Is there a Jewish People?

Is there a Jewish People?

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…

By | 2009-02-19T17:59:00-05:00 February 19th, 2009|Blog|5 Comments


  1. Anonymous February 21, 2009 at 12:00 am - Reply

    What IS a Jewish cultural identity for a state if it’s not religious?

  2. Ralph Seliger February 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    A good question. At least half of American Jews and a third to a half of Jews in Israel are secular and not religious. Secular Jewish identity has been common since some time in the 19th century, when Jews began to receive civil rights in Western and Central Europe. And most of the early Zionist pioneers were total atheists.

    A country can have a majority of people who identify as Jews while not privileging Jewish religious institutions. This is the kind of Israel we’d like to see.

    Secular Jewish identity means a personal identification with the Jewish people and Jewish culture as expressed, for example, in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. It may be minimally religious — or not at all.

    My father, for example, was a totally identifying Jew– who spoke Yiddish and Hebrew– and had little interest in Judaism as a religion.

  3. Anonymous February 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    Well, Yiddishkeit leaves out about half the Jewish population or more..
    so that’s an iffy parameter.

    Culture can be food, but everyone in the world eats bagels now! and hamentaschen does not a Jew make.

    If there is NO religious identity, then the name starts to become hollow. While we can privilege a return for those who are victims of antisemitism, only rabbis can decide who gets citizenship. That sounds like in fact it IS religious.

    I know Arabs who speak better Hebrew than me, and of course there are plenty of Jews from Arab lands who speak better Arabic than Hebrew. I say, the tags are getting thin..

  4. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 2:21 am - Reply

    Jewish identity will always be religious. If you are a Jewish atheist, then Judaism is the religion that you do not believe in.

    If you are reading stories by the great Jewish authors, you are probably reading about characters who are religious even if the authors were not. If you really had no interest in Judaism as a religion then the great Yiddish stories and plays wouldn’t make any sense.

  5. Anonymous February 27, 2009 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    That doesn’t work. To say that one is Jewish because the religion they don’t believe in is Judaism is not a meaningful statement. It may be the religion you bolted from when your parents , who ARE religious, made you go to hedar, but it is not sufficient to tell an atheist and, more importantly, the atheist’ grandkids, who are not anything else that they are Jewish because they aren’t Jewish..
    I do agree that a people who have a real sense of community and identity and somewhat of an idea of who is in and who is not have every right to self-identify, but following your logic, it isn’t enough to build a state on… furthermore, a state that has a population of folks who aren’t ever going to identify as Jews and who are growing exponentially.

    I find Khalidi’s book interesting too, and the Palestinian people probably became a national identity in response to the negative experience of being ‘the other’ in Israel’s development and expansion. I would suggest that had Israel been a truly binational state a very different sense of these national identities would have prevailed, eventually,and the diaspora would have to look elsewhere for their identity too.. more to our grandparents and our synagogues and less to Eretz I.

    In any case, you do find Judaism, it seems , religious. and then, Israel IS a theocratic state?

Leave A Comment