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Friday, September 24, 2010

My favorite book on Israeli history: Shlomo Sand's "The Invention of the Jewish People"



Shlomo Sand: The Invention of the Jewish People. Verso, 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 create histories of themselves as people who are different from others. National myths, involving politics and patriotism use myths and mythmaking 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” (page 15).

“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” (page 15).

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”. The Zionists were having none of it. 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 (page 265) “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 to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books” (page 64). 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” (page 325).

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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