Israeli Historian’s Study of the Origin of Jewish people

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Brecht Jonkers

Rabi' al-Awwal 25, 1443 2021-11-01

Book Review

by Brecht Jonkers (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1443)

A persistent argument that overshadows nearly all discussion about Zionism and the future of Palestine, is the ever-recurring Zionist argument that the Jewish people are indigenous and native to “Eretz Israel”. It posits that the Jews of today are descended from a Jewish nation of old, also known as Hebrews or the Banu Israel in the Qur’an, and as such have an ancestral claim to the land of Palestine.

This argument is multi-facetted and has a variety of proponents. It can range from the idea of full and unaltered racial purity that stretches back over two millennia, to a more moderate concept of ethnic mixing having taken place without compromising the fundamental “Jewish gene”. On the other hand, those supporting this idea often accuse the Palestinians of being descendents of Arab invaders and colonisers that admittedly have established a home for themselves after the diaspora of the Jews and the later establishment of the Caliphates.

Likewise, there have been a variety of counter-arguments made by several supporters of the Palestinian cause and critics of the Zionist venture. Many of these activists may argue that 2,000 years of exile cannot simply be undone, especially in such a violent manner as has been shown in the wars of 1948 and 1967. Other anti-zionists draw the parallel to similar cases of millenia-long absence and the absurdity of applying the Zionist logic to these cases. The possibility of a Celtic claim to France, perhaps to be renamed Gaul, comes to mind. Much like the Jewish diaspora myths, the Gauls lost their land to the Romans some 2,000 years ago, which could give for example Ireland ample reason to claim back lost Celtic land.

While these refutations of Zionist propaganda are often made with the best of intentions, they fail to address the core issue: the simple fact that there is no reasonable evidence, and as such no reason to believe, that the “Jewish people” of today are as a whole descendants of the Banu Israel at all. This idea has existed for a long time amongst Palestinians and the wider Arab and Islamic world, but has not gained much traction in international academic circles or worldwide scientific literature yet. The reason for this is not surprising: any serious challenge to the Zionist project uttered by non-Jews, especially in the West, is often immediately met with accusations of antisemitism and relayed to the dustbin of discourse.

For this reason, it is all the more interesting that an inhabitant of the Zionist entity itself has written one of the most fundamental and fierce refutations of the very core principle of Zionism: the idea of an ethnic Jewish people (The Invention of the Jewish People, translated by Yael Lotan, 2008, Tel Aviv). The author Shlomo Sand is Emeritus Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, and lived the rather standard life of a Zionist immigrant to Palestine for the first decades of his life.

Born in 1946 to Yiddish parents in Austria, Sand’s family moved to Palestine in 1948 and joined a kibbutz. Growing up in a so-called “Socialist Zionist” household that was quite common for the early years of the Zionist entity, Sand was drafted into the army in 1965 and took part in the conquest of East Jerusalem during the war of 1967. It was his experience in this war, and the multitude of war crimes committed by the Zionists against Palestinians that turned him away from Zionism once and for all. He joined various groups opposing the Zionist status quo after the war, and befriended Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. After finishing his higher studies and moving to France, the historian eventually returned as a professor to Tel Aviv, where he has been using his position to research and teach about the erroneous ideology of Zionism.

The book starts with a biographical narration of two seemingly unrelated figures who each had their own experiences with the Zionist entity known as Israel. The chapter tells the story of Shulek, a Yiddish Communist from Poland who was moved to Palestine following World War II but to his dying breath refused to integrate into the Hebrew-speaking Jewish culture of the entity. It narrates the life of Bernardo, a fiercely anti-religious anarchist from Catalonia who in 1948 was swept up by the prospect of building a cooperative commune and boarded a ship for Haifa. Without having any connection to Judaism at all, he served in the Zionist armies, joined a kibbutz and married a Jewish woman. Technically, a marriage of a Gentile male to a Jewish female was not allowed under Zionist law, but Bernardo received special dispensation and his children were later registered as Jews.

The bridge between these two stories is Shlomo Sand himself: son of Shulek and son-in-law to Bernardo. In other words: the child of a non-religious father and son-in-law of a man who was never even Jewish to begin with; who is nevertheless registered since birth as a Jew and as such a member of the privileged group of Israeli society.

This personal story is used as an example of how convoluted the legal membership of the ‘“Jewish people” can be in Israeli society. To further emphasise this, Sand refers to one of his students during his stay in Paris: a young woman born of a Jewish father and Gentile mother who, despite her openly espoused dedication to Zionism, was refused migration to Israel because of her mother’s background.

Sand juxtaposes these facts, in which a person can be “Jewish” solely because of their mother’s registration as a Jew but not when only having a Jewish father, as an opener to question the very concept of Jewishness as an ethnic denominator.

Sand narrates at length the history of nation-making and nation-building in the Western world from the late 18th century onwards. Connecting the development of modern society with the rise of nationalism and the subsequent rewriting of history and retroactive identification with historical peoples and civilisations, he argues that much of how we perceive as “national history” is created or at least moulded as part of our affiliation with the nation state we live in.

The Tel Aviv historian forms a general criticism of ethnic nationalism as a partially constructed worldview that retroactively traces its roots to both factual and fictional historical precursors. To this end, he refers to the French patriotic connection to the Gauls of old, or the German affiliation with the Teutonic tribes of the ancient world. However, Sand really breaks through the mould of the status quo by arguing that “the Jews” as a group are no exception to this rule.

“If world Jews were indeed a nation, what were the common elements in the ethnographic cultures of a Jew in Kiev and a Jew in Marrakech, other than religious belief and certain practices of that belief?” Sand asks. “Perhaps, despite everything we’ve been told, Judaism was simply an appealing religion that spread widely until the triumphant rise of its rivals, Christianity and Islam.”

While the recognition of the Jewish religion is just that - a religion - may come as no surprise to the Islamic world. In Western academic circles this sort of challenging of long accepted dogma caused quite a stir.

Sand provides a long description of historiography by and about Jews and Judaism, dating back to Roman times. By analysing how Jewish historians and researchers look at their own community, the author shows that the ethnic-centered approach has developed only very recently in the Jewish mindset.

Even more, Sand continues to attest that there is no historical evidence, either in writing or archaeology, to prove what he calls “the invention of the exile”. The commonly accepted story of the collective banishment of the Jews of Palestine following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans has, in fact, no proof. Sand claims, based on numerous sources, that instead Judaism spread throughout the Roman Empire much like Christianity would do centuries later: as an attractive monotheistic faith that appealed in particular to the lower classes. The popping up of Jewish religious communities across the realm seems to back this claim, with Jewish believers of non-Hebrew background rising as far as the position of Empress with Nero’s wife Poppaea Sabina.

Shlomo Sand further tears into how Zionist historiography seems to change the story of the exile as they see fit. Zionist activists like Yitzhak Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur, for example, later relocated the timeframe of the Jewish exile to the rise of Islam in the seventh century instead, which matched the narrative that portrayed the Palestinians as “Arab invaders”.

Interestingly, prior to the 1930s leading Zionist political leaders, including later Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, considered the Palestinians as descendants of the ancient Hebrew Jews, something that Sand agrees with.

“I believe that the young Ben-Gurion was correct - if imprecise - it is quite likely that an inhabitant of Hebron is closer in origin to the ancient Hebrews than are the majority of those across the world who identify themselves as Jews.”

Much of the book, The Invention of the Jewish People is dedicated to researching and detailing the existence of various Jewish societies over the centuries, often cultures that have been nearly forgotten by mainstream historiography. These ‘realms of silence’ as Sand calls it, include the Yemeni Jewish kingdom of Himyar, the Phoenician and Berber Jewish communities of North Africa (described by Christian church father Augustine of Hippo), and the vast and long-lasting realm of Khazaria in present-day Russia. Sand meticulously details the origin, history and development of these nations, and reaches several important conclusions.

First, there is no reason to believe that the Judaisation of these realms was the result of immigration by the Banu Israel. Most available historical sources point to a form of proselytisation having taken place that achieved a significant amount of Jewish faithful amongst the population as well as in the royal families of Himyar and Khazaria. Second, all evidence points to there being a direct correlation between these ‘realms of silence’ and the better known later Jewish communities of Europe.

Sand details the direct historical, linguistic, cultural and ethnic connection between the Jews of North Africa and the later Sephardi Jews of the Iberian Peninsula; and between the Khazars and Yiddish communities of Eastern and Central Europe. Once again, these conclusions go directly against established orthodoxy that claims direct descendancy to the Judaeans of ancient times.

As if to pre-empt inevitable Zionist backlash and accusations of antisemitism, Sand continuously uses the works of Jewish historians and analysts to back his findings. These historians, often dating back to times before Zionism was a significant political factor, show an entirely different consensus that prevailed in Jewish intellectual circles than is the case today.

Sand returns further in time as well, to the times of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the later Hasmonean dynasty. He digs through records of the time and archeological studies that have shown that (sometimes forced) conversion of Gentiles to Judaism was definitely not an exception in ancient times, even if those converts were non-Hebrews. He also digs into theology, positing that ethnic exclusivity and monotheism don’t make for a logical combination. In a world dominated by polytheistic religions that were often very much determined by and limited to certain tribes or cultures, a strictly monotheistic religion that holds to the concept of one God in the universe is sure to be open to all, and as a result given to proselytising and missionary work.

The latter part of The Invention of the Jewish People details the recent history of Zionism and the Zionist entity, explaining the various contradictions that inevitably arose. One striking example is the name of the new entity itself: the historical land of Israel was largely synonymous with Samaria, and is located almost entirely on the Palestinian West Bank, whereas Jerusalem and the southern lands were ruled by the Kingdom of Judah. Sand explains that the choice for co-opting a Samaritan name for the Zionist entity had a very practical reason: in a country named Judah or Judea, all of its inhabitants would be called Judeans, which is grammatically related to the word Jew. An ethnostate that is built on racial exclusion and a promise to the “chosen people” cannot afford to be inclusive in this way, and as such the name Israel was chosen instead. A first step in a long history of institutional racism.

“Therefore (...) #Israel must still be described as an ethnocracy. Better still, call it a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features - that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive and discriminatory in its political manifestation. Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity.”

It deserves mention that Shlomo Sand is not a dyed-in-the-wool anti-zionist. He maintains what he calls a practical mindset of reform stating that “I have said time and again that a child born of rape has the right to live”. He also admits that his book does not offer a clear-cut solution or blueprint to those living in the Zionist entity about what action to take. In fact, Sand confesses to having a generally pessimistic outlook on the possibilities presented to him and to the people in both occupied and besieged Palestine.

Most importantly, the book is a challenge against decades of Zionist propaganda, a call to shed the suffocating yoke of ethnic supremacy, and a rallying cry to dig into Jewish history with a desire to reveal facts rather than to confirm existing biases.

Sand presents a direct challenge to Zionist hegemony in the academic world calling out the abuse of the term antisemitism and pointing to the fact that Zionists often use the same ethic-essentialist worldviews as those who persecuted Jews in the past.

“Another historical irony: there were times in Europe when anyone who argued that all Jews belong to a nation of alien origin would have been classified at once as an anti-Semite. Nowadays, anyone who dares to suggest that the people known in the world as Jews have never been, and still are not, a people or nation is immediately denounced as a Jew-hater.”

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