Invention of the Jewish People – Book Review
This is the book if you’re looking for a fresh approach to Israel’s history
(The Invention of the Jewish People. Shlomo Sand. Verso, New York, 2009.)
Myths are powerful because they tell the story of origins – the origins of tribes and the origins of a people and nations. Myths tell us who we are and where and how we began. Incorporating folktales and legends, myths tell us what truth is and how it makes us different from others. Groups of people use myths in the creation of histories of themselves as people who are different from others. National myths, involving politics and patriotism use myths and myth-making to construct the national identity: what makes our country and people different from every other? Israeli historian and Professor of History at Israel’s Tel Aviv University calls this process “mythistory”. “From this surgically improved past emerge[s] the proud and handsome portrait of the nation.”
“Every history” writes Professor Sand “contains myths, but those that lurk within national historiography are especially brazen. The histories of peoples and nations have been designed like the statues in city squares – they must be grand, towering, heroic… ‘Us’ and ‘All the Others’ was the usual, almost the natural division. For more than a century, the production of Us was the life’s work of the national historians and archaeologists, the authoritative priesthood of memory.”
In this fashion, a group of Jewish writers, political activists and others began in the second half of the nineteenth century to shape the history (mythistory) of the Jewish people. All Jews, they said, come from a single stock originating from the loins of the founding patriarch, Abraham. In the ancient past, they were citizens of a powerful Jewish state called Israel, were exiled after the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, and since that time have lived as exiles in nations where they have suffered persecution. It is time, they said, to recreate the Nation of Israel so that its people can return to it and live there.
Using the Biblical narrative as a history text, they began to construct the history of the Jewish people as a People Set Apart from all others. Their history, so the story line goes, “rests on firm and precise truths.” The problem with this is, none of it can be shown to be scientifically verified truth. Instead, it is what Professor Sand calls “mythistory”… Using what we now know was pseudoscience, early Zionist thinkers turned to physical anthropology, social Darwinism and, later to eugenics to build their case for identifying the Jewish people as being biologically different from all others. “The purpose of Jewish biology,” Professor Sand writes “was to promote separation from others… It sought to serve the project of ethnic nationalist consolidation in the taking over of an imaginary ancient homeland.”
The next step was to find a homeland to which all Jewish people could be invited. Though it wasn’t the first choice, the most logical choice was Palestine. The goal became immigrating to Palestine with the aim of taking it over and recreating the ancient and very mythical Nation of Israel. The obvious problem was that Palestine was already inhabited by a mostly Arab population that had lived there for over a thousand years.
What to do? Simple: build alliances with those who can and will help you. The golden opportunity arrived with Hitler’s massive annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s. Jewish immigration into Palestine, almost overnight, turned into a tsunami. Granted nationhood by the United Nations, Israel was “reborn”. “The land of Israel” reads the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel “was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identify was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Out of the mists of ancient myth came the modern Nation of Israel and its armies. Built on the racially exclusionary ideological foundation of Zionism, this new Nation of Israel quickly began expelling the non-Jewish people who lived there. Beginning in 1948, almost overnight more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were dispossessed of their homes and lands and became refugees, a process that continues as I write. It is deeply cynical, racist and destined, so Professor Sand believes, to fail. It is still possible to close one’s eyes to the truth. Many voices will continue to maintain that the ‘Jewish people’ has existed for four thousand years, and that ‘Eretz Israel’ has always belonged to it. And yet the historical myths that were once, with the aid of a good deal of imagination, able to create Israeli society are now powerful forces helping to raise the possibility of its destruction.”
To say that Professor Sand’s thesis and his research is not well-received in official Israeli circles is perhaps a bit too mild. Protective of their past and paranoid about their future, most of Israel’s political and religious leaders seem bent on maintaining the course they have pursued for the past sixty-two years and more. Only time will tell us the final outcome. My hope is that good sense will win the day and that Israel will become a new land that belongs to and serves all its citizens, not just its Jewish ones.
If you’re looking for a fresh approach to Israel’s history, Professor Sand’s book is one that I heartily recommend.
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From the Archives
Interview with Mauro Manno
By Giovanna Canzano – 06/01/2009
CANZANO – Jews “Über alles”. Since 1948, with the birth of the state of Israel, we can see, from reading various papers, the Jewish presence in every sector of cultural and economic life: guides and wise men and “righteous men”?
MANNO – I wouldn’t say “Jews Über alles” but rather “Zionists über Alles”. Today this distinction is fundamental. I’ve been studying the politics of Zionism for years now and can say with certainty that the confusion over this point is not only erroneous, historically and politically, but it is also unfair towards those many Jews who had been the victims of Zionism. Even today there are Jews who are victims of Zionism. A few of these new victims I know personally and it doesn’t seem to me that they are “über Alles”, but instead they are certainly under Zionist scrutiny. They are ostracised, they lose their university positions such as happened to Norman Finkelstein, the author of “The Holocaust Industry” or they get isolated and put in conditions where they leave not only their university post, but also their loved ones and friends in Israel and emigrate in the West, as happened to Ilan Pappe, the author of “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. These Jews suffer because they have the courage of proclaiming that they are anti-Zionists. This act of revolt against Zionism doesn’t constitute only the repudiation of that political ideology, but also the rejection of the historical consequences that its victory has had, that is, the Jewish State, Israel as a Jewish State. The anti-Zionists wish for the end of the state of Israel as it has been built by the Zionists and they fight for its substitution with a single, democratic state for all the Jews and all the Palestinians who are within the whole of Palestine, that is, within Israel and the Occupied Territories, Gaza included.
But that is not all; they also support the Right of Return of the refugees forced to leave in 1948, just as is sanctioned by UN Resolution 194, which was voted upon exactly 60 years ago (11 December 1948) but never applied.
However, there is an important point to make! Whoever knows the fate of these new victims of Zionism, the anti-Zionist Jews, must not forget the much more tragic fate reserved for the assimilationist Jews during the Second World War. They too were against Zionism, and they too were the victims of Zionism. This is the part of their story that the Zionists want to keep absolutely hidden. The Zionist battle against assimilationist Jews, conducted in collaboration with the Nazis and the anti-Semites.
Anything but “righteous men”, the Zionists are the political men who are the least righteous at all, towards other Jews and non-Jews alike. … continue
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