Converts to Colonizers?
The foundational myths of the state of Israel rest on the notion that, throughout history, the Jews have been descended from a single ethno-biological core of Judean exiles who had been removed from their ancestral lands in the first two centuries CE. Shlomo Sand’s [The Invention of the Jewish People] sets out to refute such claims of organic ethnic continuity, arguing that the idea that the Jews had been exiled across the Mediterranean world was a creation of the Christian Church—mass displacement as punishment and constant reminder of who is Israel Veritas—which was conveniently embraced by 19th-century Jewish scholars. Their narratives of a centuries-long Galut, ‘exile’, and by extension the Zionist project of ‘returning’ to reclaim ancient territories, are based on historical fictions.
Against these, Sand offers an alternative history in which the striking demographic growth of the Jews in the Hellenistic Mediterranean was the product not of mass exile, but of an energetic drive of proselytism and conversion that had begun under the Hasmonean Kingdom in the second century BCEand lasted till the fourth century CE. Conversions were also, Sand holds, the source of the large Jewish populations at the margins of the Hellenistic world—Arabia, North Africa and the area between the Black and Caspian Seas—as Judaizing currents met repression in Christian territories and fanned out into the largely pagan lands beyond. Sand offers a cautious endorsement to the thesis, earlier popularized by Arthur Koestler, that East European Jewry—what he and others call the Yiddish Nation—originated not from any eastward migration of ‘German’ Jews, themselves supposedly descended from pure Judean exiles, but from the Khazars, Jewish converts whose empire on the Volga–Don steppe disappears from the historical record in the 13th century. This contention has far-reaching implications, for it is the Yiddish Nation that is in many ways the real foundation for the two largest and most vociferous Jewish communities of the past half-century—the Israeli and the American.
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Gabriel Piterberg is the author of The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel.