- Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People and the End of the New History
Israel’s “New History” has itself become history. What in the late 1980s and 1990s appeared to be shocking revelations about Israeli policy in 1948 have become anodyne. In Israeli academia, many of the New Historians’ arguments have become mainstream, as they have been debated, examined, and found to be by and large accurate. What is more, the New Historians’ findings now spur little controversy in Israeli society as a whole. Some Israelis outside of academia have developed a more critical approach to their country’s past, but many more have responded to the nearly constant Israeli-Arab strife of the past decade by forming a jaundiced view of the country’s historical record and justifying Israeli aggression and brutality as unfortunate but necessary measures in an endless war against an unappeasable foe. Thus recent revisionist accounts of the 1967 war have received far less press and been far less controversial than their predecessors on 1948 and 1956. So what, Israelis may ask, if, as Tom Segev’s massive tome on 1967 argues, Israel hankered for war in order to pull the country out of the funk induced by the 1966 recession?1
Assuming, as many Israeli Jews do, that the Arab foe is implacable, it does not matter to them if Israel was the aggressor in this or any other circumstance, as the only alternative to aggression is destruction. (The most prominent of the New Historians, Benny Morris, has himself come to espouse this view.)
The decline of the New History is part of a general crisis of historical consciousness in contemporary Israel. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Israelis took umbrage at the New Historians’ criticisms of their country’s behaviour in 1948 because they felt an intimate connection with the state and a need to defend its virtue. By the noughts of the twenty first century, however, Israel had completed a longstanding process of transformation into a highly [End Page 156] individualistic consumer society, and with the exception of the radical right, it had lost the sense participating in a heroic political venture. Israelis are increasingly alienated from their own history, seeing a chasm between their world and that of the first generations of the state. In the midst of this historical anomie, however, lies one certainty. Ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and hostile global public opinion encourage retreat into the panic room of Jewish peoplehood. The State of Israel, which its founders hoped would be fundamentally different from the diaspora, is now seen as its extension—no less threatened, no less unjustly maligned.
Thus it is no surprise that in our own day the most notorious critique of Israel generated by one of its own intellectuals does not offer, as did New Historians like Benny Morris or Avi Shlaim, an archive-based, carefully documented counter-narrative of Israel’s political and military history, but rather a polemical attack against the very concept of Jewish peoplehood. Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People became a cause celèbre almost immediately upon its publication four years ago. The book’s arguments are by now well known—that the Jews of the Common Era were mostly descended from converts or converts themselves, and therefore not tied in any genetic or historical manner to Eretz-Israel; that Zionist scholarship has cleverly obscured this fact by acknowledging the extent of Jewish conversion over time but inventing a Jewish demographic as well as spiritual origin in the land of Israel; that Jews comprise a religious civilization, not a people, because they lack a secular literary culture; that the State of Israel anxiously seeks to compensate for its own lack of ethnic integrity by employing its scientists to obsessively search for unique Jewish genetic material over the ages; and that the bankruptcy of Zionist assertions of Jewish peoplehood is apparent from the Jewish state’s reliance upon religious law, symbols and concepts in its government and public culture. I would like to evaluate these arguments and speculate why this book has enjoyed such popularity, in Israel and...