Jewish Peoplehood Denied, While Israel’s Foes Applaud
By Hillel Halkin
Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
Although there is probably no book too foolish to go un-admired by someone, there are subjects for which the market for foolishness is especially large. Any list of these would have to include “Jews” and “Israel” near its top, as has once again been demonstrated by the granting of this year’s prestigious Aujourd’hui Award to the French translation of Israeli academic Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People.” (This is the title of the English edition, due to appear in September from left-wing publisher Verso.)
Sand’s book, which argues that there was no such thing as a Jewish people until one was “constructed” by Zionism and Jewish nationalism in the 19th century, would have attracted little notice had it been written by a professor of history at the University of Damascus. As the work of a supposed historian at the University of Tel Aviv, it is a scandal, a fashionably phrased political screed against Zionism that cherry-picks its data while pretending to be history. Alas, it will be accepted as history by many readers who are as dutifully impressed by its 568 footnotes, as were, it would seem, the French journalists on the Aujourd’hui panel.
Not that Sand gets everything wrong. His book is full of perfectly correct and quite unoriginal observations: some elaborating why today’s Jews are not all descendants of biblical Israelites and stem in part from ancestors who joined the Jewish people by religious conversion over the ages (although Sand’s treatment of the considerable genetic research on the subject is shockingly shoddy, he is not wholly wrong about the matter); some pointing out that Diaspora Jews never shared a single spoken language or material culture, let alone territory, as do most peoples; and some dwelling on the problematic nature of the State of Israel, which aspires to be Jewish, democratic and secular while denying non-Jews certain privileges extended to Jews and defining Jewishness in terms of traditional religious law. These are all issues worthy of discussion, and there is nothing wrong with raising them.
And yet to go from there to Sand’s absurd conclusions that the Jews, who considered themselves a distinct people from their early history, were “invented” as one in modern times; that their historical connection to Palestine is “imaginary,” because they are not descended in their entirety from ancient Palestinian Jewry; or that the idea of a Jewish state is therefore less acceptable than the idea of a French or Spanish state, demands a thoroughly dishonest manipulation of the facts. Indeed, if one is talking about the “construction” of national identities, an enterprise that numerous post-modernist historians of nationalism to whom Sand is indebted have written about, it is the French and Spanish who are the parvenus, having undertaken the task only in the late Middle Ages. And if you are looking for peoples who accomplished this even later, in the last two or three centuries, say, you might consider the Italians, the Germans, the Americans, the Brazilians, the Indians and a host of others (including those latest of latecomers, the Palestinians). You would never, unless you wanted to flaunt your ignorance, mention the Jews, who had a fully developed national consciousness at least 2,500 years ago.
But of course, no one would ever write a book challenging the idea of an Italian, German or Brazilian state, much less win any French prizes for it. It is only the Jews in regard to whom it is nowadays increasingly bon ton to argue that a country of their own is not for them. And should you have the bad manners to object that it is antisemitic to deny them a right that is granted to other peoples, you can now look forward to being answered: “Ah, my friend, the Jews have only imagined they are a people! If even a Jewish professor of history says so, it must be true.”
And yet the embarrassment of Jewishness has always made certain Jewish intellectuals not the last, but the first, to seek to discredit the idea of Jewish peoplehood. From the age of the French Revolution, a time at which few European gentiles doubted for a moment that the Jews were a separate people (and on the whole, a heartily disliked one), there were plenty of Jews who insisted that they were really just Frenchmen or Germans or Englishmen of “the Mosaic faith,” with no national ties to other Mosaicists living elsewhere. And by the same token, in the 1940s, when Hitler and his legions were confident that they were exterminating a people and not a mere religious profession, the so-called Canaanite movement, born in the bohemian cafés of Tel Aviv, made similar claims for the Jews of Palestine — who, it was said, were proud, sun-bronzed “Hebrews,” not to be confused with the pale-skinned juifs, Juden and zhidi of Europe then meekly trooping off to the gas chambers.
Shlomo Sand is in this tradition, a post-modernist Canaanite who need not, he thinks, suffer the indignity of belonging to the Jewish people because — what a relief! — no such people exists. No doubt, not a few of the thousands of Israelis who helped put Sand’s book on the best-seller list in Israel experienced a similar epiphany upon reading it. Even in a Jewish state, we now know, there will always be Jews who would rather be something else. You can, to paraphrase an old Zionist witticism, take the Jew out of the non-Jewish environment into which he dreams of assimilating, but you cannot take the assimilationist out of every Jew.
Unfortunately, there are even larger numbers of non-Jews who will be happy to believe Sand’s nonsense. Once upon a time, antisemitism consisted of the belief that the Jews were an incorrigible and pernicious people who could never be absorbed by other peoples. Today, it is trendy to hold that they are a non-people masquerading as a people in order to justify stealing another people’s homeland. Le plus ça change, le plus ça reste le même chose. As discouraging as it is to see Jewish intellectuals like Shlomo Sand aiding and abetting their people’s enemies, this too is not new under the sun.
Hillel Halkin is the author, most recently, of “A Strange Death: A Story Originating in Espionage, Betrayal, and Vengeance in a Village in Old Palestine” (Public Affairs, 2005) and “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002).