The Invention of the Jewish People: Shlomo Sand Reinvents History

When it comes to undermining the legitimacy of the Jewish state, there is no thesis too absurd to be published. In fact, one can assume that any book attacking the idea of Jewish nationalism will gain a following (and even garner awards), regardless of how preposterous the underlying thesis.

Such is the case with “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book by Shlomo Sand who teaches French history at Tel Aviv University. The thesis: There is no such thing as a Jewish people; today’s Jews have no connection to biblical Israelites or to Jews who inhabited Israel during the time of the Second Temple; rather, they are descended from disparate groups of people who converted to Judaism and had no ties to the land of Israel. Conversely, there was no exile of Jews from the land of Israel; most Jews remained in the land, converted to Islam and were the progenitors of present-day Palestinians.

Sand acknowledges his mission is to prove invalid the foundation of Zionism – the idea of a Jewish state built on a Jewish ancestral homeland — and to promote instead the idea of a single non-Jewish state of Arabs and Jews. His qualifications for this project lie – not in Jewish history scholarship (his field is French nationalism and cinema), but – in his communist, anti-nationalist and anti-Zionist background and politics (which he proudly mentions in the book’s preface). His thesis whereby Arabs – and not Jews– are the rightful inheritors of the land provides the support for his political argument.

What about the earlier historical writings that negate his theories? Sand discards them as the fabrications of 19th and 20th century Jewish historians who fabricated “myths” and constructed “memories” of Jewish nationhood. Moreover, he contends the invented version of events was kept alive in Jewish history departments throughout Israel, the U.S. and Europe by Zionists who “created an iron-jawed vise that prevented any deviation from the dominant narrative.”

The author does not pretend to reveal any new primary source material. His conceit is that he is keener and more honest than the “authorized” experts in Jewish history whom he disparages, and that he, by contrast, is uncovering “surprising connections” and offering “unexpected insights.”

Ironically, Sand draws not only upon the revisionist theories of Bible critics, journalists, philosophers and archeologists who share his perspective, but upon the work of the very same historians whom he dismisses – cherry-picking the facts he favors and ridiculing the conclusions that don’t meet his needs.

To support his interpretation of events, Sand sets up straw man arguments. For example, he goes to great lengths to ‘prove’ that the Romans did not deport the entire Jewish population following the destruction of the Second Temple. By ‘uncovering’ the obvious, Sand believes he is demolishing “the myth of uprooting and exile” which, he explains, “was essential for the construction of a long-term memory wherein an imaginary, exiled people-race could be described as the direct descendants of the former ‘people of the Bible’.”

But, of course, no serious history of the Jewish people suggests that the entire population of Judea was expelled in one fell swoop. On the contrary, Jewish historians have always taught that while the Romans ended Jewish autonomy in the land and destroyed the Second Temple which was at the core of Jewish life, Jews remained in the land, established a Sanhedrin, and compiled the Mishnah and Talmud.

Sand attempts to dismiss evidence that might negate his theory of no exile: He alleges that Flavius Josephus, the eyewitness historian who documented the Roman conquest of Israel “tended to exaggerate his numbers” and his description of a Jewish exile can therefore not be trusted. He claims that the Arch of Titus in Rome – built shortly after Titus’ death in 81 CE to depict the triumphal march to Rome with treasures from the destroyed Jewish Temple – “shows Roman soldiers carrying the plundered Temple candelabra – not…Judean captives carrying it on their way to exile.” He argues that there is no Roman documentation that mentions “a deportation from Judea.” He refers to the Roman expulsion of Jews from the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina, built on the ruins of Jerusalem in 135 CE, (and which lasted some two hundred years) as a temporary “restriction” which he claims does not constitute proof of “Judean masses” being exiled at that time.

Indeed, even if all those assertions were true – and there is little reason to believe they are– it is immaterial whether or not Josephus’ overall numbers were exaggerated, whether those carrying the Temple’s treasures were captives or soldiers, or whether Judean masses were forcibly deported at any single point in time. Sand is unable to dispute the fact that the destruction of the Temple, loss of Jewish sovereignty, banishment of Jews from Jerusalem, and attempt by the Romans to erase the country’s Jewish identity – even changing its name to Provincia Syria Palestina – was a pivotal and traumatic point in the history of the Jews which resulted in the scattering of Jews throughout the Diaspora for a second time, the first exile having been caused by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

That there were Jews who continued to live in the land of Israel subject to Roman rule,or that a community of religious scholars flourished for a time in the Galilee – facts that no Jewish historian disputes– emphasizes the willingness of Jews to cling to their homeland despite persecution and demonstrates the centrality of the Land of Israel to Jewish identity. It does not take away from the fact that in the wake of the Roman defeat, Jews were powerless and oppressed in their own country. Whether through flight, expulsion, emigration, subjugation or a combination of these factors, the Jews viewed themselves as a nation exiled from their homeland – a perception that permeated the Jewish canon, prayers, religious practice, customs and Messianic beliefs.

But if Sand rejects the notion of a Jewish nation, he must also find a way to discount its national consciousness and belief system. He therefore dismisses these as “implanted memories,” contending that the notion of a Jewish exile as divine retribution and “the myth of the Wandering Jew” was only “adopted” from a “popular Christian myth” at a later time – around the fourth century CE.

He is wrong. This theme long predates the birth of Christianity. The Book of Jeremiah, written between 627-586 BCE during the period of the Babylonian exile, recounts Jeremiah’s prophecies to Judeans warning them of impending destruction due to their idolatrous ways, and the Book of Lamentations written shortly after the exile, describes the punishment imposed by God. Both books (which are included in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible) establish the theme of the Jewish nation’s dispersion from Israel in punishment for its sins, as well as the prophecy of salvation, restoration and return to the land. For example:

Jerusalem sinned grievously, therefore she became a wanderer  (Lamentations, Ch. 1, Verse 8)

Thus saith the Lord: Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their own border. (Jeremiah, Ch. 31, Verses 15-16)

This theme also appears in daily Jewish prayers, established in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple; which lament the distancing of the nation from its land and include multiple supplications for the Jewish salvation and restoration in the land of Israel. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, was first established to commemorate the Babylonian destruction of the Jewish Temple, then the Roman destruction of the Second Temple which was destroyed on the same date and has become a collective day of mourning for multiple adversities that have befallen the Jewish people over time. The Jewish wedding ceremony concludes with the chanting of the biblical phrase, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning,” and the breaking of a glass by the groom to commemorate the destruction of the Temples. Yom Kippur services and the Passover Seder conclude each year with the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem.” These prayers and rituals have remained a part of Jewish life for over two thousand years.

Sand is unable to adequately explain away this longstanding belief in a common heritage, or the writings, prayers, practices,, customs and rituals which form the essence of a Jewish national consciousness. He feebly attempts to dismiss them as inconsequential, religious practices and the bible as a “marginal” book of fairy tales. But by pretending that a true national consciousness arose only as a result of recent historians who “invented” the concept of a Jewish people, Sand essentially ignores everything that Jews believed in before that. It is just such a longstanding, shared consciousness (even among those who are not religiously observant) that forms the core of nationhood. The very fact that for thousands of years, Jews shared the same bonds to the land of Israel and regarded themselves — and others regarded them — as a people, itself invalidates Sand’s contentions to the contrary. Unable to dismiss this salient fact, Sand involves himself with irrelevant, meaningless arguments, however false.

In another such example, Sand argues that today’s Jews are descended entirely from converts to Judaism — the Ashkenazi Jews from Khazars, a nomadic Turkic tribe, and the Sephardi Jews from Berbers, Himyarites, and other groups of converts.

While there is no scholar who argues that Jewish lineage has been racially pure since biblical times or hides the fact that religious converts to Judaism from locations outside Israel have contributed to the Jewish gene pool, recent genetic studies demonstrate that Jews from diverse backgrounds around the world show genetic similarity not only with each other but with others from the Middle East.

Some of the best-known studies have compared the DNA of self-reported Cohanim (members of the Jewish patrilineal priestly line) from diverse backgrounds (both Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi) with cohorts of non-Jewish males from the same areas. The results reveal a remarkable similarity in the DNA sequence patterns of the Cohanim (who share what is termed the Cohen Modal Haplotype) across different continents but not shared by non-Jewish males from the same geographic locations, suggesting a shared a common origin in the Middle East well before the dispersion of Jews into separate communities.

Unequipped to dispute the scientific studies that disprove his theory, Sand rejects them out of hand, ridicules the investigators with sarcastic, ad hominem attacks, and even resorts to using anti-Semitic stereotypes. For example he writes:

The gates of Western canonical science–mainly in the United States–opened to the industrious Israeli researchers, who regularly blended historical mythologies and sociological assumptions with dubious and scanty genetic findings.


The new paper…showed the sly Y-chromosome had fooled its inexperienced investigators. But never fear, the updated genetic picture still indicated that the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were related….

And, perhaps most disturbingly:

Israeli researchers received generous funds from government and private foundations, and the scientific results soon followed.

Here Sand introduces an anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish money buying results.

In the one instance where Sand actually ventures to dispute the science, he reveals just how out of his depth he is:

The amusing aspect of this story is that the ‘priestly gene’ could just as easily be a ‘non-Jewish gene.’ Judaism is inherited from the mother, so it would not be far-fetched to assume that…a good many, non-believing cohanim have married ‘gentile’ women. These men may well have fathered ‘non-Jewish’ offspring, who…would bear the ‘genetic seal’ of the cohanim. But Jewish scientists are not expected to consider such minor details…

Cohanim are descended in a patrilineal fashion, so of what relevance is maternally inherited Judaism here? Absolutely none. Even accepting that a certain number of non-Jews are descended from Jewish Cohanim, would it disprove that Cohanim have a Jewish common ancestry going back thousands of years? Of course not. In fact, the number of non-Jews who share the specific genetic pattern of Cohanim is insignificant, as evidenced by its absence in the large cohorts of non-Jewish men from the same areas who served as the control groups in these studies.

In other words, this is yet another example of Sand’s irrelevant argumentation to distract his readers from the obvious defects of his thesis. Indeed, the defects are only underscored by his illogic, but this seems to be of no matter to the book’s admirers.

The book was originally published in 2008 in Hebrew as “Eikh u-matai humtza ha-am ha-yehudi?” (How and when was the Jewish people invented?), and in French as “Comment le peuple juif fut inventé” (“How the Jewish people was invented”). It won France’s 2009 Prix Aujourd’hui.. The English edition, “The Invention of the Jewish People” was published in October 2009 by Verso Books which claims to be “the largest radical publisher in the English-language world.” The book bears the accolades of Tony Judt, a European history professor who advocates the dismantlement of Israel as a Jewish state, and Tom Segev, an Israeli revisionist historian and Ha’aretz journalist whose career has been dedicated to demonizing his own country.

That this book was published in several languages, received a French literary award and continues to garner high praise in certain circles, however, is certainly not evidence of its historical or scientific merit. On the contrary: It merely demonstrates that on certain topics, politics trumps scholarship.

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