Jewish Peoplehood Denied, While Israel’s Foes Applaud

Opinion

By Hillel Halkin

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Although there is probably no book too foolish to go un-admired by someone, there are subjects for which the market for foolishness is especially large. Any list of these would have to include “Jews” and “Israel” near its top, as has once again been demonstrated by the granting of this year’s prestigious Aujourd’hui Award to the French translation of Israeli academic Shlomo Sand’s book “The Invention of the Jewish People.” (This is the title of the English edition, due to appear in September from left-wing publisher Verso.)

Sand’s book, which argues that there was no such thing as a Jewish people until one was “constructed” by Zionism and Jewish nationalism in the 19th century, would have attracted little notice had it been written by a professor of history at the University of Damascus. As the work of a supposed historian at the University of Tel Aviv, it is a scandal, a fashionably phrased political screed against Zionism that cherry-picks its data while pretending to be history. Alas, it will be accepted as history by many readers who are as dutifully impressed by its 568 footnotes, as were, it would seem, the French journalists on the Aujourd’hui panel.

Not that Sand gets everything wrong. His book is full of perfectly correct and quite unoriginal observations: some elaborating why today’s Jews are not all descendants of biblical Israelites and stem in part from ancestors who joined the Jewish people by religious conversion over the ages (although Sand’s treatment of the considerable genetic research on the subject is shockingly shoddy, he is not wholly wrong about the matter); some pointing out that Diaspora Jews never shared a single spoken language or material culture, let alone territory, as do most peoples; and some dwelling on the problematic nature of the State of Israel, which aspires to be Jewish, democratic and secular while denying non-Jews certain privileges extended to Jews and defining Jewishness in terms of traditional religious law. These are all issues worthy of discussion, and there is nothing wrong with raising them.

And yet to go from there to Sand’s absurd conclusions that the Jews, who considered themselves a distinct people from their early history, were “invented” as one in modern times; that their historical connection to Palestine is “imaginary,” because they are not descended in their entirety from ancient Palestinian Jewry; or that the idea of a Jewish state is therefore less acceptable than the idea of a French or Spanish state, demands a thoroughly dishonest manipulation of the facts. Indeed, if one is talking about the “construction” of national identities, an enterprise that numerous post-modernist historians of nationalism to whom Sand is indebted have written about, it is the French and Spanish who are the parvenus, having undertaken the task only in the late Middle Ages. And if you are looking for peoples who accomplished this even later, in the last two or three centuries, say, you might consider the Italians, the Germans, the Americans, the Brazilians, the Indians and a host of others (including those latest of latecomers, the Palestinians). You would never, unless you wanted to flaunt your ignorance, mention the Jews, who had a fully developed national consciousness at least 2,500 years ago.

But of course, no one would ever write a book challenging the idea of an Italian, German or Brazilian state, much less win any French prizes for it. It is only the Jews in regard to whom it is nowadays increasingly bon ton to argue that a country of their own is not for them. And should you have the bad manners to object that it is antisemitic to deny them a right that is granted to other peoples, you can now look forward to being answered: “Ah, my friend, the Jews have only imagined they are a people! If even a Jewish professor of history says so, it must be true.”

And yet the embarrassment of Jewishness has always made certain Jewish intellectuals not the last, but the first, to seek to discredit the idea of Jewish peoplehood. From the age of the French Revolution, a time at which few European gentiles doubted for a moment that the Jews were a separate people (and on the whole, a heartily disliked one), there were plenty of Jews who insisted that they were really just Frenchmen or Germans or Englishmen of “the Mosaic faith,” with no national ties to other Mosaicists living elsewhere. And by the same token, in the 1940s, when Hitler and his legions were confident that they were exterminating a people and not a mere religious profession, the so-called Canaanite movement, born in the bohemian cafés of Tel Aviv, made similar claims for the Jews of Palestine — who, it was said, were proud, sun-bronzed “Hebrews,” not to be confused with the pale-skinned juifs, Juden and zhidi of Europe then meekly trooping off to the gas chambers.

Shlomo Sand is in this tradition, a post-modernist Canaanite who need not, he thinks, suffer the indignity of belonging to the Jewish people because — what a relief! — no such people exists. No doubt, not a few of the thousands of Israelis who helped put Sand’s book on the best-seller list in Israel experienced a similar epiphany upon reading it. Even in a Jewish state, we now know, there will always be Jews who would rather be something else. You can, to paraphrase an old Zionist witticism, take the Jew out of the non-Jewish environment into which he dreams of assimilating, but you cannot take the assimilationist out of every Jew.

Unfortunately, there are even larger numbers of non-Jews who will be happy to believe Sand’s nonsense. Once upon a time, antisemitism consisted of the belief that the Jews were an incorrigible and pernicious people who could never be absorbed by other peoples. Today, it is trendy to hold that they are a non-people masquerading as a people in order to justify stealing another people’s homeland. Le plus ça change, le plus ça reste le même chose. As discouraging as it is to see Jewish intellectuals like Shlomo Sand aiding and abetting their people’s enemies, this too is not new under the sun.

Hillel Halkin is the author, most recently, of “A Strange Death: A Story Originating in Espionage, Betrayal, and Vengeance in a Village in Old Palestine” (Public Affairs, 2005) and “Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.