Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Simon Schama on Shlomo Sand

The Invention of the Jewish People

Excellent review by Simon Schama of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which has now been translated into English.


Noah K said...

I like it. A couple of comments, though. Schama still wants to posit a fons et origo for the Jewish people, a moment where the nation comes into being. He just wants to push it back in time, to the monarchic period and the canonization of Torah and so on, and he wants to place it in the historical Judea. That is his answer to Sand wanting to lay this at Graetz's doorstep in the nineteenth century, or to lay it on the Khazars -- whom by the way, I would have loved to hear more about as a child. But I didn't grow up in Golder's Green -- though I have visited it!

Schama's replacement story is tricky. Maybe it's the bias of my professional training, but Judaism and Jewish peoplehood looks so radically different pre- and post-Second Temple, that I would rather start the story in the wake of the Roman destruction. I think you can make a stronger case for putting a Sandian fons et origo there.

And as for the effects of Roman intervention in the region on the circulation of Jews, just to quibble, I wouldn't say that the Jews in Rome in the years following 70 CE were necessarily all there of their own free will. Josephus? But a lot of these people may have been freed captives/slaves captured all the way back in Pompey's time at the end of the Hasmonean period.

Amos said...

I liked the characterization of Sand as "self-dramatizing."

You're right that Schama, following Israel Finkelstein, finds a Jewish nation-state in 9th BCE Judea, but I'm not sure he sees this as the origins of a continuous Jewish identity - just one origin. See for example this paragraph:

"All this is true and has been acknowledged. But Sand appears not to notice that it undercuts his argument about the non-connection of Jews with the land of Palestine rather than supporting it. Put together, the possibility of leading a Jewish religious life outside Palestine, with the continued endurance of Jews in the country itself and you have the makings of that group yearning – the Israel-fixation, which Sand dismisses as imaginary. What the Romans did to the defeated Jews was dispossession, the severity of which was enough to account for the homeland-longing by both the population still there and those abroad. That yearning first appears, not in Zionist history, but in the writings of medieval Jewish teachers, and never goes away."

If we take the yearning for the land of Israel as one of the components of national identity, then this is a good moment in history for a marker - basically post-70 CE.

Noah S. said...

Since when is Schama the expert on Jewish history? (I love the guy, but this is not his specialty, Hebrew school training aside.) Sand's response:

Amos said...

I'll go with Schama any day. Since when is Sand an expert on Jewish history? I read his "response" - this guy is nothing but a cheap polemicist. Look at his starting line about Zionist being masters at creating strawmen. Schama got him good; Sand is a producer of ideology and nothing else. I can go a whole lifetime without needing to consult Sand's book to learn something about Jewish history.

Noah S. said...

So we have an expert siding with one non-expert over another non-expert. Let's get a real critique of Sand! Amos, you're twisting his words when you cite him calling Zionists master strawman-makers. He writes "some Zionist historians" caricature arguments to prove their point. Not a valid truth claim? Whether this applies to Schama, who is no Zionist historian, is quite another question.

Anyway, the difference between a Jewish "people" and Jewish "ethnicity" (Volk, in the German context) is an interesting question and one worth exploring, not dismissing.

Amos said...

For those who haven't read Sand's response, this is the passage I was talking about:

"One of the most effective techniques adopted to ridicule or marginalize one’s ideological opponents is to create a caricatured and extreme version of their thesis. Some Zionist historians have become past masters with such methods, and Simon Schama seems to want to emulate them in his review of my book in the FT of 13 November."

As I said before, I think it is a cheap polemical trick to claim that creating strawmen is somehow the province of "Zionist historians." It's part of the ongoing attempts to delegitimize anything "Zionist" in some parts of academia. My reading of the passage above was that Sand tried to "smear" (in his view" Schama by associating him with "Zionist historiography." I would hazard a guess that there are no more strawman-makers among Zionist historians than among others. BTW, it's peculiar to use this label - as if "Zionist" were the primary identification of these scholars - who are they anyway? We all know that for Sand, calling someone Zionist is an effective ideological weapon to render their words less credible.

I am a Zionist historian, but the modifier "Zionist" in that statement is as relevant to my work as the modifier "meat-eating" would be.

I thought Schama made some excellent points in his review. The critique of Sand as "self-dramatizing" is totally legitimate because this guy is constantly claiming to uncover some concealed truth. He is the one who excels at creating strawmen.

Anonymous said...

An incredible and predictable exchange.

If you are prepared to accept Schama's Euro-centric 'origin' then you might speak of the 'Jewish People' meaning exactly the White European Jews who governed Israel for its 62 years of its existence.

But to try to build the 'Jewish People' from the Ethiopian Falasha and the Central Asian Khazars, with an overwhelming sprinkle of Middle Eastern and North African contingent is such a "stretch" to
quote Dr. Schama's own word in his confused response.

The invention of the 'Jewish People' for many came about to address the need of Zionism for a pedigree, a heritage that would justify its claims to the 'land of Israel.' Once there, the burden of the Sephardim became intolerable, and would be increasingly so, as they become acquire, in a couple of years the plural majority in Isreal... and one would guess, they will have the backing of the 25% Arab population if the White Jews did not arrange for their transfer in time!

Amos said...

Anonymous, your comment, especially in the last paragraph, seems to me hopelessly confused.

Most historians, Zionists or not, believe that the Jewish people "originated" in the land of Israel. Most people who identify as Zionists believe that all Jews (Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahim, Ethiopian, Indian, etc.) are descended from the Jewish population of the land of Israel in antiquity. I do not understand how the Sephardim pose any kind of "burden" (as you put it) here.

Sand endorses an old theory that the majority of Ashkenazi Jews are actually the descendants of Khazars who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages. He wants to use this theory to argue that most Jews cannot claim descent from people who once lived in the land of Israel. Ergo, he believes, Jews have no "historic right" to this land.

Your bizarre transposition of American racist terminology ("White Jews") onto this debate simply does not work. Eastern European Zionists never conceived of the Jewish people as "Ashkenazi" ("white," in your confused terms).

I fail to see how Schama's review is "Eurocentric," but your gobbledygook of accusations makes for amusing reading.