[Marxism] NY Times review of Shlomo Sand book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 24 05:12:55 MST 2009

(A surprisingly evenhanded review.)

NY Times, November 24, 2009
Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty 
much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t 
hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in 
A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as 
much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to 
the Jews of antiquity.

Other theories, like the notion that many of today’s Palestinians can 
legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews, are familiar 
and serious subjects of study, even if no definitive answer yet exists.

But while these ideas are commonplace among historians, they still 
manage to provoke controversy each time they surface in public, beyond 
the scholarly world. The latest example is the book “The Invention of 
the Jewish People,” which spent months on the best-seller list in Israel 
and is now available in English. Mixing respected scholarship with 
dubious theories, the author, Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv 
University, frames the narrative as a startling exposure of suppressed 
historical facts. The translated version of his polemic has sparked a 
new wave of coverage in Britain and has provoked spirited debates online 
and in seminar rooms.

Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly 
states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by 
demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared 
racial or biological past. The book has been extravagantly denounced and 
praised, often on the basis of whether or not the reader agrees with his 

The vehement response to these familiar arguments — both the reasonable 
and the outrageous — highlights the challenge of disentangling 
historical fact from the sticky web of religious and political myth and 

Consider, for instance, Professor Sand’s assertion that Palestinian Arab 
villagers are descended from the original Jewish farmers. Nearly a 
century ago, early Zionists and Arab nationalists touted the blood 
relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their respective 
struggles for independence. Israel’s first prime minister, David 
Ben-Gurion, and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel’s longest-serving president, 
made this very argument in a book they wrote together in 1918. The next 
year, Emir Feisal, who organized the Arab revolt against the Ottoman 
empire and tried to create a united Arab nation, signed a cooperation 
agreement with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that declared the two 
were “mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between 
the Arabs and the Jewish people.”

Both sides later dropped the subject when they realized it was not 
furthering their political goals.

(Though no final consensus has emerged on the ancestral link between 
Palestinians and Jews, Harry Ostrer, director of the Human Genetics 
Program at New York University Langone Medical Center, who has been 
studying the genetic organization of Jews, said, “The assumption of 
lineal descent seems reasonable.”)

Books challenging biblical and conventional history continually pop up, 
but what distinguishes the dispute over origins from debates about, say, 
the reality of the exodus from Egypt or the historical Jesus, is that it 
is so enmeshed in geopolitics. The Israeli Declaration of Independence 
states: “After being forcibly exiled from their Land, the People kept 
faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and 
hope for their return to it.” The idea of unjust exile and rightful 
return undergirds both the Jews’ and the Palestinians’ conviction that 
each is entitled to the land.

Since Professor Sand’s mission is to discredit Jews’ historical claims 
to the territory, he is keen to show that their ancestry lines do not 
lead back to ancient Palestine. He resurrects a theory first raised by 
19th-century historians, that the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, to 
whom 90 percent of American Jews trace their roots, are descended from 
the Khazars, a Turkic people who apparently converted to Judaism and 
created an empire in the Caucasus in the eighth century. This idea has 
long intrigued writers and historians. In 1976, Arthur Koestler wrote 
“The Thirteenth Tribe” in the hopes it would combat anti-Semitism; if 
contemporary Jews were descended from the Khazars, he argued, they could 
not be held responsible for Jesus’ Crucifixion.

By now, experts who specialize in the subject have repeatedly rejected 
the theory, concluding that the shards of evidence are inconclusive or 
misleading, said Michael Terry, the chief librarian of the Jewish 
division of the New York Public Library. Dr. Ostrer said the genetics 
also did not support the Khazar theory.

That does not negate that conversion played a critical role in Jewish 
history — a proposition that many find surprising given that today’s 
Jews tend to discourage conversion and make it a difficult process. 
Lawrence H. Schiffman, chairman of the Skirball department of Hebrew and 
Judaic Studies at New York University, said most historians agree that 
over a period of centuries, Middle Eastern Jews — merchants, slaves and 
captives, religious and economic refugees — spread around the world. 
Many intermarried with people from local populations, who then converted.

There is also evidence that in antiquity and the first millennium 
Judaism was a proselytizing religion that even used force on occasion. 
 From the genetic research so far, Dr. Ostrer said, “It’s pretty clear 
that most Jewish groups have Semitic ancestry, that they originated in 
the Middle East, and that they’re more closely related to each other 
than to non-Jewish groups.” But he added that it was also clear that 
many Jews are of mixed descent.

“The ancient admixed ancestry explains the blond hair and blue eyes of 
Ashkenazi Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents all lived in 
shtetls two and three generations ago,” Dr. Ostrer said. They brought 
the genes for coloration with them to Eastern Europe. These genes were 
probably not contributed by their Cossack neighbors.”

What accounts for the grasp that some misconceptions maintain on popular 
consciousness, or the inability of historical truths to gain acceptance? 
Sometimes myths persist despite clear contradictory evidence because 
people feel the story embodies a deeper truth than the facts. Marie 
Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake,” but the fictional statement 
captured the sense of a regime that showed disdain for the public’s welfare.

A mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration similarly envelopes 
Jewish history, which is, to begin with, based on scarce and confusing 
archaeological and archival records.

Experts dismiss the popular notion that the Jews were expelled from 
Palestine in one fell swoop in A.D. 70. Yet while the destruction of 
Jerusalem and Second Temple by the Romans did not create the Diaspora, 
it caused a momentous change in the Jews’ sense of themselves and their 
position in the world. For later generations it encapsulates the 
essential truth about the Jews being an exiled and persecuted people for 
much of their history.

Professor Sand accuses Zionist historians from the 19th century onward — 
the very same scholars on whose work he bases his case — of hiding the 
truth and creating a myth of shared roots to strengthen their 
nationalist agenda. He explains that he has uncovered no new 
information, but has “organized the knowledge differently.” In other 
words, he is doing precisely what he accuses the Zionists of — shaping 
the material to fit a narrative.

In that sense, Professor Sand is operating within a long established 
tradition. As “The Illustrated History of the Jewish People,” edited by 
Nicholas Lange (Harcourt, 1997), notes, “Every generation of Jewish 
historians has faced the same task: to retell and adapt the story to 
meet the needs of its own situation.” The same could be said of all 
nations and religions.

Perhaps that is why — on both sides of the argument — some myths 
stubbornly persist no matter how often they are debunked while other 
indubitable facts continually fail to gain traction.

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