Shlomo Sand: “The Invention of the Jewish People”

The following video is a discussion by Israeli professor, Shlomo Sand , about his book, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), which critically examines and deconstructs the idea of a Jewish nationality (“the Jewish People”) and consequently the Zionist claim for a Jewish homeland (Israel) in Palestine. The video is interesting in its exploration of the national question.

Joseph Stalin gave the Marxist-Leninist definition of a nation as a “historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture“. He goes on to say, regarding Jews,

Bauer speaks of the Jews as a nation, although they “have no common language”; but what “common destiny” and national cohesion is there, for instance, between the Georgian, Daghestanian, Russian and American Jews, who are completely separated from one another, inhabit different territories and speak different languages?

The above-mentioned Jews undoubtedly lead their economic and political life in common with the Georgians, Daghestanians, Russians and Americans respectively, and they live in the same cultural atmosphere as these; this is bound to leave a definite impress on their national character; if there is anything common to them left, it is their religion, their common origin and certain relics of the national character. All this is beyond question. But how can it be seriously maintained that petrified religious rites and fading psychological relics affect the “destiny” of these Jews more powerfully than the living social, economic and cultural environment that surrounds them? And it is only on this assumption that it is possible to speak of the Jews as a single nation at all. (Marxism and the National Question)

The point of this argument is to say that Jews of course have the right to full equality, but not to territorial self-determination (i.e. in Palestine). This is very similar to the argument that Professor Sand makes in this video. I would also suggest the book One Country by Ali Abunimah on the need for single, secular and democratic state in all of historic Palestine. As Ahmad Saadat, the imprisoned General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has argued in an interview with Fight Back! News,

Some have argued that the current reality is pushing towards a two-state solution – an Israeli state next to a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders. Of course, this solution involves ignoring the Right of Return, or replacing it with reparations. We in the PFLP argue that forcing such a solution on the Palestinian people will not end the struggle, because the facts and reality contradict such a solution. The two-state solution that is based on the racist notion of ‘a national, homogeneous Jewish state’ totally disregards the fact that over 1.3 million Palestinians – 20% of the entire population – live inside ‘Israel.’ This will continue to permit the causes of conflict to remain inside Israel. Therefore, the solution based on two states is a myth.

Our people’s quest, like any other people, is a democratic and free society. This democratic state – the only state form that can produce social and economic development – cannot be led or dominated by the parasitic and comprador bourgeoisie, but by a unity of the popular forces that share structural interests in national independence, return to the homeland, popular democracy and economic development. This is, simply, our view in the PFLP, and the view of the national, democratic liberation movement.

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3 responses to “Shlomo Sand: “The Invention of the Jewish People”

  1. Let me begin by saying that I think that just like how revolutionaries gave a principled defence of Ward Churchill against right-wing colonialist attacks, that there also needs to be one of Shlomo Sand.

    However, at the same time there needs to be a recognition that with Sand, just as with Churchill, that there are serious factual problems with the content of his arguments.

    I hope you’ll forgive me for getting into a lot of genetic technicalities, but in examining Sand’s argument for a Khazar origin for European Jews that is where the main evidence him originates.

    Firstly, in 1999 a study published by Hammer et al. compared the Y-chromosomes of Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian Jews with some 16 non-Jewish groups from similar geographic locations. What the study found was that “Despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level… The results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighbouring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.”

    A second study from 2001 Nebel et al. Found that the Haplogroup R1a chromosomes, which are very frequent in Eastern European populations at a rate of around 54%-60%, were present at an elevated rate of 12.7% in Ashkenazi Jews. The authors of the paper hypothesized that these chromosomes likely reflected a low-level of gene flow into Ashkenazi populations from the Eastern European populations that surrounded them.

    A third study from 2003 by Behar et al. examined Y-Chromosome of Ashkenazi Levites (~4% of Ashkenazi Jews) The study found that the prevalence of Haplogroup R1a1 was over 50%. What this likely means is that the population of Ashkenazi Levites is likely descended from a population with very few (maybe even 1) genetic founding father of non-Jewish origin who was able to obtain Levite status. For those like Sand the most attractive source for this founding father population would be the Khazarian Kingdom, whose ruling class is thought to have converted to Judaism in the 8th or 9th century. However, research has shown that none of the genetic and chromosomal evidence is consistent with a Khazarian origin.

    A fourth study from 2005 Nebel et al., looked at Y-chromosome polymorphic markers and demonstrated that Ashkenazi Jews are more closely related to other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than to their local neighbouring populations in Europe.

    All of this really puts a stake through the heart of Sand’s argument that the majority of modern European Jews and their descendents in Israel and North America are descended from the Turkish Khazars of the 8th to 9th centuries C.E.

    In the end it is not necessary to try and demonstrate that the modern Israeli’s are not descendants of ancient Israeli’s in order to deny the legitimacy of the Israeli settler-colonial state. The fact that the Palestinians are indigenous to the land, have lived there for thousands of years (according to the genetic evidence) were colonized first by the Turks, then by the British and finally by the Zionist Israelis, who expelled them from their land and committed what amounts to a long-term systematic genocide is enough to that. Also supporting Sand’s ideas, if anything, puts us in the dangerous place of supporting a position that is demonstrably incorrect.

    • A nation is historically constituted, not genetically constituted.

      I have to say that I’m not interested in genetic arguments for nationality, and that’s not what I find interesting about Sand’s work. I also should say that while I’ve watched this video, I haven’t seriously examined his book. I’ve only given his book a quick look. But from looking at this video, I don’t think that a genetic view of nationality is at the core of his thinking, and it certainly isn’t what is original and new about what he has to say. If I am wrong and I missed the geneticist core of his theses then he is wrong to essentialize things in that way.

      From what I’ve read, in his book he build’s mainly off of Benedict Anderson’s thinking about nationality as “imagined community”. This isn’t perfect, but it is interesting.

      As a Marxist-Leninist, I hold the view that nationality is socio-historical. As J. V. Stalin put it, “a nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of the common possession of four principal characteristics, namely: a common language, a common territory, a common economic life, and a common psychological make-up manifested in common specific features of national culture.” (The National Question and Leninism). Certainly Lenin also viewed this to be correct when he said that Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question held “the most prominent place” in Marxist theoretical literature (The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P.).

      If nationality is primarily genetic rather than socio-historical, how does one explain the assimilation of Mexican, South and Central American immigrants into the Chicano Nation in the Southwestern U.S., for example? Of course in many cases there is a genetic overlap that is connected to ties to the land, but not always. A nation is formed over time and through struggle and isn’t neccessarily indigenous. A particularly clear case is that of the development of the African American Nation in the Black Belt South, where tribal groups from all over Africa had their history and culture systematically erased, and where through the common struggle against slavery, the struggle for Reconstruction and then against Jim Crow a new nation was formed.

      Regarding the Palestinians again a socio-historical view should be the basis for their right to self-determination, not a genetic one. From a socio-historical point of view I believe it is perfectly clear that the land belongs them rather than to the Zionist colonialists from Europe.

  2. I wasn’t trying to present a “genetic” notion of nationhood, I personally am opposed to that line of argumentation, especially has it has been used to suppress the the indigenous nations of North America for well over a century now. Rather I was attempting to show what is wrong with the Khazar hypothesis.

    The central point around which the Khazar hypothesis revolves is that the current Jewish-Israeli population of Israel is not actually descended from the ancient Jewish population of of Palestine at the time of the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Central to the founding mythology on which the Jewish settler state is built is the idea that the current Jewish-Israeli population is indeed actually descended, in a direct blood sense, from the Jews of ancient Palestine. In this way the Khazar hypothesis acts as a challenge to the founding mythos of the colonial state and hence acts to delegitimize it.

    Again though, the central axis around which the rest of the Khazar hypothesis rotates is that the modern Jewish-Israelis and their brethren in Europe and North America are not descended from ancient Middle Eastern Jews, but instead from a Turkish population from the 8th and 9th centuries, C.E., the Khazars.

    It is this point that is demonstrably false.

    Again, like I said, I do not support a genetic notion of a nation, being a life-long opponent of such colonial measures as blood quantum, which seek to enforce a genetic basis for membership in the indigenous nations of this continent. However, what I do uphold is the scientific analysis of claims about history, and the simple fact is that when one examines Sand’s and others claims about the Jew-Khazar link, it is proven to be false.

    That was my dual-point from my earlier comment. First that it is unnecessary to try (fruitlessly) to undermine the modern Jew-ancient Jew link in an attempt to delegitimate the mythos on which the current Israeli settler-colonial state stands, as the fact that the Palestinians were a socio-historically constituted nation within the territory of Palestine that were colonized first by the Turks, then by the British and finally by Zionist Jews does this already, and in a much better fashion as it does not rely on claims about blood and genes. And secondly that support such claims as those of a Khazar-Jew link actually put us in a compromised position because it stands on bad science and bad history.

    Palestine must be freed and the apartheid Zionist colonial-state must be smashed and a united, secular, socialist state rebuilt on its ashes, but we do not need Khazarian ghosts from the Dark Ages to help us do it.

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