Jewish Past/Israeli Future: A Review of The Invention of the Jewish People

The Invention of the Jewish People
by Shlomo Sand
(Verso, 2009)
First published in Hebrew as
Matai Ve’ekh Humtzaa Ha’am Hayehudi
(Resling, 2008)

In the preface to this book’s English-language edition, Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand describes the “odd” reception that his book engendered on its publication in Israel: journalists were interested, academics enraged:

Representatives of the “authorized” body of historians fell on the book with academic fury, and excitable bloggers depicted me as an enemy of the people. Perhaps it was this contrast that prompted the readers to indulge me—the book stayed on the bestseller list for nineteen weeks. 

Sand explains this sharp split among his book’s Israeli readers by pointing to a widening gulf between Israeli’s public intellectuals, many of whom are critical of a strident nationalism based on Jewish ethnic solidarity, and his colleagues in the large history departments of Israeli universities, who are enmeshed in an academic system that separates (and privileges) “Jewish history” from “general history.”

It is a Scandal

In the United States, as we shall see, the response to the book has been even odder. In September, Forward blogger Daniel Treitman’s predicted a furor upon the book’s publication. Soon after, reviewer Hillel Halkin attacked Sand’s credentials (questioning his standing as an historian) even before he attempts to demolish his argument: 

As the work of a supposed historian at the University of Tel Aviv, it is a scandal, a fashionably political screed against Zionism that cherry-picks its data while pretending to be history…

The author of Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Halkin has never been one to hide his political allegiances (which have drifted steadily to the right). In a Forward article from February 2004 he praised neoconservative Norman Podhoretz, writing that “his contribution to the battle for intellectual sanity in twentieth-century America has been, in my opinion a heroic one,” and praises Podhoretz’s “impressive incisiveness and courage.”

For Sand and other Israeli critics on the political Left, Israel’s dilemma is that it insists on the uniqueness and privileged status of the Jewish narrative, while presenting itself—to both its own citizens and to outsiders—as a democracy. Sand refers to Israel as an “ethnic state,” a term borrowed from Oren Yiftachel’s book Ethnocracy: Land and Identity in Politics in Israel/Palestine. For Yiftachel, Sand, and other Israeli critics, the flaw in Israel’s political system is that Israeli nationalism favors the majority over the large Arab minority (twenty percent of the population). The aspiration of these critics is that Israel become “a republic of its citizens,” one in which no ethnic groups would be favored. “Israeli identity” inclusive of Jews, Arabs, and all other residents, rather than “Jewish identity” should be the criterion for inclusion in the polity of the state. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Sand asserted that any definition of the state that relies on a distinction between Jew and non-Jew is an obstacle to democracy, and that

a global ethnocracy invokes the myth of the eternal nation, reconstituted on the land of its ancestors, to justify internal discrimination against its own citizens. It will remain difficult to imagine a new Jewish history while the prism of Zionism continues to fragment everything into an ethnocentric spectrum.

In one of the books many zingers, Sand concretizes these somewhat abstract ideas. Critical of the “Law of Return,” which puts Jews from any country on the fast-track to Israeli citizenship, he condemns a system of law that favors ethnicity over citizenship:

In fact anyone born to a Jewish mother may have the best of both worlds—being free to live in London or New York, confident that the State of Israel is theirs, even if they do not wish to live under its sovereignty. Yet anyone who did not emerge from Jewish loins and who lives in Jaffa or Nazareth will feel that the state in which they were born will never be theirs.

To Read What Has Really Been Written

In what I think was a tactical error, rather than make the citizenship and democracy question the central issue of the book, Sand undermines his argument by making claims about Jewish history that are difficult to substantiate. As one astute commenter on the Haaretz Web site put it, Sand’s book is more about the past than the future. Interviewed by that newspaper’s correspondent, Sand responded strongly to both academic and popular criticism of his thesis.

But it is the book’s claims about the Jewish past that have caused the biggest buzz and generated the strongest condemnation by Israeli historians of the Jewish past. These critics point out that Shlomo Sand’s area of academic expertise is the intellectual history of modern France. His previous book was Intellectuals, Truth and Power—From the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War, published by Israeli’s prestigious press, Am Oved. He is not, nor does he claim to be, a historian of Jews and Judaism.

Two Israeli historians whose specialty is modern Jewish history have criticized Shlomo Sand’s presentation of the Jewish past. Both Israel Bartal and Anita Shapira, senior scholars at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University respectively have responded to Shlomo Sand in scholarly articles. Bartal, playing on the book’s Hebrew title When and How the Jewish People Were Invented, titled his review “Inventing an Invention.” Bartal calls Sand’s book “learned and fascinating.” Despite this limited praise, Bartal’s overall evaluation of the book is damning. He finds many faults with Sand’s historical method. Like most of his Israeli colleagues, Bartal is an historical positivist, and he finds Sand’s “pinch of Foucaultian discourse” disturbing in its “superficiality.” In the concluding paragraph of his review, he condemns Sand’s project and is quite prescient about the buzz that Sand’s book would generate:

The lugubrious Israeli combination of aggressive one-dimensional conceptuality and blatant disrespect for details (a characteristic mix among writers at both ends of the political spectrum) will undoubtedly captivate the hearts of the public relations executives of the electronic media. However, we, the skeptical historians, who are buried between mountains of books and piles of archival files, can only continue to read what has really been written and to write about what has really been read.

Bartal’s Tel Aviv University colleague Anita Shapira is even more damning; her review essay is titled “The Jewish-People Deniers” (a title which evokes that dreaded description “Holocaust denier”). According to Shapira, Sand’s goal of harmony between Jews and Arabs, while reasonable in its own right bears the  “warped and objectionable” requirement that Jews

alone of all the peoples in the region, must shed their national identity and historical memories and reconstruct themselves in a way that may (perhaps) find favor with Israeli-Palestinians. But reconciliation between peoples makes necessary a mutual recognition of truth, not an artificial analysis that presents a fabricated front, a quasi-mask that hides the real differences. What Sand is offering is this kind of artificial analysis.

As Halkin’s review in the Forward illustrates, the book’s somewhat nuanced reception in Israel has not been paralleled in Europe and the United States. In Israel, critics took the book and its author seriously enough to write about its claims extensively. In France, where it was published soon after it appeared in Israel, the book became a bestseller. Sand was given the Prix Aujourd’hui—a prestigious literary prize awarded to the best nonfiction book of the year. As French history is Sand’s field, and he is thoroughly at home in French language and culture, his television and radio appearances were quite successful. But the French Jewish establishment was quite critical of the book.

From Brooklyn to Jerusalem

Thus far, some US journalists have attacked Sand’s ideas—but there have been few full reviews—perhaps because the book is so scholarly and dense. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece on October 30, a critique of the book was embedded in an article by Evan R. Goldstein in the paper’s series “Houses of Worship.” The article focuses on Sand’s argument that most of the Jews of Eastern Europe were descended from the Khazars, an eighth century A.D. Turkic tribe that converted en masse to Judaism. In Goldstein’s reading of Sand:

Put differently: If most Jews are not Semites, then what justification is there for a Jewish state in the Middle East? By attempting to demonstrate the Khazar origins of Eastern European Jewry, Mr. Sand—a self-described post-Zionist who believes that Israel needs to shed its Jewish identity to become a democracy—aims to undermine the idea of a Jewish state.

Remarkably, the New York Times published an article titled “Book Calls Jewish People an Invention” without mentioning the call for political change that is at the heart of the book. Patricia Cohen, the author of the article, makes no claim to have read Sand’s book—and that in itself is both disturbing and revealing.

Though Sand may not always get his historical facts right, he is very astute about the present. Particularly about the fate of scholars engaged in any critique of Israeli government policies: “I know that there are a lot of organized Zionists that cannot accept the sort of criticism that one can voice in Israel. But I want you to know I am not afraid of Alan Dershowitz”.

Highly critical of American Jewish support of the Israeli Right, Sand notes that: “since the late 1970s, the perpetuation of the Jewish ethnos state has paid handsome dividends, and the closer Brooklyn came to Jerusalem, the further was Arab Nazareth removed from the heartbeat of Jewish-Israeli politics. That is why any project that proposed turning Israel into a republic of its citizens has come to seem like a fantasy.”

Because Sand’s claims about the Jewish past can easily be refuted, his critique of the Israeli present—and his concern for the Israeli future—will be summarily dismissed, at least in the United States. The American fate of Israeli books critical of Israeli policies is predetermined: they are bound to fail—both in the actual marketplace, and in the marketplace of ideas. Israel’s Fateful Hour, a 1984 book by Yehoshafat Harkabi, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence in the 1950s, warned of the dire consequences for Israel of the longterm occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The book found no audience in the United States.

In that same Orwellian year, 1984, another book on Israel was published—Joan Peter’s From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. The book’s claim that most of the Arabs of Palestine came to that land (in the 1940s!) as a consequence of the Jewish ‘state-in–the–making’ was dismissed by all serious historians of the area—including mainstream historians at Israel’s universities. But that didn’t stop the book from garnering rave reviews and very large sales. No less a literary lion than Saul Bellow predicted that “millions of people the world over, smothered by false history and propaganda, will be grateful for this clear account of the origins of the Palestinians.

General Harkabi’s book was ignored and forgotten; From Time Immemorial has been in print since the day it was published to great fanfare. What other fate can we expect for Shlomo Sand’s flawed but thought-provoking book?

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