Sunday, November 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: This book has been getting controversial press for a while. I haven't read it so I can't comment either way.
The Invention of the Jewish People

Review by Simon Schama (Financial Times)

Published: November 13 2009 23:34 | Last updated: November 13 2009 23:34

The Invention of the Jewish People
By Shlomo Sand
Translated by Yael Lotan
Verso £18.99, 398 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19

From its splashy title on, Shlomo Sand means his book to be provocative, which it certainly is, though possibly not in the way he intends. Its real challenge to the reader is separating the presentation of truisms as though they were revolutionary illuminations and the relentless beating on doors that have long been open, from passages of intellectual sharpness and learning.

Sand’s self-dramatising attack in The Invention of the Jewish People is directed against those who assume, uncritically, that all Jews are descended lineally from the single racial stock of ancient Hebrews – a position no one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews would dream of taking.

... But it is a long time since any serious historian argued that following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans emptied Judea. But what the Romans did do, following the Jewish revolt of AD66-70 and even more exhaustively after a second rebellion in AD135, was every bit as traumatic: an act of cultural and social annihilation – mass slaughter and widespread enslavement. But there was also the mass extirpation of everything that constituted Jewish religion and culture; the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, the obliteration of the Temple, the prohibition on rituals and prayers. Sand asserts, correctly, that an unknowable number of Jews remained in what the Romans called Palestina. The multitudes of Jews in Rome had already gone there, not as a response to disaster but because they wanted to and were busy proselytising.

All this is true and has been acknowledged. But Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning – the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away.

One comment:
Scholarly consensus now places the creation of the earliest books of the Old Testament not in the 6th or 5th centuries BC, but in the 9th century BC, home-grown in a Judah which had been transformed, as Israel Finkelstein has written “into a developed nation state”
I think it's a stretch to talk about a "scholarly consensus" on this subject at all. There are certainly scholars who think the books in the Hebrew Bible originate in the exile and later, while others still think in terms of a pre-exilic origin for some of them. I think at least some of the texts have their basis before the exile, chiefly because the Hebrew they are written in looks more pre-exilic than not in comparison to epigraphic Hebrew. With the possible exception of some poetic texts (and this too is controversial), I think it is difficult to make a philological argument for origins of any of the texts as early as the the ninth century BCE, although I wouldn't rule the possibility out either.