“When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” Update:

I blogged a while back about this book by Shlomo Sand, a bestseller in Israel and winner of a French prize for nonfiction. The book is coming out in English this Fall, with the title, “The Invention of the Jewish People.”

My previous post was very critical, based on and interview with Sand, and reports about the content of the book, which claims that modern Zionists invented the concept of the Jewish nation, that modern Jews are not descended from ancient Judeans, and others assertions that run counter to my understanding of modern linguistic, religious, demographic, and genetic history. However, I wasn’t able to read the French or Hebrew full text.

In any event, I’ve now come across this extensive review (in English) by Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University. It’s devastating, in exactly the way a scholarly book review should be.

The one thing that Shapira doesn’t mention is that Sand has longstanding Communist connections, and that his parents were also Communists. So while she attributes Sand’s sloppy and tendentious historical work to his desire for a post-Zionist Israel, and points out how similar some of his theories are to those of right-wing anti-Semitic cranks, she fails to link it to some broader leftist intellectual history.

I mention this not to “red-bait,” but because Communists going back to Karl Marx have long been adamant that both Judaism as a religion and Jewish peoplehood are artificial constructs, in a way that other religions and nationalities are not. (You might, in fact, argue that this bizarre singling out of “Jews” as figments of the Western imagination has been an “article of faith” in Communist circles.) I’ve been meaning for a long time to link to this paper, which while not comprehensive, seems like a good place to start to explore this issue.

The author, Ben Cohen, concludes,

To the extent that all group identities are constructed around narratives of history or religion or culture, they can be characterized as synthetic or even artificial. Yet for much of the left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the objectionable nature of Jewish identity, in contrast to the identities of other groups, stemmed from its artificiality, which was understood as being economic in origin. Agents of a monetary economy could not constitute a community, much less a nationality: hence the equation of Jewish emancipation with Jewish disappearance, as intimated by Marx.

He also notes that similar themes were taken up by the Soviets with regard to Israel, and echoes of both ancient Marxism and Soviet propaganda are still prevalent among the left’s anti-Zionists today.

UPDATE: As I wrote in the comments: I’m not attacking Sand for being, or having been, a Communist. I’m pointing out that his ideas have a long intellectual pedigree in the political circles in which he and his family have been involved, and if you’re going to try to put his views in the context of broader intellectual history, that’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting because people are already seizing on Sand as an example of an “Israeli Jewish historian” destroying Zionist myths. It’s rather less impressive to point out that an “Israeli Communist historian” is taking what has been the Marxist/Communist line for decades re Zionism and Jews.

FURTHER UPDATE: The publisher’s website includes, unabashedly, this ridiculous praise for the book: “what this well-documented and fearless book explodes is the myth of a unique Jewish people, miraculously preserved, in contrast to all the other peoples, from external contamination.” The problem, of course, is that there is no such myth. No one has ever accused Jews of being idiots, and you’d have to be an idiot not to recognize that blond-haired, blue-eyed Jews like my late grandmother aren’t descended solely from ancient Judeans, or that my grandmother doesn’t look much like a typical Yemenite, Ethiopian, or even Ashkenazic Jew. The phenomenon of converts–including great Jewish scholars like Onkeles–is well-recognized among Jews, as is the fact that Jews suffered rape, and that not all Jews engaged in endogamous relationships. The idea that Jews believe that they are free from “external contamination” smacks of anti-Semitic myth, and Verso Press should be embarrassed to promote one its books with such a racist quote.