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We Are All Converts: Reviewing Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People”

As these things go, Israeli and Jewish publications have been arguing furiously over a… history book. Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People alleges that a historical "Jewish people" does not exist and that the bulk of Jewry today descends from converts, rather than from the inhabitants of pre-Roman Judea.

Sand, in writing the book, has placed himself in a proud tradition of Jewish contrarians. Given that us Jews are the most self-mythologizing and status-quo doubting people this side of the Irish, it’s not a real surprise. Every ten or so years, after all, there is another intellectual who sparks eager fights among university professors and journalists through a new reading of the historical record. Norman Finkelstein’s potshots at "the Holocaust industry" in the nineties. Benny Morris’ deconstruction of the Israeli War of Independence in the 1980s. Before that, Arthur Koestler’s Khazar hypothesis (which Sand resurrects) and Immanuel Velikovsky’s attempt to reconcile Biblical events with the space race. Some of these writers, of course, were much more successful than others. As an unrepentant history geek, I wanted to read the book when the English edition — translated ably by Yael Lotan from the original Hebrew — was released in late 2009. The press trail was intriguing. Among others, the New York Times, Times of London, Guardian, BBC and al-Jazeera English all featured the book, along with the usual blogosphere suspects. Then there was the fact that Tony Judt, Simon Schama, Tom Segev and other prominent historians had all taken the time recently to weigh in on Sand’s book, whether pro or con. So I put an order in to Amazon. My book arrived. I was disappointed. Here’s the thing. Sand, a professor of modern French history at Tel Aviv University, could have written four very good books. Unfortunately, he mashed them all together into one ungainly mess of an incediary device. 1. A Rant Against Jewish and Zionist Historiography: Sand, whose ideological roots are in the far-left Israeli communist party Matzpen, has a bone to pick with traditional Israeli historiography. Fair enough. A large portion of the book’s early pages are given to discussion of early historians such as Isaak Markus Jost and Heinrich Graetz, along with their later successors Simon Dubnow, Salo Baron and later Israeli successors such as Yitzhak Baer and Ben-Zion Dinur. Reading through Sand’s criticism of prior Jewish historians, he goes after anyone who implied that Jews (whether of belief or ancestry) shared any common non-religious identity across national borders. He complains about nineteenth century historians making "a close connection beween the perception of the Old Testament as a reliable historical source and the attempt to define modern Jewish identity in prenationalist or nationalist terms." Then, in the twentieth century, we find Sand complaining of the gall of the Hebrew University founding a Jewish History and Sociology department seperate from their mainstream history department in 1936. But one thing is missing. Sand, for all his background teaching foreign history at TAU, draws a straight line between the Jewish historians of 19th century Europe and the Jewish historians of 20th and 21st century Israel. For Sand, the post-Holocaust diaspora — and its historians — seem not to exist. Diasporic examiners of Jewish history, many of whom have written about the same issues of ancestry Sand is fascinated by — such as Steven Fine, Paul Kriwaczek, Max Weinrich, Howard Sachar and others — simply don’t appear in Sand’s worldview. Apparently, he has negated the diaspora just fine on his own. 2. A Trove of Jewish Historical Trivia: Here is where Sand’s book truly shines — and why many people will buy this book. Working out of the dusty recesses of journal archives and old books, Sand illuminates undertold stories well. There are Jewish kingdoms in Yemen, the Berber Jewish warrior queen al-Kahina, discussions on Jewish loanwords from Turkic languages (according to Sand, for instance, daven and yarmulke come from a Turkic source) and many more. Where Sand particularly shines is in his description of God-fearers – pagan members of Judaizing cults in the Roman Empire that may have laid the ground for both Christianity and contemporary Ashkenazic Jewry. Judaism did not always have the ambivalent (hell, let’s say it: negative) view of conversion that it does today, and reams of Roman, early Church and Muslim evidence lay the case for the possibility of mass conversions to Judaism taking place in the late classical and early post-Roman eras. Sand, to his credit, has compiled most of the evidence into a compelling and highly readable brief. 3. A Rehash of Koestler’s Thirteenth Tribe: Much like many of us, Sand is intrigued by the Khazar kingdom that wrestled its way between the Byzantines and the Caliphate by adopting Judaism. Much like many of us, Sand has read Koestler’s book and tossed the ideas around in his head. Unlike most of us, Sand decided that Koestler was on the money. In Sand’s interpetation of the Khazar hypothesis, the Jewish residents of Khazaria worked their way west into Germany, Poland, Russia and the rest of Europe to form the Ashkenazim. The only problem? Sand ignores the long historical ledger indicating a steady exodus from Italy and southern France to points north. More trickily, Sand proposes that the Turkic Khazars switched to speaking Germanic Yiddish en-masse while in Slavic lands. A shift like this — which violates nearly every case study in liguistic history — boggles the mind and strains credulity. Similarly, Sand discounts DNA studies which show the possibility of linkage between Jewish communities worldwide… without disproving the DNA studies. Ironically, many of these studies show a genetic link between people of Jewish descent and Palestinian Arabs. That brings us to #4…. 4. A Disputation of Zionism: Sand makes it crystal clear that he opposes the tenets of Zionism. In his interpetation, no Jewish exodus (whether forced by the Romans in the wake of the Jewish Revolt or voluntary in the wake of the Jewish Revolt) took place – the Jewish "diaspora" was a myth created in the nineteenth century by the descendants of converts around the world in order to create a shared identity. Therefore, the Jews of antiquity ended up converting to Christianity and Islam and becoming the Palestinian Arabs of today. While there may well be historical credence to Israelite and Jewish ancestry among today’s Palestinians (for instance, the survival of Biblical place names into the present), Sand welds this theory mainly as a clever inversion of Zionism. Which is all well and good for Sand, but his conclusion is tacked on to the book awkwardly — instead of saving this idea — an obvious inference from the book’s main thesis — for his second book, it just hangs there at the end. Bad for the reader, bad for Sand. Ultimately, all people are mixed. Put a Russian Jew next to a Yemenite Jew and an Ethiopian Jew and it’s crystal clear. It may not be discussed, but it’s true. Your average Englishman might be stunned at how much Celtic and French blood he has. Many Greeks have as much Mehmet and Vladimir as they do Aristotle. More than a few Spaniards have Moorish blood. That proud white bigot in the South might just have a black great-grandfather in the woodwork. There were more than a few Nazis in World War II whose ancestry was studded with Slavic and Jewish names. But to Sand, the idea that converts may have contributed to the Jewish people over the years is somehow a revelation. With that said, here are two books. They tackle some of the same subjects as Sand, but with the benefit of better research and readability than Sand: Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilization (which traces the rise and fall of Europe’s Yiddish-speakers) and Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People (exactly what it sounds like). Enjoy.

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