The Invention of the Jewish People (Anglais) Broché – 14 juin 2010
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“Perhaps books combining passion and erudition don’t change political situations, but if they did, this one would count as a landmark.”—Eric Hobsbawm, Observer
“[Sand’s] quiet earthquake of a book is shaking historical faith in the link between Judaism and Israel.”—Rafael Behr, Observer
“Anyone interested in understanding the contemporary Middle East should read this book.”—Tony Judt
“Extravagantly denounced and praised.”—New York Times
“No discussion of the region any longer seems complete without acknowledgement of this book.”—Independent on Sunday, Best History Books of 2009
“A radical dismantling of a national myth.”—Guardian
“Almost too baseless to debunk.”—Jewish Journal
Présentation de l'éditeur
In this iconoclastic work, which spent nineteen weeks on the Israeli bestseller list and won the coveted Aujourd’hui Award in France, Sand provides the intellectual foundations for a new vision of Israel’s future.
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But the main subject of the book is the denial that there is such a thing as the Jewish People, descended from the inhabitants of Biblical Palestine from which they have been scattered, and that they are a nation which has now returned to the land of its ancestors. This undermines one of the principal arguments with which the State of Israel legitimizes itself. (There are, of course, other arguments which Sand does not discuss in any depth.)
He says that the Jews began to see themselves as an ethnic people, rather than as a religious community, in the 19th century. (In a 40 page long and massively theoretical opening chapter, Sand explains why for him the word `people' implies ethnicity - hence the provocative title of his book. Others might well say that what has for centuries kept the Jewish `people' together was not their ethnicity but their religion, and even secular Jews belong to that people because their ancestors were religious Jews.) He traces the claim of the Jews to be a nation from the 1880s - when scholars like Heinrich Graetz described the work of Julius Wellhausen, the father of modern Biblical Criticism, as anti-Jewish - to those who present the Biblical account as the foundation charter of the State of Israel, where it is the staple of the state educational system.
During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, aided by the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), "hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions" of gentiles around the South-Eastern Mediterranean, from Rome to Armenia, converted to Judaism. A substantial proportion today's Jews cannot be linked genetically to the Jewish Homeland at all. Roman writers expressed unease at the growing number of converts. Around 400 CE the king of Himyar, in Yemen, converted to Judaism and so did many of their Arabic subjects in his and the following reigns during the next century. Most of the strong Yemenite community of Jews would be descended from these converts. There was a strong Jewish presence among the Berbers of North Africa, who took such a part in the later Arabic conquest of Spain. Sand thinks that many of these Berber Jews were also converts, though his formulations here are more tentative than elsewhere, and to support this idea he produces few hard facts beyond a complaint by the Christian Tertullian (2nd c.) against proselytes in North Africa and one quotation from the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (14th c.). The best known conversion is that of the Khazar kingdom (between the Volga and the Dnieper) in the 8th century CE. In his famous book Arthur Koestler called the Khazars `the Thirteenth Tribe', and Sand espouses the notion that after the Khazar kingdom was destroyed in the 11th century, many of its people fled westwards to form a substantial proportion of the Jews in the Ukraine, in Poland and in Hungary.
Sand shows the resistance of many Israeli historians to the idea that so many Jews might not be descendants of the Jews of Israel and Judah: they either deny it or ignore it in their researches and their text books.
He also supports the notion, advanced in 1918 even by the young Zionists Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi, that the majority Muslim fellahin in Palestine were the descendants of Jewish peasants who had converted to Islam, perhaps to escape the jizyah (poll tax) which was levied on all non-Muslims after the Arab conquest. This idea was swiftly abandoned in the face of Arab nationalism, to be replaced by the notion that the Arab invaders had expelled the Jews (for which there is no evidence) and therefore had no right to the land which the Jews who had been forced into exile were now reclaiming.
The last chapter falls into two parts. The first part discusses the debate about whether there is any genetic evidence for the theory that most Jews are descended from the original Jews of Palestine. Students of genetics are apparently divided about this, and while Sand gives the supporters of the theory a good run for its money, it is clear that he sides with their opponents, and sees a conscious or unconscious agenda in those Israeli studies which have been looking for a widespread common ancestry. Sand quotes many Zionist sources which claimed (as the Nazis did) that the Jews were indeed a race. That EXPRESSION has now lost all respectability, but the debate is still carried on, though now in terms of genetics rather than of `blood'.
Sand never leaves any doubt about the political conclusions he draws from all this. They are spelt out most explicitly in the second, hard-hitting, part of the last chapter, which dismisses the definition of the State of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state. It not only implies but in many ways acts in such a way that its non-Jewish people, though technically Israeli citizens, cannot be part of an Israeli nation, in the way in which, for example, Scots and Welshmen are part of the British (not English) nation. With little hope that it can happen, Sand calls for the Jews of Israel to transform their ideology into one that would "grant the Palestino-Israelis not only complete equality but also a genuine and firm autonomy" - not only in the interests of justice, but also to save the state from ultimate disaster.
With its political implications, it is no surprise that this book has attracted both hatred and enthusiasm.
"The ideal project for solving the century-long conflict...would be the creation of a democratic binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River." (p. 311)
Sand, however, is deeply pessimistic concerning the likelihood of any solution being reached at all. Implicitly he takes the position that the possibility of peace rests not so much on the Palestinians, or on the Arabs in general, as on the Israeli Jews themselves. They must somehow come to understand that the Israeli policy of apartheid (Sand's term, p. 309), and the false notion that Israel can be a "Jewish state" and yet a democracy at the same time, doom the chances of peace. But is it possible that the Israelis will ever come to believe that they must share the land on an equal basis with the Palestinian non-Jews?
Sand identifies two major factors - two associated myths -- which stand in the way. These have served the Zionist cause well but they are historically false: the myth of the Jewish "people" and the myth of the "exile" of this people from the land of Israel. If essentially there is no Jewish people -- rather only a Jewish religion; and if the Jewish diaspora was driven not by forced exile -- rather by the impulse to proselytize, then the Zionist-sponsored "return" of the Jewish "people" to the land of Israel in the mid twentieth century has lost its entire theoretical framework.
Sand is a scholar and in style the book is a scholarly work. The general reader may be put off at first. I suggest the book may be more approachable if you begin by reading Chapter 2, "Mythhistory: In the Beginning God Created the People". The first chapter "Making Nations" is a bit difficult to get through, and might be dispensed with. The Introduction contains four personal histories whose relevance is at first obscure. I suggest you read the Introduction after you finish the rest of the book, not before. For only then is the point of these personal stories, which are quite moving, readily understood.
According to Sand Zionism's traditional discrimination against non-Jews ("gentiles") has rested upon and required the false notion that Jews constitute a distinct biologically-grounded race. This idea originated and first thrived amidst the nineteenth century obsession with "nations". Political Zionism grew up in the atmosphere of that obsession. But the history of Judaism undercuts it. In three cases in particular Sand demonstrates that gentile populations found the religion attractive enough to adopt it en masse. Thus there is no racial or biological distinction between Jews and gentiles. These are the case of the Himyarites in what is now Yemen, the Berbers in northwest Africa and the Khazars who lived in what is now southern Russia. Zionist historians, for whom Sand has special scorn, have downplayed or ignored the facts surrounding this history.
If proselytizing Jews have spread Judaism to gentile populations, it could still be true that the movement of Jews into gentile lands in the first place was due to their having been expelled long ago from the land of Israel. According to traditional Jewish thinking, this expulsion happened after the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 70AD - or, perhaps it was after 135AD when the Bar Kochba revolt was put down by the Romans. Or again, perhaps the forced exile of the Jews occurred in the 7th century after the Muslims took ownership of Palestine. In fact the historical record contains no evidence of any forced exile of Jews from Palestine - ever -- according to Sand. He believes that a significant portion of the Arab population in Palestine is probably descended from early Jewish inhabitants of that land - who were never expelled but who were eventually converted to Christianity or to Islam in later centuries. Sand points out that some of the early Zionists, including Ben-Gurion himself, believed the same thing (until it eventually became inconvenient for them to do so.)
Unsurprisingly "The Invention of the Jewish People" has aroused controversy well before its publication in English translation. That will only increase now. The fact that it is the work of an Israeli academic will make it so much harder for Zionists in America to ridicule or ignore it.
(The title of this review comes from p. 13 of the book.)
Jewish is on the one hand a term defining a religion, on the other a race, but more than both it has become a self defined term. If I say I am Jewish you will find it very difficult to disprove my assertion (I do not need to be circumcised, I do not need to go to synagogue and although you may believe my Mother will need to be Jewish - frankly I don't need to agree with you). If I tell my Children they are Jewish they will probably believe me. If my children tell their children they are Jewish they will almost certainly think they are Jewish and identify with every other person who says they are Jewish, regardless of DNA or religion. Anyone who believes that integration of "outsiders" as Jews over the many centuries of the diaspora has not made the Jews at the very least a hybrid group frankly needs to believe in a supernatural force. I would never wish to argue with someones faith - but a faith in a God who requires racial purity is just a little worrying.
It is also a little worrying that so many obviously intelligent and reasonable people have taken such vehement offence when reading "The invention of the Jewish People". Perhaps it is the title? Perhaps it is a perceived threat to the state of Israel? I find the most frightening arguments those based on the DNA analysis. I am a molecular biologist, I have read with great interest the papers on mapping human population spread using DNA profiles. I read with some anxiety the description of these generally excellent works as 'phylogenetic'. I read with terror the way these papers are used to support 'phylogenetic' hypotheses. These papers describe links between people, they may explain common susceptibility to disease. They do not describe formation of new 'species' separate from other 'species' of humans. They can only be properly used to join people not to exclude them.
The detractors of Shlomo Sand seem to want to say that a separate species has evolved that is Jewish. This is just simply wrong. The people living in Israel may have a right to the land because of conquest; because they are now a majority; or simply because they have got bigger and better weapons (there is a long history of people establishing nations on this basis). There is also a theological argument to say they have a right to the land because they believe themselves to be Jewish and God gave the land to the Jews (not an argument I find particularly convincing). They can provide a theological argument, they cannot provide a genetic argument. No one has a genetic right to any particular piece of real estate (Jewish or Palestinian).
"The Invention of the Jewish People" is one of the most original, intriguing and thought provoking book I have read this year. Professor Sand begins by laying out the difficulties in "objectively" determining identity through the stories of 4 different people he has interacted with in Israel and abroad, and then proceeds to discuss how the concept of national identity as a core tenet of European nationalism evolved, with important differences in how it did so in Eastern versus Western Europe. He discusses the importance of promulgating and emplying founding myths in creating cohesive nations out of the hitherto mostly indifferent and politically nonincluded masses, and then proceeds to examine those of the Jewish People, which, despite what one might think, was not always regarded as such, either by itself or others throughout the ages (similar to the French People, German Volk, or Russian People). He starts by examining the biblical history of the Exodus from Egypt, the traces of which, despite its described magnitude, have never been found by archeologists, proceeds to explore the exile from Judaea after the destruction of the temple (which seems to have been a Christian theological concept and not one embraced by Jewish or non-Jewish historians of the first half millenium). He continues to discuss the mass conversions to Judaism in Arabia, North Africa, and Khazaria, and ends by analyzing identity politics in Israel and their significance to Israel's future.
While there has been (and is sure to be more) controversy about some of Professor Sand's conclusions, it cannot be denied that this is a brilliant piece of scholarship, and it should be read by anyone, Israeli and non-Israeli, Jewish or not, who is interested in getting a broader perspective on how identity is defined, and how mutable these definitions can be over time.
I am saddened by the bald attemps of some reviewers, both on Wikipedia and on Amazon, to discredit Mr. Sand by ad-hominem attacks, calling him a Jewish anti-semite, and worse. Some reviewers cited some recent genetic studies to refute Sand's statements, and after reading these studies myself, I was shocked to see the length's to which some of Sand's detractors would go in misrepresenting the sources they quoted.
For example, a closer reading of the 2010 Ostrer study shows that it actually opens the door for more questioning of some established notions of Jewish origins, of the same sort that Sand did in his book. The paper actually states that " ... besides Southern European groups, the closest genetic neighbors to most Jewish populations are the Palestinians, Bedouins, and Druze." The paper also states that among the populations in this study, there was a " ... high degree of European admixture (30-60%) amongst Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Italian, and Syrian Jews ...." These genetics results were imputed by the study to "... individuals who converted to Judaism during Hellenistic and Hasmonean times, when proselytism was a common Jewish practice."
In addition, some other studies have shown that paternal gene pools of Jewish communities and the Middle East (including Lebanese and Palestinians) descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, with a high frequency of Y-DAN haplogroup J. Ritte et. al. (1993) "... found that genetic distances among Jewish communities and Israeli Arabs were comparable to those found among five globally dispersed populations, with Ethiopian Jews more as an outgroup than Israeli Arabs. "
Having lived in the metro New York City area for many years, I have grown to love the intellectual contributions of my Jewish fellow citizens, in government, academica, and business. Mr. Sand's book is an extremely fine addition to those traditions.