Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jewish Golden Age - Shlomo Sand

At a certain stage in the 19th century intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people "retrospectively," out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and went back to its birthplace

In this, they did not differ from other national movements in Europe at the time

They invented a splendid Golden Age . for example, classical Greece, the ancient 'Belgians', the Dutch 'Bataven' or the Teutonic tribes . to prove they have existed as a separate people since the beginnings of history

Before this, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion not a common ethnic background.

The idea of Jews being obliged to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism before the birth of Zionism and that the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. On the contrary, for 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem because their religion forbade them from returning until the Messiah came. According to Sand, most of the Central and Eastern European Jews hail from the mediæval Turkish Khazars who were converted to Judaism


Jewish Golden Age

Book review: Shlomo Sand's "The Invention of the Jewish People"

Raymond Deane, 22 October 2009

In 1967 the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish published his poem "A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies," only to be accused of "collaboration with the Zionist enemy" for his sympathetic depiction of an Israeli soldier's remorse of conscience. Forty years later that soldier has identified himself as the historian Shlomo Sand. He has translated his remorse into a book that has become a bestseller in Israel and France, where the award of the Prix Aujourd'hui has made the author something of a TV star.

Indeed, few recent books have aroused more interest and been more frequently reviewed in the US and Europe prior to the appearance of an English version. Translator Yael Lotan has chosen to follow the example of her French predecessors by telescoping the interrogative Hebrew title (When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?), which here becomes The Invention of the Jewish People, thus misleadingly and (deliberately?) provocatively implying that such inventiveness was unique to the Jews. However, Sand clarifies that worldwide in the 19th century "The national project was ... a fully conscious one ... It was a simultaneous process of imagination, invention, and actual self-creation" (45).

Sand traces how Zionist ideology drove the project of Jewish nationalism by turning Judaism "into something hermetic, like the German Volk ..." (255). He argues that history and biology were enlisted "to bind together the frangible secular Jewish identity." Together, these engendered an "ethnonationalist historiography" which was typified by the mid-19th century German Jewish historian Heinricht Graetz and his friend Moses Hess, who "needed a good deal of racial theory to dream up the Jewish people" (256).

According to Sand, the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple in 70 AD left the indigenous Jewish population of Judea and Samaria in place. "[T]he Romans never deported entire peoples. It did not pay to uproot the people of the land, the cultivators of produce, the taxpayers" (130). Furthermore, at that time there were already Jewish communities numbering up to four million persons in Persia, Egypt, Asia Minor and elsewhere (145). Palestine's status as the unique "ancestral homeland" of the Jews collapses together with the myth of David and Solomon's imposing kingdom.

Against the ethno-biological concept of a Jewish people -- a "race" -- whose linear descendants returned from exile to (re)found today's Israel, Sand posits a religious community proliferating throughout and beyond the Mediterranean region by means of proselytism and conversion. He offers a detailed rebuttal of the conventional wisdom whereby "Judaism was never a proselytizing religion," a view disseminated by historian Martin Goodman and others (150, note 42).

Most importantly, he concentrates attention on Khazaria, that "Strange Empire" that flourished in the Caspian region between the seventh and tenth centuries AD. By the eighth century the Khazars had adopted Hebrew as their sacred and written tongue, and "[a]t some stage between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth centuries, the[y] ... adopted Jewish monotheism" (221). Sand speculates that this conversion was calculated to save them from absorption into either the Roman or the Islamic empires. The Khazars, he contends, engendered those Askhenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe who would later invent the myths of Zionism to justify their colonization of Palestine, a land to which they had no "ethnic" connection and where they remain the dominant elite.

So if the exile was a myth -- fomented, Sand writes, by the Christian church as an image of divine punishment ("The Wandering Jew") -- what happened to the indigenous Jews? Sand's answer: they converted to Islam and survive as today's disinherited Palestinians. This seemingly radical thesis was once shared by, among others, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister who in 1918 still believed that (in Sand's words) "the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam ... for material reasons ... Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland" (186).

Ultimately, the case against the Jewish state cannot be based on an unseemly tussle for genetic primacy, but on a discourse of fundamental political and human rights. Sand turns toward such a discussion in the final chapter, describing it as the raison d'etre of The Invention of the Jewish People, which he admits essentially contains nothing not already found in the work of other historians and archaeologists.

Today's Israel is not a democracy but a "liberal ethnocracy" (307) that assumes its "growing and strengthening" Arab minority "will always accept its exclusion from the political and cultural heart" (309). Ultimately we may see "an uprising in the Arab Galilee, followed by iron-fisted repression," which would constitute "a turning-point for the existence of Israel" in the region. Hence, Sand states that the ideal solution would be the creation of a democratic binational state.

Sadly, Sand hastily dismisses this "ideal project." In terms all too drearily reminiscent of Zionist apologetics he states that to "ask the Jewish Israeli people, after such a long and bloody conflict, and in view of the tragedy experienced by many of its immigrant founders in the twentieth century, to become overnight a minority in its own state may not be the smartest thing to do" (311-312). Instead, he falls back on a sequence of rhetorical questions: "[h]ow many Jews would be willing to forgo the privileges they enjoy in the Zionist state? ... will anyone dare to repeal the Law of Return ... ? To what extent is Jewish Israeli society willing to discard the ... image of the 'chosen people,' and to cease ... excluding the 'other' from its midst?"

What is behind this sorry post-Zionist anti-climax to a book that seemed to presage a heady anti-Zionist conclusion? In an interview Sand admitted that he "waited until [he] was a full professor" before publishing the book, adding that there "is a price to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort." In providing the premises for radical conclusions without either drawing or excluding those conclusions, Sand has the best of both worlds with few if any consequences.

Ultimately, Shlomo Sand is a little like Moses, unable to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The journey so far, however, is instructive, and very stylishly accomplished; one hopes that the "soldier dreaming of white lilies" may eventually be emboldened to complete it.


Shlomo Zand

born 10 September 1946, is professor of history at Tel Aviv University and author of the controversial book The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso Books, 2009). His main areas of teaching are nationalism, film as history and French intellectual history

Sand was born in Linz, Austria, to Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. His parents had Communist and anti-imperialist views and refused to receive compensations from Germany for their suffering during the Second World War. Sand spent his early years in a displaced persons camp, and moved with the family to Jaffa in 1948. He was expelled from high school at the age of sixteen, and only completed his bagrut following his military service. He eventually left the Union of Israeli Communist Youth (Banki) and joined the more radical, and anti-Zionist, Matzpen in 1968. Sand resigned from Matzpen in 1970 due to his disillusionment with the organisation.

He declined an offer by the Israeli Communist Party Rakah to be sent to do cinema studies in Poland, and in 1975 Sand graduated with a BA in History from Tel Aviv University. From 1975 to 1985, after winning a scholarship, he studied and later taught in Paris, receiving an MA in French History and a PhD for his thesis on "George Sorel and Marxism". Since 1982, Sand has taught at Tel Aviv University as well as at the University of California, Berkeley and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.

n his book Matai ve.ech humtza ha.am hayehudi? (The Invention of the Jewish People), "[Sand] tries to prove that the Jewish people never existed as a "nation-race" with a common origin, but rather is a colorful mix of groups that at various stages in history adopted the Jewish religion. He argues that for a number of Zionist ideologues, the mythical perception of the Jews as an ancient people led to truly racist thinking".

One component of Sand's argument is that the people who were the original Jews living in Israel, contrary to what is official, accepted history, were not exiled following the Bar Kokhba revolt. He has suggested that much of the present day world Jewish population are individuals, and groups, who converted to Judaism at later periods. Additionally, he suggests that the story of the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. Sand writes that "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God." Sand argues that most of the Jews were not exiled by the Romans, and were permitted to remain in the country. He puts the number of those exiled at tens of thousands at most. He further argues that many of the Jews converted to Islam following the Arab conquest, and were assimilated among the conquerors. He concludes that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were Jews.

Sand's explanation of the birth of the myth of a Jewish people as a group with a common, ethnic origin has been summarized as follows: "[a]t a certain stage in the 19th century intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people "retrospectively," out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and went back to its birthplace."

He also comments that: "It is true that I am an historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period. (...)", and that: "I.ve been criticised in Israel for writing about Jewish history when European history is my specialty. But a book like this needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world."

Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people in Europe and Central Asia who converted to Judaism at various times


The book was in the best-seller list in Israel for 19 weeks.

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posted by u2r2h at 11:47 AM

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