Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Zionist myth exposed

A new monograph by Shlomo Sand provides a massive challenge to the Zionist myth of the “return” of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel. This book has appeared almost simultaneously in Hebrew and In French. My comments stem from reading the French version “Comment le peuple juif fut inventé” (Paris: Fayard, 2008). The author, who closely supervised the translation, is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University.

Sand's book--the Hebrew title translates as "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?"--has been honored with France's Aujourd'hui Award, given by leading journalists to the best non-fiction political or historical work. Published in Israel under the Resling imprint, the book spent 19 weeks on the bestseller list. Though it has been in French bookstores for just six months, it has thus far sold 25,000 copies, placing it on the bestseller list in France as well.

Sand begins with a review of the literature on the formation of nations. Broadly speaking, those who have addressed this problem fall into two schools: the primordialists and the constructionists. The former view--widely, though incorrectly assumed to be simply common sense--assumes that ethnic essences have existed “since the mists of antiquity.” To shape this primordial heritage into a modern nation two things are necessary: an awakening of ethnic consciousness among the people, and removal of foreign domination--the latter being perceived as the key obstacle to the “organic” realization of nationhood.

This view has long attracted skeptics, who point out that reconstructions of primordial national histories are all too often laced with myth and wishful thinking.

The best-known exponent of the constructionist view (or “modernist,” as it is sometimes termed) is the British historian Benedict Anderson, who holds that a nation is a community that is socially constructed, that is to say imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. Anderson's book, “Imagined Communities,” in which he expounds explains the concept, was published in 1983. According to this view, most modern nations are not simply the concretization of long-occulted realities, but deliberate fabrications. An imagined community differs from an actual community because it is not based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity. Nowadays, the media play a major role in creating and sustaining imagined communities, through targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public. These communities are understood as both limited (through the maintenance of national boundaries) and sovereign (in the perspective of populism).

Shlomo Sand’s book challenges the Zionist version of the primordialist view of the history of the Jewish people--and its presumed culmination cum restoration in the state of Israel. Conversely, he advances powerful reasons for adopting the constructionist approach.

According to Sand, the description of the Jews as a migratory and self-isolating nation of exiles, "who wandered across seas and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of Zionism, reversed course, and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland," is nothing but "national mythology." Like other national movements in Europe, which sought out a splendid Golden Age as the embodiment of a heroic past --for example, ancient Rome for the Italian risorgimento or the Teutonic tribes for Germany--to prove they have existed since the beginnings of history, "so, too, the first buds of Jewish nationalism blossomed in the direction of the strong light that has its source in the mythical Kingdom of David."

More particularly, Sand shows that the idea of a “history of the Jewish people” is a relatively recent product encapsulating a series of acts of imagination. Medieval and early modern Christianity created numerous world histories coming down to the time of the writers. Islam offers something similar. Yet, as far as we know, no medieval or early modern rabbi ever attempted such a thing. For the rabbis the Bible, always glimpsed through the lenses of Mishna and Talmud, was mainly a repository of do’s and don’t. As such it was the foundation of Halakha, loosely translated as “Jewish law.”

In fact the first writer to attempt a full-scale history was a French protestant Jacques Basnage, whose “Histoire de la religion des juifs” appeared at The Hague in 1706-07. Only in 1820-28 did a German Jewish scholar Isaak Markus Jost follow suit. According to Sand, Jost was a German patriot who portrayed the Jews as simply loyal citizens of the countries in which they reside. With the massive work of Heinrich Graetz (1853-76) this historiographic enterprise takes a proto-Zionist turn, in that Graetz thinks of the Jewish people as a perennial and supranational entity. With the addition of the territorial component--return to Eretz Israel--this view became the foundation of the official histories that emerged in Mandate Palestine and its successor, the state of Israel. With the formation of the state of Israel many of its intellectual defenders sought to root its existence in the biblical record. Ostensibly they were supported by archaeology, though this supposed foundation has turned out to be chimerical.

After exploring the background, Sand turns to his major thesis, that the Jewish people is a composite and not an organic entity. The author holds that the Jews now living in Israel and other places in the world are not simply descendants of the ancient people who inhabited the Kingdom of Judea during the First and Second Temple period. In Sand’s view, their origins lie in the varied peoples that converted to Judaism during the course of history, in different corners of the Mediterranean Basin and the adjacent regions. Not only are the North African Jews for the most part descendants of pagans who converted to Judaism, but so are the Jews of Yemen (remnants of the Himyar Kingdom in the Arab Peninsula, who converted to Judaism in the fourth century) and the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe (many of them refugees from the Central Asian kingdom of the Khazars, who converted in the eighth century).

Many readers of Sand’s book have taken a fancy to Dahia al-Kahina, a leader of the Berbers in the Aurės Mountains. Although she was a proud Jewish woman, few Israelis had ever heard the name of this warrior-queen who, in the seventh century CE, united a number of Berber tribes and pushed back the Muslim army that invaded North Africa. Kahina, a kind of Jewish Boadicea, belonged to a Berber tribe that had converted to Judaism, apparently several generations before she was born, sometime around the sixth century CE. Sand believes that the Jews of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) stemmed mainly from these Berber converts.

If the Kahina discovery has proved enchanting, not so the renewed emphasis on the Khazars. The information concerning their kingdom has long been known, in part through a popular book by Arthur Koestler, but this news has been slow to penetrate in the state of Israel. This is so, notwithstanding the recent arrival of some 500,000 Jews and wannabes from the nations of the former Soviet Union, who may well represent this Khazar heritage.

In fact, Sand holds that the most crucial demographic addition to the Jewish population of the world came in the wake of the conversion of the kingdom of Khazaria, a huge empire that arose in the Middle Ages on the steppes along the Volga River, which at its height ruled over an area that stretched from the Republic of Georgia of today to Kiev. In the eighth century, the Khazars rulers adopted the Jewish religion and made Hebrew the written language of the kingdom. Beginning in the tenth century the kingdom weakened; in the thirteenth century is was utterly defeated by Mongol invaders, and its Jewish inhabitants were dispersed.

Sand subscribes to the hypothesis, which was already proposed by historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to which the Judaized Khazars constituted the main demographic source of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

"At the beginning of the twentieth century there is a tremendous concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe, three million Jews in Poland alone," he says. "The Zionist historiography claims that their origins are in the earlier Jewish community in Germany, but they do not succeed in explaining how a small number of Jews who came from Mainz and Worms could have founded the Yiddish people of Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe are a mixture of Khazars and Slavs who were pushed eastward."

If this is so, one may ask: if the Jews of Eastern Europe did not come from Germany, why did they speak Yiddish, a Germanic language?

"The Jews were a class of people dependent on the German bourgeoisie in the East, and thus they adopted German words. Here I base myself on the research of linguist Paul Wechsler of Tel Aviv University, who has demonstrated that there is no etymological connection between the German Jewish language of the Middle Ages and Yiddish. As far back as 1828, the Ribal (Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinson) said that the ancient language of the Jews was not Yiddish. Even Ben Zion Dinur, the father of Israeli historiography, was not hesitant about describing the Khazars as the origin of the Jews in Eastern Europe, and describes Khazaria as 'the mother of the diasporas' in Eastern Europe. But more or less since 1967, anyone who talks about the Khazars as the ancestors of the Jews of Eastern Europe is considered naive and moonstruck."

A journalist asked Sand why the idea of the Khazar origins is so threatening?

"It is clear that the fear is of an undermining of the historic right to the land. The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us. Since the beginning of the period of decolonization, settlers have no longer been able to say simply: 'We came, we won and now we are here' the way the Americans, the whites in South Africa and the Australians said. There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist."

It is appropriate to ask: is there no justification for this fear?

"No. I don't think that the historical myth of the exile and the wanderings is the source of the legitimization for me being here, and therefore I don't mind believing that I am Khazar in my origins. I am not afraid of the undermining of our existence, because I think that the character of the State of Israel undermines it in a much more serious way. What would constitute the basis for our existence here is not mythological historical right, but rather would be for us to start to establish an open society here of all Israeli citizens."

The implication, it seems, is that there is no such thing as a Jewish people.

"I don't recognize an international people. I recognize 'the Yiddish people' that existed in Eastern Europe, which though it is not a nation can be seen as a Yiddishist civilization with a modern popular culture. I think that Jewish nationalism grew up in the context of this 'Yiddish people.' I also recognize the existence of an Israeli people, and do not deny its right to sovereignty. But Zionism and also Arab nationalism over the years are not prepared to recognize it.”

With further regard to Jewish diversity, Shlomo Sand points out that in antiquity, culminating in the Hasmonean kingdom, there were a number of major incorporations of surrounding peoples into the Judaic nucleus. Moreover, there were no major expulsions as a result of the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the repression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135. Before and after, of course, there had been considerable voluntary immigration to various parts of the Roman Empire, accompanied by conversions from the surrounding gentile population. Accordingly, the myth of exile at this time is just that: myth.

"The supreme paradigm of exile was needed in order to construct a long-range memory in which an imagined and exiled nation-race was posited as the direct continuation of 'the people of the Bible' that preceded it," Sand explains. Agreeing with other historians who have treated the same issue in recent years, he argues that the exile of the Jewish people began as a Christian myth that depicted that event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

From all that we can learn from the historical record, most of the Jews residing in Roman Judaea remained there. What then became of them? After 324 many converted to Christianity; their descendants, most at least, in turn became Muslim. Genetically speaking, today’s Palestinians are Jews. Curiously, this view was maintained by no less a figure that David Ben Gurion in the 1920s. After the Arab uprising in 1929, however, Ben Gurion and his colleague Yitzhak Ben-Zvi abandoned the idea for political reasons.

Does Sand think that in fact the real descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians?

"No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I [his Israeli interviewer] are its descendants. The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-9], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don't leave until they are expelled. Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the state of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, 'the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.'"

One might think that Shlomo Sand would welcome the information stemming from DNA evidence as reinforcement for his views regarding the composite nature of the Jewish people. Yet he does not, pointing to the often contradictory and ideological nature of the findings as they are reported in the press. It is true that some unlikely claims have been made, including the hailing of the so-called “Aaronic gene.” a component that has been found not only among the Palestinians, but also among Greeks and Kurds! One finding, though, is of interest to his thesis. While the genes of the Kohanim (the Cohens) prove to be largely derived from the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, the genes of Ashkenazic Levites, the other major priestly group, have a strong Central Asian component. This finding would tend to reinforce the Khazar thesis.

As Sand points out, the Y chromosome, which is usually the focus of these studies, serves only to follow the male line, since only males have this chromosome. Historical evidence suggests that at various stages of Jewish history--for example the formative years of the Ashkenazim--foreign women were involved in small numbers. The absence of evidence from the female line is embarrassing, since one’s Jewish status is determined, according to the rabbis, by whether one has a Jewish mother or not.

Sand does admit the value of genetic research in helping to detect and combat inherited disorders, such as Tay-Sachs Disease. In all likelihood, the quality of genetic research will improve. As it does, the results are likely to reinforce Shlomo Sand’s persuasive conclusions deriving from his attentive study of the historical record.

Sand’s vision stretches forwards as well as backwards. “If Israel does not develop and become an open, multicultural society we will have a Kosovo in the Galilee. The consciousness concerning the right to this place must be more flexible and varied, and if I have contributed with my book to the likelihood that I and my children will be able to live with the others here in this country in a more egalitarian situation, I will have done my bit.

"We must begin to work hard to transform our place into an Israeli republic where ethnic origin, as well as faith, will not be relevant in the eyes of the law. Anyone who is acquainted with the young elites of the Israeli Arab community can see that they will not agree to live in a country that declares it is not theirs. If I were a Palestinian I would rebel against a state like that, but even as an Israeli I am rebelling against it."



Anonymous none said...

some claim that the DNA research has falsified the Khazar origin theory for the Ashkenazi en confirmed the diaspora theory

however, I think that this is not correct, that research has shown that jewish males are descendants from a 4000 years old middle eastern population, not from a 2000 year old Ancient Israeli population

the Khazars lived in the Middle East (sensu largo), the Berbers have also a partly middle eastern origin

hence the 'common origin' in the Middle East of the male jewish population

10:58 AM  

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