A nail in the Zionist coffin

Tony Greenstein reviews Shlomo Sand's The invention of the Jewish people Verso, 2009, pp313, £18.99

Shlomo Sand begins his book with a series of personal stories, whose characters all have a connection with himself. There was Gisela, whose mother was taken from Drancy, just outside Paris, straight to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. Despite dying because the Nazis considered her a Jew, her daughter was not recognised as a Jew in Israel because halachically (ie, according to the rabbinical interpretation of Judaism) her mother was not Jewish. Instead Gisela was what she termed a “national bastard”.

Then there was Larissa, a Russian immigrant, whose mother also was not Jewish. She could ‘return’ to Israel because only one grandparent needed to be Jewish (which was how the Nazis too defined a Jew), but she could not marry a Jew in Israel, because personal matters are in the hands of the orthodox rabbinate, for whom a Jewish mother is essential. Instead, like others of her ilk, she has to bear the ‘mark of Cain’ and try to disguised her status.

Shlomo Sand is a history lecturer at the University of Tel Aviv. He has written a book which not only questions, but demolishes, the ideological foundations of Israel as a Jewish state. Yet, as Sand acknowledges, he is not a historian of Jewish history. He took the task on because “the recognised experts in Jewish history are not in the habit of confronting simple questions” (p20). As he himself admits, in a book on politico-religious myths it is inevitable that he is going to engage in a “high degree of speculation”.

The Bible - or rather the Old Testament (Christian fundamentalists also consider themselves the children of Israel) - has served a nakedly political purpose: the title deeds to Israel. When asked why they are on the land of the Palestinians, the settlers are apt to retort, ‘Because god gave it to us’. Unsurprisingly therefore, Sand’s book has not been greeted with a rapturous welcome by the Zionist movement.

In fact it is a mixed feast. Its first chapter on nationalism sometimes borders on the incomprehensible. He describes how nationalism in Europe could take an ethnic, biologically pure form, as well as emancipation and the inclusive political citizenship of France. Take, for example, the following: “Nationalism might not have literally invented nations … but neither was it invented by them, or by the ‘peoples’ who preceded them. Without nationalism and its political and intellectual instruments, nations would not have come into being” (p45).

The major weakness of Sand’s book is that he is not a historical materialist or Marxist (although one of the ironies of the secular, ‘Marxist’ Zionists was that they based their claim to the ‘Land of Israel’ - Eretz Yisrael - on the promise of a god whose existence they denied). His analysis is subjective and empirical, without at times any explanation as to why, for instance, the Jews have survived as an identifiable religious-political community.

Yet Sand’s assault on the biblical foundations of Zionism comes as a far greater shock to the Zionist psyche than the impact of Israel’s new historians such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, who destroyed the myths that alleged that the Palestinians went into voluntary exile in 1947-49 in order to facilitate an attack on the Israeli state. The acceptance that the Palestinians were expelled at the point of a gun is quite compatible with the idea of that the Zionists had a right to the land of Palestine. Sand’s argument is on an altogether different plane. It strips Zionism of its self-serving mythical identity, leaving it historically and culturally naked.

These myths include the idea that a Jewish nation has existed for over 2,000 years and that the Jewish population of Palestine was exiled after the fall of the second temple in 70AD (pp20-21); that the strong and unified kingdom of David and Solomon was the golden age of Jewish settlement in Palestine (as opposed to David being a minor hill chieftain); and that Judaism was never a proselytising religion. Indeed Solomon (and Joshua) probably never even existed.

As Sand admits, he has conducted no new research. Rather he has reorganised the existing knowledge and questioned the assumptions that others have taken for granted. In particular he destroys the idea that the Old Testament is a historical record rather than a collection of stories and parables written between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE. And he also points out that the emperor has no clothes. Much time, energy and money has been spent on archaeological digs in order to ‘prove’ the ancient myths true. Yigael Yadin, former chief of staff and deputy prime minister under Menachem Begin was the key figure in this regard. Archaeology in Israel has served a nakedly nationalist agenda and yet, despite all, it has failed to come up with any evidence that supports the myths of the Bible.

Instead what has happened is best described in the analogy that Sand uses. The political archaeologists first fired their arrow and then they painted the target around it! So it is with the Bible. Its accuracy as a historical record is taken as read, and the only point of archaeology is to prove that which everyone knows is true.

Although, or maybe because, it challenges everything Israelis grew up to believe in, Sand’s book has had quite a staggering impact, being in Israel’s best-seller lists for 19 weeks before being reprinted in French and now English.

Of course, the fact that this book has been written by someone who is Israeli and Jewish has not prevented the normal accusations of anti-Semitism! Mark Gardener of the Zionist Community Security Trust commented, in relation to Sand’s recent tour in Britain, that “There are many ways, often subtle, in which anti-Israel or anti-Zionist debate can have an anti-Jewish impact.” (Jerusalem Post November 15).

Sand freely admits that he may have made mistakes and asks his critics for corrections. He is a specialist in French history, so this is not his area of academic expertise. Unfortunately, however, some of his mistakes should have been spotted before publication. For example, he states that the founder of ‘Marxist’ Zionism, Ber Borochov, abandoned his support for the Palestinians becoming part of the settler Israeli Jewish nation after the 1929 pogroms in Palestine (p262). Which is quite remarkable considering Borochov died in December 1917! Likewise Sand garbles the constitution structures of the United Kingdom, which came into existence in 1801, not 1707, and Northern Ireland which came into existence with partition in 1921-22, not 1801 (p301).

As Sand notes from the outset, there is an irony in the fact that today those who deny Jews form a separate nation are accused of anti-Semitism, whereas “there were times in Europe when anyone who argued that all Jews belong to a nation of alien origin would have been classified at once as an anti-Semite” (p21).

Of course, all nations produce their own historical myths, but there are few that consciously use these myths in order to justify the dispossession of another people by claiming that they have a prior right to the land. This is why Zionism is today sui generis.

Sand describes the recent compilation of Jewish history and Zionist mythology from Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow (the latter murdered by the Nazis in Riga) to the Zionist historians Ben Zion Dinur and Yitzhak Baer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In Israel nothing was left to chance. Just as the state-sponsored holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is dedicated to churning out an approved history of the genocide, with all mention of Zionism’s record of collaboration with the Nazis cleaned away, so from 1925 onwards there was a department of history and a separate department of Jewish history in first the Hebrew University then every other Israeli university (p102).

The outrage of Zionist functionaries at Sand’s book is understandable. What he says is not new, albeit accessible to only a few. Sand’s great achievement lies in writing a book which is a best-seller and in using his academic credentials to demolish layer upon layer of Zionist and Christian mythology.

The ‘return’ of Jews to Israel was a romantic Christian idea, whose effect was to underpin British imperial interests in the Middle East. Jews in their overwhelming majority were opposed to the idea of ‘reclaiming’ Zion. For example, when they fled the Russian pogroms from the middle of the 19th century to 1914, of the estimated 2.5 million who emigrated, barely 2% went to Palestine. Nearly all went to the United States.

In the early days of Zionist settlement, “the idea that the bulk of the local population descended from the Judeans was accepted by a good many” (p183). Many Hebrew farmers converted first to Christianity and then, with the Muslim invasion of the 7th century, to Islam. Baer and Dinur, knowing full well that the exile of Jews after the fall of the temple in 70AD was a myth, ascribe to the Muslim invaders the expulsion of the vast majority of Jews. The purpose in so doing is in part to strengthen the Zionist claim to Palestine by reducing the period when the Jewish ‘nation’ was exiled. In fact the still large Hebrew population welcomed the Muslim invaders for freeing them from the religious tyranny of the Christian Byzantine empire.

It is well known that there is no evidence for the exodus of Jews from Egypt in the 13th century BCE and the wandering of some three million Jews for 40 years in the Sinai desert (p118). Apart from the impossibility of sustaining such large numbers of people over such a period of time in such an environment, the myth omits a small, yet salient, fact - that Canaan at the time was ruled by the very same Egyptian pharaohs. Far from leading them into the Promised Land, Moses appears have led the children of Israel from the frying pan into the fire!

Likewise the myth of the Roman deportation of Palestine’s Jews after the fall of the second temple in 70AD. Even prior to the sacking of the temple, the vast majority of Jews had already emigrated to the Hellenised cities of Alexandria, Damascus, etc. Rome itself had a large Jewish population. Sand cites Israel Yuval, a Hebrew University historian, to show that the myth of exile was Christian in origin with “the Jews being exiled in punishment for their rejection and crucifixion of Jesus” (p134). “Exile therefore was not a location away from the homeland, but a condition that is not salvation” (p135). Its opposite was messianism and the fires of Meggido. Zion was not a physical location and the ‘return to Zion’ simply meant, as Bernard Lazarre put it, that next year we will be free.

Other myths that Sand tackles include the idea that Judaism was never a proselytising religion. On the contrary the rapid growth in the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean, to some four millions in the first century AD, could only be accounted for by the conversion, forcible at times, of neighbouring tribes and peoples. For example the Hasmonean theocracy “used the sword to spread not only its territorial domain, but also its religious following” (p157). Rabbinical Judaism, whose function was not dissimilar to that of the Protestant reformation, virtually dispensed with the Old Testament as the oral law, and halacha, the Talmud and Mishneh, took precedence. Even the tracing of Jewish descent via the mother was relatively recent. As Sand points out, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all took non-Israelite wives - including from their enemies, the Moabites and Edomites - yet their offspring remained Jewish.

Sand convincingly explains how Zionism adopted as its own the racial doctrines of the late 19th century. However, he makes heavy weather of the concept of nationalism, wrongly describing Zionism as yet another form of European nationalism. He accepts both the Zionist concept of an unrelenting and unchanging anti-Semitism and that the key motor of anti-Semitism lay in Christianity. He rightly ridicules the Zionist attempt to find a ‘Jewish gene’ and the dabbling in the racial sciences and eugenics by the key figures of Zionist history, such as Arthur Ruppin, and the ‘blood and soil’ Zionism of Martin Buber, yet his own treatment of nationalism is distinctly ahistorical.

Sand describes how, far from the Hebrews coming into conflict with Greek colonisation, it was precisely the Hellenising of Palestine’s Jews which preserved the Hebrews. Alexandria, which contained nearly a million Jews, was the centre of the Hellenic world: “If the junction of Zion and Alexandria produced a universalist outlook, the junction of Judea and Babylonia gave rise to Pharisee Judaism” - rule by the rabbis.

Sand relates the story of European Jews as having originated primarily in the Khazar kingdom, located between the Caspian Sea from the 9th to the 12th century. Sandwiched between Christian Europe and the Muslim east, the rulers of this kingdom took a conscious decision to convert to Judaism because they were a trading people. Yet from 1951 to the present day, not one historical work about the Khazars has appeared in Hebrew. It simply does not fit with the nationalist message (p235).

And this is the major problem with Sand’s book. Despite being a member in his earlier days of the Socialist Organisation in Israel (Matzpen), Sand eschews a materialist approach to Jewish history. He describes how the Jewish religion moved from an open to a closed system, where converts were not welcome, but he provides no explanation. Neither does he offer any explanation for the survival of Jewish people throughout the post-temple period.

There is little in this book that was not in Abram Leon’s classic The Jewish question - a Marxist interpretation - written in 1940, as the Nazis were conquering Belgium. Why had the Jews survived? Not because of their religion, but because of their distinctive socio-economic role as the agents of money in a society based primarily on use-values. Far from religion being the key factor, the opposite was the case. The religion survived because of the people, yet, as the Jewish people of eastern Europe changed, so too did the religion. The failure to ask the question ‘why’ and to understand the subsequent historical development of Europe’s Jews in particular is the major omission of Sand’s book.

Indeed his understanding of nationalism, to which he devotes a chapter, is a major weakness of the book. Sand seems puzzled by the fact that nationalism could not only be all-inclusive, as with the French Revolution, but also backward and ethnicised. He fails to see that the bourgeoisie, once it had attained political independence, devoted its energies to fighting the very ‘mob’ that had enabled it gain ascendancy over the aristocracy. For example, in Britain the enlightened politics of Thomas MacCauley gave way to the racial determinism of social Darwinism and James Hunt and Francis Galton of the London Anthropological Society, as colonial rebellion in Jamaica and India led to the development of eugenics and ‘scientific’ racism as the ideological justification of imperialist subjugation. So it was that in France the revolution ended up with the Dreyfus affair.

Sand speaks of the “horrific relapse” of culturally inclusive nationalism that was consequent on the Dreyfus affair during World War II. Yet despite the horrors of the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, France had one of the highest survival rates of Jews of any country in Europe - some 75%. This was a posthumous victory for the Dreyfusards. Yet Sand looks for an explanation not in social forces, but in “the Italian origin of Emile Zola” (p254).

However, despite the telling lack of any analytical framework, this is an important book - one that hammers another nail into Zionism’s ideological coffin.