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The Invention of the Jewish People, By Shlomo Sand trans Yael Lotan

Birth of a nation

Shlomo Sand clearly intended his book as an explosive device, a big bang demolishing the myths of Jewishness on which both communal identity and Israeli state policies rest.

His hostile critics react as if it were a deadly bomb, a kind of literary-political terrorist attack. Actually, The Invention of the Jewish People is less a single detonation than a string of firecrackers, erupting or just fizzling in uncertain succession. Ranging across several millennia but with its main aim on Israel's political present, the book has too many diffuse themes and purposes quite to start the kind of fire Sand wants. It doesn't help that a few of his incendiary gadgets almost entirely fail, while others prove to be worn out from previous use.

That sounds harsh: perhaps unduly so. Sand's political purpose is (in my view) an admirable one, and many of his historical claims probably more right than wrong. But at least the mixed response this review will convey might help break away from the pattern of reactions the book is receiving: it has already been published in French and Hebrew. They are starkly divided between uncritical enthusiasm and total condemnation. The blogosphere has been buzzing with wild charges and vulgar abuse against Sand's book – most repeatedly, predictably and depressingly, calling it anti-Semitic.

Almost none of those assailants, naturally, has any discernible expertise in any of the fields Sand touches on. Barely less depressing is the extent to which responses are so utterly predictable according to the critic's political views, so evidently fixed in advance and unaltered by any actual reading.

Conventional ideas about Jewishness hold that Jews are a single ethnic group (or nationality) with substantial shared biological ancestry going back to the biblical kingdom of Judea, from which they were exiled in waves to scatter widely across the Mediterranean world, then far beyond. The core of Sand's historical case is that the whole story is a myth: a very elaborate fiction, supported by hordes of eminent scholars, which became foundational and essential for the state of Israel, but mostly a very recent fabrication without much evidence. Ironically, the idea of the Jews as quintessential people of exile and dispersal was in origin a specifically Christian and even anti-Semitic story: displacement as a punishment for denying Jesus. Yet it was enthusiastically adopted by pioneer 19th-century Jewish historians, partly under the influence of Germanic nationalism, and then by the founders of Zionism.

Sand's counter-story is that very few of those now calling themselves Jews have any connection other than the religious to ancient Levantine Jewish kingdoms. The latter, if they existed at all, were anyway small, disunited and unimportant: the biblical story of a mighty kingdom of David is another groundless myth composed long after the event. Sand argues that the rapid growth of Jewish communities in the Roman Mediterranean world, and later in North Africa, Arabia and south-central Asia, came from mass conversion, not dispersal out of Palestine. Probably the most important wave of conversion was among the Khazars of Russia's Volga-Don steppe. European or Ashkenazi Jews – later the main basis both for America's or Britain's Jewish populations and for Israel's foundation – are mainly descended from them.

Holes can be picked in much of this. For a start, most elements in Sand's counter-narrative are less new than he makes them sound. His key analytical move, to insist on ideas of nationhood as invariably modern, largely top-down inventions rather than ancient ethnic inheritances, is in numerous other contexts not only already old hat but, under the assault of many specialist historians, a slightly battered hat too.

His account of modern arguments over whether ancient Israel ever existed in anything like the biblical stories' depiction is pretty sketchy, and makes those debates sound far simpler than they have really been. He writes as if the sceptical or "minimalist" side has decisively won that intellectual war. A more open-minded reading would suggest, so far, a draw. His arguments about mass conversion, the Khazars and so on, all have many precursors, and equally many long-established critics. Very few serious scholars in recent times have believed in "the Jews" as a single ethno-biological people or "race".

Yet if in intellectual and historical terms, Sand is rehashing some old arguments and even setting up straw men for too-easy demolition, he is surely right that the picture is very different both on more popular level and on that of Israeli politics and law. The very ferocity evident in attacks on the book all too surely proves that point.

In both the opening and the closing pages, Sand presents the political – and indeed ethical – pay-off of his historical claims. Zionism and the Israeli state's most basic founding assumptions depend heavily (though, as he concedes, never exclusively) on the ethno-nationalist pseudo-history he attacks. So long as they remain, Israel can never become a truly democratic society, and never resolve the tensions inherent in calling itself both a democracy and the "state of the Jewish people".

Being "Jewish and democratic" need not be an oxymoron, but can only avoid being so if the idea of Jewishness itself is freed from ethnic, even racialised, myths of origin. Sand seems in two minds over whether that is achievable; and maybe he's right to be so, for the portents are contradictory. On some levels, Israeli-Jewish political culture has become steadily more pluralist and tolerant of dissidence – like, indeed, Sand's own. On others, the centre of political gravity shifts rightward, and the public space for open anti-Arab racism grows bigger.

Here, maybe, the direction of Sand's own polemical fire needs some modification. He notes repeatedly and rightly that the crucial issues all cluster round Israel's treatment of its Arab minority: those who are Israeli citizens (roughly 18 per cent of the total) even more than those of Gaza and the West Bank. But it may be that he still doesn't stress this quite enough. He sees the core of Israel's problems as lying in a "positive" commitment to a mythical idea of Jewishness. It could, though, be argued that still more problematic and pernicious is the "negative" fear, hatred and contempt for Palestinians: that the trouble with Israel is less its character as a "Jewish state" than its being a non-Arab, indeed "anti-Arab" state.

Stephen Howe is professor of history at Bristol University; his books include 'Ireland and Empire' (Oxford)

Mystery or myth: Khazars and Jews

First raised in the 1880s, the theory that Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe are largely descendants of the Khazars of central Asia never quite vanished. The rulers of the medieval Khazar empire certainly converted to Judaism in the ninth century. Historians vary in their views of how far mass conversion could have gone. The idea revived in the Arab world as a means of denying legitimacy to Zionist claims, but its most prominent modern outing came in 1976 with 'The Thirteenth Tribe' by Arthur Koestler.

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