Inventing History from Thin Air
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People
What if you wished to explode as myth a consensus national narrative? The ultimate dream of an iconoclast. How would you go about it, if you wished to be taken seriously? Would you seriously study the narrative, sifting through its content and its details, plumbing its historical depth and breadth? Would you strive mightily to understand it's compelling force, and trace the causes of its vitality?
Or would you create a shallow straw-man caricature and poke triumphal holes in it? Would you collect any shred of complication and shadow of uncertainty, string them together regardless of coherence, and refuse to recognize any attempts of synthesis? Would you brand adherents as malicious fools who invent and believe falsehoods?
Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People, disdains the serious options and embraces the trite. The history of the Jews as an ancient nation is false, he claims; rather, the Jewish people are an artificial and unnatural invention, conjured in the 19th century and embellished in the 20th. Had he backed this with seriousness it might at least have been challenging. Instead, the result is a cringe inducing piece of astonishingly unconvincing scholarship.
The straw-man caricature: Sand seems to have read quite a bit about modern European nationalism. As he tells it, in the 19th century intellectuals overemphasized the longevity and coherence of their national pasts to bolster the national cohesiveness, strengthen its credibility and generally convince people how important their nation needed to be for them. Later, as the 20th century waned, these goals fell out of fashion, and the histories were changed to fit the new, multi-cultural Zeitgeist. This new narrative, we are expected to accept, is solidly true where its cynical and manipulative predecessors were not.
Sand neglects to discuss the non-Western world. Do his paradigms fit Asia, Africa, the Arab world or Latin America? He doesn't say. Yet he insists Jewish nationalism is European and shares its trajectory. As early European nationalism was based on bad history, so that of the Jews.
Sand never claims the Jewish religion is invented: it was the nation. The idea that Jews are a nation and share common ethnic roots was invented in the 1850s by Heinrich Graetz, who was copying German intellectuals. The Germans were busy inventing mythical Teutonic roots for the German Völk, so Graetz invented a Jewish version in which the Bible was about a specific ethnic group which was twice exiled yet managed to survive in ethnic purity all the way until the 19th century. The idea was taken up by Simon Dubnov, and through him passed to the intellectuals of Zionism who convinced the Jews that since they were direct descendents, it was time to return. Israeli historians continue to tout the myth, but Shlomo Sand has freed himself.
What did happen? After all, Graetz or not, the Jews have demonstrably been around for quite some time? In Sand's telling, back in the 8th and 7th century BCE there were two small kingdoms. Israel was the larger, older and more developed; Judah, to its south, was a motley collection of perhaps twenty villages. Admittedly, there was a house of David (for which there is external archeological evidence), but it had no regional significance. Unfortunately for Israel, it was defeated in the 8th century by the Assyrians, while Judah was conquered by the Babylonians only in the 6th. In the meantime, the Judeans had absorbed refugees from Israel and began inventing a glorious mutual past. Some exiled intellectuals picked up an early form of Persian Monotheism and at the end of the 6th century brought it back to Jerusalem. Their descendents then spent 300 years reworking old legends into the Old Testament as we know it. The Hasmonean kingdom is too well documented to have been invented, but Sand is eager to remind us how Hellenistic it actually was. It also forcibly converted the Edomites, south of Jerusalem, and this launched 1,500 years of large scale Jewish proselytizing. The Romans didn't exile anyone. Jewish Proselytizers and slaves spread their religion far and wide, eventually reaching 8% of the citizenry of the Roman Empire (mostly women). After Christianity proved better at proselytizing the Jews still converted tribes in Arabia, Yemen, and the Berbers. The final large group to be converted were the Khazars, who are the forebears of most European Jews. Yiddish is originally a Turkish language, witness the words dovenen and Yarmulka. The descendants of all these people remained Jews, until in the 20th century:
Forgetting the forced Judaizition and the great voluntary proselytization was essential for the preservation of a linear timeline, along which, back and forth, from past to present and back again, moved a unique nation – wandering, isolated, and, of course, quite imaginary (p.189).
Shoddy scholarship: Of course, the Bible says quite clearly that the Kingdom of Israel was the larger of the two – remember ten tribes vs. two? The prophets never tired of castigating popular pagan practices, so the idea that Monotheism wasn't a monopoly isn't exactly new. The whole point of the original Hasmonean revolt was a reaction against Hellenic influences, and the last generations before the destruction of the 2nd Temple were rife with internal Jewish strife, some of it violent. Of course there was an important Jewish presence in the Galilee (but not in Judea) for centuries after the Roman wars: who created the Mishna and the Jerusalem Talmud? And anyway, hasn't Sand himself just granted a Jewish presence in the land now known as Israel since at least the 10th century BCE? Are there many modern nations who can quibble about whether their roots go back 3,200 years or merely 2,800? What exactly is the point of Sand's argument?
The point is that he's not arguing, he's proclaiming. At every juncture of his story he always accepts the most skeptical interpretation on offer, even if this requires intellectual acrobatics (e.g. the Romans exiled no-one, but Jewish slaves propounded Judaism throughout the empire). He never presents a spectrum of interpretations and explains his choice. When no-one has plausible proof for a pet speculation – say, that the Khazars who disappeared from history in the 13th century fathered the millions of Eastern Europe's Jews of the 19th – he invents: Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls and wore caftans, Jews in the West didn't, so they can't be of the same stock. Hence they must be Khazars (p.238ff).
Academia being what it is, each of Sand's propositions could have been the trailhead for a fascinating tour through the historical evidence and its modern interpretations; some of his statements might even withstand the scrutiny, others, inevitably, less so. Yet that would have required a very long lifetime of scholarship. Sand prefers to string together the outliers and to fashion their separate notions into a unified narrative, even as he silences all dissenting voices – assuming he even knows they're there.
His treatment of the original sources is even worse.
Whatever the biological origins of the Jews, the story they've been telling themselves about themselves is very old indeed. Allow me to suggest that the Jews are the people who have been telling themselves the Jewish story all along – so whether there once were Jews in Arabia, Berber North Africa or pre-historical Ukraine is insignificant if their descendants long since stopped participating in the communal discussion, the joint reading of ancient books and the never-ending creation of new layers of interpretation.
The thing about the Jews is that they've left a paper trail a mile wide. The oddest thing about Sand is that he seems blissfully unaware of it.
I expected my attackers to claim that I lacked a proper knowledge of Jewish history… But it seemed to me that to spend my life at Tel Aviv University amid its vast collections of volumes and documents about Jewish history without taking time to read and tackle them would have been a betrayal of my profession. (p.X)
Fair enough. How then to explain that his method of disproving the accepted wisdom is to disregard its entire library, to castigate some modern cherry-picked interpretations, and to proclaim himself the winner. It's bizarre. Throughout his book, there is no indication he has ever read a single page of the Talmud, (his rare quotations are from secondary sources), nothing to convince he has heard of the excruciatingly complex process through which Jewish law evolves nor what's in it, or that he tried to piece together the lines of communication that held the Jews together. He seems not to have opened a Jewish prayer book: itself a fascinating historical document.
Much of the literature he never looked at is legal (halachic), or literary interpretation (midrash). It's not well adapted to inform about earlier historical events. Yet if one makes the effort it can be an excellent source to learn about the conditions in which its authors lived. The Talmud, for example, offers a wealth of information about the lives of the Jews in the five centuries during which it was created.
Had Sand been interested in post-destruction Jews, he'd have encountered a thriving Jewish community in the Galilee mourning its exile from Jerusalem and Judea – rather further, one might note, than the exile West Bank and Gaza Palestinians suffer from the homes their parents left in Israel. He'd understand that the Jewish communities were forever bolstering their defenses against assimilation and integration, even if with varying levels of success. He could never have overlooked the intensity of the obsession with Jerusalem, the Land of Israel and their utter centrality to Jewish identity, because Jerusalem is mentioned more than 36,000 times in the pre-modern Jewish literature, and the rest of the land thousands of times. Ultimately, he would have had to confront the easily documentable fact that large numbers of Jews who made their way to Israel in the 20th century had never heard of Graetz, Dubnov, Dinur or any other Zionist historians, nor have their grandchildren, yet they recognized their connection to the land they were moving to and living in.
The fact that this is all absent from Sand's thesis is, quite simply, unbelievable.
Blanket denigration: Sand's father was a life-long Communist, so he is also: ultimately, it may be that simple. His book is infused with a classical Marxist style of thought: if you're with us, you're right; if you disagree with us it's because you're of the wrong camp. Political identity trumps cognitive ability and rational inquiry is subordinate to politically ordained ideology.
There's no original research in the book; specialists have developed the various sub-plots and Sand synthesizes. In recent months I've taken to asking scholars who know more about the specifics than I what their positions are: historians, archeologists, geneticists. So far, they've generally conceded that knowing the past is an imprecise matter, but that they don't find the deniers of Jewish history very convincing. Sand would take this as proof: the people I've been talking to are all Zionists, so obviously they're incapable of rational inquiry and by definition must be biased.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than his treatment of genetics.
The irony of the discussion is that while genetic genealogy is still in its infancy, it has the potential to resolve the discussion of Jewish ethnic cohesion once and for all. The nosedive in the cost of DNA sequencing, the growing ability to crunch imaginary amounts of data, and progress in understanding what DNA can teach us will result, probably within a decade or two, in the ability to map the genealogy of all humanity, should there be any interest. It may never be possible to know what uneducated Jews throughout the centuries thought about their identity – but it may be possible to know, with reasonable clarity, where they came from and who their descendents are.
The specialists will be able to know, that is. The rest of us will tag along. Unless we're non-specialists of Sand's school, who don't need to understand how scientific knowledge is acquired, so long as they know the political identity of the scientists:
But in a state which the law prevents marriage between a "Jew" and a "non-Jew" [this is not actually so], we should be very wary about research that seeks genetic markers common to the "chosen people". Like similar investigations carried out by Macedonian racists, Lebanese Phalangists, Lapps in northern Scandinavia and so on, such Jewish-Israeli research cannot be entirely free from crude and dangerous racism (p.279).
Like Bolshevists rejecting bourgeoisie knowledge for its authors rather than its scholarship, Sand has no need to engage with Israelis: they're racists, after all. QED.
Finally, a word about integrity. As of this writing, within a year of the publication of the English version of Sand's book, it is ranked at 26,000 on Amazon. While this is an imprecise indicator, sales don't seem to be going very well. 4,000 copies, perhaps 8,000. Yet those of us who follow the anti-Israeli Zeitgeist know that Sand's thesis about the fictional Jewish people is very popular. Apparently his audience sees no need even to read him. The existence of his book is enough.