In a recent flurry of comments, Gavin - our resident New Zealander - posited that since most of the Western anti-Israel brigade all use the same talking points, they must all have gotten them from the same source. His candidates for the honor of "Father of the Movement" were Ilan Pappe, foremost, and the Early Benny Morris. (The Latter Benny Morris is a reviled heretic). I would add Avi Shlain. All of them good Israelis, though Pappe and Shlain have ostentatiously left.
It's an interesting point, even if it addresses the How more than the Why. How people know to bolster their prejudices, not Why they've got them in the first place, or Why this particular set of prejudices is so compelling in their minds.
Alongside the basic books, there are fashionable ones, which are widely quoted for a while and then are forgotten. Tom Segev. Norman Finkelstein. Walt-Mearsheimer, perhaps - or maybe they'll stay important for American enemies of Israel, while never really interesting the rest of us. The newest book on this list is Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People. There's a lot of swooning going on about this book, which was quite popular when it came out in Hebrew, and has just been published in English. (Mondoweiss, for example, gushes here).
I haven't read Sand's book. It's on my list, but so are many others. So I won't argue with it head on until I've read it. However, there's a detailed description, with lots of links to lots of reviews. In addition, we've got Tony Judt's review from the Financial Times this week, and Normblog's response to him, yesterday. Norm, like Norm, is always calm, measured, reasonable.
I'm sorry to see Judt back in the fray. He did some damage back in 2002, but then he mostly dropped off the Bad-Israel-scene, and concentrated on his Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 - a truly magnificent book. I'll review it when I finish it (it's almost 900 pages), but can already say it's my best read of this year. If only he'd stick to the things he truly knows about.
One of the critiques of Sand is that he - like Judt - also wrote about things he doesn't know much about. I'd like to address one theme of the book, as summarized in Wikipedia:
Sand began looking for records of the exile from Israel, a constitutive event in Jewish history, but could discover no literature about the Jewish expulsion. His explanation is that no one exiled the people of the country. The Romans sometimes committed ethnocide but they did not exile peoples. Sand claims that mass exile was not logistically possible until the 20th century... The original Jews living in Israel, contrary to the accepted history, were not exiled following the Bar Kokhba revolt. 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. Many 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.
Although I'm a historian by training, it may be that the question of the ethnic origins and cohesion of the Jews needs to be determined not by reading old texts but young DNA. The New York Times ran an item about this nine years ago:
The analysis provides genetic witness that these communities have, to a remarkable extent, retained their biological identity separate from their host populations, evidence of relatively little intermarriage or conversion into Judaism over the centuries.
If you're better qualified than I, you might wish to read some original research on the issue here and here, for starters; there's more where that came from. The scientists seem to be saying the same thing the Jews have been saying all along. Yet what, precisely, have the Jews been saying all along? Judt spells it out as he sees it:
The story went like this. Jews, until the destruction of the Second Temple (in the First century), had been farmers in what is now Israel/Palestine. They had then been forced yet again into exile by the Romans and wandered the earth: homeless, rootless and outcast. Now at last “they” were “returning” and would once again farm the soil of their ancestors.
It is this narrative that the historian Shlomo Sand seeks to deconstruct in his controversial book The Invention of the Jewish People. His contribution, critics assert, is at best redundant. For the last century, specialists have been perfectly familiar with the sources he cites and the arguments he makes. From a purely scholarly perspective, I have no quarrel with this. Even I, dependent for the most part on second-hand information about the earlier millennia of Jewish history, can see that Prof Sand – for example in his emphasis upon the conversions and ethnic mixing that characterise the Jews in earlier times – is telling us nothing we do not already know.
The question is, who are “we”? Certainly in the US, the overwhelming majority of Jews (and perhaps non-Jews) have absolutely no acquaintance with the story Prof Sand tells. They will never have heard of most of his protagonists, but they are all too approvingly familiar with the caricatured version of Jewish history that he is seeking to discredit. If Prof Sand’s popularising work does nothing more than provoke reflection and further reading among such a constituency, it will have been worthwhile.
Alas, I fear Judt (and Sand?) have set up a straw man, and are now knocking him down and expecting the rest of us to be impressed. All they're demonstrating is their own ignorance - since the main Jewish narrative was never what they say it was. As a matter of fact, the second most important document in all of Jewish history, the Talmud, says the opposite. (As do some of the latter books of the Bible).
The Talmud isn't a history book. Yet it contains a wealth of descriptions of time, place, and people. The Mishnaic period was roughly between 30-200 CE, mostly after the destruction of the Temple (70CE). It then went on for about three generations after the Bar Kochva revolt and its ensuing genocide of 132-135CE, though by necessity those last few generations lived in the Galilee, Judea having been destroyed and emptied of Jews. The Amoritic period went on from 200-500CE, more than 350 years after the Roman genocide. In the Mishnaic period the Jewish communities in Erez Yisrael were the center. In the Amoritic period this centrality moved to Bavel, present day Iraq, but there's a perpetual coming-and-going of scholars in both directions. Many discussions in the Talmud distinguish between way things are done in Israel or Bavel. Then of course there's the Jerusalem Talmud, less well known but created entirely in Byzantine-era Israel. It would never occur to anyone with even only a basic acquaintance with the Talmud to suggest that the Romans had exiled all or most of the Jews. They had been harsh rulers; they had killed many Jews and done their best, for a while, to destroy Judaism. But they had failed.
If the traditional Jewish sources depict a slowly sinking Jewish presence and importance in Israel that went on for centuries, with a rise in the significance of communities in luckier, more advanced lands, when can one say that "the Jews" as a nation had truly left? Not until the 7th century, when the Arab invaders arrived, destroyed the local Byzantine rule, and turned the land into a remote backwater. Indeed, study of the Jewish literature shows no important cultural activity until about the 16th century, after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain, when the Jewish community of Safed was arguably the single most important one anywhere.
Is it possible important Jewish historians today don't know this? I suppose. A sign of how little they know.