Alan Philps
The National (Opinion)
November 20, 2009 - 1:00am

It is not often that an Israeli history book is translated into Arabic with a view to finding a mass readership. And it is even rarer when that book is to be translated into two other major languages of the Islamic world, Turkish and Indonesian, not to mention Japanese, Russian, German, Italian and Portuguese.

The work is The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University. When it was first published in Israel last year, it spent 19 weeks in the bestseller list, thanks in part to furious denunciations by academic historians. It has just appeared in English, and the provocative title does not disappoint.

Sand’s thesis is simple: the founding myth of Israel, set out in the 1948 declaration of independence, that the Jewish people were exiled by the Romans in the first century and have the right to return, is a lie. There was no exile. Judaism was a successful proselytising religion, taking advantage of a weariness in the Greco-Roman world with its pagan gods. So the Jews are a religious community, the vast majority being converts.

The idea of a Jewish people, the author writes, was created in the 19th century at a time when the disparate peoples who lived in France, Italy or Germany were creating their own national myths as the basis for nation-states. The narrative of the Jews as a people descended from the Biblical Hebrews was hijacked by the Zionists. It is used to this day to bolster the settlement project in the occupied territories.

Sand is a specialist in European history, so his work has been treated with condescension by specialists. Simon Schama, the historian and documentary maker, writes with academic hauteur that serious historians stopped believing in the exile many years ago, so Sand is presenting “truisms as though they were revolutionary illuminations”.

But this is to miss the point. Sand himself is the first to say that there is nothing new in his book: he has merely organised existing material in a way that Israeli historians did not care to, for fear of appearing unpatriotic, and western historians shied away from, wary of being called anti-Semitic. The point is not what is known in the ivory towers of historians, but what sustains the popular consciousness. The narrative of exile and return is still at the heart of Israeli self-belief, and remains firmly implanted in the western mindset.

Sand has cleared away a lot of 19th century debris. The narrative of a people exiled and returning, so heroically projected in the 1958 novel Exodus, which was made into a film starring Paul Newman two years later, is relegated to the realm of belief, not historical fact.

But this will not be the last word. Critics of Sand assert that the absence of a “Jewish race” – a concept that does not stand up to critical examination for any people – does not destroy the logic of Israel. The Jews have been a community of belief with distinctive social organisation for centuries, and a community of suffering since the Nazi genocide. In sophisticated discourse, this will now be the justification for a Jewish state in the Arab world.

After his passionate deconstruction of the Jewish history, Sand’s conclusions are tepid. He dismisses the idea of a bi-national state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river as “noble but utopian”. Zionism has created two peoples – Israeli and Palestinian – and he sees a future for Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries.

He was asked at al Quds University in Jerusalem how he could justify the continued existence of Israel, when he has conceded that the events of 1947 and 1948 were a “rape”. He replied that “even under Islamic law, the child of a rape has the right to live”. Israel, he has said, could be compared to America and Australia, two countries founded on the “rape” of a land and dispossession of the indigenous people.

Sand writes that books do not change the world, “but when the world begins to change, it searches for different books. I may be naive, but it is my hope that the present work will be one of them”.

This begs the question: is the world beginning to change? Many people thought the Obama administration would upset the status quo in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Instead we have an Israeli government defying the wishes of the US president in a way not seen since 1991, when Yitzhak Shamir, the then prime minister, resisted taking part in the Madrid peace talks.

But in more subtle ways there are signs of a new world: for a number of years it has been clear that Israel cannot rely on any reservoir of large-scale Jewish immigration to bolster its population. The country has to come to terms with the fact that the Jewish population is what it is.

Sand hopes to build on this stark demographic reality to persuade the Israelis that they do not need any founding myth, and the country can belong to all its citizens, not to the Jewish people, most of whom live happily in the diaspora. Indeed, in the book’s popularity in Israel he sees signs that the younger generation needs no biblical title deed to justify their lives – though there is scant evidence of that in the popularity of the current right-wing government.

His conclusion is that Israel has to become a democratic state of all its citizens, including the 20 per cent who are Muslims and Christians, not a state of all the Jews. This book must be as seen as a milestone on that road – but it will still be a very long journey.


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