I got into somewhat of a tussle here, and had Shlomo Sand's "The Invention of the Jewish People" (it does not deserve an Amazon link) thrown in my face. At some point, I had meant to write about this book in a serious way, with footnotes, backlinks, and the like. Perhaps I still will, in which case, consider this a first draft, written in the heat of the moment, because I could not resist. Just so there are no misunderstandings, then, let me clarify that I fully intend to rephrase and annotate certain portions of this at a later time, as life permits.
Before I begin, let's remember that Shlomo Sand, by his own admission, is not a historian of Jewish history, and has no credibility to write about Jewish history in a professional capacity. The conclusions he reached in this book have been ignored by his Israeli colleagues - those who are competent in Jewish historical studies - as political, and not supported by the historical record.
Next, we should establish that the historical information Sand relates is not earth shattering. Sand asserts that the Jews as an ethnic/racial group were not purged from Judea by the Romans, that the Jews of today do not racially reflect the Jews that were expelled, and that this voids their historical claims to the land. He further asserts that early Zionists used this contrived (according to him) history of Jewish expulsion, and the promise of return to the land, as an emotional weapon to rally Jews in support of the State of Israel in the 19th and 20th century. By targeting this attachment that Jews have to the land, by pointing out that they are not racially the same Jews, and thus their claim to the land is illegitimate, Sand hopes to convince Jewish Israelis to destroy their state.
First, the history. The Romans destroyed Judea not once, but twice. The first massacre was in 70 C.E., when many of the cities, including Jerusalem, and notably the Temple in Jerusalem, were leveled, their urban residents either butchered (between 1-1.5 million) or taken as slaves back to Rome (several hundred thousand).
With the destruction of Jerusalem, and the collapse of the religious and political authority that rested there, the religious leadership was reestablished in Yavne. Thus began a centuries-long process of developing Rabbinical Judaism as a necessary substitute to Temple service.
Around 60 years after the first destruction, the Romans instituted new edicts, forbidding Jews from living in Jerusalem, placing restrictions on Jewish religious worship, etc. Again, the Jews rebelled - the Bar Kochba Revolt. By the time it was put down, another half million to a million Jews were dead, 50 fortified towns and a thousand village had been razed by the Romans.
Having twice committed and lost vast sums of men and material to pacify a Jewish insurrection, the Romans refused to allow any Jewish political or religious leadership (often one and the same) in what had once been Judea, and went about essentially purging the land of its Jewish identity, including renaming cities. Through both wars, the land was emptied of vast numbers of people - the Romans had killed 2 million people in total, many others understandably fled the genocide. Irrigation, commerce, agriculture, the things that enable a nation to function, all fell apart. A few primarily religious and insular communities remained, particularly around the cities of Tzvat, Tiberius, Hevron and Jerusalem, and continued in relative isolation for centuries. The focus of Jewish communal and religious life shifted to the unharmed, unified and wealthy Jewish communities in the Diaspora - Mesopotamia, Egypt's Alexandria, Arabian Peninsula, Rome itself, and eventually Spain.
That more or less covers the Dispersion, and is the authoritative history as confirmed both by Jewish Talmudic and modern academic scholarship. Shlomo Sand's assertion that the Jews were not purged from the land, but that they melted wholesale into other nearby peoples and eventually accepted Islam has no foundation, whereas it has been documented that, after the destruction of Judea, twice, swells of Jewish refugees poured into Jewish communities throughout the ancient world. Did individual Jews and Jewish villages in the region the Romans named Syria Palaestina accept Islam, by sword, coercion or free will in the ensuing thousand plus years of Islamic expansion? Without a doubt yes; Several Palestinian villages to this day have a tradition of being converts to Islam from Judaism. The overwhelming majority of Jews remained Jews, however, and the centers of Jewish authority and population shifted to the Diaspora.
Sand says that the Jews of today are not racially the same Jews as those which were dispersed by the Romans, and thus have no claim to the land. Curiously, he ignores genetic research showing that Ashkenazic Jews of central and eastern Europe are more related to Palestinian Arabs than either are to any other people. Instead, he quotes sketchy research on a Jewish kingdom of Khazaria that existed for a short time in the Caucasus during the Middle Ages. The largely Turkic people, the Khazars, situated on the borders of Islam to their south and Christendom to their north, chose to convert to Judaism in order to maintain independence from both. It appears that only the ruling class converted however, and the kingdom existed for only a few decades before being overrun by the Slavs.
Furthermore, and this is a point I wish to stress, the Jews are not a race. Jewish lineage is maternal, yes, but genetics (what was once termed "bloodline") are not a criteria of importance in determining Jewish identity, as conversion enables anyone to become a Jew. Compare this to the Aryan race, if such a thing exists, into which one is either born or not. Accordingly, throughout the centuries, countless people have elected to join the Jewish people through conversion, from nearly every society among which the Jews have lived, including from within the Roman legions themselves.
I would argue, somewhat incontrovertibly, that the very notion of "race" is a relic of Western racial purity studies, nonsensical in all but the widest definition imaginable. Every people experience genetic inflows and outflows - there is no such thing as a "pure race", and never has been - the Japanese being perhaps an example of the most genetically isolated that a population can get. The very association of "purity" with a particular "race" is, to me, another strange Western invention whose origins I would be keen to study. The Jews are not a race - there are black, white, brown, yellow and purple Jews - and we have never defined ourselves as such. We accept converts, no matter their origins. You'll never hear a Jew educated in basic Jewish law complain about "diluting the bloodline" by accepting converts.
To the contrary, what we Jews are is grouping of tribes. Semitic tribal laws related to affiliation are quite different from notions of race invented in the West. As an example, when a woman of one tribe marries a man of another, she takes his tribe, or, rather, that tribe absorbs her. From that point on, she is bound by the specific characteristics of that tribe.
There was a time when Jews identified themselves by tribe - Benjamin, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, etc. - and were geographically situated based on their tribal lands in Israel. Due to a complicated history, the ten northern tribes were forcibly evicted and scattered by an Assyrian king throughout his empire. Some believe Kurdish Jews are a remnant of one of those lost tribes. As a consequence of this tragic saga, today we are no longer certain who belongs to which tribe, though we are certain the matter will be resolved with the coming of Moshiach.
Jewish converts don't need to be genetically similar to other Jews in order to claim a right to return to the land. Upon conversion, they are "in the tribe", as it were, and are immediately afforded the spiritual and historical connection to the land that every other Jew inherits by birth.
The land of Israel is a spiritual inheritance to all Jewish people, no matter if their Jewish origin is birth or conversion. This is not a fact contested by any Jewish religious authorities, and never has been. Whether the Jewish people survived through direct lineage or conversion, or both, is irrelevant. What is important is the unbroken record of history and scholarship of Jews from the destruction of Judea to the founding of the State of Israel. Through two thousand years of dispersions, the Jewish people survived, and have returned to lands in which their last national project was extinguished by war and genocide.
Shlomo Sand's book is a prime display of ignorance - including about the basic foundations of the author's own Jewish identity - which enables the abuse of history for political ends. Predictably, this invention of ignorance has been seized on by some as one more convenient weapon in their battle against the Jews of Israel, a war so brutal that even history is considered an acceptable casualty. Sadly, this work has also found an audience in some elements of the Jewish community, including individuals prone to revisionist ideologies that unburden them of responsibilities to their fellow Jews, and to their faith. A blind man leading the blind off a cliff.