"Sand’s self-dramatising attack in The Invention of the Jewish People is directed against those who assume, uncritically, that all Jews are descended lineally from the single racial stock of ancient Hebrews – a position no one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews would dream of taking.
Sand’s sense of grievance against the myths on which the exclusively Jewish right to full Israeli immigration is grounded is one that many who want to see a more liberal and secular Israel wholeheartedly share. But his book prosecutes these aims through a sensationalist assertion that somehow, the truth about Jewish culture and history, especially the “exile which never happened”, has been suppressed in the interests of racially pure demands of Zionist orthodoxy. This, to put it mildly, is a stretch.
To take just one instance: the history of the Khazars, the central Asian kingdom which, around the 10th century, converted to Judaism and which Sand thinks has been excised from the master narrative because of the embarrassing implication that present day Jews might be descended from Turkic converts. But the Khazars were known by every Jewish girl and boy in my neck of Golders Greenery and further flung parts of the diaspora, and celebrated rather than evaded.
For Sand, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, the antidote to a national identity based on what he argues are fables, is to shed the fancy that there is any such thing as a shared Jewish identity independent of religious practice.
By this narrow reckoning you are either devoutly orthodox or not Jewish at all if you imagine yourself to have any connection to Israel past or present. Sand confuses ethnicity – which, in the case of the Jews, is indeed impure, heterogeneous and much travelled – with an identity that evolves as the product of common historical experience. Rabbinical arguments may rest on an imaginary definition of ethnicity, but the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland does not. Ultimately, Israel’s case is the remedy for atrocity, about which Sand has nothing to say.
... Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning – the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away.
There are many such twists of historical logic and strategic evasions of modern research in this book. To list them all would try your patience. Scholarly consensus now places the creation of the earliest books of the Old Testament not in the 6th or 5th centuries BC, but in the 9th century BC, home-grown in a Judah which had been transformed, as Israel Finkelstein has written “into a developed nation state”. The post-David kingdom of the 10th century BC may have been a pastoral warrior citadel, but the most recent excavations by Amihai Mazar have revealed it capable of building monumental structures. And the Judah in which the bible was first forged, its population swollen with refugees from the hard-pressed northern kingdom of Israel, was a culture that needed a text to bring together territory, polity and religion. It was a moment of profound cultural genesis. And don’t get me started again on the Khazars. No one doubts the significance of their conversion, but to argue that the entirety of Ashkenazi Jewry must necessarily descend from them is to make precisely the uncritical claim of uninterrupted genealogy Sand is eager to dispute in the wider context of Jewish history.
His assumption that the Jewish state is an oxymoron built on illusions of homogeneity is belied by the country’s striking heterogeneity. How else to explain the acceptance of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jews or the Bene Israel Indians as Israeli Jews? Certainly that acceptance has never been without obstacles, and egregious discrimination has been shown by those who think they know what “real jews” should look like. Sand is right in believing that a more inclusive and elastic version of entry and exit points into the Jewish experience should encourage a debate in Israel of who is and who is not a “true” Jew. I could hardly agree more, and for precisely the reason that Sand seems not to himself embrace: namely that the legitimacy of Israel both within and without the country depends not on some spurious notion of religious much less racial purity, but on the case made by a community of suffering, not just during the Holocaust but over centuries of expulsions and persecutions. Unlike the Roman deportations, these were not mythical...."Now I think he's rather wonderful.
And what a wonderful series Schama's BBC2 documentary series "The Story of the Jews" promises to be, as the first episode, screened on 1st September, shows:
Already, Israel-bashers are up in arms. The notorious Israel-born Israel-hater Gilad Atzmon rants and raves here.
And a gang of well-known Israel-bashers (Sarah Colborne, Palestine Solidarity Campaign; Daud Abdullah, Middle East Monitor; Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, British Committee for the Universities of Palestine; Abe Hayeem, Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine; Ismail Patel, Friends of Al Aqsa; Diana Neslen, Jews for Justice for Palestinians) have written an Open Letter of protest to the Controller of BBC2, Janice Hadlow, dated 3rd September, that says in part:
".... In an interview in the Radio Times (31 August-6 September), Schama describes himself as an ‘historian-Zionist’ and says he will be making ‘the moral case for Israel’ in the final episode of this five part series.
We find it alarming that the BBC is giving a platform to an openly pro-Israeli commentator to make the ‘moral case’ for Israel. Schama’s views will go unopposed, unchallenged and unanalysed. This is a far cry from the balanced and impartial broadcasting that the BBC claims to champion...."Read more here
Incidentally, talking of television programmes this week, there was, on Aussie multicultural public broadcasting channel SBS yesterday, a new episode from the BBC ancestor-hunt series "Who Do You Think You Are?" featuring rock singer Annie Lennox. She, of course, is an artist known for sounding off about Israel, as, for instance, during Operation Cast Lead. This recently uploaded video, in which Professor Richard Landes makes mincemeat of her arguments, is in fact a riposte to all such critics of Israel (Enjoy!)