Thursday, December 10, 2009

Inventing Existent Jews

This post may wander a bit over the hills, but actually it does have a central theme.

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.


David Gleicher said...

I think your central theme is that the most worldwide anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda comes from the pens of Jews in general and Israelis in particular. You've chosen the worst offenders, but recently I've read that Jewish communities have complained that it is Haaretz that undermines their attempts at defending Israel. Even in the States, unfriendly voices in the media can be counted on to support their attacks on Israel by using quotes from the usual suspects---Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar, et al. As for Sand and his ilk, they are the biggest hypocrites of all, attacking Israel while living off the public teat as faculty at our tax-supported universities. If only they would pull a Pappe and leave, so more qualified professors could take their spots.

Menachem Mendel said...

On my blog I recently linked to a discussion about the Jewish common DNA question.

I am surprised by your statement that there was no cultural activity in the Land of Israel from the time of the Arab conquest until the 16th century. During the ninth-tenth centuries the Masoretes standardized the Biblical text and from the Cairo Geniza we now know much more about the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. One only has to look at the studies of Moshe Gil to see that there was a rich Jewish life in the Land of Israel, which while it may not have been as big as some of the diaspora communities, it was still substantial.

This Is Hell said...

If the antisemites assert there are no Jews, then why are they trying to exterminate us? It's like the neonazis who deny that the holocaust occurred and then worship Hitler anyway - why?

Yaacov said...

Point accepted, Menachem. What I was saying, however, is that a Jewish learner interested in Halacha or Midrash or whatever Traditional Jewish topic, would know of the Jews in Erez Israel willy-nilly, so to say, since that's the backgound. I think that's less true for those "empty centuries", in which not much was created in Israel that lies on the neccessary bookshelf of a regular learning Jew.

I also learned thru your blog of the passing of Josef Hayim Jerushalmi. I'll have to blog on him - thanks.

Allen Z. Hertz said...

In this comment the word "People" means --not merely simple genetic ancestry with a greater or lesser degree of admixture with other genetic materials-- but rather something much more culturally and sociologically complex, i.e. a self-identified "People", enjoying both subjective and objective identity, with reference to the modern political and legal doctrines of (1) Aboriginal Rights and (2) the Self-Determination of Peoples. On the genetic side, let it be recognized that, demographically, the Jewish People has been (and continues to be) "a leaking bucket". Had it been otherwise, today there would probably be as many Jews as there are Chinese. Back in the Roman period, the Jewish People had a relatively large population (perhaps several million) which, even before the 70 A.D. destruction of the 2nd Temple was widely spread around the Mediterranean Basin. This means that today all of the the modern Mediterranean Peoples (including the Arabs) probably are to some significant extent partly descended from ancient Jews. But, what does that have to do with the central issue of the modern political and legal doctrines of Aboriginal Rights and the Self-Determination of Peoples? Without reference to all the Jewish demographic losses, it is undeniably true to say that since pre-Bibilical times there has nonetheless --subjectively and objectively-- always been in each and every century a distinct Jewish People, continuously affirming its identity, including large numbers of Jews in the and away Middle East, as well as some always living in their ancestral homeland between the Jordan River and the Sea. There, of all extant Peoples, the Jewish People has far and away the strongest claim to be aboriginal as stated in my April 12, 2009 Jerusalem Post article entitled "Aboriginal Rights to Israel" which --strange to say to say-- probably ranks as the clearest, most logical and authoritative statement of the Jewish's People's right to Israel(also see As for the newly-minted "Palestinian People", whatever their genetic descent, their subjective and objective claim to consitute a distinct People appears to date from the period after 1948 when the name "Israel" was unexpectedly chosen as the designation for the new Jewish State. With Jewish abandonment of the "Palestine" trademark, Arabs there for the first time were able to warm to the idea that they were a distinct "Palestinian" People. Before then, "Palestine" as a name and as a geographical entity was anathema to the Muslims and Arabs there, as an appellation too closely connected to Jews and Zionism. For this reason, both logically and historically, there could have been no distinct "Palestinian" People before 1948. From this optic, it is fair to say that the Palestinian People is now trying to get as "Palestinians" what they have already failed to get as "Muslims" and Arabs" in 1917-1922, when the equities were already considered in the Post-WW I distribution of the Ottoman lands. But, whether they call themselves "Muslims" or "Arabs" or Palestinians", their national self-identity and claims to territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are subsequent to the prior rights of the very ancient Jewish People which, in each and every century, has kept cultural and demographic links to its ancestral homeland. And, this Jewish phenomenon is not unique. For example, the very ancient Greek People has also always kept demographic and cultural links to its homeland in Greece, where they too became a minority in the course of the long centuries before the 19th century revolutions and wars that created modern Greece.

Anonymous said...

Inventing an invention – gosh, these post-zionists surprise us time and again.

Gavin said...

I've never been much chop at putting my thoughts into words so I'll take that on the chin Yaacov. I'm a thinker, I'm not much of a talker. It was actually Efraim Karsh who posited that the likes of Pappe were the root of all evil, I just discovered completely independently that what he warned about more than ten years ago has come to pass. No-one took him seriously then, and I doubt anyone takes me seriously either.

I'm a completely unreligious person, but religion doesn't bother me. I find anti-semiticism extremely offensive however and I have the choice of putting up with it or confronting it. In order to reliably diagnose & fix a fault one has to know how the device works, and people are just very complex devices. For me to confront the anti-semites I undertook to figure out how they worked. What I found is that the history of Israel I learnt in the '70s has been re-written, and the new history is one which people on the left react very powerfully to on an emotional level. No-one on the liberal left who believes the 'new historians' version of Israel history will be a supporter of Israel. That version is now widely disseminated in the west, especially via academia.

I'll offer a suggestion to people here. Next time you have a discussion with someone strongly anti-Israel, quietly probe them for their understanding of Israel's history. Ignore the surface posturing and dig a little. You may be surprised.

In closing, I think you're over-analysing Yaacov. I'd put it that you've got your kooks just like the rest of us have. Unfortunately they're dangerous to you when our's are not. As for Mearsheimer & his kind. They're just simple cowards IMO. They think that US support for Israel threatens the security of the US, which translates into a threat to them. They'd happily dump Israel to save their own skins.

Regards, Gavin.

Yaacov said...

Actually, Gavin, I was being appreciative. No knock on any chin was intended. My apologies if you took it that way.

Maoz said...

Hi Yaacov,

I e-mailed Shlomo Sand with your point. He simply said "read my book." Perhaps he addresses this issue.

zionist juice said...

some weeks ago i saw a video of a lecture of zand in nyu (he introduced himself as a scholar of "jewish origin").
apart from his theory about the beginning of the exile of the jews from their home, he has some ideas, that are even more crucial to his thesis.
he has this idea, that the zionists invented the jewish nation because their were influenced by their environment were nationalism was en voque.
then he goes on and says: but the "jews are not a nation like the french."
he asks: "do we have a common language? can i speack hebrew with you?" and the jews in his audience (some american jews) cannot. there is of course a common jewish language and it is hebrew. the basic books of jews are written in hebrew. just that some cannot understand it doesnt do that any harm(the revitalisation of hebrew as the common spoken language of the jews is probably the biggest contibution zionism made to history).there is also yiddish and ladino. just because they are romanic or germanic languages doesnt matter (zand says yiddish isnt really a jewish language, it is a kind of german he says), only jews speak yiddish.
but in a way he is right. the jewish nation, the concept of the jewish nation isnt like the french or american and also not like the german or russian (or arab).the first are very open only attached to be a citizen (and in the french probably to speak french). the latter are racial, it is all about blood (still!). the jewish concept does not fit in this schemata. so, if zand (as a historian of france) comes now with all his knowledge of french ideology about nationality and then looks how zionists write about the jewish nation, how should he come to another conclusion than that it is an invention (i do not have to point out, that all nations in a way invented themself, but was it herzl a.o. that did so with am israel?).
he also points out, that jews in europe were for a long time seen as a religion. yes, indeed. before nationalism, how should they have be seen different bu people who were christians and who were not organized as a collective but as Untertanen?
but did jews see themself only as a religion and isnt nationalism also very much about self-reflexion?

ps: there is an article in hebrew by anita shapira from tau. it was recommended to me.

pps: the best in zand's lecture was, when he described why he wrote this book only recently, although he had the idea for a long time. he said, he could not write it before he became professor, because there are people in israel (the jewish lobby???) that would have prevented him from becoming professor if he would have published it before (sic!).
in deed somebody should have done that. but because of him being unprofessional.

Gavin said...

Ok, thanks Yaacov. I got the impression I hit a sore point pointing accusatory fingers at your fellow Israelis. It's not my wish to insult or offend people, but I do believe in being constructive and if I think I have something useful to offer I'd be remiss in keeping my trap shut. It's up to others to measure the value.

What I want is a solution to a problem we all acknowledge and yet have no answer to. I'm impatient, and I'm a problem solver by nature. Anti-semiticism exists, it's getting worse, and all of us who find it abhorrent need to come up with ways of combatting it. Your musing on Jewish & Israeli history & culture has given me the knowledge to at least neutralise the bigots I come across, but unfortunately it's not a universal solution. (takes too much time)

I think that the broad brush of anti-semticism is inappropriate for todays environment. There's numerous subsets of antisemiticism now, and each is driven by different motives and reasoning. Each needs to be dealt with differently. Some of those subsets can be turned or at least neutralised, some are just haters and will never be reasoned with.

I don't think there's need for any introspection over the likes of Pappe, Sands etc. All it says is you've got your whackos same as the rest of us. They really are unremarkable, you should see some of the nutters we have. The only difference is we don't have enemies who will use out nutters against us. It's their wilful recklnessness, the refusal to weigh or accept the consequences of their actions, which should be condemned.... not the fact that you have 'em..

Regards, Gavin.

Anonymous said...

" Sand claims that mass exile was not logistically possible until the 20th century..."
I am not sure what exile is:
having recently finished the 3 volume history of Byzantium by J.J. Norwich I remember distinctly that they did vast movements of people whenever local power bases developped that seemed to have the potential to threaten the capital. When they took one bunch of troublesome population to another part of the country they may have called it whatever, just as they may have called it resettlement when they filled up the now empty land with their devote followers.

And as to the prominent slanderers here is another one. From everything I read Eagleton is a highly respected egg-head, so when he writes a lie like this one it a) doesn't hurt him much because he is overall such a great one ;-) and b) gets Israel talked about again. Because what are you to do? You cannot let a false statement stand if it is by somebody as eminent as this guy seems to be. So whoever puts up that crap got the sober rest of us in a neat Catch 22, because while we have to take the lie seriously Eagleton will always be let off after a simple "oops, got that one wrong, must have happened because it would just have fitted the general picture so well ...";-(((

"But his political sensitivity lets him down when he refers to “the Israeli massacres of Palestinians in Jordan in 1971”, by which he presumably means the Black September of 1970 when King Hussein’s forces, not the Israelis, killed some 3,000 Palestinian insurgents in Jordan."

Anonymous said...

Someone needs to ask Eagleton what he meant. It's possible he intended to say 'Israeli instigated massacres'.

As far as his being respected, undoubtably he is by some. Others have always been of the opinion that the Marxist-Christian axis is the epitome of oxymoronic nuttery.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

It doesn't detract from your point, but I think it is an overstatement to say that there was "no important cultural activity until about the 16th century." And starting when? The Masoretes continued their work for several centuries past the 7th, if I'm not mistaken. Also, any place with the Ramban living in it is certainly on the Jewish cultural map. The Bartenura also lived for over a decade in Israel. Maybe "about the 16th century" can include the last decade of the 15th, but you see what I mean.
Anti-Zionists frequently also make use of the false notion that Israel was Jewishly empty for "2000 years," so I think it is important to stress that you can't traverse too much history without finding something of Jewish intellectual significance in Israel.

NormanF said...

Jews always survived in Eretz Israel even as a minority for centuries. I don't think Sand can prove a negative doesn't exist, that Judaism is a form of false consciousness. Jews never gave up the notion of the restoration of their independence, even in the idealized spiritual form recorded in ancient Jewish prayers.