Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People

I have been so impressed by Shlomo Sand's book, The Invention of the Jewish People, that here I am reproducing the review of it I wrote for Goodreads.com

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I have written reviews of many books here. If there is one above all the rest that I would like others to read it would be this one.

Regardless of the country you call home, it rests on a foundation of myths, stories of the distant past that unite the citizenry. Israel is no exception, yet the story of the historical Jews is one that more people in the United States are familiar with that that of any other people.

Shlomo Sand begins his book discussing definitions - what are a people? What is a nation? With his terms defined, he looks at the story of the Jews and how it relates to what has been discovered (or not) by archeology, philology (language study) and archival research.

He takes us from the founding myth of the Jews as a tribe descended from Abraham, in captivity in Egypt, escaping in the Exodus, wandering in the desert for 40 years, defeating the Canaanites, living under kings David and Solomon, exiled to Babylon, returning to Judea, expelled by the Romans and continuing on to the present in Israel.

There's only one problem. Except for the Babylonian exile, none of this account of the Jews in ancient times holds up. There is no evidence for any of it and plenty of facts that deny it. The central fact is that there was never any expulsion of the Jews by the Romans after the Jewish revolt was suppressed in 70 CE.

But the facts are no less interesting than the myth. Did you know there was a Jewish Khazar empire between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea? Did you know there was a long period (400 years) of enthusiastic conversion to Judaism prior to the coming of Christianity? Did you know there was a Jewish warrior queen in north Africa and a Jewish kingdom in what is now Yemen?

Sand effectively makes the case that the vast majority of today's Jews have no connection by birth to the Jews of ancient Palestine. The Palestinians of today are more likely related to the Jews of ancient times. Today's Jews are descendants of converts to Judaism. It is impossible to define the Jews by genetics, only by religion.

So where did the mythology come from? It is based on the Biblical account and even that was never considered to be based on hard facts until the coming of Zionism put it to use to create the body of people who would become the people of modern Israel - it was a script, made concrete and embellished by those with an agenda for creating a new country.

And the agenda continues to be followed by historians in the modern state of Israel. One of the most remarkable things mentioned by Sand is the complete lack of scholarly research into the origins of modern Jewry by anyone in Israel. Why? Because it would contradict the story of the nation, the story that is in Israeli textbooks used in Israeli schools to teach history.

The overwhelming evidence for the origin of the Yiddish-speaking millions of eastern Europe (destroyed or driven out by the end of WW2) is the Khazar empire and not Germany. The Sephardim of Spain and north Africa came not from ancient Palestine but from converts to Judaism. There is no Jewish gene, just as there is no Anglican or Methodist or Catholic gene.

The book concludes by an examination of the dilemma of modern Israel - a country that denies there is such a thing as an Israeli or an Israeli culture. Citizens of Israel are defined as Jews quite intentionally to connect them to the Jews of the world and to disconnect them from the Palistino-Israelis, the Arab citizens of Israel who make up a fifth of the population of the country, but are denied acknowledgment as full citizens.

Israelis allow orthodox religious Jews to determine who is a Jew for the purpose of citizenship precisely to maintain the connection to world Jewry as a pseudo-biological link. This mythological link allows Israel to take in foreigners (in all but religion) as rightful heirs to the land while denying legitimacy to those who have actually been living on the land, the Palestinian. It's an inherently unstable situation that cannot continue indefinitely. The book is a warning that things must change in the direction of a true democracy and away from an "ethnocracy".

The Invention of the Jewish People is a riveting read during which Sand systematically and very clearly demolishes myth under the bright light of solid research. In the process he introduces the people who built the myth to epic proportions and relates how they did so. Shlomo Sand is a credit to his profession. Bravo!

P.S. It appears that Bible study in Israeli schools is not thorough enough. In this article, the Israeli Education Minister says "No doubt there was a need for change in the Bible study program, which veered away from the actual folktales". In America we keep religious study completely out of our public schools and we have also escaped the cowboys and Indians historical mythology that mis-educated young Americans for so long. In Israel, it seems there is a need for more emphasis on the mythology that Professor Sand debunks in his book, so that the good guys can continue to be distinguished from the bad guys.

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