyar came the Yemenite Jews as well as the Ethiopian Jews whom they converted in the rival Christian kingdom of Axum across Red Sea. And from the Berber Kahina came the Sephardic Jews who flourished in Spain and were ultimately dispersed across Western Europe, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire.
Sand notes that in the brief instances when Graetz and his successors were forced to acknowledge these two kingdoms at all, extreme sophistry was employed toward asserting that they were unequivocally born of the seed of Abraham, of “the Jewish nation.” The third kingdom, Khazaria, which extended at its height across the Russian steppe from Crimea to the Aral Sea, would leave far too great a legacy in history for the inventors of the Jewish people to ignore, and would haunt them right unto the present.
What is beyond any historical dispute is that the rulers of the Khazar Empire converted to Judaism in the year 740, and that a century later its sphere of influence, consisting of various tributary states, extended as far west as the gates of Vienna and as far east as the present-day northwestern border of China. The fall of Khazaria began with the internal sacking by the Kievan Rus in the 10th century and its last remnants were swept away by the Golden Horde.
What Zionist historiography has hotly disputed is that this is the primary origin of Eastern European Jewry. A key claim is that only the rulers and nobility converted to Judaism, not the masses, but over the course of two to three centuries a large enough segment of the population would have surely adopted the religion of the ruling class to leave a lasting legacy. The passions have also been exacerbated in recent years by the seizing of anti-Semites upon the history of the Khazars, particularly both black and white supremacist sects which claim to be the true Israelites. But contrary to this, the Khazars in fact had the strongest link to the ancient Judeans among the three kingdoms, having been influenced by the original great mass of Persian Jews dating to the pre-Hellenic era, which also left remnants in Greece, Iran, and India. It is, in fact, the Sephardic and Yemenite Jews who have the most overwhelmingly proselyte ancestry.
Sophisticated arguments have been constructed by the keepers of the Torah of Jewish nationalism to refute the idea that European Jews are overwhelmingly descended from the Jews of Khazaria, but they manage to ignore simple logic: They would honestly have us believe that a kingdom ruled by Jews was not the principal source of the exceptionally large Jewish population of their territory for the thousand years following their fall.
Zionist historiography has insisted that most Eastern European Jews are descended from Jews who migrated from Germany, but as Sand points out, contrary to what they would have us believe, only a tiny number of Jews endured the medieval German ghetto, so in fact German Jewry was largely descended from the westward migration of Khazars with their long-time vassals, the Magyars, into Central Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries. This migration was key, because it was the crucible of European Jewish civilization.
Whereas the Khazars likely spoke a Turkic dialect, upon arriving with the Magyars who founded the Hungarian nation they adopted the local medieval Gothic dialect, which, when combined with the Turkic influence on the language of their religious practice in words like daven and yarmulke gave birth to the Yiddish language, dialects of which would be the language of no less than 80% of the world’s Jews by the year 1900.
Lost to the Torah of Jewish nationalism then is the history of a great cosmopolitan and religiously pluralist empire the size of India or Brazil, which lasted four times longer than the Hasmonean Kingdom of less than a century (about as long as, on its present course, the State of Israel) – which thrived no less in the darkest of the dark ages and, as the nexus of trade between East and West for several centuries, came remarkably close to giving birth to capitalism almost a thousand years before the English and the Dutch.
Furthermore, Sand misses in his telling a critical implication of the history of Khazaria, a reason equally important to the genetic continuity of “the Jewish people” that it threatens the Torah of Jewish nationalism. The critical premise of the Torah of Jewish nationalism that anti-Semitism is a constant and mystical force in history and human nature, ultimately owes as much to the Holocaust as it does to the Russian experience, in which anti-Semitism was indispensably fueled by Russian Orthodox theology.
But this history easily strips the mysticism from the reality, which is of a long legacy of ancient and gruesome tribal warfare between the Khazars and the medieval Slavic tribes. Most notably the Kievan Rus, which ultimately became the Russian Empire, but also likely countless other Eastern European nations, forged their earliest identities in wars of liberation against the Khazar Empire. The great historically philo-Semitic exception of Hungary is supportive of this, as the Khazars were an indispensable part of the Magyar migration.
And through the Yiddish Renaissance and the Bund, the legacy of the Khazars can be extended to the valiant struggle of the last European people to resist the rise of nationalism as both Zionism and European totalitarianism threatened it on two fronts, right up to the darkest of dark moments in the Warsaw Ghetto.
So by the 19th century, the rise of romantic nationalism led rather naturally to its most utterly fantastic proposition – that Europe’s great Yiddish civilization could somehow be merged with the various other small scattered communities across the globe who adhered to Judaism into a restored Jewish nation in Palestine, thus resurrecting with the “eternal nations” of France, Germany, and Italy the parent nation of western civilization itself. But by the time Herzl could get it all off the ground Western Europe was already beginning to move on, and by the time the State itself was founded, two world wars had disillusioned Europe with nationalism forever.
In his groundbreaking essay calling for a binational state, Tony Judt nailed it: “The problem is not, as it is sometimes suggested, that Israel is a European enclave in the Arab world, but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late 19th century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’, a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded, is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
Sand’s great triumph, along with restoring the history of Judaism as a worthy competitor of Christianity and Islam as monotheism triumphed in the wake of the fall of Rome, is to place Zionism’s invention of the Jewish people in its 19th century context to show just how anachronistic it is. Sand thus concludes his work by detailing the genetic research which has been undertaken in just the last several years, since the cracking of the human genome, to prove once and for all that the Jewish people are one, out of the Land of Israel from time immemorial. Sand convincingly argues that this research is of a piece with the discredited racial anthropology at the heart of much of early Zionist (and anti-Semitic) argument and that its methods will ultimately prove to have been equally dubious.
In short, Shlomo Sand may well be remembered – and very possibly within our lifetime – for knocking down the idol of “the Jewish people” as did Spinoza to classical rabbinic orthodoxy. Again, the great Tony Judt: “In cool, scholarly prose, he has, quite simply, normalized Jewish history. In place of the implausible myth of a unique nation with a special destiny – expelled, isolated, wandering and finally restored to its rightful home – he has reconstructed the history of the Jews and convincingly reintegrated that history into the general story of humankind. The self-serving and mostly imaginary Jewish past that has done so much to provoke conflict in the present is revealed, like the past of so many other nations, to be largely an invention.”

Jack Ross

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