Monday, March 15, 2010

The Inventions of Ignorant Jewish People

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.


  1. This whole controversy surrounding Sand's book may be intellectually interesting, but should have no political significance whatsoever. Of course "nationhood" is a sort of imagined identity, created and developed over time by groups of people, who develop a common bond and mythology. Trying to dissect whether a nation has an "objective" existence is ridiculous; what is politically relevant is whether members of a certain group genuinely *define themselves* as a nation. No matter how many people try to convince the Jews that they are not a "people", they will remain one; just as no amount of historical argumentation can deny the reality of modern Palestinian nationhood.

  2. I agree with you. It's like trying to convince someone they're not gay, or black, or Palestinian. You can't control someone's self-narrative.

    The attempt to eliminate Jewish identity has a purpose, however. The Jewish people have a claim to the Land through their identity - a point even the Wahabi Islamists recognize, because it's in the Quran. Thus the strange revisionism of many Arabs and Muslims, to claim that the Jews of Israel are not the "real" Jews.

    This won't affect Jewish identity and self-identification, but it does contribute to a loss of acceptance to the Jewish people's legitimate national rights, and in increase in motivation to deny them these rights. If the "Zionists" have no right to be in the land, then they are usurpers who should be destroyed. I'd go as far as to say that this thinking is a form of dehumanization.

  3. I've always though the Khazars were in the Kaukasus??? i.e. east of Moldova not west of it ??

  4. Hey Silke, you're right, I made a mistake. I went back to the source for why I thought Khazars had been in the Balkans.

    It is the purported response of "Joseph the king son of Isaac the king" to Hisdai ibn Shaprut, an important Jew in Moorish Spain, who sent a letter inquiring about the existence of a Jewish kingdom of Khazaria.

    In the letter, Joseph writes...

    "The land in which I now live was formerly occupied by the Bulgarians. Our ancestors, the Khazars, came and fought with them... They left while the Khazars pursued them as far as the Danube River..."

    Wanderings, Chaim Potok, pg. 340.

    That's where I got the impression that the Khazars were on the European end of the Black Sea - the Bulgarians and the Danube river. You're right though. I'll make a correction in the post.

    I have a couple of books about Khazars on my reading list, so I intend to write more about them soon.

  5. from my books on Byzantine hystory I got the impression that Bulgaria once was quite something not the small state we see these days so it may well have extended way into the Kaukasus at one time or another.
    I really look forward to your reviews of the Khazars so get going start reading

  6. hey
    I just had to do a bit of sleuthing on the Khazars (you are such a slow reader;-)))))
    this is 650 CE and shows Bulgars and Khazar right next to eachother
    and I found it on this treasure chest of a site

    what a volatile part of the earth you came from


  7. Look where the Albanians started off!

  8. as you are getting into old history - here is something that is even older and made my jaw drop as it often does about all the things we don't know and don't seem able to figure out - the connection to modern times for me was while listening is even if all these gadgets they have these days are working perfectly it still seems a daunting task to make people high on fear, adrenaline and testosterone change track, obey and perform as desired.

    ... and as you have once oops twice linked to Richard Kemp at Yaacov's - today he has a piece at the London Times (haven't read it yet - I do print-outs at night) - the headline suggests however that it should sync with the above.

    and as to the Albanians - there is a "moving" map on the main site showing muslim territory expanding and contracting which probably explains why they moved west.
    as to the Balkans: ever heard of Rebecca West?


1) Save us the melodrama.
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3) I *heart* trolls... for lunch.

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