'The invention of the Jewish People' by Shlomo Sand


Hello Hivers and Book Clubbers,

Back with another book review. And this time, unlike the last couple of reviews, it's of an actual physical book, so I don't have to look up a relevant image on the Internet. The book is titled 'The invention of the Jewisn people' by Shlomo Sand. Originally written in Hebrew, it got its first English translation in 2009. The copy that I bought is from 2020.
The story itself consists of about 320 pages, and the tempo of it is quite decent. Though Sand is a historian, the style isn't too academic, which is a good choice when the book is aimed at a mostly non-academic audience.

A new wave of relevance

I bought this book about a year ago. Since then, Israel has once again become a focus in the news due to the flare-up of war with the Palestinians and its invasion of the Gaza Strip last October.
Israel-Palestine has been a hotly debated and fought issue around the world, also in the West. The view on both sides is radically different; some see the Jews as an underdog nation, beset by enemies on all sides and always fighting for survival. Some see an arrogant colonizing power, always looking for territorial expansion at the expense of their Muslim neighbors.
Some see the Palestinians as the underdog party, who is fighting against the Jews, who are merely invaders since the 1940s. Some see the Palestinians as, in essence, a terrorist nation.

Zionism, nationalism, race and people

This book could be seen as adding fuel to the raging fire. The title sure jumps out: 'the invention of the Jewish people'. Are peoples simply invented? It's where I personally disagree with the author, who goes into this question in the first couple of chapters of the book. Sand does argue that peoples are invented, leaning heavily on Anderson's often cited work 'Imagined Communities'.

The book tends to put the cart before the horse; in the following chapters Sand tries, and fails, to trace the lineage of modern Jews towards the times of the Jews of the Bible. Jews have a very varied genetic heritage, as seen in the widely differing groups of today: Ashkenazi Jews, hailing from central and eastern Europe, are quite different from Sephardi Jews from Spain and North Africa, who are both radically different from a group like the Falasha (i.e. Ethiopian Jews).

So the Jews can barely be considered a single ethnic group, and I agree with this conclusion. But Sand then generalises this conclusion towards all peoples across the world. And I think this is far too easy a conclusion to make. Yes, peoples can be 'made' or 'imagined' due to language, culture and geography, but there is a common root, which often shows in modern genetic research. Sand's handling of the genetic/scientific part of the issue is not that strong, in my view.

So what moulds this ethnically heterogenous group together as a modern people; the short answer would be Zionism and the modern state of Israel it occupies today. Jewish nationalism is, as all nationalisms are, unique. It leans heavily on religious tradition and practices, though it is in its essence secular.

This is something to keep in mind in the world of today: to be a Jew, you don't have to be religious. There is such a thing as an atheist Jew. Compare this with the impossibility of an atheist Christian or an atheist Muslim, and you quickly find that Jewishness is more than simply the religion we encounter in both the Torah and the Talmud.

Zionism leans heavily on the idea of the Jews as an insular people, who have kept their bloodline pure by not mingling with the people whose countries they live in and traverse. In more modern times, this is quite accurate: the idea of the Ghetto and the Shtetl have always meant segregation. This was preferred from both sides; most Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and also the Jews themselves preferred it this way.

However, as mentioned before, Sand cannot trace the lineage of modern Jews back towards Biblical times; there are points where the connection breaks. And it does in two distinct ways: both conversion towards Judaism, and apostasy away from Judaism.

Conversion towards Judaism is hard these days, by which I mean that a convert would have a rough time being accepted by the existing Jewish community, in which the idea of Jewish DNA/blood would counteract/discourage conversions.
This was not always the case; there are some very prominent examples. The Khazars were the most remarkable; a horse people living on a vast area of the Eurazian steppes, the leaders of this tribe decided to convert to Judaism. This was, in essence, Realpolitik; to counteract the influence of the Christian Byzantine Empire, and the Muslim Caliphate to their south.

The Khazars are mostly ignored today, even though Arthur Koestlers work 'The Thirteenth Tribe' has somewhat kept it alive in modern consciousness. They slowly declined under the pressure of the Russians to the north, and obliterated by the Mongol invasion from the east. Yet Sand puts forward the idea that the Khazars could in part be the ancestors of the modern Ashkenazi Jews, after fleeing west towards Poland/Lithuania. An intriguing thought, I'm not sure if it's correct though.

Modern Israel

Sand's conclusion is a recommendation: to merge Israel and Palestine into a single bi-national state, in which the Jews will have to let go of the Jewish character of the state apparatus.

This is naive bordering on the hilarious, though Sand seems to realize this himself. In essence, because he sees nationalism as an imagined ideology (once again, I disagree), it could simply be thought away in today's society. He seems to forget that even though you can discount the genetic aspect of the matter, in which I think he scores some points, you cannot think away other massive differences between the two peoples: the language, the religion, the background, the way they both look, etc etc.

It's funny to see Sand's example of what this new Israel shoud be like: he names both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands as 'multicultural democracies' that should be emulated. Being for the Netherlands, and considering myself a nationalist, I have to disagree once again. The multicultural experiment is not going well; cultural instability is steadily increasing, and the victory of Geert Wilders's PVV last november, whose party promises a large reduction of migration, curbs on Islam and repatriation of non-Dutch already here, seems to indicate growing aversion towards the multicultural dream.


Even though it may seem like I'm disagreeing a lot with the contents of the book, I do think it's a decent read. Books that get you to think about issues and argue them out are always preferred above the simply entertaining and/or comforting. I feel for people who simply cannot read something they disagree with. And as seen, I disagree with Sand on many pillars of his thesis.

As mentioned, this book is still in print. I got my copy off of Amazon, so I presume it's also widely available in other countries. I'll be doing more reviews in the future, and I'll see you then.

-Pieter Nijmeijer

(Top image; self-made photo of book cover)


I really like the history of Zionism, nationalism, race and society. Thank you for reviewing this book

A smashing review and a sensitive subject. In the U.S., there is resistance (among Jews) to equating Zionism with Judaism, and there is insistence among others that to be a Jew is to be a Zionist. What to do? How to thread the needle. This book seems to be making an honest attempt to thread the needle, but in my country, among people I know (large Jewish population) it is best to just stay off the subject. Tempers flare. Emotions run high.

Israel and Palestine into a single bi-national state

You are right. Hilariously, tragically naive. How can they agree on the future if they can't agree on the past? To listen to Jews and Palestinians tell the history is to listen to two different narratives.

I don't buy books. Too expensive. Also, I'm downsizing since we moved recently. But this review is a great tease and I may check to see if it is at the local library (when I get my new library card😇)