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Frederic Raphael on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’
Posted on Feb 19, 2010
As a consequence of this a posteriori judgment, the Palestinians have a seemingly inexorable reason to regard themselves as Israel’s Jews. The comedy, in a very cruel sense, is that Sand argues, with conviction, that the Palestinians are at least as likely to be the descendants of the “original” Judeans as the Jews who have come from, for instance, the ex-Soviet Union, of whom more than a few are almost certainly without any ancestral link with the Holy Land, since they are descended from, in particular, the Khazars whose king converted voluntarily to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. The Khazars, however, are not an admitted topic in Israeli historiography. Facts are not the friends of ideologues. In logic, Wittgenstein observed, “there are no surprises”; in life, however, there always are. One of my favorite little-known books is Raymond Boudon’s “La place du desordre” (1984), in which he argues, with solemn brilliance, for the systematic lack of reliable system in all theories of social change, i.e. in all ideological prescriptions.
A 1992 law, passed by the Knesset, decreed that any party which denied the existence (propriety?) of Israel as a Jewish state was barred from elections. Sand concludes that this, in effect, precludes the creation of an Israeli democracy in the full sense: There is no freedom of speech, no right to heterodoxy. Israel is, he says, no better than an “ethnic democracy,” since its non-Jewish inhabitants are denied full rights. Behind the Zionists’ judicial reasoning lies the willful assumption that “the Jews” are all descended from a single exiled people, for centuries dispersed and despised, whose return to their ancient land is an entitlement guaranteed by God and the only means by which they can recover their honor and their dignity.
Sand begins with an account of his own tangled roots and how, by chance, he emerged as an Israeli. The role of contingency in his origins is meant to alert us to the inescapable element of chance that makes us, whoever we may be, who we are. The notion of some innate, unalterable and unalloyed belonging to the same race of which the majority left Palestine, if it did, 2,000 years ago runs counter to all human probability and is, literally, without precedent. There are no “pure” races, nor does the notion of “race” have much scientific utility.
Science, in the wide sense, was one of the ways in which Jews, by devotion to impersonal objectivity, sought to make their own subjectivity irrelevant to their professional lives. This did not, of course, prevent the Nazis from speaking of “Jewish science.” According to Sand, some Israeli scientists’ attempts to isolate a “Jewish gene” appear, alas, to be a sad—because ideologically driven and almost certainly fanciful—deviation from that passion for “disinterested speculation” on which D.H. Lawrence deigned to congratulate “the Jews.”
The obsession with “purity of blood” (and the presumption that it existed in nature) began, in Western Europe at least, in post-reconquista Spain. The expulsion of the Jews and the “Moors” was supposed to have purged Iberia of inferior inhabitants and to have left an untainted Iberian race. The Inquisition was the symptom of the uneasy vanity of Christian Spain. Iberia remained home not only to the converted Jews but also to countless hybrids of various kinds, legitimate or not, and its blood irredeemably enriched, or tainted, by alien transfusions. Who any longer dares to argue that for a Spaniard, or anyone else, to claim to possess “pura sangre” is anything but a fatuous delusion? Blood, one might say, is inherently tolerant: Mongrels are us. Sand argues for the Spanish Jews themselves to be, in some considerable percentage, descended from Berber proselytes who crossed from North Africa with the Moroccan Arabs who made El-Andalus the well-watered place it was until the Christians purged it.
Yet for doctrinaire Zionism to sustain its ideological myth, it remains necessary, if never plausible, for its advocates to argue that all the Jews of the world have a common claim on, and source in, the territory of ancient Palestine and even that their ultimate allegiance is therefore to the state which now occupies most of it. In an inverted syllogism, the consequence is the generator of its alleged cause.
The Right of Return implies, in some minds, the obligation to do so. For this logic to hold, it has to be argued that the whole of the Diaspora can trace its lineage, pretty well directly, back to the population which is said to have been expelled, and certainly dispersed, after the double disasters of 70 C.E., when Jerusalem fell to the besieging Romans, under Titus, and that of some 60 years later, when Bar-Kokhba’s rebellion was savagely repressed by Hadrian. One of Sand’s claims is that, despite many massacres and the ban on circumcised men entering the renamed Jerusalem (it became Aelia Capitolina), there was no mass deportation of Jews from Palestine.
Among the unwanted truths of the past is that, at least by the time of Hadrian’s vindictive war against the rebellious Judeans, Palestine was by no means the home of most Jews. Since 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was said to be Jewish in the first century C.E., many of them were surely proselytes and most of them, including converted slaves, lived outside Judea. There is a strand of Jewish thought (seconded by the great Sephardic poet Yehuda Halevi) which argues for the superiority of “biological Jews,” but this is unworthy of intelligent endorsement. Moses Maimonides was the first to argue against such divine nonsense, but he was vilified for his humane philosophy. A great many Jews had, of course, been reluctant to return even from Babylon, where, as Jeremiah himself had recommended, they had prospered and multiplied. Baghdad remained a great center of Jewish life and scholarly wisdom for many centuries. Only in 1941 did the British garrison stand aside while insurgent Arabs massacred most of the Jews still living there.
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