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Apr 24, 2014
Frederic Raphael on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’
Posted on Feb 19, 2010
The (Jewish) historian Sir Lewis Namier observed that we study history in order to see how things don’t happen. What has happened, however, goes to prove men’s inability to arrive at a stable and just accommodation with each other. Plato’s vision of an Ideal Republic, in which stability would be institutionalized, was an ideological response to what he had seen in the recent Peloponnesian War. Athenian democracy had been crushed by the Spartan oligarchy. Plato’s conclusion was that democracy was inherently fractious and that imitation of the victors’ style was the logical answer. Plato was not inhibited from writing “The Republic” by the fact that his uncle, Critias, had already attempted to impose a Spartan-style oligarchy on Athens and had failed.
It could be argued (and has been) that Critias had acted without due subtlety. Ideologists, of whatever stripe, regularly insist that there is nothing wrong with their blueprint, whatever it is, but that men have failed to honor its provisions and spirit. Renovated Marxists make this claim today: It is not Marxism that failed, but “capitalism,” because it lacked the common humanity to concede the argument and so deprived mankind of the medicine that would be good for it, if only it would swallow the stuff. To change the image, ideologists spend their time trying to straighten what Immanuel Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity” to fit their rectilinear theories. Wishing whole races or classes out of the equation would, many still suppose, balance humanity’s books.
Namier (who died in 1953) was a Jew, and a gentleman Zionist, so to speak, who spent years analyzing in detail the personal interests and structure in political life in England at the time of the accession of King George III. As if, incidentally, this work deconstructed the mythology of the English ruling class and its allegedly patriotic solidarity. Namier’s purpose, in “unpacking” the greeds and vanities of ancient Whigs and Tories, was not overtly polemical or tendentious. Like so many academics, he found an unexcavated field and began to dig. In doing so, he uncovered the various motives of antique gentlemen. His own, he might have said, were the pursuit of truth and the vindication of the specific instance against the pious generalization.
Namier’s Jewishness was manifest in his support for Zionism, but when asked why he did not write about the Jews and their past, he retorted that the Jews did not have a history, but only a “martyrology”: They were the victims of what happened to them during most of the last 2,000 years and thus an unrewarding, depressing topic. One of the strongest claims which Zionism has on Jews today is that, thanks almost entirely to the creation of the state of Israel, Jewish pride has been restored and “the Jews” have a positive history, complete, it seems, with the ingredients which made English history so attractive to Namier: triumph against overwhelming odds, military victories, an energetic culture and economic expansion.
If Israel were a neat island, rather than a sliver of land surrounded on three sides by hostile neighbors and containing a substantial minority of second-class citizens, its future might be secure. As things are, another of Namier’s titles, “Vanished Supremacies,” serves as a warning that how things are does not promise how things will be. It is, to some degree at least, in response to the fear that Israel has contrived its own unreliable isolation and may one day lose the protection of the West, on which it has chosen to rely, that Shlomo Sand, an Israeli historian, has written this book.
The fundamental fallacy on which the Zionist myth depends is, he argues, that the “Jewish people” constitute a body of men (and women) whose origins can, and must, be traced back, as directly as may be, to the population of ancient Israel and Judea. “To promote a homogeneous collective in modern times [required] … a connection in time and space between the fathers and the ‘forefathers’ of all members of the present community. The agents of memory worked hard to invent it . … From this surgically improved past emerged the proud and handsome portrait of the nation.” It can be guessed from the straight-faced sarcasm of his introduction that Sand’s book will, in somewhat Namieresque style, investigate in detail the motives, follies and ambitions of historians, beginning with Heinrich Graetz, in the mid-19th century, who interpreted or refashioned what had happened to “the Jews” in order to validate a preconceived notion of how “the Jewish problem” should, or might, be resolved.
Sand’s text has excited virulent denunciation in some quarters. My lack of expertise in its original Hebrew and in the detailed context of many of Sand’s quotations inhibits me from making any reliable judgment. I can say only that common sense supports much of his narrative and that its content, where I am qualified to assess it, is admirably and candidly presented. It may be that this book comes too late to help men arrive at a sane and rational compromise in the Middle East. Some situations are beyond repair, however much we wish it otherwise. Ideology and religion provide the basic framework of human thought and also supply the often antique racks on which we are all stretched. As Genet observed, “Nous ne sortirons jamais de ce bordel”—i.e., there is, to put it chastely, no way out of this mess.
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