Shlomo Sand, ‘The Invention Of The Jewish People’

Collective identity needs a misty image of an ancient biological common origin (Sand, 280).

In Sri Lanka, ‘identity’ contains a very distinctive blend of ethno-nationalism with traditional religion where religion becomes an instrument serving political ends (Sand, 285-6).

Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, wrote this work (hereafter, ‘Invention’) in Hebrew for a Jewish readership, and then translated it into English. (Page reference is to the paperback edition, London, 2010.) It is as if a Sinhalese professor teaching at a Sri Lankan university were to write a book – not in English but in Sinhala – which questioned the fundamental assumptions of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. I am reminded of Freud, himself a Jew, who suggested the possibility that Moses, the founding-father of the Jews, had been an Egyptian: “no consideration will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interest” (Freud, ‘Moses and Monotheism’). ‘Invention’ is an attempt by the author to question anew the roots of his identity and to extricate himself from ‘received memory’ (19). The book is dedicated both to those who “arrived”, and to those who were forced to flee. As I have written elsewhere, mindful of Sri Lanka, the hegemonic dreams of one group become nightmare and tragedy to another. Professor Sand is fully aware of Hebrew texts, and thoroughly familiar with European history and philosophy. The range of his scholarship is truly impressive. Not being “equipped” to contest his arguments, I merely present some of them.

Sand acknowledges his debt to the work of scholars such as Benedict Anderson (‘Imagined Communities’), Ernest Gellner (‘Nations and Nationalism’) and others. He begins by quoting an ironic definition: “A Nation is a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours”. The nation is an imagined political community; imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion (Anderson). Nations though now taken for granted (even new nations imagine themselves to be ancient) are a modern phenomenon. Historical kingdoms belonged to the king, princes and the nobility – and not to the people who carried them on their backs (Sand). The people as a nation is utterly modern (39)

Nationalism is not universal, and in many societies and historical periods, nationalism was conspicuous by its absence (Gellner). It is nationalism which creates nations, and not vice versa. In 1860, it was observed that, having created Italy, it was necessary to make Italians. President Kaunda, by repeating over and over again the slogan “One Zambia, One Nation”, attempted to create a sense of nationalism that transcended and replaced ‘tribal’ consciousness. (Zambia, like many another country, is the creation – arbitrary; indifferent to ethnic borders – of British imperialism.)  Nationalism is not natural in that it is not a permanent feature. For example, over a period of about forty years, the same people in East Bengal could shift from a secular, all-India, nationalism in the 1930s, to Muslim separatist nationalism in the 1940s, to Bengali nationalism in the 1960s – with the antagonist ‘Other’ changing accordingly.

But though the impetus for the creation of nations (often, as in Sri Lanka, due to external, foreign, interference) comes from above, it answers to the assumptions, hopes, needs, longing and interest of ordinary people. There are two kinds of nationalism: citizenship nationalism, and ethnic nationalism which at once both includes and excludes. It is the latter which concerns Professor Sand. A “snob” while defined as a person with an exaggerated respect for those with high social position or wealth, can also be one who, on various grounds, thinks himself to be superior: In this sense, the nationalist is an ethnic snob. Nationalism, because it is seen as naturally inherited and not chosen, acquires a halo; becomes mystical, a religion, taking the place of traditional religion. Where religion does survive, its moral and humane teaching is ignored. Religion is made a tool to serve the nationalist agenda; to provide heavenly justification for earthly ends. Having been fashioned into a religion, nationalism with its mysticism and impelling imperatives, its ceremony and celebration, becomes emotionally stronger than traditional religious belief: a Sinhalese Christian may feel greater solidarity with non-Christian Sinhalese than with Tamil Christians. Nationalism can easily shade into “racism”, and Gellner writes of the exclusiveness, intolerance, narrowness and brutality of nationalism. (See, also works such as Brian Porter’s ‘When Nationalism Began to Hate’, 2002.)


Sand argues that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience” (257). The UNESCO document, ‘The Race Concept’ (1952) completely rejected any connection between biology and national culture. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact, but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations […] who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation” (273).  Nor were the Jews a wandering people: their presence in various parts of the world has to do with religion and not with race: “Jew” referred to a religious affiliation, and not to an ethnic, group. (Similarly, “Arya” meant “noble” and did not refer to all Sinhalese. Tamils kings described themselves as “Arya”. Indeed, Professor R. A. L. H. Gunawardana argues, in ‘Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict’, edited by Jonathan Spencer, that the term “Sinhala” applied only to the ruling class and, by extension, to those closely associated with it. Sinhala identity did not include all those who spoke Sinhala. ‘The Mahavamsa’ version sought to present the Ksatriya status of the ruling family, and did not include most of those considered “Sinhalese” today.) The ‘big bang’ in the birth of Jewish communities in Egypt and the entire eastern end of the Mediterranean occurred when the Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander (145). Soon, there were as many Jews (that is, members of a religious group) in Egypt as in the kingdom of Judea.

Today, Jews do not welcome converts, preferring to retain their status as the elect, the chosen few of God but, in the past, the Jews were given to proselytization, even converting their slaves (269). “The Second Isaiah, the Book of Ruth and the apocryphal Book of Judith all call for Judaism to accept gentiles, and even for the whole world to adopt the religion of Moses” (151).  They “Judaized” conquered people by force (157). The Sephardic Jews are primarily descendants of Arabs and Europeans who converted to Judaism (208). Most Jews are from Eastern Europe, “including the Caucasus, once believed to be the cradle of the Aryan race” (239)! If there were Jewish communities scattered all over, it was not because of persecution and expulsion but because they were a religious group with converts in several different places (Sand).

Professor Sand presents a case for concluding that the Jews were never exiled “en masse”. The Egyptians kept meticulous records, yet there is not a single mention of any ‘Children of Israel’ who lived in Egypt, or rebelled against it, or emigrated from it. “In the thirteenth century BCE, the purported time of the Exodus, Canaan was ruled by still-powerful pharaohs. This means that Moses led the freed slaves out of Egypt … to Egypt?” (118). Joshua blew his trumpet and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, but in the late thirteenth century BCE, “Jericho was an insignificant little town, certainly unwalled” (119). As for the glorious kingdom of David and Solomon, explorations of all sites have failed to find any trace whatsoever of an important tenth century BCE kingdom. Nowhere “in the abundant Roman documentation is there any mention of a deportation from Judea” (131). The “Romans never deported entire peoples” (130). Yet the historical reality of expulsion was accepted as self-evident; not discussed, and never doubted (143) – like, one may add, ‘The Mahavamsa’ story.

In the pagan world, Judaism, even when rejected, was a respectable and legitimate religion but under Christianity it became a pernicious and contemptible sect (177). However, Christians did not contradict the Old-Testament story, afraid that that would undermine the New Testament. Christians helped to create and sustain the myth of the Jews being a separate and distinct people. The “myth of uprooting and exile was fostered by the Christian tradition, from which it flowed into Jewish tradition and grew to be the truth engraved in history” (130). Christians wanted (emphasised) to believe in Jewish exile and suffering, seeing it as just punishment for their rejection and crucifiction of Jesus Christ. “Judaism turned inward – chiefly due to the exclusionary walls built around it by Christianity” (190).

Excluded, the Jews came to accept, then to insist on, their exclusivity – and, in their turn, to exclude. Israel is not a democracy because a state can’t be Jewish and democratic at the same time:  a true democracy, Sand insists (295), represents all within its boundaries, equally and impartially. If not, it is but a racist ethnocracy. One recalls that ancient Greece, much celebrated in the West as “the cradle of democracy”, was a slave-owning society. To speak of Jewish or Sinhalese democracy, or of Christian science, is to be oxymoronic – and specious.

The eminent historian, Eric Hobsbawm, is quoted on the book’s cover as saying: “Perhaps books combining passion and erudition don’t change political situations”. Professor Sand is not optimistic: nationalist myths, though repeatedly refuted, are very difficult to extirpate. People believe what they wish to believe. It is not only a case of “Cuius regio, eius lingua” but those with power and influence – politicians, intellectuals and academics, teachers, members of the clergy – can silence by simply ignoring works that make for uncomfortable reading (272). Besides, once nationalist myths have successfully served their political purpose, whether they are dismantled or not, may not really matter.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities”

(Nelson Mandela, 1964, during his trial).