This Land Is Ours

Analysis / Interpretation / Press

In Search of the Jewish People
By Shmuel Amir

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Shlomo Sand’s book "The Invention of the Jewish People" was published in Hebrew two years ago and was at the top of the best-seller list for weeks. It was subsequently translated into French and became a best-seller in that language as well. Only a few months ago the book was published in English (translated by the late Yael Lotan, a dear friend).

As expected, the book produced critical waves both here in Israel and abroad. Newspapers like The New York Times devoted space to it. While most of the critiques abroad took the book very seriously and many were sympathetic and supportive, the reception in Israel ranged from cool to hostile. This was not unexpected as the book runs counter to Zionist historiography. Indeed, Sand “brushed history against the grain” as enjoined to do so by Walter Benjamin. He shed light on a history that, even if it had not been completely concealed, had been relegated to the margins.

The invention of nations

The book’s title, The Invention of the Jewish People, sounds to many people like sacrilege. So perhaps we should point out immediately that in this respect “the Jewish People” is in good company. It is not the first or the only people to have been “invented.” The invention of peoples, nations and nationalities in general was a popular European pastime in the 19th century. Nevertheless, we Israelis cling to our imagined nationality more obsessively than do many other modern nations.

The use of the word “invention” in this sense was developed by Eric Hobsbawm in his famous book The Invention of Tradition, a book of essays which he co-edited with Terence Ranger and to which he contributed. The oxymoron in the title will pique the curiosity of every lover of history. And indeed the reader of the book will be rewarded. In it we learn that the English people’s love for their kings and queens is basically an invention of the 19th century, when ceremonious royal processions and marches began to be organized. In the 17th century, British kings still hesitated to be driven out on the streets of London for fear of a bombardment of rotten eggs. The famous “Ossian” cycle of poems glorifying the past of the Scottish Celts was found to be an invention. And even the famous Scottish kilts, that supposedly have identified Scots according to their clans since the dawn of history, are nothing but the appropriation and mimicry of clothes that were adopted for service in India. But beyond the invention of customs, traditions and ceremonies, the truly great inventions were the “histories” that never transpired.

And indeed, Ernest Renan said long ago in his famous lecture “What is a nation?” that the first thing a new people does is invent a history for itself. And the novelist Jane Austen, who was no historian, asked with a touch of humour " why history should be so dull for a great deal of it must be invention."

Patrick J Geary, author of The Myths of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe, tells us how all kinds of myths were born in order to glorify various nations (here the word “myth” replaces the word "invention and is used in a similar way). For example, the founding epic of France, The Song of Roland, was based on nothing more than a not particularly large expedition of plunder, reminiscent of similar campaigns which were the norm when people found that their lands did not suffice for their needs. The most famous of myths of this kind is, no doubt, Homer's Iliad.

But the central subject of Geary’s book is the description of the complete intermingling of the small nations and tribes in Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire, such that the origins of the various European nations are also invented and not based on history or historical testimony.

So we can see that Shlomo Sand did not have to invent the idea of “invention.” It was already known and acknowledged.

And yet, there is a difference. Since the 18th century, nationalisms and nations in Europe were “invented” on the basis of and for constituencies that were mostly concentrated in a specific territory and had common or similar ethnic characteristics (mainly, but not necessarily, language). The Jews, on the other hand, lacked such shared characteristics in the various lands in which they lived. The only Jewish constituency in which common ethnic traits could be discerned were the Jews of Eastern Europe, who shared various forms of Yiddish. Sand calls that constituency “the Yiddish People.” But even that constituency – or people – did not aspire to independence: they demanded cultural autonomy within the framework of Czarist Russia.

True, European nationalism had to invent national consciousnesses, national histories as well as national symbols like flags, anthems, stamps, uniforms and the national heroes and their monuments (usually in a heroic pose while mounted on a galloping horse), and sometimes even a new language. Among the Jews there was the need to invent the people itself: the "Jewish People". It is an irony of history that such a (national) people had never existed, only religious communities, until, eventually, Zionist historiographers found them right under their noses: they converted the Israeli People that had been created here during the last century into the Jewish People: thus the State of Israel became the State of the Jewish People.

The Zionist story – or what they want us to believe

Sand describes the Zionist story that has acquired nearly total hegemony in the Israeli consciousness thusly:

Israelis believe that their own history rests on firm and precise truths. They know for a certainty that a Jewish nation has been in existence since Moses received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai, and that they are its direct and exclusive descendants (except for the ten tribes, who are yet to be located). They are convinced that this nation “came out” of Egypt; conquered and settled "the Land of Israel," which had been famously promised it by the deity; created the magnificent kingdom of David and Solomon, which then split into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They are also convinced that this nation was exiled, not once but twice, after its periods of glory – after the fall of the First Temple in the sixth century BCE, and again after the fall of the Second Temple, in 70 CE. Yet even before that second exile, this unique nation had created the Hebrew Hasmonean kingdom, which revolted against the wicked influence of Hellenization.

They believe that these people – their "nation," which must be the most ancient – wandered in exile for nearly two thousand years and yet, despite this prolonged stay among the gentiles, managed to avoid integration with, or assimilation into, them. The nation scattered widely, its bitter wanderings taking it to Yemen, Morocco, Spain, Germany, Poland and distant Russia. But it always managed to maintain close blood relations among the far-flung communities and to preserve its distinctiveness.

Then, at the end of the nineteenth century, they contend, rare circumstances combined to wake the ancient people from its long slumber and to prepare it for rejuvenation and for the return to its ancient homeland. And the nation began to return, joyfully, in vast numbers. Many Israelis still believe that, but for Hitler’s horrible massacre, "Eretz Israel" would soon have been filled with millions of Jews making "aliyah" by their own free will, because they had dreamed of it for thousands of years.

And while the wandering people needed a territory of its own, the empty and virgin land longed for a nation to come and make it bloom. Some uninvited guests had, it is true, settled in this homeland, but since "the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion" for two millennia, the land belonged only to that people, and not to that handful without history who had merely stumbled upon it. Therefore the wars waged by the wandering nation in its conquest of the country were justified; the violent resistance of the local population was criminal […]. *

The purpose of that historiography, according to Sand, is to establish “the justice of our path” and to prove yet again our right to the Land as against our enemies (Palestinians and Arabs in general). But its purpose is also, and maybe principally: to convince the Israeli public again and again.

Shlomo Sand’s book is a fascinating journey in which he refutes all those “facts” one by one and in their place sets out the history of the Jews along lines that are based on historical sources and his historical interpretation and understanding.

Many good Zionists, especially those in the Academy who have worked so hard to establish Zionist historiography, are understandably angry and frustrated to see the building-blocks of the Zionist myth pulverized one after the other. Abraham did not come from Ur of the Chaldees, nor was there an exodus from Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea apparently were not parted and no horses and chariots were submerged in them; the forced exile of the Jews from their land never happened, there is no evidence of the glorious kingdoms of David and Solomon despite the best efforts of an army of Jewish and Christian archaeologists who turned over every stone in Jerusalem in the hopes of proving the historicity of the Bible. There was no yearning for the Land of the Fathers for over two thousand years, nor is there a global Jewish People. What remains is a simple and not particularly exciting fact: the establishment of a state with the help of British colonialism and its continued existence under the American imperial aegis. Even the role of ideology in its establishment was minor: the masses of Jewish immigrants to Israel came for lack of any alternative. Given a free choice, Jews have always preferred to immigrate to America and Western Europe.

Israel is not unique in this respect. Many colonies have engendered peoples and nations without ideological help. Thus were created nations like the USA, Canada, many countries in Latin America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, part of South Africa and others.

Shlomo Sand weaves a strong narrative, with strong evidence to prove his interpretation.. There is insufficient space here to reiterate the wealth of his claims and the abundance of his examples. We will therefore restrict ourselves to an examination of one subject that is central to the book: the provocative concept of the “invention” of the Jewish People. When Hobsbawm explains the concept in the introduction to his above-mentioned book (The Invention of Tradition), he explains that the invention of tradition is an attempt to create continuity with the past, and wherever possible to create a "suitable" historical past. Hobsbawm goes on to say that what is remarkable about the attempt to create a link with an historical past is that that past did not exist at all in most cases.

In our case what did not exist was the Jewish People, and so there was a need to invent it in such a way as to fit in with the historiography of the new Zionist movement.

Two thousand years of praying for Zion?

One of Zionism’s seemingly irrefutable arguments for the existence of the Jewish People over the ages is their alleged yearning and longing for Zion over two thousand years. Since the destruction of the Temple there have been a hundred versions of the prayer for the return to Zion: “May our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion,” “Return us to Zion,” and “Next year in Jerusalem.” Those are supplications that the Jew repeats in his prayers three times a day while facing east. Surely those prayers, along with the many odes of the poets, and of course the reading of the Bible, are decisive proof of the desire to return as well as the certification of our right to Jerusalem. That is to say, there was no need to invent the desire for return to Jerusalem because it is set out in every Hebrew book that has appeared throughout the long history of the Jewish People.

The question that remains, if so, is why did they not return to Zion? After all, Jews wandered from place to place and some of them lived in the domains of the Ottoman Empire, which included the biblical Eretz Israel.

The answer is simple: these hopes and prayers had no “national” or tangible content. They were religious prayers, and the return to Zion was understood as redemption and the coming of the Messiah. The concepts of “the People of Israel” and “the Eternal People,” as emphasised bySand, were understood by worshippers as religious concepts. (We may also well ask whether the adherence of Jews, like that of Christians, to religion was really as deep as we are invited to believe. Were not religion and prayer to a great extent a matter of routine? Did the believers necessarily attribute much importance to the meanings of the words they mumbled?)

In that regard the Jews were no different from those around them; only their religion was different. Christians too prayed without ascribing material (Practical?) importance to their prayers. They could repeat the injunction to “turn the other cheek” for a thousand years, or pray to the Holy Trinity and believe in it without their lives being impacted in any substantial way. Socially the important thing was to belong to a community within a religious order and hierarchy. The text and the meaning of the various prayers were less important. The people in general did not understand them, because they were in a language (Latin and Hebrew in Jewish prayers) that was foreign to them (even to most of the lower priests). It was even forbidden to translate the Christian Bible until the time of Martin Luther, and several translators paid for their transgressions with their lives. Thus the texts themselves were not all that important. What was important was the belief in the One God or the Trinity; the yearning for the Messiah who had already come or the one who was yet biding his time.

Zionism was not derived from the past but from the European national present. Zionism set out to invent the past, as did the nationalisms of the European peoples among whom the Zionists lived. It was part of the new European era without which nationalism would not have appeared on the global stage.

Nationalism served to a great extent as a substitute for religion and it also distanced itself from it, mainly by means of the separation of religion from the state, but there was also reticence about all religious ideology. Among the Jews the situation was very similar. Orthodox Jewish Religion did not accept modernity or nationalism and it opposed Zionism. A paradoxical situation was created in which the religious, who were supposedly waiting for the return to Zion, rejected Zionism, while the modern Jews, who had abandoned religion, began to believe in the words of the prayers.

In simple, ironic terms: those who prayed were not Zionists, and Zionists did not pray. It can even be claimed that there was an inverse relationship between the religious yearning for return to Zion and the Zionist ideology: more prayer for the return to Zion = less Zionism. More Zionism = less prayer for redemption. All the prayers for the return to Zion did not cause the religious sector to become Zionist. There is the story of how, at the First Zionist Congress, Herzl requested that some rabbis “with beards and caftans” be found and that they be seated on the stage in order to demonstrate that there were also religious Jews who were enthusiastic Zionists.

The Jews of the Arab Middle East are a good example of this. They were traditional Jews who prayed for return to Zion. But it was not they who engendered the Zionist movement, which could only have been born in secular Europe. In a quirk of fate, they received Zionism from the unbelieving Ashkenazis.

It was the Zionist ideologues who infused the prayers and the traditions with a national consciousness, thereby inventing the Jewish People retroactively. Of course it can also be claimed that there were other characteristics that suggested that the Jews were a “people.” But that will be discussed in the next article.

* Shlomo Sand, The Invention of The Jewish People, London, New York: 2009. Verso. Pp. 16-17.

Translated from Hebrew by George Malent