Few studies of Jewish history have been more discussed and more disparaged in recent times than Shlomo Sand’s 2008 work, The Invention of the Jewish People. Translated into English in 2009, this controversial piece has reached an international audience and prompted much discussion in the Jewish and academic world about the study and its place in a contemporary understanding of Jewish history and the Israeli national narrative.
Critics have condemned the work as an attempt to fundamentally delegitimize the Jewish historical narrative and the concept of Jewish peoplehood altogether. Those who praise it have argued that Sand has provided a more democratic, inclusive, and egalitarian foundation from which to conceive of Jewish identity and upon which to base Israeli citizenship. In my estimation, The Invention of the Jewish People succeeds in neither endeavor.
While the work is openly critical of Zionist interpretations of history, one could certainly incorporate Sand’s historiography into contemporary discussions of Jewish history he collects without doing any violence to the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Alternatively, his treatment of national identity is so selectively conceived that it a priori denies the practical possibility of a Jewish national culture. Based on his analysis, one must conclude that Zionism is an entirely imagined and racially exclusive nationalism, totally lacking in popular legitimacy, imposed by a driven ideological elite, which must be erased to achieve a just Israeli society. The study as a whole is so overlaid with such claims of “inherent” ethnocentrism of the Zionist project, that one must wonder why he could ever believe that his book would be received positively or constructively.
To his credit, Sand does offer a though-provoking alternative history to the mainstream Zionist narrative which largely sees Jewish history as an unbroken historical and perhaps biological chain dating back to the ancient kingdom of Judea, the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and the biblical patriarchs’ first sojourns in the land of Canaan. In its place, the author calls into question the historical validity of the Exodus, the conquest of the land by the former Israelite slaves, the vast Davidic kingdom of Judea, and, most importantly, the final exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel after the failed Great Revolt against the Roman Empire in 70 CE.
None of these claims are particularly controversial in the world of critical biblical scholarship nor are they unfamiliar to most prominent scholars of Jewish history. Middle East historians and archaeologists have long sought, seemingly in vain, for historical evidence of the biblical Exodus from Egypt in the Sinai desert and in the annuls of ancient Egypt, while the search for historical confirmation of the Davidic Israelite kingdom and its successors remains a primary occupation of archaeologists and historians throughout Israel. These narratives have played an undoubtedly important role in defining Israeli national culture and identity even as their precise historical validity are deemed somewhat circumspect. Both Yael Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots and Nadia Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground explore these themes in some depth, although to varying degrees of ideological im/partiality.
So too have themes of exile (galut) and redemption (geulah), founded on images of forced national exile at the hands of the Roman legions, been built into Zionist ideology of Jewish return to the land. Sand highlights that such an exile, to the degree to which it has been traditionally described, likely never actually occurred. This strongly suggested by the fact that little historical evidence exists to suggest that the Romans ever engaged in mass extermination or exile of other rebellious peoples. There is also a wealth of documentation that Jews continued to live in Israel, rebel against Roman authorities (the Bar Kokhba Revolt being the most obvious example), carry on their religious scholarship, engage in commerce, and increasingly assimilate into the imperial culture.
Nor does Sand claim to be presenting historical evidence which is particularly new, insisting that almost all the materials with which he engages were previously uncovered by Zionist and Israeli historiographers. “The difference,” he asserts, “is that some elements had not been given sufficient attention, others were immediately swept under the historiographers’ rug, and still others were ‘forgotten’ because they did not fit the ideological needs of the evolving national identity” (xi). This may be true particularly with regard to belief that the Jewish experience in galut was a temporary interruption between exile and return to the Land of Israel where national development was essentially static. However, at least since the establishment of the state, narratives of uninterrupted Jewish residence in the land have arguably been at least as important as narratives of Jewish exile and return, in legitimizing the existence and boundaries of the Jewish state.
Where Sand has stirred much more controversy is in his treatment of this long interim of Jewish history between the final loss of Jewish sovereignty in the land following the Roman crushing of subsequent Jewish revolts in the late first to mid second century CE to the birth of contemporary Zionism in the late 19th century. It is the author’s contention that more important than the supposed failure of Zionist scholars and ideologues to adequately problematize the “bible as history” is their denial of the role of proselytization and conversion as the historical and ethnic heritage of modern Jewry.
In Sand’s account, ancient Judeans can only account for an insignificant if non-existent portion of the population who today consider themselves to be Jewish. Whoever the ancient Judeans might have been, they likely assimilated into the dominant cultures of their day who occupied the land, be they Roman, Christian-Byzantine, or Muslim-Arab. Moreover, those Jewish centers which did emerge outside of the land of Israel, he argues, could only have been populated by converts rather than by exiled, displaced, or otherwise “wandering” Jews. This trope, Sand believes, is drawn more from Christian narratives of Jewish dispossession as penalty for the crucifixion of Jesus than the actual Jewish historical experience. To that effect, he particularly highlights the ancient Khazar empire, which he argues most certainly became Jewish through conversion rather than migration or intermarriage. The Jewish religion, with its “more onerous requirements,” was adopted by its rulers “as a defensive ideological weapon” against the mighty empires of the day, namely the Orthodox Byzantines and Abbasid Muslim Caliphate (222).
Tracing the migratory patterns of the Khazars after the dismemberment of the Caucasian empire and the existence of Turkish elements in Yiddish dialects of the region, he argues that Eastern Europe’s sizeable Jewish population should be more likely attributed to the descendants of Khazar converts than ancient Judeans (245-247). In the end, Sand asserts that “the further we move from religious norms and the more we focus our research on diverse daily practices, the more we discover that there never was a secular ethnographic common denominator between the Jewish believers in Asia, Africa and Europe. World Jewry had always been a major religious culture. Though consisting of various elements, it was not a strange, wandering nation” (248).
For the author, this conclusion serves two purposes. First, that if Jewish culture and religious practice was once so welcoming or actively seeking of converts, it should do away with its contemporary stringent requirements for joining the fold and be much more welcoming of the other than its current “ethnocentric” approach allows. Second, and perhaps more damning, it is to suggest that the Jews of today are by no means the biological descendants of the ancient Judeans and therefore not the rightful inheritors of the land of Israel.
As I am not a historian, I leave it to others to challenge and explore Sand’s interpretation of Jewish history, and certainly many many scholars already have. It is worth noting, however, that the “controversial” historian, by the very nature of his work, has a freedom of comment not enjoyed by those who seek to actually engage with the mainstream. Positioning himself outside the tainted scholarship of “authorized historians,” he may propose new interpretations of history as fact while rejecting reasonable criticism as the product of “the establishment” hell-bent on suppressing his message. Where audiences are already ideologically predisposed to the author’s political message, they too treat criticism of his scholarship as an ad hominem attack on his personal credibility.
With this in mind, where I can profitably comment is on Sand’s particular use of the nationalism literature to justify his condemnation of the Zionist national project. It is my sense that the historical evidence he brings to bear largely fail to support his political conclusions. This is no small part a product of his embrace of Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson’s approaches to nationalism which emphasize the intentional elite construction of group identity (while ignoring their emphasis on the importance of texts and other preexisting shared cultural references) coupled with his outright rejection of Anthony Smith’s approach which assigns value to the symbolic and narrative elements of nationalism as constitutive of collective identity.
In Gellner’s formulation, national identities are produced from the top-down, where once exclusive clerical knowledge and cultural tropes of elites are adapted for mass consumption with the rise of modernization. Assuming a concurrent withering of religion as a basis for collective identification and an increased need of political elites to exercise active control over the masses, unifying cultural tropes are gathered and disseminated by elites to ensure order and allegiance to the political center. For Anderson, the pattern is less intentional but the product is much the same; through the development of the printing press and mass literacy, people become acculturated to a shared narrative over which political elites seek to exercise control. In both approaches, national identity may draw from a shared identification, generally against some concrete other, but its definition and expression is deemed to be a new, elite-driven phenomenon.
This perspective serves Sand’s narrative well in that he presumes competing historical narratives and dissimilar ethnic origins among diverse peoples must be erased, silenced, or forgotten in order to forge a common identity. If the Jewish People are indeed an agglomeration of disparate ethnic groups with little to no shared frame of cultural reference, the logic certainly follows that such a process of top-down selection must occur to form a basis for national culture. Such an approach, so the author’s logic goes, necessarily relies upon exclusive definitions of identity.
Lacking a common language, ethnic origin, or geographical boundaries, coupled with diverse cultural and religious practices, the nascent national group must either seek common group with those peoples with whom they are already surrounded or enforce an imagined, presumably biological or historical, basis for unity. The former approach is typified as “civic nationalism” and has been identified with the assimilation of diverse peoples into a single national culture as was presumably the case in western Europe such as France and the British Isles. The second, “romantic nationalism,” has been argued to have its origins particularly in the eastern European experience. Responding to the emergence of nation-states and popular civic nationalism in the west, leaders in the east sought to legitimize their rule along similar lines, but following a more exclusive historical narrative whereby traditional patronage networks and political authority could be preserved.
Whereas entry into civic nation-states could presumably be achieved by identifying with dominant culture, romantic nationalism largely excludes the possibility of voluntary entry lacking the required historical or biological pedigree. The contemporary Israeli experience, according to Sand, is some sinister combination of the two. Zionism both enforces a shared identity upon disparate people who he believes have no meaningful basis for a common culture while defining this group in such a way that it excludes the possibility of voluntary entry. Therefore, the Jewish state is simultaneously composed of a presumably artificial and wholly imagined people yet maintains ethnocentric cultural boundaries.
Without any reference to the contemporary politics of the state, it is plain enough to see why the first assumption is incredibly problematic. It is certainly true that Israel has long been dominated by Jewish Ashkenazi elite, often to the detriment of the representation and welfare of Jewish Sephardim and Mizrachim, not to mention its Arab citizenry. That said, to claim that a firm basis for a common Jewish culture is non-existent or even a relatively recent invention is as willfully ignorant of Jewish history as the author charges the “authorized historians” of being.
It is clear even in his own research that the Hebrew language as a sacred tongue was to a significant degree, common across all the “convert” communities which Sand identifies, as were substantial elements of religious and ritual practice, and basic foundational texts, particularly the Five Books of Moses (Torah). It is particularly notable that across the major pre-Israeli state Jewish community groupings, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Yemenite, there are only some 10 differences in the texts, mostly relating to spacing between words which offer no variation in meaning. Compare this statistic to the thousands of variants found across versions of the Christian Bible. To read some extensive, clearly religiously-oriented documentation on this topic, check out this link. Moreover, the Rabbinical texts of all three major communities are filled with a longing for redemption and return to the Land of Israel. Sand disregards this as a mere longing for spiritual redemption, rather than a physical return. Yet even if all three groups largely owe their origins to conversion, it is hardly insignificant that their foundational textual traditions were consistent even in geographic isolation of one other.
Sand’s approach, then, necessarily denies the importance or even potential of such religious elements in forming a contemporary national identity. He writes, “In a state that defines itself as Jewish yet does not present distinguishing cultural markers that might define a worldview secular Jewish existence—except for some depleted, secularized remnants of religious folklore—the collective identity needs a misty, promising image of an ancient biological common origin” (280). This claim is part and parcel of his rejection of Smith’s ethnosymbolism, that shared symbols and historical myths are important elements of national culture; an approach which he seems to reject simply because it assigns value to the Zionist narrative (29).
While Sand may consider himself to be free from influence by these “depleted, secularized remnants” in terms of forming his own identity, it is clear that most Israelis are not. In a very recent national poll, some 72% of Israelis over the age of 20 reported visiting a synagogue in 2009. While 42% of the population identified themselves as secular, 86% of secular respondents said they observed some form of Jewish religious tradition. Among “traditionalists” and seculars, together comprising 67% of the Israeli population, 52% lit candles on Shabbat, 48% keep kosher on Passover, and 33% the rest of the year. In another poll, 85% of traditional Jews and about 50% of seculars planned to fast for Yom Kippur.
In a more direct reference to notions of shared history, a Summer 2009 national survey indicated that some 67% of Israelis, including 47% of seculars, believed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Moreover, the poll found that 100% of religious and 74% of seculars believed that days like Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the ancient destruction of the Temple, should be publically observed. Even if one argues these numbers are skewed, it does indicate a level of identification with the land and religious practice which make it difficult to assert that religious belief is as wholly “depleted” as Sand contends.
One might further argue that even if Israelis today ascribe to these beliefs and practices, that this was not true of pre-state Zionism. Rather than a natural manifestation of the organic political inclinations of a self-conscious national group, Zionist ideologues had to work hard to convince world Jewry of the validity of their political mission and even harder to form a hegemonic historical narrative which would serve as the basis for this mission. It is undoubtedly true that Zionism could not have existed nor the State of Israel founded without the blood, sweat, and tears of such modern ideological entrepreneurs.
That said, the principles around which they organized and the symbols and narratives from which they drew their legitimacy were largely common across the diverse communities which eventually contributed to and became the Israeli demos. If such core cultural practices, historical narratives, and belief systems are shared across diverse ethnic origins, it ultimately does not matter if the Jewish people are composed of Judeans or Khazars; they have become a people by means of their consistent collective identification as such.
While Sand has certainly overplayed his hand to claim that there never has been (nor will be) such thing as a Jewish people, it is worthwhile to consider what implications presumably being a nation of converts might have for both the politics of the state of Israel and for its historical claim to the land. It is easy to be sympathetic to his claimed desire to promote a kind of national memory “that is aware of the relative truth it contains, and that aspires to help forge emerging local identities and a critical, universal consciousness of the past.” Indeed, a Jewish state which is less exclusive in its sense of who should be considered a full member of society would be welcomed by non-Orthodox Jews worldwide.
Yet this is clearly less Sand’s objective than it is to highlight the seeming hypocrisy of a state founded on a historical and territorial legacy not actually shared by its citizenry which simultaneously excludes its “indigenous” inhabitants. To this charge, there are two critical responses. The first is that even assuming that the Jews of Israel are not the biological progeny of the ancient Judeans, there is no question that they and their ancestors, even while living outside the land by choice or by necessity, continued to identify the land of Israel as their spiritual center. Perhaps Jews were not a “wandering people” in the strictest sense of the word, but 2000 years of literature and rabbinic scholarship consistently expressing longing for redemption and return to the land cannot be so easily ignored.
The second is that if the Jewish people’s connection to the land must be deemed circumspect given the diverse historical experience and geographic origins of its adherents driven by an elite-propagated national narrative, why should the Arab narrative not be subject to the same scrutiny? As long as one maintains that national identities are artificial according them no a priori entitlement to land, territory, or even expectations of collective unity, no particular priority can be accorded to one over another on this basis. Yet in a troubled region where each party continues to deny the legitimacy of the claims of the other, for Israel to abandon the longstanding and clearly popular foundations of its national project in the blind hope that its opponents will reciprocate seems foolish at best.