The Invention of the Jewish People
By Shlomo Sand
“Zionism is the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel—the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. The yearning to return to Zion, the biblical term for both the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, has been the cornerstone of Jewish religious life since the Jewish exile from the land two thousand years ago, and is embedded in Jewish prayer, ritual, literature and culture.”
– Anti-Defamation League
Central to the Zionist project is the idea of return to the homeland from which Jews were expelled almost 2000 years ago. According to this narrative, Jews wandered through foreign lands as exiles, maintaining their identity and community despite, or sometimes because of, persecution.
This story of cultural, religious and biological continuity is central to legitimising the establishment of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. For if the returning Jews were the descendants of those who owned the land two millennia ago, they were entitled to eject the Palestinians as mere squatters.
Unfortunately for the Zionists, the story is a myth on many levels, as Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has set out to show in this valuable book.
What is perhaps most damning is that Sand uses sources that had been previously cited by Zionist and Israeli writers.“The difference is,” he writes, “that some elements had not been given sufficient attention, others were immediately swept under the historiographers’ rug, and still others were ‘forgotten’ because they did not fit the needs of the evolving national identity.”
The exile story is built on shaky biblical foundations. Sand refers to archaeological work demonstrating that the exodus from Egypt of the Jewish slaves led by Moses could not have happened, that Jericho had no walls to fall, and that the kings David and Solomon might not have existed.
The city-state of Judah, centred on the fortified stronghold of Jerusalem, conquered the kingdom of Israel to its north and took its name. But Israel was a proudly polytheistic society, not the cradle of early Judaism.
The exile story—that the Jewish nation was expelled after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70AD—is equally problematic. The Romans were not known to expel entire populations and there is no account of such a deportation in surviving records.
What seems much more likely is that the defeat of Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire led to subjugation and humiliation, a sentiment which later dovetailed with the Christian story of the Wandering Jew, punished for betraying Jesus.
The Jewish population had in any case long before spread beyond Judea. There had been a significant Jewish population in Babylonia (in what is now Iraq) since the 6th century BC, which arguably pioneered Jewish monotheism. Jewish communities prospered in Egypt and North Africa, in Asia Minor and in Rome.
As Sand writes: “Before and after the fall of the Second Temple, there were Jewish believers all over the Roman Empire, as well as in the Parthian territory in the east, in numbers vastly exceeding those of the inhabitants of Judea.”
This is subversive stuff. If there was no exile as understood in the Zionist narrative, then it brings the concept of “return” into question. If Jerusalem, like Rome or Mecca, is a site of religious significance rather than a “homeland”, then its conquest in the 20th century loses its moral force.
Let’s turn to those dispersed Jewish communities, for if the Second Temple exile story fails, their existence still needs to be explained. In response to this challenge, Sand traces a narrative grounded in historical and archaeological findings that shows Judaism’s expansion was underpinned by conversion.
Today, this seems counter-intuitive. Judaism has not been a proselytising religion for centuries. There are no Jewish missionaries. Handfuls of individuals convert to Judaism, mainly to marry, but the process is not widely publicised.
But for some six centuries, this was not the case. As Sand writes: “Contrary to modern conceptions, from the second century BCE to the early fourth century CE Judaism was a proselytising religion, dynamic and expanding, and no data today can refute this.”
The Book of Isaiah put it grandly thus: “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.”
Although the Judeans carried out local conquests, the main weapon in their armoury was monotheism. The revolutionary idea of one god, rather than many, had grown out of the consolidation of trade routes from the Persian world. The monotheistic impulse was strengthened by an infusion of Hellenistic (Greek) anti-tribalist universalism.
Sand writes that conversion won possibly millions to Judaism around the southeastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Damascus. In the first century AD, the royal family of Adiabene (today’s Kurdistan and Armenia) converted.
The Roman empire, which tolerated its subjects’ religions, allowed for expansion to the west. “At its high point there, Judaism was professed by 7 to 8 per cent of all the empire’s inhabitants,” writes Sand. “The word ‘Jew’ ceased to denote the people of Judea, and now included the masses of proselytes and their descendants.”
Judaism and Palestine
There is not space here to account for every episode in the religion’s expansion. Some examples, however, stand out.
One is the kingdom of Himyar, today’s Yemen. Toward the end of the fourth century AD the kingdom went over to Judaism and remained Jewish for between 120 and 150 years.
This led to two notable outcomes: a Jewish community in Yemen that survived into the 20th century, and the establishment of Jewish communities in Ethiopia after Himyar’s conquest by the Africans.
Another example is the spread of Judaism in north Africa, from Cyrenaica in the east of today’s Libya westward into lands of the Berbers, as far as Morocco.
“Although in the third and fourth centuries CE … the rate of conversion to Judaism slowed down in Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy … along the coast of the Maghreb the communities of believers in Yahweh did quite well,” writes Sand. Some tiny Jewish communities persist in the region to this day.
The third example is perhaps the most explosive politically—the case of the kingdom of the Khazars, between the Black and Caspian seas, which some time between the mid-eighth and mid-ninth centuries adopted Judaism.
Contact with the religion through war and migration might have sown the seed, but it was the Khazars’ desire to remain independent of the rising Christian and Muslim empires which led them to adopt the oldest of the great monotheistic religions.
The Jewish kingdom survived for between 200 and 400 years and led to the spread of the religion into Eastern Europe. One tribe broke away and accompanied the Magyars west into what is now Hungary. Influence spread into the Slav areas to the north-west. Kiev, the first Russian capital, may have been founded by Khazarian Jews.
The kingdom was smashed by the invasion of Genghis Khan’s Mongol army in the early 13th century and many of its people fled west, into Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, taking with them religious, cultural and linguistic baggage. The Yiddish for “to pray” is a Turkish word.
This movement of population was acknowledged by, among others, Israeli writer Ben-Zion Dinur, who referred to the Khazar kingdom as a potential “diaspora mother”. Dinur was not a marginal figure—he became Israel’s minister of education in the 1950s. But by the 1970s, such talk in Israel was unacceptable.
Little wonder that the Khazar story has been so contested and ridiculed by Zionist writers—for if it is true in its essentials, then the bulk of Ashkenazi, European Jewry do not trace their biological lineage to the House of David, but to Turkic tribes in central Asia. There is no biological continuity, no basis for “return”.
Where then are the “original” Jews, the descendants of the Judeans who did not go into exile? Remarkably, the question was asked and answered in subversive fashion by one of the central figures of Zionism.
None other than David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, wrote in 1918 that the Judean peasantry had clung to their soil down the millennia. They had been conquered and converted by Muslim invaders, but had not been displaced.
In other words, the descendants of the Judeans were… the Palestinians.
In 1918, Ben-Gurion advanced this theory to argue that the Palestinians could be painlessly integrated into the Zionist project. After the mass Palestinian revolts of the 1930s, the idea of integrating the two populations rapidly lost favour.
Sand, however, is happy to re-raise it. While recognising that all populations are changed by migration, conquest and trade, he argues that: “It is quite likely that an inhabitant of Hebron is closer in origin to the ancient Hebrews than the majority of those across the world who identify themselves as Jews.”
It is an explosive argument that puts into question the very existence of Israel as an exclusive and dogmatic Jewish state. And that is just as Sand intended.