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“The Invention of the Jewish People” by Shlomo Sand Essay (Book Review)


The history of the Jewish people involves many controversies and unanswered questions. There have been many attempts to find answers to these questions for centuries. While such endeavours made by historians are common, there are also less expected opinions of people not having a history as their primary subject of investigation. Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, seeks to examine the issues of ancient Jewish history in his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” (Cohen 2009). The book has provoked a lot of discussion in various countries, making the readers and the critics contemplate its objectives and outcomes. The author himself does not deny that he tried to undermine the Jews’ declarations to Israel land by stating that they do not form a people whose representatives have common biological or racial roots. Sand raises several major topics in his book, including the issues of religion, territory, nation, and the search for better opportunities. The book became an international bestseller and was very popular among those who supported its ideas as well as those who disagreed with the author. It gave a new life to old theories and suggested a controversial opinion of the long-existing points of view.

Counter-Mythology of the Book and Its Political Context

In his book, Sand demythologises the widely accepted opinion about the exile of the Jewish people. He is convinced that instead of having been sent into exile, the indigenous Jews converted to Islam (Sand 2009). Moreover, Sand considers that they did so for political and material reasons: to avoid paying taxes (Sand 2009, p. 186). As Sand (2009, p. 186) mentions, Ben-Gurion, a former Israel’s Prime Minister, considered Islam as a “democratic religion” contrary to Christianity. Islam was believed to welcome all those who converted to it as brothers. Moreover, it was considered to abrogate the civil and political limitations and eradicate social divergences (Sand 2009).

Strenger (2009) expresses an opinion that Sand’s book incorporates a discussion of serious political issues. For instance, it delineates two kinds of democracies which appeared in modern Europe: East of the Rhein and West of the Rhein. In the East, the prevalent type was ethnocratic, which presupposed that the countries had to bear a particular loyalty to a concrete ethnos (Strenger 2009). The model prevailing in the West of the Rhein was the pure liberal democratic kind. According to this belief, the supreme ruler was merely the entirety of the country’s citizens.

According to Sand (2009, p. 307), present-day Israel is not a democracy but an “ethnocracy with liberal features”. By expressing such an opinion, the author means that Israel is a state the core aim of which is to satisfy not a “civil-egalitarian demos” but a “biological-religious ethnos” (Sand 2009, p. 307). This ethnos, Sand remarks, is entirely apocryphal historically, but it is progressive, unique, and inequitable in its political expression. Sand emphasises that such a state, notwithstanding its pluralism and liberalism, is devoted to setting apart its ethnos via intellectual, jurisdictive, and pedagogical ways. The author is convinced that such isolation is aimed at separating the ethnos not only from its non-Jewish citizens or Israeli-born offsprings of foreign labourers but also from the rest of the world (Sand 2009).

Author’s Perceptions of Zionist Ideology versus Canaanite Movement

In his book, Sand investigates how Zionist ideology prompted the idea of Jewish nationalism by turning Judaism into “something hermetic, like the German Volk or the Polish and Russian Narod” (Sand 2009, p. 255). Thus, as Sand (2009, p. 256) remarks, Zionism turned into an adverse reflection of the “anti-Jewish image” which was followed by the upsurge of collectivities in Central and Eastern Europe. According to Sand (2009), this adverse reflection determined the national emotions in the region and allowed the physical closeness to reveal the challenges presented to the people. The author considers Zionist core postulates close to nationalistic ideas.

According to Penslar, Sand views Jewish diaspora not as a complex civilisation but as a “screen” with the help of which he can contrast his argument against Zionism (as cited in Penslar 2012, p. 166). Sand’s judgement is a mirror reflection of the 1940s “Canaanite” movement, the advocates of which dreamed about a “neo-Hebraic identity” as a way of disconnecting from the culture of Jewish diaspora (as cited in Penslar 2012, p. 166). While the Canaanites derogated the diaspora and gave value to the Hebrew nation, Sand chooses the contrary approach. The Canaanites deplored the enslavement of the Hebrew state by the impact of organised religion, while Sand considers Israel obsessed with religion for its integrity (Penslar 2012).

The greatest divergence between the Canaanite movement and Sand’s ideology is in their perceptions of Jewish identity via culture and language. Canaanites encompassed a literary and artistic tendency which aimed at altering Israel from the inside. They were multi-lingual and submerged in western culture but at the same time wrote only in Hebrew for the Israeli audience. Sand, on the contrary, was anxious to attract the public attention to Israeli (as cited in Penslar 2012). Therefore, even though he wrote his book in Hebrew, he endorsed its translation into English and French right away, which brought him instantaneous fame and made it possible for him to give lectures all over the world and share his radical opinions.

Conclusion

There exist opinions which, even though not supported by many people, are apt to arouse huge attention. Shlomo Sand’s ideas expressed in his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” belong exactly to this category. His thoughts contradict the beliefs of most of the Jewish people, they are offensive and bitter, but they leave no one indifferent. The book questions the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel and suggests an opposite idea of Israeli people. Sand expresses his ideas in a radical and instructive way, which makes both his supporters and opponents admit that it is worth to get acquainted with the book.

“The Invention of the Jewish People” presents a controversial opinion on the history of Jewish people. However, whether the reader agrees with the ideas expressed in the book or is opposed to them, the contribution made by the author is rather significant. He suggests another angle to viewing the situation which has always been considered in a single way. Thus, it gives a possibility for the audience either to develop a different opinion or to grow even more convinced in their grounded beliefs.

The author may not have succeeded in persuading the vast audiences in his viewpoint but what he managed to do is provoke a debate about the parts of history which have always been considered settled.

Reference List

Cohen, P 2009, ’, The New York Times, Web.

Penslar, D J 2012, ‘Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” and the end of the New History’, Israel Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 156-168.

Sand, S 2009, The invention of the Jewish people, Verso, London.

Strenger, C 2009, , Haaretz, Web.

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