Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A New Look at the "Jewish People"

Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism reviews a significant book that has been a bestseller in Israel and was translated into English last year: The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University. It is now out in paperback with new material by the author.

Here's Brownfeld's summation:
Shlomo Sand has, in many ways, normalized Jewish history. Instead of the implausible myth of a unique nation with a special destiny — expelled, wandering and finally restored to its “homeland” — he has shown us the history of the Jews as a religious group, incorporating men and women of a variety of backgrounds [as a result of mass conversions], joined together by a common religious belief and commitment, not an ethnic identity. The largely imaginary Jewish past constructed by Zionists beginning in the 19th century, has provoked much conflict and, as he shows, is largely an invention.
Where did the idea of Jewish peoplehood come from? Sand traces it to two developments in the mid-nineteenth century: secularization with its eclipse of religious faith and rising German nationalism.

Challenges to the idea that Jews constitute a single ethnic group or people are not new. Rejection of a Jewish peoplehood was at the foundation of Classical Reform Judaism, which held that Judaism is a religious community with a common faith, culture, and set of rituals. Moreover, many have written similarly in the past. As Sand explains:
I encountered scarcely any new findings — almost all such material had previously been uncovered by Zionist and Israeli historiographers. The difference is that some elements had not been given sufficient attention, others were immediately swept under the historiographers’ rug, and still others were "forgotten" because they did not fit the ideological needs of the evolving national identity. What is amazing is that much of the information cited in this book has always been known inside the limited circles of professional research, but invariably got lost en route to the arena of public and educational memory. My task was to organize historical information in a new way, to dust off the old documents and continually reexamine them. The conclusion to which they led me created a radically different narrative from the one I had been taught in my youth.
The implications for the Palestine-Israel conflict are profound. To put the matter briefly, on what grounds can the Land of Israel be said to be more mine than that of a Palestinian Arab whose family has lived there for a thousand years?

For details on the controversy see the Wikipedia entry here. Sand responds to critics at his website here.


Kevin Carson said...

It makes more sense to me to think of speakers of Yiddish and Ladino as two separate European ethnic groups who happen to share the same religion.

Sheldon Richman said...

In 1976 Arthur Koestler published his controversial book The Thirteenth Tribe, which speculated that most European (Ashkenazi) Jews descend not from the ancient Hebrews but rather from a Turkic population in the Caucasus and northward, the Khazars, that converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century. Needless to say, the book was not well received by advocates of Zionism. It was looked on more favorably by by both anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish interests. (These two are not to be conflated.) Sand apparently revives Koestler's thesis.

Kevin Carson said...

Isaac Asimov's Bible commentary treats all the eponymous Abrahamic peoples surrounding Palestine -- Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, etc., as well as the Canaanites in Palestine itself -- as essentially Hebrew. He argues that the main difference between them is that the tribes assigned to Israel belonged to an amphictyonic confederacy centered on the cult of El at Bethel, and later converted to Yahwism. He also points to considerable textual evidence for Edomitic origins of the tribe of Judah (e.g. Reuel/Jethro, the priest of Yahweh who converted Moses, being an Edomite). That the Yahwist tribes felt some ongoing cultural pull from the older religion of their neighbors is indicated by the difficulties the official state religion had in suppressing continued worship at Bethel, the "high places," etc.

N. Joseph Potts said...

Whatever genetic base adherents to Judaism might or might not have had a millennium or two ago, the faith acquires a people as the religion is passed down via biological offspring. Judaism shows a hard realism in its approach to this in its reliance on the maternal line of inheritance.

Even just that (matrilinealism) intensifies the fact of accumulating peopleness over time vis-a-vis the same dynamic in any religion doing this along patrilineal (or both) lines.

Recent DNA analyses have in fact disclosed that there are recognizable "Jewish" genetic makeups, not that these are necessarily quite pure or in any way exclusive of other genetic makeups.

The relative paucity in recent centuries of mass conversions to Judaism has given this dynamic the opportunity to develop its effect, and endow Judaism, more-so than most religions, with "its own" people.

S. Klein said...

No nation is ethnically pure. On these grounds most countries would have no legitimacy. Physical violence against the Jewish population of Palestine was already well underway since the late 1800s - at the time there was no confiscated land... Israel is deeply flawed in many ways, but I wish the level of opprobrium was shared with other offenders. The fact that it is not calls into question the motivations of the accusers.

Sheldon Richman said...

S. Klein: Zionism was launched in the late 1800s and the program was quite clear. But even if you're right about who started the violence, that would make the Zionist movement a particularly bad idea. Why provide a valid justification for resentment and resistance? Countries do not gain their legitimacy from ethnic purity. So you can't use Sand's work to blunt criticism of Israel. The fact is that Zionism is based on the "Jewish people" theory, and that theory seems to be wrong. The Reform movement said this from the start -- in the late 1800s, when they warned that Zionism would incite Arab-on-Jew violence.

S. Klein said...

How many countries have come into being without creating "resentment and resistance"? Does being resented mean one lacks legitimacy? Jews have been resented for many millenia, should they have ceased being Jews for that reason? Surely the Native Americans very much resented the presence of the "settlers", and today few remain to argue their case. Yet I do not see you relinquishing your citizenship so quickly. Is there some statute of limitations on bloody acts that I am unaware of? I don't see how the Jews are any less deserving of a state than any other people. If anything, their presence in their ancestral homeland is more legitimate than your presence in what today is known as the United States of America.

Fwiw, Sand's politically charged book (he was a member of the Communist party in the past) has been discredited by many non political historians and scientists.