Indecent Proposal

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BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 9, 2010

Indecent Proposal

The Invention of the Jewish People
By Shlomo Sand
Translated by Yael Lotan
(Verso, 400 pp., $34.95)

By the books an age reads and respects ye shall know it. What, then, shall we say of an age in which a book so intellectually shoddy that once, not very long ago, it would have been flunked as an undergraduate thesis by any self-respecting professor of history becomes a best-seller upon first appearing in Hebrew in Israel in 2008; goes on to win the prestigious Aujourd’hui Award of the association of French journalists; and now, in English translation, is taken seriously by reviewers and reporters, and nets its author an honored place on talk shows and in “advanced” opinion? Perhaps one might charitably say that such an age is forgetful and poorly educated and credulous. And to be fair, The Invention of the Jewish People does make one valid point. But let’s begin with the shoddiness.

Sand’s book is about Jewish nationhood, Jewish nationalism, and Zionism--each of which, in the best postmodern fashion and with due acknowledgment to such well-known theorists of national identity formation as Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, Sand seeks to “deconstruct” by viewing it as an artificially cobbled modern notion rather than as a historically rooted phenomenon. This he does by means of two shopworn arguments, one completely absurd and one partly so.

The first argument is that because the world’s dispersed Jews were united, until modern times, only by their religious beliefs and practices, there was never any such thing as a “Jewish people,” just as there was never any such thing as a Catholic people or a Protestant people. Jews, Sand writes, developed a “national consciousness” only in the nineteenth century, its first formulators being religiously lapsed European Jewish intellectuals:

Mostly products of rabbinical schools, educated Jews who were feeling the effects of the secular age and whose metaphysical faith was beginning to show a few cracks longed for another source to reinforce their uncertain, crumbling identity. The religion of history struck them as an appropriate substitute for religious faith, but for those who, sensibly, could not embrace the national mythologies [of various European peoples] rising before their eyes ... the only option was to invent and adhere to a parallel national mythology, [one that] turned into a determined march [toward Jewish nationhood] in the imagining of a Jewish people.

Feeling excluded by the intensifying nineteenth-century nationalisms of the peoples among whom they lived, the Jews conjured themselves into a people, too. Sand even knows who the urconjuror was. He was Heinrich Graetz, the German-Jewish historian, whose multi-volume History of the Jews from the Oldest Times to the Present began to appear in the 1850s. “This was the first work,” according to Sand, “that strove, with consistency and feeling, to invent the Jewish people.... Henceforth, for many people, Judaism would no longer be a rich and diverse religious civilization that managed to survive despite all difficulties and temptations in the shadows of giants, and became an ancient people or race that was uprooted from its homeland in Canaan and arrived ... at the gates of Berlin.”

Graetz was the first, but not the last. He and his followers, Sand informs us, prepared the intellectual ground for Zionism, which, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, claimed Palestine for its newly imagined “people or race.” And if Zionism is thus the invention of an invention, the state of Israel, built on the myth of a “Jewish ethnos,” is the invention of an invention of an invention. The clear implication is that a country existing at a third remove from reality is hardly legitimate.

Long a staple of Arab and anti-Zionist propaganda, this argument is the exact opposite of the truth. What was invented at the outset of modernity was not Jewish peoplehood, which--as all the evidence that has come down to us amply bears out--had been taken for granted throughout history by Jews and gentiles alike. It was Jewish non-peoplehood, whose first important formulator was the eighteenth-century French count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre. A leader of the fight for Jewish emancipation at the time of the French Revolution, it was Clermont-Tonnerre who famously declared that French Jews should be “granted everything as individuals and denied everything as a nation.” His Jewish countrymen, he declared, should be treated as Frenchmen of the Jewish faith, on the analogy of Frenchmen of the Catholic or Protestant faiths--and also, on that of the Germans, Poles, and Englishmen of the Jewish faith with whom they shared a religious confession. Although this was not an analysis that immediately convinced many Christians, who were slow to emancipate Jews outside of France, it soon became the motto of the rapidly growing ranks of assimilationist and Reform Jews all over Europe.

And yet while Clermont-Tonnerre believed that the Jews should cease to be a separate people, he would not have disagreed with the opponents of emancipation that they still were one. How could he have, when Judaism, which in his age nearly all of them still observed, had always insisted that it was God’s covenant not merely, like Christianity, with the individuals who accepted it, but with all the descendants, whether they accepted it or not, of the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai? “Until Your people crossed over, O Lord, till the people [am] You made Yours [kanita] crossed over,” says the Song of the Sea in the Book of Exodus, by all accounts one of the oldest biblical passages--and while the Hebrew verb kanita can also be rendered as “You acquired,” am, a word used hundreds of times in the Bible to describe both the Israelites and their neighbors, can only mean “people.” There is simply no other way to translate it.

Judaism, whether it is nearly four thousand years old, as biblical chronology would have it, or only 2,500 years old, as the revisionist Bible critics favored by Sand maintain, is inseparable from a Jewish “national consciousness.” Believing Jews throughout the ages have never doubted for a moment that they belonged to an am yisra’el, a people of Israel--nor, in modern times, have non-believing Jews with strong Jewish identities. It is precisely this that constitutes such an identity. Far from inventing Jewish peoplehood, Zionism was a modern re-conceptualization of it that was based on its long-standing prior existence.

It is of course true, as Sand delights in observing, that the claims made for Jewish peoplehood have been different from those made for other national groups. A religiously traditional Jew in nineteenth-century Poland did not share with a traditional Jew in Morocco all that a Frenchman in Paris shared with a Frenchman in Toulouse. The two Jews inhabited different continents, were ruled by different governments, spoke different languages, lived in different material cultures, and had different social mores.

But it is not quite so simple. After all, the differences between nineteenthcentury Frenchmen were not necessarily slight, either: one might be a Catholic and one a Protestant, one a speaker of standard French and one of dialect, one urban and one rural, one royalist and one republican, one northern and one Mediterranean. And conversely, the differences between our two Jews were not necessarily that great. Both were acutely conscious of being unlike their gentile neighbors; both spoke their own language or dialect, much of its distinctiveness due to the many Hebrew words in it; if sufficiently educated, they were able to communicate in Hebrew itself; and they had a jointly acknowledged though unvisited national homeland in the Land of Israel.

Above all, each would have immediately recognized the other as a kinsman. And since their religion permeated the entirety of their daily lives, these lives had a great deal in common, too. Besides attending practically identical synagogue services on Saturday morning (and even all week long) and then making the same blessings and singing more or less the same hymns around the Sabbath table, a nineteenth-century Polish and Moroccan Jew also ate a very similar long-simmering stew--called cholent in Poland and dafina in Morocco--whose method of preparation was dictated by the same ritual laws. And though few Frenchmen were so attached to being French that they would have forbidden a son or daughter to marry an otherwise eligible and attractive foreigner, Jews everywhere broke off all relations with children who married non-Jews.

To say that Jewish national identity was rooted in religion is not to say that it was merely religious. And in any case, for someone convinced, after Anderson and Gellner, that all national identities are “imagined” ones imposed on populations at some point in their history by ruling or intellectual elites, what does any of this matter? If nationhood or peoplehood is ultimately determined by subjective perceptions, Sand is barking up the wrong tree by laboring to prove that Jews lacked the objective qualifications for it. By his own standards, all that should count is what Jews felt and thought about themselves--and in all the enormous corpus of pre-nineteenth-century Jewish literature (from which, for understandable reasons, Sand does not quote), Jewish peoplehood is never treated as anything but an unchallenged and unchallengeable fact.

Were Jews always as scrupulous about preserving the purity of their bloodlines as was the nineteenth-century Polish or Moroccan Jew who said the mourner’s kaddish for the child who married out? Not at all, contends Sand in his second argument against the historical reality of a Jewish people. The notion that Jews share a lineage going back to biblical times is, he claims, a false one. Not only was much of ancient Jewry never exiled from Palestine, in which it remained and converted to Christianity and Islam in antiquity or the early Middle Ages, but large numbers of non-Jews in the Diaspora entered the Jewish fold in the same period--in at least some cases, it would seem, without undergoing the formal conversion process required by rabbinic Judaism.

Sand dwells at length on the better known of these episodes, all partially or wholly ignored by rabbinic literature: the Edomites of southern Palestine, forced to convert by the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus in 125 B.C.E.; the numerous “God-fearers” of the Roman Empire, gentiles attracted to Judaism who often slipped unobtrusively into its ranks; the inhabitants of Yemen who became Jews under the Judaizing Himyarite kings of the fourth and fifth centuries; the Jewish Berber tribes of North Africa before its seventh-century Muslim conquest; the Khazars, a Turkic people living between the Caspian and Black seas, whose royal house embraced Judaism in the eighth century; and so on. Far from having common biblical ancestors, he argues, most contemporary Jews would discover, if they could go far back enough in time, that they have diverse non-Jewish ones.

But in fact we can go far back in time, with the help of historical DNA studies, which have burgeoned in the last twenty years, and the most disgraceful pages in Sand’s book are those in which he displays an ignorant disdain for the work that has been done in this field by serious investigators. Without the least apparent understanding of how historical genetics works or what it can tell us, he attacks some of its most distinguished practitioners, such as Batsheva Bonné-Tamir of Tel Aviv University, Karl Skorecki of the Haifa Technion, and Doron Behar of the Rappaport Institute, for “internalizing the Zionist myth” and “seeking at all costs to discover a biological homogeneity” in order to create a “new discipline” designed to confirm “the Zionist idea of the Jewish nation-race.” Having myself worked for many years on a research project with Skorecki and Behar, I can testify that this impugning of their scientific integrity is libelous.

The irony is that the genetic studies that Sand dismisses lend him a measure of support. Overall, they show that while there is a high Y-chromosome correlation with an eastern Mediterranean profile among Jewish men from most parts of the world, indicating that many of them do have common Palestinian ancestors, the mitochondrial DNA correlation of Jewish women is much lower. Or, in less technical terms: while male gentiles have on the average entered Diaspora Jewish communities in only small percentages per generation over time, female gentiles --presumably because they were local inhabitants taken for wives by Jewish men in places like Yemen or North Africa--have done so more significantly.

But again: so what? There is nothing explosive about this. Judaism has always made it clear that the Jewish people is not biologically exclusive and can be joined by outsiders. And taking Sand on his own terms, what does any of this have to do with Jewish peoplehood, or with Zionism? If our Polish Jew included among his distant ancestors Khazars who became Jews in the eighth century, and our Moroccan Jew counted seventh-century Berber tribesmen among his forbears, why should this have weakened the nineteenth-century ties between them, or their attachment to an ancient homeland from which others of their ancestors did come, or their desire to see Jewish independence restored there? Sand, who studied at the École des hautes études in Paris and has written a book on Georges Sorel, would snort derisively if told that Sorel’s fellow Frenchmen were not a people because some of their progenitors were indigenous Celts while others were Germanic or Roman invaders. Yet when it comes to the Jews, he asks us to take a similar proposition seriously.

While he does not trouble to interrogate (as he might say) his own beliefs, Sand does reveal something about their origins. He is, he tells us in his introduction, the admiring Israeli-born grandson of an anti-Zionist Polish Jewish communist, and as a young man growing up in the 1960s in mixed Arab-Jewish Jaffa he dreamed of leaving Israel forever. Two of his closest friends were a Jaffa Arab and a young Arab writer from Haifa named Mahmoud Darwish. After his army service, in the course of which, in the Six Day War, he “had to shoot at the enemy and intimidate terrified inhabitants,” he went off to Paris to study modern European history, determined to “abandon everything” Israeli. Yet in the end, he writes, speaking of himself in the third person,

despite the alienation [that he felt from Israel], he was overcome by longing for the city in which he had grown up, and so he returned to the painful place where his identity was forged. His homeland, claiming to be the “State of the Jewish people,” received him willingly. As for the rebellious poet who had been born on its soil, and the old friend [from Jaffa]--the state was too narrow to include them [and they emigrated].

By then, however, Israel had changed. The country to which Sand returned, and in which he married the daughter of a non-Jewish Spanish anarchist who was married to an Israeli woman, now teemed with post- and anti-Zionist intellectuals. Like him, they objected to what they considered Israel’s Jewish ethnocentricity; like him, too, they thought that the “state of the Jewish people” should become a “state of all its citizens.” By the early 1990s, the attitudes that had made Sand feel like an outsider in the Israel of the 1960s were chic, in the academy and beyond. Many had their justification in fashionable theories of nationalism, colonialism, racism, and the rejection of Otherness that originated in the France he had studied in. Mahmoud Darwish was now a renowned Palestinian poet. The zeitgeist and the Sand-geist were the same. Why The Invention of the Jewish People was not already written then, I don’t know. Perhaps Sand--who, while denying the existence of a Jewish people, never doubts that of a Palestinian one, even though no serious historian disputes that Palestinian national consciousness is a product of late modern times--was waiting to see if the winds of fashion would shift again. Since then, however, they have only blown harder.

As I said, Sand makes one valid point. Many of the early and mid-twentieth-century Jewish scholars who first explored previously shadowy episodes of mass adhesion to the Jewish people--men such as Nahum Slouschz, who wrote about the Berbers, and Abraham Polak, who studied the Khazars, and Yitzhak Ben-Tsvi, who dealt with the Jews of the Arabian Peninsula--were Zionists whose research had more than a merely scholarly motivation. In demonstrating, as they thought, that the Jewish people had once been less defensive, more adventuresome, more outgoing and open to the world, more confident of its ability to interact with others and to absorb them, they felt they were making a statement for their own age.

These scholars and thinkers wanted Zionism to expand the conventional notions of what a Jew was and could be. They desired Jews to understand that, in a land of their own, assimilation would be a force working for them rather than against them, since they now stood to be the assimilators and not the assimilated. (Some, such as Ben-Tsvi, later to become Israel’s second president, even dreamed, before being disabused of the notion by Palestinian Arab nationalism, that a Palestinian Jewish society could re-absorb the country’s Arabs, who were, he believed, the descendants of ancient Jews.) Yet, as Sand correctly observes, the pioneering work of these figures was never followed up by subsequent Israeli historians, who by and large lost interest in it.

The little-known chapters in Jewish history upon which figures such as Slouschz, Polak, and Ben-Tsvi sought to cast light receded again into the shadows, and were pushed back to the fringes of Israeli historical consciousness. Even most secular Israelis continue to think of themselves as belonging to a people descended from biblical times with little or no adulteration, which has stubbornly fought to preserve its constantly threatened identity by admitting only those newcomers willing to conform to its rigid religious standards. As non- or anti-religious as secular Israel may otherwise be, it has always lacked the will and the means to define Jewishness in any but traditional religious terms.

Sand, like other critics of Zionism, is wrong in believing that Israel cannot be both formally Jewish and functionally democratic, and that it must choose between the two. He is right, though, in regarding Israeli society’s refusal to assume full responsibility for the assimilation of the over one and a half million non-Jews in its midst--immigrants from the exSoviet Union, foreign workers and their Israeli-born children, Israeli Arabs--as one of its great failures. If Israel is going to be Jewish and fully democratic, it will have to find other ways for non-Jews to become Jews, or to identify with Jews, than the forbidding Orthodox conversion that is currently their sole societal option. A revival of historical interest in how, in certain times and places in the past, non-Jews have been successfully integrated into the Jewish people in large numbers, and without too many questions asked, might be a contribution to such a process. Shlomo Sand’s call for it is commendable. This is the best that can be said for an otherwise deplorable book.

Hillel Halkin’s new book, Yehuda Halevi, will be published by Schocken in February.

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posted in: books and arts, berlin, paris, europe, france, israel, morocco, palestine, poland, yemen, benedict anderson, ernest gellner, heinrich graetz, john hyrcanus, karl skorecki, mahmoud darwish, sand translated, sand translated, shlomo sand translated, shlomo sand translated, yael lotan, yitzhak ben-tsvi, black sea, caspian sea, mount sinai, mediterranean, north africa, rappaport institute, technion, tel aviv university

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