A claim is made by Prof. Shlomo Zand that most contemporary Jews are descendants of converts and not of the ancient Hebrews. There was a time around the turn of the first millenium that Judaism was growing in popularity within the Greco-Roman world; as much as 10 percent of the Roman Empire may have been Jewish or included “Noahides” — who had adopted the “Seven Laws of Noah” but had not completely embraced Judaism.
Nevertheless, Zand’s theory appears to contradict the fact that Jews have not sought new adherents to Judaism for about 1800 years; they have accepted converts somewhat reluctantly. To actively proselytize within either Christian or Muslim dominated societies during most of this time (and even in many Muslim countries today) would have been to court death.
It would be pernicious if the main intent for the promotion of Zand’s book (as opposed to a dispassionate discussion of it) is to deny both the Jewish connection to the land of Israel and even the existence of a Jewish people as such. Most peoples or nations have a somewhat mythic history that reinforces a sense of who they are. This doesn’t mean that these nations don’t exist or have no right to claim nationhood.
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.
The notion that each and every Jew has an ironclad ancestral link to the Biblical homeland is something of a myth. The contention that most Jews have no ancestral connection to the land of Israel does not seem credible to me. But even if this were true, to insist on its significance for the issues of our day discounts the role of an evolving historical consciousness in shaping the fact of peoplehood. This would deny the Jewish people the same right to self-determination that progressives demand for other peoples. (This links to Part 1, if you’ve missed it.)