25 November 2009

The “Invention” of the Jewish People?

The New York Times reviewed a book called The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been released for the first time in English after having been a best-seller in Israel. The apparent motivation of the book’s author, Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, is revealed in this passage of the review:

Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past . . .

Since Professor Sand’s mission is to discredit Jews’ historical claims to the territory, he is keen to show that their ancestry lines do not lead back to ancient Palestine.[Note 1.]

Without even knowing (never mind evaluating) Professor Sand’s specific claims, which the Times describes as a mixture of “respected scholarship with dubious theories,” I dismiss his theory out of hand because of the blatant irrationality of its thesis. There should be no claims to property because of one’s racial makeup. Any statement of the form, “X deserves (or does not deserve) Y because he is of the race Z,” is explicitly racist and thus, irrational. This goes for people arguing both for and against Jews on these grounds.

My position is, of course, a broad philosophical one, not a narrow legal one. There may well be some technical reasons to argue for this or that racial lineage to satisfy a particular legal condition that enjoys “legitimacy” in the eyes of the United Nations. But satisfying the United Nations is not the same as exercising reason, to say the least; the two categories hardly ever overlap.

The fact is that generations have passed since the British Mandate established a homeland for Jewish people, and in that time, the settlers turned an inhospitable desert into an oasis of prosperity. They managed this extraordinary feat not because they were Jewish, but because they valued life over death, freedom over slavery, reason over mysticism, industrial civilization over nomadic primitivism, the rule of law over savage tradition. While their neighbors clung to a perpetual refugee status, holding victimhood and need as claims to property they did not earn, the settlers of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, built a relatively free and civilized nation.

Today, Israel and the other Middle Eastern nations provide a vivid example of the role of ideas in history and culture. Despite the presence of some bad ideas in Israel (religious mysticism, communism and other leftist political leanings, a suicidal embrace of multiculturalism) that serve to dilute its moral standing, the essence remains clear. Israel compared to its neighbors is the embodiment of Enlightenment values amid a hostile medieval primitivism, as stark a contrast as that of West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War.

The citizens of Israel belong there because they earned it. Anyone who is sincerely interested in solving problems in the Middle East would do well to throw off their racist and religious prejudices and turn to modern civilization: reason, individual rights, and capitalism.


1. “Book Calls Jewish People an ‘Invention’,” The New York Times, 23 Nov 2009.


Mikhail Silverwood said...

I think you're missing an important point here, which is that the book of 'The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand' is to disprove and debunk the claims of Zionist theorists. The Zionists claim, in a very metaphysical way, that Jewish ancestory is in a single line, both racially pure and religiously clean: they lived in Palestine under the Romans, they left for Europe, and now they've come back home safe and sound to Palestine. By making this argument, they are arguing that Palestine is their rightful homeland; when pro-Palestinian advocates point to the facts of Israeli terrorism and apartheid, they are smeared as illegitimate by the Zionists. Palestine is the natural homeland of the Jews, so you all should shut up and go away, etc.

But in reality, the original Jews, living under the Romans, were Arabs. Jesus would most likely have been an Arab. The entire rebellion against the Roman occupation of the Middle East was organised and administrated by Arab Jews.

Then, during the 500 years of the great Islamic feudal empires, there was the domination, invasion and conquering of the Middle East. This is when most of the Jews were forced to convert to Islam, which remain the reality right up until this day.

The European Jews came from a different trend altogether, and in fact had no whatsoever cultural, ethnic or social heritage to the Middle East (other than for the fact of which religion they followed). And so when they came to Palestine in the establishment of the state of Israel, they didn't do this as long-lost family returning back home, but instead did this as foreign invaders. They invaded a country, killed massive amounts of people, conquered over the lands, set up their own state on those lands, and set up a racially segregated country.

You confused the issue when you said Race X and Land Y, or whatever you said. The entire question about the nature of the Jewish people has nothing to do with abstract and ridiculous racial-social mechanisms, as would believe by reading your words. No, instead, this is a historical question and thus requires historical data and facts to locate the answers.

Pro-Palestinian advocates understand that one of the key factors in their mission to liberate Palestine is for Zionist doctrines to be exposed for lies, and so they aptly go about doing this. For example, scholars have done excessive research into the topic, and have been able to locate dozens of example of anti-Semitism within the Zionist thinkers... while the official claim is that enemies of Israel are the anti-Semites, in actual facts it's the Zionists who tend more likely to hold those racist ideas.

You wrote: 'Israel compared to its neighbors is the embodiment of Enlightenment values amid a hostile medieval primitivism, as stark a contrast as that of West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War.' Please name those Arab-Muslim countries that you believe are so inhumane, uncivilised and barbaric as for your comparison with Israel.

And finally, seeing as how Israel is a terrorist and apartheid state, I would hardley call it based on liberalism, reason for civilised morals. Take for example the seige on Gaza, which has already killed tens of thousands of people, with many more tens of thousands of people on the brink of starvation: Israel continue to do this, without ever even showing the least bit of remorse for the innocent people who they are slaughtering day by day; the national political scene inside of Israel is extremely racist, to the point where social pressures and so intense that no one feels confident to stand up for the Palestinians, but instead quietly go along with the official line of the government. If anyone in Israel did begin supporting Palestinian rights, they'd be labelled an 'Arab-lover,' which is comparable to the homophobic term 'faggot'.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Mikhail. I appreciate your input but cannot agree with your positions. I am by no means an expert on the Middle East, but your characterization of Israel as a “terrorist and apartheid state” simply does not square with history or logic. I have no first-hand knowledge of it--I have never been to Israel--but your description that Israelis “quietly go along with the official line of the government” belies the ubiquitous and suicidal handwringing that renders many Israelis unwilling to defend themselves. Certainly, Israel has been a mixture of good and bad; socialism and religion have played no small part in her history, and a handful of “pro-Israelis” have done violent and atrocious things. However, in essence, Israel is a relatively free country governed by secular institutions that generally respect individual rights, including property rights. Israeli citizens (male, female, white, black, Jewish, Muslim, liberal, conservative) work, play, seek happiness, and deal with each other peaceably. Unabashed lovers hold hands in the street; young women wear bikinis on the beach. Homosexuals and adulterers can jog in the park and sip coffee at a cafe without fear of being summarily hanged or stoned. Atheists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, including Arabs in the Knesset, speak freely. Your statement amplifies this point, perhaps inadvertently (the emphasis and bracketed comment are mine): “If anyone in Israel did begin supporting Palestinian rights [as if no one does!], they’d be labelled an ‘Arab-lover,’ which is comparable to the homophobic term ‘faggot.’” Maybe so. They might risk being labelled--not beaten and killed.

There is no comparison between Israel and the Middle Eastern states that at their very core subjugate their own citizens and wage jihad against the West. You asked me: “Please name those Arab-Muslim countries that you believe are so inhumane, uncivilised [sic] and barbaric as for your comparison with Israel.” My answer, just to pick a few: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya.

I may indeed have missed Shlomo Sand’s point, having only the New York Times summary to go on. (I have no intention of ever reading his book.) However, the explanation you provided, presumably as a clarification and elaboration upon his position, is precisely the point I was addressing--namely, the idea that race constitutes valid grounds for property claims. Your objection consisted merely of a presentation of others (i.e. “Zionists”) who exhibited the very same irrational premises. Perhaps it was not clear that I am condemning all such claims, not just those made by pro-Palestinians; it is just as irrational for “Zionists,” as you put it, to hold as germane the “claim, in a very metaphysical way, that Jewish ancestory [sic] is in a single line, both racially pure and religiously clean.” My point is a general one. The fact--if and where it is a fact--that the same irrationality is present in Sand’s opponents is not evidence against my point but for it.

Our differences probably all come down to your comment, “You confused the issue when you said Race X and Land Y, or whatever you said.” It is in this “whatever you said” that my general principle resides. If one dismisses the central principle of my post (in this case, the idea that race is not a valid claim to property)--and by extension, dismisses an appeal to principles in general--with such a wave of the hand, my entire article is bound to be incomprehensible. Indeed, so would be anything I have ever written.

Mikhail Silverwood said...

I'll begin with the point about race and social issues being at all relevant to land and territory. Palestinians claiming that the land is theres, Israelis claiming the land is theres, and therefore a land and racial synthesis.

And as you said: 'Perhaps it was not clear that I am condemning all [emphasis on all] such claims, not just those made by pro-Palestinians; it is just as irrational for “Zionists,” as you put it, to hold as germane the “claim...' Your argument then is that the entire notion of racial connections with land must be eliminated.

But then what do you have to say about a people being dispossed of their land? Zulus being driven off the land, so that Britain could found South Africa? The US wiping out millions of Native Americans so that it could found the Western states? Britain conducting a 100 year war against the Australian Aboriginals? The Spanish, across Latin America, killing tens of millions of indigenous Latinos, so that South American colonies could be made? All these are examples of dispossession, and they involve one people living there on the land, and then a different people committing violence and stealing the land. I for one think that these were disgusting acts of barbarity, and I wholeheartedly support every act of resistance against this genocide, occupation; for example, I idolise the Aboriginal guerillas that attacked British towns in Sydney, trying to prevent the nation of Australia get founded.

Let's return to the Palestine-Israel issue. If Palestinians are the indigenous people to the land, then they should have the right to stay on that land forever. But the Zionists, funded by the British, conducted a military intervention into the country, al Nakba, slaughtering many, dispossessing the refugees of their land, and then establishing a colonial state upon Palestinian lands. If it can be proven, and shown with evidence, that the Palestinians really are the indigenous people of those lands, then al Nakba is a genocidal invasion, of which every morally decent person should condemn.

BUT, if the Jews are the indigenous people of the lands, then 1948 is the 'national liberation' revolution of the Jewish people, in which case it should have happened. They lost their lands, and have won them back through struggle.

I would absolutely celebrate if the Maoris in the 1800s, for example, fought back and prevented the British from founding New Zealand.

As you can see, politics and morally are connected to the race-social-land issue.

Mikhail Silverwood said...

The definition of apartheid: 'a system of government in which one people is given a higher status of rights than another people, and that policy is made to actively discriminate.'

That is exactly what happened in South Africa, where the entire government was organised for the established and maintaince of racism, where whites were firstclass citizens and blacks were second, and that laws were in place to keep that going.

Israel has two different sets of apartheid: it's own Arabic citizens and the West Bankers.

a) If you are a Palestinian living in Israel as a citizen of the country, 'an Israeli Arab,' then you are treated like a secondclass citizen, because you don't have a Jewish ancestory, and there is a long list of laws in place to keep that going.

b) In the West Bank, there are settlements that are more and more imposing themselves into the land that ought to be a Palestinian state. More and more, Jewish houses are being build where once there were Palestinian farmlands; the former have every right to build their new homes there, and the latter are just pushed off the land by the IDF. There are lots of walls and checkpoints all across the West Bank, making travelling across the territory difficult: if you are a Jew, they just check your passport briefly and let you go in, but if you're a Palestinian, you must go through heaps of bureaucracy to get past. This is a racist system where a person's race is the deciding factor to how they can operate as citizens within the occupied territory of the West Bank.

That heaps of bureacracy is not merely a five or ten minute delay, but it has killed people. There have been pregnant Palestinian women, in labour, trying to get to the hospital to give birth, but thanks to the many, many checkpoints, and the endless delay caused by the IDF during security checks and inspections and questionings, that these women have bled to death and died.