We Are All Simon Schama: The Threat of an Undefined Jew

By Joel Schalit

Published March 24, 2010, issue of April 02, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Invention of the Jewish People
By Shlomo Sand, translated by Yael Lotan
Verso, 344 pages, $34.95

It was the year’s biggest helping of humble pie. Less than a month after a heated takedown of Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” in the Financial Times, the very same reviewer, writing in Italy’s respected business daily Il Sole 24 Ore, offered the book qualified praise, calling it his book of the year. So distinct was this follow-up appraisal, it could have been written by a different person.

Though the critic in question, British historian Simon Schama, did not offer a reason for this about-face, for anyone following the tempestuous reception of the English edition of the Israeli scholar’s book, it testified to the possibility of a conscience among his detractors. Or in the case of Schama, as Sand fiercely charged in reply to his initial review, that he hadn’t fully read the book. So, he was apologizing. In Italian, of course.

Schama’s initial review was sincerely surprising, as it broke ideological ranks with the otherwise positive reception “The Invention” had received in the United Kingdom. Falling in line more closely with America’s appraisals of the volume, it read as though it were yet another in a line of made-to-order reviews by American Jewish neoconservatives. If Schama were willing to offer a more qualified take on the book, might not American critics, as well?

As Evan Goldstein implied in The Wall Street Journal, if it weren’t for that problematic chapter on the Khazars — the Caucasian tribe that is said to have converted to Judaism in the eighth century — perhaps Sand’s critics would have taken it easier on him. Contending that the original promulgators of Zionism descended from these gentile converts, Sand had demolished the right to return based on ethnical notions of patrimony.

If any theme consistently runs through nearly every American attack on the book, it is the issue of the Khazars. Unable to offer any proof that the Ashkenazi Jewry that originated in Eastern Europe is directly descended from the tribe, the Tel Aviv University history professor did more than just offend Zionist sensitivities; Sand also logically demonstrated the contrary: that Jews have an incontestable right to Palestine because anti-Zionists can resort only to fictional narratives, like the Khazars, to argue otherwise.

The only memorable moment in the numbingly uniform American criticisms of “The Invention” came from Hillel Halkin. Writing his second attack on the book (but his first for The New Republic), the Forward contributor took specific issue with Sand for arguing that Zionism represents an alienated Jewish response to the secularization of European society during the 19th century.

Arguing that Zionism is in fact a natural, albeit rational, Jewish response to modernity, Halkin puts his finger on exactly what is so upsetting to so many about Sand’s book. And, perhaps unknowingly, what its actual strengths are — in terms of not only content, but also the timing of its publication, with Israel under its most extreme right-wing leadership in decades.

“The Invention” is an attempt to secularize the ways in which Jews are taught to think about Israel. In this sense, it is a typically profane book, insofar as one might be inclined to relate to the Jewish state spiritually — that is, in religious terms, not just politically, but also sentimentally. That an Israeli wrote the book should thus come as no surprise. That the book’s fiercest critics are American Jews (it was a best-seller both in Israel and in France) is even more telling. They are Sand’s ideal audience.

What makes Americans’ reactions to the book difficult to grasp is their hysteria. These reactions are indicators of cultural distance as much as of political disagreement. By repeatedly emphasizing how dangerous the book is, how inexpert its historiography is, how ideologically suspect and complicit its claims are, Sand’s detractors in the United States ritually affirm their incomprehension of his positions more than they delegitimize them. This is where the figure of Schama comes in, and why his unexpected change of heart will forever be inseparable from the volume’s value.

As a close reading by a scholar of Schama’s standing will disclose, “The Invention” situates Jewish-Israeli politics within the context of a Marxist-dominated sociology of nationalism. Whether he agrees with Sand in the end or not regarding specifics (his Italian review leaves that open), Schama carefully affirms the validity of the book’s objective: to help foster a more rational, national identity for Israelis, based on shared religious practices, not ethnicity.

That an Israeli-Jewish professor would seek to advance such an objective 60 years after Israel’s founding should not be surprising. The difference is the room that American Jews accord Israelis to speak so candidly. To that end, Sand provides examples that ought to create this space. A good example is the plethora of precedents he provides of both Diaspora and Israeli Jews continually questioning links between religion and ethnicity, as though to suggest that a shared culture of debate is what the two communities ultimately have in common. Whether it’s Martin Buber or Karl Kautsky doing so is immaterial.

But that’s precisely the point. It’s examples like this, of Zionist theologians and secular Marxists, obscured by reviewers’ overemphasis on the book’s coverage of the Khazars, that make “The Invention” such a subversive book. Irrespective of where one stands on Israel, the book provides numerous examples of Jews dissenting from an imagined national credo, albeit operating outside what we consider to be today’s Zionist norm. That many of the figures Sand covers — including anthropologist Franz Boas and demographer Maurice Fishberg — wrote works that were critical of the conflation of race and culture and of antisemitism ought to be instructive in this regard.

It is difficult to imagine this book’s critics capable of indulging such nuance. Perhaps that is why they protest so much about the liberties Sand allows himself — not just to make tactical mistakes in terms of picking his best possible subject matter, but also, and more important, to allow for the publicity of works they claim to be taboo. The jury is still out. I’d wager there’s another Simon Schama in the closet who hasn’t come out yet.

Joel Schalit is the online editor of Zeek. His most recent book is “Israel vs. Utopia” (Akashic Books, 2009).

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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • 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.