The Invention of the Jewish People

Shlomo Sandu2019s new book explores the age-old question: race or religion?

By Alec Dubro Nov 20, 2009

November 20, 2009

The Jewish people were forced from the Holy Land by the Romans and wandered Europe for two thousand years until they could reclaim their rightful homeland.

Even when I was a kid, that story didn’t sound quite right. I began to read about Jewish populations in places they weren’t supposed to be—China, Ethiopia, Central Asia, India. Not only that, but also Jews tend to resemble the people they live among. That didn’t quite fit the standard biblical narrative and the story of the diaspora. If we Jews are all—but for a few converts along the way—descended from David and Solomon, how come there are so many holes in the story?
Fortunately, along comes The Invention of the Jewish People by dissident Israeli historian Shlomo Sand. Sand has compiled and analyzed the historiography, as well as recent archaeological and genetic research on the Jews and comes up with a fascinating—if combative and often academic—thesis. It seems the Jewish history we know is a fairly recent European development that mythologizes and ignores the verifiable history of this ancient religion.

It may come as a surprise to find out that there were no histories of the Jews as a people written from the time of Josephus to the 19th century. Sand explains that’s because there is no Jewish people. It’s not a race, it’s a religion, one that has been adopted by various peoples throughout the Old World and just as often abandoned. Whatever the story, Sand makes a very strong case against the neo-biblical story of the Jews that has been used by both Christians and modern Jews, and forms the religious underpinning of Zionism.

His telling of history can be summed up briefly:

• The Jews were not driven from Judea. The Romans executed exiled leaders of the revolts, but they didn’t deport populations – there or anywhere. Jews remained in the Near East and most eventually became either Christians or, after the eighth century, Muslims.

• The appearance of Jews throughout Europe since Roman times has not been the story of a single people driven to wander from place to place.

• The Jews, like the later Christians and Muslims, were a proselytizing religion, and large numbers of eastern Mediterraneans, North Africans and Europeans became Jews.

• Today’s Jews are an admixture of many peoples who chose to remain Jews. They are not direct descendants of Judeans or Israelites, and some of us may have no Middle Eastern blood at all.

Or, as Sand says, the harder we study the history, “the more we discover that there never was a secular ethnographic common denominator between Jewish believers in Asia, Africa and Europe. World Jewry had always been a major religious culture. Though consisting of various elements, it was not a strange, wandering nation.” That myth, as well as the Jews’ collective punishment for the crucifixion, was created in Medieval Europe.

So? American Jewish science fiction writer Isaac Asimov mused in his 2002 memoir It’s Been A Good Life: “It may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars and the people they ruled. I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?”

I do. To the extent that it’s kind of fascinating to know where my Eastern European ancestors might have come from. I also think it’s very important to constantly rebut any racial underpinnings of modern Zionism. Some Jews may have ancestral ties to the land now called Israel, but that in no way justifies the creation of a religiously stratified and exclusive state.

As Sand notes, the people we call Palestinians almost certainly include descendants of the Jews and others who have lived on that land over the millennia, whose religions and governments have changed regularly.

There was no purity. There is no purity. And that land, like every other, belongs to the people who live there regardless of their ill-remembered histories.