Book Review for Tikkun by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Marx-26 aug.2009

The Invention of the Jewish People, Shlomo Sand, tr. Yael Lotan, Verso, London, NY, English version 2009, [Hebrew title: Matai ve’ech humtza ha’am hayehudi? When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?Reisling, 2008] ISBN 13-978-84467-422-0. )

Shlomo Sands’The Invention of the Jewish People is intended to debunk what Israeli historians and theologians have always known: “A Jew is a descendant of the nation that was exiled two thousand years ago.” (p. 18). Many of Israel’s self-described “new historians,” have set out to shake the structure of Israeli memory about how the State of Israel came into existence. Sands has a much broader goal: to question whether there was ever any thing corresponding to the notion of “the Jewish people” prior to the time that this concept was invented to justify the Zionist project to create a Jewish state in Palestine. . Sands seems to think that “should it become widely known that the settling Jewish masses [in Israel] were not the direct descendants of the `Children of Israel’- such de-legitimization might lead to a broad challenge against the State of Israel’s right to exist” (p. 236). According to Sands, the Jews are not a people, they have not been in exile; they are therefore not “re-turning” to a land which is their patrimony. From this perspective he asserts that the knowledge of the “actual” Jewish origins through mass conversions in Alexandria (in the pre-Christian era) and by the Khazar kingdom in the Caucasus (8th-9th C.) are silenced in Israel historiography. Jews, Sands believes, are the descendants of converts in Alexandria, of the Berbers of N. Africa, and of the Khazar kingdom of Eastern Europe. The myth of Jewish exile was invented by the Zionists in order to justify the Jewish claim to Eretz (the “Land” of) Israel in the modern context of settling that “Land.” It is this myth which sustains Israelis’ claims to possession of the entirety of what the British called Palestine, and thus becomes a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. He adopts Israel Jacob Yuval, Hebrew University historian’s view that the renewed Jewish myth of about the exile arose fairly late (in Jewish history) and was due to the rise of Christian mythology about the Jews being exiled in punishment for their rejection and crucifixion of Jesus” that became embedded in the various definitions of the Jewish presence around the world. (p. 134)

Let us, for the sake of argument, concede the view that the Bible is “full of imaginary tales” which are historically untrustworthy. (p. 92). They were the product of a later imagination than the purported epochs in which they are embedded in the stories. (p 126). And let us adopt the view of the Copenhagen-Scheffield school that “the Bible is not a book but a grand library that was written, revised and adapted in the course of three centuries, from the late sixth to the early second century BCE by authors seeing “to create a “coherent religious community” (p. 126).

So what of it? Every nation has its own myths. This is how the group of Jews 2500 years ago organized themselves around this myth. They construed themselves, as a nation and not as a mere religious grouping. The Bible may not be “a reliable testimony to processes and events” in history, but it is surely an ethnic marker of how this group saw itself and organized its self-understanding (127). These did not want to be merely a religious corporation as the Christian religion, a mere community of believers, but a people, a folk, a nation, indeed, of a common imagined (according to Sands) ethnic origin but one which was open to those who wanted to join this people as a nation firstly and as religion second, as a byproduct of that membership. In modern terms we call this naturalization, in religion we call it proselytism or conversion. What is peculiar for the Jewish self-understanding is that when one wanted to become a member, he was not asked what he believed, as would have been appropriate when joining into the faith and attaching himself to such a faith community, but rather: “What reason have your for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by affliction? If he replies, “I know and yet am unworthy’, he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments.” (Talmud Yebamot 47a, Soncino translation p. 310). He is joining a people’s- nation that while spread over the globe and mostly not dwelling in the land Israel for most of its history of the last 2500 years, yet saw itself/themselves in all those diasporas as belonging to one nation- am in Hebrew, and not merely a religion. It is “not an act of self-commitment to Torah [as a religious conversion connotes in Christianity], but an event of joining a community- the `People of Israel’ and “had always been a matter of changing one’s national identity, write Professors Avi Sagi and Zvi Zohar of Bar Ilan University (“Giyyur, Jewish Identity, and Modernization” in Modern Judaism, vol. 15 nu. 1 Feb. 1995, reviewer’s emphasis).


Sands invests much effort in claiming that the biblical sense of a family of terms- nation (le’om, umah,), people (am), race, ethnos, country, homeland- have a different connotation than the modern one of nation. The ancient term “am” that in the expression “am Yisroel”- people of Israel in the sense of nation- is a “very fluid term and difficult therefore to include in any meaningful discourse” (p. 25). The evidence of usage of such terms in ancient mythical writings is therefore no evidence of actual nationhood. Nevertheless in their mythically constructed biblical tales the Jews conceived and spoke of themselves in these very terms: “a holy nation (people), a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6.). In the myth of Rachel’s twin birth she is told that “two nations (goyim)” are wrestling within her womb (Gen. 25:23) one of which is Jacob/Israel. The same term, goy, as the prophet Isaiah uses to preach that “nation shall not raise sword against nation” (Is. 2:4). Strangely Sands does not mention that term in his review of the nomenclature.

It is easy to agree with Sands that in general “peoples, populations, native populaces, tribes and religious communities are not nations, even though they are often spoken of as such” (p. 31). But why not also agree that sometimes when people speak of themselves as such, it can be valid if they distinguish themselves with the essential signs of nationhood? As early as 1861, John Stuart Mill, cited sympathetically by Sands (p. 32), gives a good sense of this national glue that is relevant to the Jewish case: “A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality, if they are united among themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others- which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be a government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively.” This seems to eminently suitable to the Jewish case. Sands book introduces very interesting historical on the diasporas of Alexandria and of the Khazars for which reason alone it is worth reading, but his main thesis remains in the opinion of this reviewer his own invention.


Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Marx, author Disability in Jewish Law (Routledge, 2002) and publicist on Judaism in Holland since 1996 where he edits Tenachon, a quarterly magazine on Jewish themes. He teaches in various colleges, institutes and study groups in Holland and participates in interreligious activities internationally. Ordained at Yeshiva University, he received his Ph.d at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht, was formerly Educational Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute and serves on the advisory board of Tikkun.

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