The Invention of the Jewish People

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Shlomo Sand, Verso; £13.99

The link between the Jewish people and their ancestral land is central to Zionism. The narrative of exile, dispersion and return is the justification for the founding of Israel and the "right of return" for Jews around the world. By showing that the vast majority of Jews have no common ancestry, never suffered exile and that there was no dispersion, Sand challenges the very foundation of the Jewish state.

Sand summarises the historical evidence that Jews descended from the various communities around the Mediterranean who converted to the Judaic religion over many centuries and that the largest modern Jewish population came from a mass conversion in southern Russia. The narrative of a "Jewish people" descended from the patriarch Abraham, their exodus from Egypt and triumphant entry into Canaan, to the zenith of David's kingdom, is exposed with meticulous care as completely fictitious. Have the Jews at least a common origin in expulsion from Judea and exile to Babylon? Absolutely not.

Sand shows how studies contradicting this biblical story have been banished to "the realms of silence" by Israeli academia in the interests of the Israeli state. Zionism demands that what Sand calls "mythistory" be applied to the story of a religion to make it fit a nationalist narrative.

For example, David Ben-Gurion, first and longest-serving prime minister of Israel, argued during the early years of Zionism that Palestinians were descended from the original Jewish Judeans: "The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil... Despite the repression and suffering the rural population remained unchanged" and "the fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors".

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, another of Israel's founding fathers, also insisted on the Jewish origin of the Palestinian peasantry. Sand notes how it is from the moment of the 1936 Palestinian revolt against Zionist colonisation that this thesis disappears and "the descendants of the Judean peasantry vanished from the Jewish national consciousness". In 1948 the secular Ben-Gurion formulated the Declaration of the State of Israel which states, "After being exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it."

The author, professor of history at Tel Aviv University, is engaged in anti-Zionist historiography. He explains how, once Zionists recognised that the indigenous Palestinians would resist colonisation, they needed to bring in a population of settlers. To do this they imposed a common origin and identity on the diverse reality, inventing a "Jewish people" and propagating the myth of their exile.

These inventions, as Sand explains, are used to underlie the Zionist claim to a Jewish state - an essentialist, exclusive, undemocratic and untenable claim.