Thursday, October 27, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF SHLOMO SANDS' THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE


This is one of the most important non-fiction books (outside of science) published in years, dealing as it does with a topic which has caused immense pain and difficulty to so many, particularly in the last century. 

A great many non-fiction books today are little more than essays or magazine articles padded into the size of books. Many are true disappointments to read, let alone failing to be genuine contributions to thought.

Here, though, is a book in which every chapter says something challenging and interesting.

And do not skip the introduction – something of which I am often guilty, being anxious to get to the heart of the matter – for in this case the introduction is fascinating, and Mr. Sand could not have provided a subtler or better way to introduce the nature and complexity of his topic.

The book was written in Hebrew – I know it caused quite a sensation in Israel a couple of years ago – and only now has been translated into English. Just one of the things which surprised me was the clarity and flow of the language, something for which social scientists are not noted, Mr. Sand being a historian. I don’t know whether Mr. Sand is that unusual thing, a social scientist who is a truly excellent writer or whether he has found a gifted translator. Perhaps it is both.

Mr. Sand has not done original research into the topic, but he has done a massive and perceptive review of the literature, the kind of effort which in medicine often proves extremely valuable in bringing together the results of scores of scattered original studies, and, as the reader will discover, the author is an impressive scholar.

I knew just one of the topics which caused such upset in Israel was the idea that today’s Palestinians are at least in part the actual descendents of the children of Israel, it being a well-known fact that Rome in her conquests never disturbed the original people of a place unless they refused to acknowledge Rome’s authority. While Roman Palestine did have a couple of revolts, they were by zealots and not the population as a whole, and there is absolutely no historical record of the resident Hebrews having been expelled.

But the author covers much more of interest than that one topic and weaves a cohesive story of the history of the Jewish people which is both challenging and fascinating. He covers the Khazars, the people of a ninth and tenth Jewish kingdom in what is today the Crimea and part of Ukraine. There is no evidence of their having any ancient Hebrew ancestry, and, on the contrary, there is good evidence that the kingdom was the product of Jewish evangelism.

Jewish evangelism sounds mighty odd to a modern ear, but the evidence is there. After all, Christianity started as merely a sect of Judaism and has evangelized much of its history. Christianity’s first great evangelist was Paul, a converted Jew. And we know there were even different early sects of Christians, such as the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents which show considerable differences with the content of the accepted Gospels.

There is also the fascinating possibility that Khazar migrants settling in Poland and Germany and other places in Europe are the actual source for the European Jews we call the Ashkenazi. The author cites many clues which suggest this, including clues in the Yiddish language, and in the dress and customs of Eastern European Jews. And it is an idea of which some determined Zionists were aware but chose to ignore or excuse away.

The book is dotted with interesting anecdotes such as quotes from early documents which show Jewish warriors fighting for the Moors in Spain, being perhaps part of the substantial Jewish population from North Africa – again a people with no ancestry to ancient Israel - as well as providing the foundation of what would come to be the Sephardic Jews, later deported from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

This is a book which will stimulate discussion and additional research for a long time, and what is a more important criterion for a truly important book?

Mr Sand has a few pretty hair-raising quotes from some Zionists which in almost no material way differ in attitude and outlook to the early gutter literature of the Nazis – stuff about blood and destiny. It is one of the author’s major themes that a combination of Zionists and modern Israeli history professors, conspiring to justify the foundations and practices of modern Israel, have worked assiduously to promote the old idea – he calls it a myth - that the Jews were thrown out of their ancient land and have wandered for centuries without a home.

Small wonder the book stirred a controversy in Israel. I can only say that were Mr. Sand any less a scholar and writer, he would have been crushed, but here his research and ideas spring to life for readers everywhere to consider.

The book is highly recommended to all those with an interest in the affairs of the Middle East, the history of Europe, the history of religion, the history of ideas, the nature of political movements, the eccentricities of human nature, human psychology, or those who just enjoy a stimulating read.