Simon Schama, for The Financial Times, and Max Hastings, for The Sunday Times, have both reviewed Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People. While both reviewers attack the book’s title – with Hastings calling it ‘foolishly provocative’ and Schama ‘splashy’ – both recognise the power of Sand’s seminal text. Hastings states that the book ‘represents, at the very least, a formidable polemic against claims that Israel has a moral right to define itself as an explicitly and exclusively Jewish society, in which non-Jews, such as Palestino-Israelis, are culturally and politically marginalised.’
Sand’s fundamental thesis is that the Jewish people are joined by bonds of religion, not race or ancient nationhood. He deplores the explicitly racial basis of the Israeli state, in which the Arab minority are second-class citizens. “No Jew who lives today in a western democracy would tolerate the discrimination and exclusion experienced by the Palestino-Israelis… The state’s ethnocentric foundation remains an obstacle to [its liberal democratic] development.”
It is easy to see why Sand’s book has attracted fierce controversy. The legend of the ancient exile and modern return stands at the heart of Israel’s self-belief. It is no more surprising that its people enjoy supposing that Joshua’s trumpets blew down the walls of Jericho — at a time when, Sand says, Jericho was a small town with no walls — than that we cherish tales of King Alfred and his cakes.
The author rightly deplores the eagerness of fanatics to insist upon the historical truth of events convenient to modern politics, in defiance of evidence or probability.