Haaretz columnist Tom Segev has recently written a column entitled, “An invention called ‘the Jewish people’,” on a new Israeli academic work that argues that the idea of a Jewish nation is a myth invented a little over a century ago.
In a way, this is not startling. 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. This is sometimes referred to as the “Zionist Revolution.”
Unfortunately, the kind of scholarship that Segev writes about – and I don’t know how good it is – is being used polemically to delegitimize Israel. As Segev indicates: “Prof. Zand teaches at Tel Aviv University. His book, When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? (published by Resling in Hebrew), is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a ‘state of all its citizens’ – Jews, Arabs and others – in contrast to its declared identity as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’.”
Our liberal or left-Zionist perspective is that Israel can and should be both a “state of all its citizens” and “Jewish” in a non-theocratic and cultural sense. Most of Segev’s discussion has to do with Shlomo Zand’s contentions about converts to Judaism (as well as Palestinian Jewish converts to Islam) and the medieval Turkic Khazar people, whose ruling elite adopted Judaism.
The actual origins of the Jewish people are surely not altogether simple to discern. The factual basis of the Exodus from Egypt and the founding of the early Hebrew tribal confederacy is cloudy. The Exodus may be more myth than fact, or perhaps the experience of one particular group of people that was then embraced by all Hebrews as their common history.
The historical evidence for the original kingdoms of David, Solomon and then of the northern and southern kingdoms (Israel and Judah) seems fairly solid, although probably not exactly as related in the Bible. That there was a later liberated country of Judea, which became an independent kingdom for over a century, is beyond a doubt. It also seems pretty clear to me that most ancient Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world had an ancestral connection with the so-called Holy Land; but this could be a legitimate focus for scholarly research and fair-minded debate. The origins of Jews in Ethiopia, and other parts of Africa and Asia, are not clear and may not have much of a physical connection to ancient Israel.
And there may well be some link to the Khazars for at least some Ashkenazi Jews. But scholars of linguistics tell us that Yiddish developed from Jews who moved east from France and along the Rhine in Germany; this is important because it is evidence that any Khazar connection was an add-on to the Ashkenazi population, not its origin. To be continued…