The Invention of the Jewish Nation,
Verso, hb, £20.00
In the later years of the 19th century a pseudo-science of race flourished in many parts of Europe. It upheld the idea of the nation as an ethnic identity, usually with certain special characteristics. By the end of the 20th century, nations were more commonly seen as ‘imagined communities’, the product of such developments as printing and the spread of capitalism which led to the replacement of vernaculars by mass languages and the disappearance of trade barriers. Nations, it has been claimed by such writers as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, were able to develop in societies that were no longer agrarian or traditional and which possessed a unified culture.
Inevitably this new understanding of the nation challenged many cherished myths. Supposedly age-old traditions like the wearing of the kilt have been exposed as relatively recent inventions. But at the popular level the myths still hold sway. Looking across the border at their English neighbours, many Scots continue to see themselves as a distinctive nation with Celtic roots rather than as an imagined community. This is certainly true of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. Settlers on the West Bank believe they have a God-given right to the land from which their ancestors were expelled by the Romans and to which Jews can now return and claim as their own.
Schlomo Sand’s book has been a best-seller in Israel and around the world because it challenges widely held myths about the state of Israel. Although it says nothing really new, it has proved to be controversial because it has brought out into the open views held by a range of scholars.
Some of the opinions Sands accepts as received wisdom are open to dispute. He follows a fashionable view among biblical scholars who see the Hebrew scriptures as being written in the post-exilic period. They are dubbed ‘mythistory’ and regarded as offering little valuable evidence about the early history of the Jewish people. There are reputable scholars like James Barr who have questioned this conclusion.
Writing about later Jewish history, Sands makes a stronger case. He argues that by and large the Romans did not expel people from a territory, preferring to leave them in place so that they could pay their taxes even if they had rebelled. Most of the Palestinians living in Israel today are therefore probably descended from the original inhabitants. Much as Orthodox Jews may dislike the thought, they converted to Islam because there were financial incentives to do so and because they probably preferred the Muslim rule to rule by the Byzantines.
As far as the Jewish populations outside Israel are concerned, many of these are made up of the descendants of converts. The general assumption that Judaism has never been a missionary religion is false. As Sand puts it, every monotheistic faith has a missionary potential. Although there are biblical texts from the Persian period urging the Jews to remain separate and exclusive, there are other works urging an evangelistic outreach. A symbiosis between Judaism and Hellenism turned the former into what Sand terms a ‘dynamic, propagative religion’ that succeed in making converts for 300 years or so until it was halted by the success of Christianity.
Christian emperors forbade the circumcision of males who were not born Jews but beyond the empire’s reach Judaism continued to expand. Examination of linguistic evidence suggests that Sephardic Jews in Spain were of very mixed origins with many coming from North Africa during the Muslim conquest and showing signs of Berber roots.
Sand devotes a good deal of attention to the Khagan Jews from the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian where an independent kingdom existed in the 10th century using a non-Semitic language with Hebrew characters. Many of the Khagans became Jews and bore Jewish names and although details are sketchy the kingdom may have been Jewish for 400 years. When the kingdom collapsed in the 13th century, Khagan Jews moved into Eastern Europe – a development Sands accuses Zionist historians of passing over in silence.
Against Sands it has been argued that DNA evidence shows Jewish communities everywhere more related to each other than to the non-Jewish groups among whom they live. If Sands is right and Jews need to unpick their ethnic myth, this makes religion even more important as a mark of Jewish identity.
It is hard to see how this book undermines Israel’s right to exist. On the one hand it challenges the link between Israeli citizenship and the Jewish faith by claiming the Palestinians are descended from the original Jewish inhabitants but on the other hand strengthens the link by attempting to remove the ethnic component in Jewish identity.
Symphony of Life : A new spiritual anthology compiled
By Anna Jeffery
Diadem Books, £8.99, pb
There is something both enriching and, at the same time, frustrating about so many anthologies: abundantly enriching, because of the many insights, clips and quotes on offer from such a wide variety of writers – both prose and poetry – many of which any one person is unlikely to have read on such a wide front in one lifetime. But also frustrating, because in the words of this particular author, any one anthology necessarily ‘includes pieces that other anthologies leave out, while leaving out much that other anthologies leave in’!
Yet the distinctive attribute of this particular anthology is the way it is structured and presented – namely in the form of a symphony – the ‘Symphony of Life’. “After all,” as Anna Jeffery writes, “life surely is a symphony with ups and downs – dark phrases and lighter ones with glorious uplands of magical harmonies that lift the spirit to realms of the ethereal” and all “under the baton of the principal conductor – God himself.”
But with this caveat. “In the same way that a conductor cannot force members of the orchestra to follow his baton, so God cannot force us to follow him. But those who do – find the resultant harmony in their lives to be truly inspirational – more so than the discord heard by those who reject a valid belief system.”
And so it is that we are led from an opening ‘Prelude’ (those early beginnings with a simple awareness of God). Then the First Movement: (‘the growing and steady influence of God’ leading us on.) The Second or Slow Movement traces through poetry and prose quotations those times or a particular period on the spiritual journey ‘when God seems silent’ and elusive. The Third Movement (‘tempestoso’) is a stormy and fast passage ‘when life is tough and problematic’, concluding with the finale or Fourth Movement representing ‘journey’s end — ‘safe into the harbour,’ at last.
As Bishop John Dennis suggests in the ‘Coda’ or conclusion of the book, although anthologies can be dipped into with profit and enjoyment, nevertheless, just as a symphony is better listened to in its entirety, so Anna Jeffery’s ‘Symphony of Life’ deserves ‘to be read, heard and absorbed from cover to cover.’ To that, I for one would heartily concur!