Friday, August 06, 2010

Shlomo Sand on Jewish Identity

Reading Shlomo Sand's  The Invention of the Jewish People,  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that it created such a rumpus when it was first publish (in Hebrew) in 2008: tell anybody that their cherished national narrative is a fiction and you are bound to get some blowback.

But from another perspective, it is remarkable just how non-radical this book is.  In two senses: one, there is an entire genre of  "invented nationalism narratives," drawing on the likes of Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson. (both cited by Sand; I might have added Eric Hobsbawm).

Two (and perhaps more remarkable), there is scarcely a sentence in Sand that isn't a repeat of something said somewhere by somebody else--often a well-recognized, even a prestigious,  Israeli. Partly this  is a matter of necessity: Sand's academic specialty is elsewhere, and he doesn't claim to have done any independent archival research.  But I think it may also be rhetorical: what Sand does is to take insights from everywhere and assemble them into battalion strength, as if to overpower the defenses by sheer force of numbers and organization.

 For me, perhaps the most interesting part was a longish second chapter called "Mythistory," in which he lays out the articulation of Jewish nationalist ideas in 19th-Century Germany, in conversation with emergent notions of German nationalism.  An unexpected hero of the piece: Theodore Mommsen, who felt that Germany could function quite well, thank you, as a multi-ethnic nation-state: he was basing his view on his work on the history of multi-ethnic Rome.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book is his work with the new evidence from DNA.  DNA research certainly has a great future here (and a great present: I was in Jerusalem a while back, and every bookstore seemed to be featuring something or other on Jewish DNA).   The trouble is, it is too new, and too fast-moving.  For example, Sand makes much of the theory that Eastern European Jews weren't "Jews" at all, but descendants of the mysterious Khazars.  It is not by any means an eccentric view, as Sand is at pains to show (I admit to having been intrigued by it myself, without ever feeling that I knew what I was talking about).  At any rate, I take it for the moment at least, DNA research is tending to discredit the Khazar few of things.  But maybe he just needs to wait: the whole field is moving fast enough that  yesterday's dogma is always becoming tomorrow's canard.

Fn.:  The reader is earnestly encouraged not to overlook the personal stories in the introduction, including those of Sand's own father and father-in-law, offering at least a hint of just why this guy is so ornery.

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