Are Jews NOT a ‘people’?

Are Jews NOT a ‘people’?

Shlomo Sand is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, with a specialization in Europe. In New York last week to promote the English-language edition of his book, “The Invention of the Jewish People” (Verso Press), he quipped that he would not have published his book before obtaining job security as a tenured professor. Although somewhat flawed in his English, he charmed a packed audience of the “Marxist Theory Colloquium” at New York University with his wit and devastating attacks on ideas that most Jews and Israelis hold dear.

The basic notion is that the people we know as Jews are a disparate collection of peoples who are descendants of converts, but not of the original inhabitants of the land of Israel, and that the Palestinian Arabs are actually descendants of the ancient Judeans to a much greater degree than today’s Jews. His basic points of argumentation include:

1. that the Romans never “exiled” the Jews from Judea and that most of them converted to Islam with the Arab conquest about 600 years after Rome’s suppression of the two great Jewish rebellions;
2. that Ashkenazi Jews are mostly descended from the Khazars — a Turkic people, originally from near the Caspian Sea, who largely adopted Judaism over 1000 years ago;
3. that Sephardic Jews are mostly descended from Berbers who had a Jewish kingdom that fell to the Arab-Muslim conquest of North Africa;
4. that Yemenite Jews are descended from a Jewish kingdom in Medieval Yemen;
5. that the idea of a “Jewish people” was “invented” by Zionist thinkers in the late 19th century.

If this were a dispassionate academic discussion of scholarly issues, there’d be less of a problem here. Instead, Prof. Sand presents his ideas in incendiary ways, to forums that are emotionally committed to thinking of Israel as automatically in the wrong in whatever it does and to a large extent unjust in its very existence. Sand engages more as an ideologue and provocateur than as a true scholar.

According to Wikipedia, Prof. Sand is a red diaper baby who belonged to an Israeli Communist youth organization and the anti-Zionist Matzpen group in the 1970s. I point this out only to indicate that his personal history predisposed him to a sharply dissenting viewpoint regarding Israel.

I lost my cool at certain points and shouted out brief comments protesting some of what he asserted as fact: for example, that Israel as a self-defined “Jewish state” cannot be a democracy. I indicated that Israel is a democracy since the word fundamentally denotes majority rule, but I would agree with critics that it’s a flawed democracy and in some ways not a liberal one. He actually shot back that Israel is liberal in many ways –its pluralism, its free press, etc.– and I would not disagree, but this leaves him arguing a contradiction: that Israel is both “liberal” and undemocratic. (Following the lecture, I explained to someone sitting near me, who had believed otherwise, that Arab citizens of Israel vote and are even elected to political office.)

In another of my interjections during his talk, I indicated in response to his #1 point that the Romans killed most of the Jews of ancient Judea/Palestine in the course of putting down the rebellions of the years, 66-73 C.E. and 132-135 (Bar Kochba’s revolt). He said that contemporary accounts always exaggerated numbers and that you have to discount them by “dropping a zero.”

But even if this were true, many if not most survivors were exiled as slaves; still, he dismissed the notion that the figures carved in Rome’s Arch of Titus, depicting men carrying menorahs and other Jewish artifacts, were exiled Jews– because their faces were shaven (and therefore Roman). Evidently, these figures were Roman soldiers carting off booty from the Temple; but the Roman Coliseum is understood to have been built by Jewish slaves. He is correct that Jews remained (he makes the point that rabbis there created the “Mishnah”), but their viability as a people with the numbers and means to sustain national independence was surely gone by then. There is certainly no dispute that Palestinian Jews compiled the “Jerusalem Talmud” after the Roman wars; but these points prove nothing other than how hard he’s arguing to minimize the extent of the catastrophe suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Romans.

During the Q & A, I calmly asked him how his ideas comport with linguistic scholars who see Yiddish as originating about 1,000 years ago from eastern French and western German dialects, and then moving eastward. He complimented me on the question, indicating that the answer is in his book; he takes the view of a scholar named Paul Wexler who contends that Yiddish developed in eastern German lands rather than the west. It took me a day or two to realize that this didn’t answer my question, because whether Yiddish originated in western German lands or a couple of hundred miles to the east, this doesn’t show why Yiddish, the lingua franca of Eastern European Jews, would be based on German and not on the Turkic tongue of the Khazars.

With regard to #5, I’ve already discoursed somewhat on this in an earlier posting: “The Zionist movement successfully remade the Jewish people as a nation in the land of Israel. It took a series of scattered religious and ethnic communities and – with the ‘help’ of pervasive and (eventually) genocidal antisemitism – gathered them up and transformed them. …”

Prof. Sand admits that there is such a thing as “Jewish identity,” apart from the religion. But he doesn’t seem to understand that all national identities are “invented.”

I blogged on this as well: “This is one of the lessons I drew from an insightful book by Prof. Rashid Khalidi: Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997). He makes the point that ‘National identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given….’ Khalidi proceeds to relate how Palestinians didn’t see themselves as a distinct people until well into the 20th century. Just as anti-Zionist writers and activists would never think of denying Palestinians their understanding of themselves as a people, they should not be denying the Jews their sense of peoplehood – a consciousness born of centuries of persecution, discrimination and worse, not to mention strong religious and cultural continuities.”

Early Reform Judaism, born in 19th century Germany and the US, attempted to recast Jewish self-definition into only a religious frame; classical Reform Jews were Americans or Germans of the “Mosaic” faith. The traditional or Orthodox view of Jews is of “Ahm Yisrael” — the people or nation of Israel (even among anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews). The left has generally granted people the right to define themselves, to “national self-determination”; only for the Jews does this seem not to be the case.

Sand proved that he knows little about Jewish religious practice in asserting that “Jews don’t read the Bible.” I don’t see the relevance of this to his thesis, but I assume that he was really thinking about the fact that observant Jews interpret the Bible in light of Talmudic and later rabbinic commentaries; but the Torah (the first five books) is read in traditional synagogues three times a week– Saturday, Monday and Thursday– supplemented by readings from the Prophets every Saturday, and the chanting of other Biblical scriptures on specific holidays (e.g., the Megillahs of Ruth on Shavuot and Esther on Purim).

We had a nice little discussion afterwards. We briefly got into some core political issues: when I indicated that I’m with Meretz USA and that the Meretz party believes that Israel should be a “Jewish state” that is also “of all its citizens,” he dismissed this as “an oxymoron.”

We both agreed and disagreed some on the 1948 war and the Palestinian-Arab “Nakba” (catastrophe): we agreed that it was not at all unreasonable for Palestinian Arabs to flee the fighting with the expectation of returning to their homes once the war was over, but that it’s too late for a Palestinian “right of return.” He hastened to add, of course, that he disapproves of Israel’s “Law of Return” (something that I see necessary as an insurance policy for Jews requiring a safe haven from persecution).

I see the Nakba as a Palestinian as well as Jewish responsibility in that it happened because of the violent Arab rejection of the UN’s partition plan. He harked on the fact that the smaller Jewish population was granted a larger share of the land — ignoring that the Jewish state was to have a large Arab minority and that many survivors of the Holocaust (stateless refugees in DP camps–as he was, ironically, as a child) were sure to move there.

He believes strongly in Israel as “an Israeli state,” rather than a Jewish state; while I agree that it’s only proper and healthy for Jews, Arabs and other Israeli citizens to forge a sense of common nationality as Israelis, I don’t see it as wrong that Israel also serves a special function as the one place in the world that Jews can call their spiritual homeland (whether or not it’s actually their ancestral home). Finally, Prof. Sand and I agree on the need for a two-state solution, for Israel and the Palestinians, and we’d both welcome a regional confederation some day, but we disagree profoundly on many other things, as I’ve indicated. Click here for a follow-up posting.

By | 2009-10-19T13:38:00-04:00 October 19th, 2009|Blog|13 Comments


  1. David Ehrens October 19, 2009 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    Ralph, you wrote that:

    We briefly got into some core political issues: when I indicated that I’m with Meretz USA and that the Meretz party believes that Israel should be a “Jewish state” that is also “of all its citizens,” he dismissed this as “an oxymoron.”

    I myself can’t imagine a state that is simultaneously “Jewish” and “of all its citizens” — Jewish, secular, atheist, Muslim, Christian, Druze, etc.

    How does such a state pull this trick off?

  2. Ralph Seliger October 19, 2009 at 5:41 pm - Reply

    By now I would think that such a diligent reader of our site would know more about our thinking on this issue. BTW, we don’t see Israel currently as doing a good job of being simultaneously “Jewish” and a state “of all its citizens.”

    First of all, we are not talking about a theocratic state. We are talking about Israel as a homeland for the Jews as a people, with a unique history and cultural heritage and needs. Unfortunately, the reason that a Jewish state is important from a humanitarian point of view is that it serves as a sanctuary for Jews who are persecuted. As long as antisemitism endures, this safe haven must endure.

    But a Jewish state in this sense can, should and must be the home equally for all its citizens. So Meretz USA and our friends in Israel strive for equal rights under the law for all Israelis.

  3. David Ehrens October 19, 2009 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    Ralph, we both agree that Israel is not the example of a Jewish state “of and for all of its citizens.” But I can’t imagine *any* state being able to serve both ethnocratic or theocratic goals and secular ones at the same time. I try to picture what this would mean here in the US for a “Christian state” that was also “of and for all its citizens” and all that comes to mind is Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.”

    I will grant that it must be frustrating to be asked for clarifications by readers who you feel should be more diligent in understanding such things, but the contradictions do require explanation.

  4. Ralph Seliger October 19, 2009 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    As I have explained, David, the notion of a “Christian state” is not parallel to the Jewish state that we support, because we embrace Jews as a people but oppose a primarily religiously-motivated government. (If the world were better at safeguarding Jewish lives and rights in recent modern history, there would have been no need for a Jewish state of any kind.)

    We also have to be on guard against exclusively “ethnographic” considerations, beyond humanitarian concerns. But most countries in the world reflect their ethnic or cultural majorities. A progressive democracy attempts to reconcile majority rule with minority rights.

    This is often not easy to do, but Israel is not alone in this problem. And most if not all of its neighbors do a much worse job in this regard.

    But the trend represented by the rise to a share of power in Israel of Avigdor Lieberman and his party is alarming, and almost as bad as the growth in influence and power in recent years of Hamas and Hezbollah.

  5. Gibson Block October 20, 2009 at 12:02 am - Reply

    Good article. I read about this on Mondoweiss.

    Philip Weiss was totally delighted by the lecture and was totally uncritical.

    Although he seems to like being Jewish, anything that hits Israel pleases him to no end.

    He characterized you as the loser in your exchanges with Sand.

    However, you gave us Sand’s background and likely biases. You also critiqued his claim about Yiddish and pointed out that if the Jews were never more than a religious grouping, why did Reform have to deliberately limit Judaism to this.

  6. Anonymous October 20, 2009 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    This is an excellent discussion. Kudos to Ralph Seliger and David Ehrens for thrashing out these issues without bile or acrimony.

    Mr. Seliger’s initial posting is to be praised for its length and thoroughness.

    My belief in Israel being both “Jewish” and a democracy is that the Jewish element will have to be limited to the bare minimum and that is must never impinge on individual rights of the citizen. Jewish elements should be restricted to what might be considered the realm of “collective identity”.

    Here, too, questions remain: How to deal with the anthem and its wording; the flag; etc.

  7. Mark Itzkowitz October 23, 2009 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    This debate troubled me enough that I tried to submit my first reply. Not knowing the rules, it is too long. I’ll try to send it in segments and limit any future contributions.

    I am puzzled by the argument that Israel cannot be simultaneously a Jewish state, a democracy and a state of all its citizens. Each description refers to a different aspect of culture, politics, political organization, society and social organization. They are not mutually exclusive.

    Is there only one acceptable concept of “Jewish” and if so, whose concept is it? Is Neturei Carta “more Jewish” than Eli Yishei? Is Eli Yishei “more Jewish” than Sarit Hadad? Is the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi “more Jewish” than the Sephardi Chief Rabbi? Are either of them “more Jewish” than the Beta Yisrael baby who was born somewhere in the world yesterday? Who makes that determination? From a religious perspective, I was taught that a lulav is not kosher unless it includes all of the species required; one of which is held by “Jewish” tradition to represent those Jews who practice neither mitzvot nor are educated, because each Jew “counts” and is part of this people.

  8. Mark Itzkowitz October 23, 2009 at 11:31 pm - Reply

    Part 2:

    Similarly, is there only one form of “democracy” and if so, which is it? Is the U.S.A. not a democracy because it has a republican form of government which requires each of the 50 state governments and the single federal government to have bicameral legislatures and three separate branches of government, whereas the French and Athenian forms of democracy do not and did not? Are the constitutional monarchies of Europe in which citizens vote for representatives to govern them not “democracies”? Which social philosopher of unchallengeable brilliance and honesty gets to determine which government is a “democracy”? “President” Ahmadinejad and “Supreme Leader Ayatollah” Khamanei told their audiences this summer that true democracy belongs to Iran. Is that so?

    What is a state “of all its citizens”? Doesn’t “citizenship” alone confer membership in the polity with certain “national” rights conferred by the nation state and aren’t those rights reflected in the nation’s laws? Are Muslim citizens of the U.K. not part of the polity and deprived of the rights of British citizens because the Queen remains titular head of state and “defender of the [Anglican] faith” and signs legislation passed by Parliament reciting all of her titles in order to confer legitimacy on the legislation? Are U.S. citizens of Bahai descent denied the rights of citizens because there are [Christian] religious symbols in use in many different public forums throughout the US? Is France not equally accessible to its citizens because Sunday is still a day of rest and its derivation originates with Christianity? Are Egyptian Copts not Egyptian citizens because the flag of the Egyptian Arab Republic bears an Eagle, a symbol of Islam?

  9. Mark Itzkowitz October 23, 2009 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Part 3:

    A “Jewish state” that is also “of all its citizens” is only “an oxymoron” if there is only one version of Judaism and that is a theocracy which drives non-Jews and Jews who do not submit to the theocracy beyond its borders. There never has been such a Jewish polity. Non-Jews lived within the borders of ancient Israel under the tribes, Judges, and Kings, and were not required to follow the religious dictates of Mosaic law but to practice the elementary human rights concepts contained in Noachide law (no torture, etc.). Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Circassians, etc. hold citizenship in Israel, vote, establish parties, many of which do not accept the foundational ideology of the state, elect representatives to the Knesset, pay taxes, receive public education, national health insurance, etc. Are they not citizens because they are not Jewish?

    A “Jewish state” which expends its intellectual capacity trying to determine what it means to be a “Jewish state” harms no citizen provided that it offers citizenship to non-citizens in a reasonable fashion or in any of several reasonable fashions and then accords all citizens equal status. Similar debates occur in the U.S., France and other nation states which claim to practice liberal democracy and which are not comprised of a single ethnic group.

    I see no reason why Judaism in Israel must be “limited to the bare minimum”. I do not even know what that could mean. I cannot understand why Jews should be less free to practice their religion in Israel than in New York.

  10. Mark Itzkowitz October 23, 2009 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    Final Part:

    If the real question is how to obtain equality of all peoples, you should phrase the question in those terms. I did not understand Meretz to be a socialist party. If Sands’ political background has him struggling with this question his disappointment with Israel is certainly understandable since “true equality” vanished with the “Socialist Republics” of the USSR, Ceaucescu’s Romania and other Eastern European and Asian “Communist” states(!?!). There is no equality in Israel between its citizens and less now than in the past but the same holds true for the U.S.A. and the U.K.

    It troubles me that this question arises in response to a person who denies both national identity and “national” history to Jews but recognizes it for others who chose not to claim it until a late phase of modern history. “National” identity is a relatively recent intellectual development. Any nation state which comprises more than a single ethnic group can be attacked as “not” a “people” “nation” or “state”. When that attack is reserved for Jews and Israel, the attacker certainly is no better than those he attacks, and in my opinion, far worse. Out of curiousity, does Sands consider the future Palestinian state a state “of all its citizens” when its Constitution proclaims it Muslim? I wonder if Nayif Hawatmeh considers that a contradiction worth agonizing about.

    Shabbat Shalom!

  11. jo October 24, 2009 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    Kudos to David Ehrens. I think a lot of what follows his comments( admit I skimmed a lot of the comments past Ralph’s) is surgically jumping thru mental minefields so that we can feel good about what we are asking Israel to be. and certainly still believing in some way that we can somehow make it (wish it?) so. And by doing what? Against what evidence?

    I might take some issue with specifics of Dr sand’s history, but I totally agree, that for many of us, all that unites us is a religious tradition. not some amorphous peoplehood. That may not have always been so 2K yrs ago but it surely is so now. and give some of these most atheist Jews in Israel a few more decades and what we think is “Jewish” about them will be pretty hard to recognize. (I’m not sure we’ll recognize the orthodox Judaism there either! or want to!)Speaking Hebrew does not make one a Jew. A Star of David does not a religious Jew make. An extreme form of nationalism wrapped in a flag that reminds us Ashkenazim of a tallis is not enough for me to recognize it as Jewish, esp if there is no Jewish tradition of justice. And we’ll be hard pressed to recognize what unites us.
    Let’s get real.
    It all comes back to Hillel. Remember Hillel? AND religion and politics do not mix. or mix well anyway! The Jewish Taliban are getting a pass because we are still mired in the notion of a peoplehood that deserves a refuge on land that did belong to others. Israel needs to recognize that and move on as a state for ALL it’s citizens, period. no “Jewish state” bubamisis. What IS Jewish about it?

    Like shipping Muslims in India to a manufactured country like ‘Pakistan’ carved out of India, or ex-American slaves to ‘Liberia, sometimes these ‘refuges’ create new problems. You have to be careful for what you wish for.

  12. Anonymous December 6, 2011 at 7:43 am - Reply

    OMG, do you see whats happening in Syria? In spite of a brutal government crackdown, the demonstrations continue

  13. Anonymous December 18, 2011 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Do you think that Syria spying on dissidents?

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