History isn’t kind to historians. Most are forgotten and those who aren’t usually turn up as footnotes in dissertations or in books that are destined for a similar fate. A few have lasting relevance, mainly because later historians challenge their interpretations of the past. This should not be surprising. There is constant disagreement about recent events, about what happened not long ago. Why should there be agreement or clarity about events long past?
What we call history is to one extent or another subjective, as it is affected by ideology and other commitments, prevailing cultural norms and, of course, by limited knowledge. It has been noted that history is largely written by the winners. While pursuing my doctorate a half century ago, I taught social studies for two years at the newly-established high school of Yeshiva Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in Washington Heights, an experience that yielded a great and lasting blessing. While teaching the American Revolution, students were given the assignment of ascertaining how British historians looked at the same events, the obvious point being to show how perspective powerfully affects what is written.
Few famous historians have been treated more unkindly than Arnold J. Toynbee. With his twelve-volume “Study of History,” he was both idol and icon, perched right at the top of the historians’ hit parade. The set could be had for a pittance through membership in the Book of the Month Club, which for decades served as a cultural must in a great number of middle class homes. We Jews took the bait in droves. In the recesses of our homes and in library stacks, Toynbee remains with his cock-a-mamie names of civilizations and nations never heard of before or since. As for Jews, Toynbee had a bad case of upper class British anti-Semitism and identified us as “a fossil of the Syriac civilization.” Nowadays, it is Toynbee who is a fossil.
I thought of him while reading a smug New York Times article on “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book by Shlomo Sand who teaches at Tel Aviv University. Whatever his other credentials, Sand is an exhibitionist, another academic who knows that the best way to attract attention in a very crowded field is to offer a sensationalist tale. According to the Times article, his contribution to the genre “is to undercut the Jews’ claim to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute ‘a people,’ with a shared racial or biological past.” Why do we Jews produce an excess of self-haters and other misfits masquerading as scholars? We even have Holocaust deniers. Is it the result of our being stiff-necked or could it be that we are no different than other people, but for understandable reasons we are more aware of the misfits in our ranks?
The Times’ article, written by Patricia Cohen, opens with the declaration “that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70” and “modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.”
There is some validity and some nonsense in this passage, but none of this makes us an invention. It is certain that many Jews remained in Jerusalem and in other parts of what was then the land of Israel and also that many were killed or forced to leave. It is certain that conversion and intermarriage were key elements in the story of the Jews, as far back as the era of Kings David and Solomon through the Talmudic period. It also could be said that, in a sense, all nations and people are inventions, none more than we Americans. No people descend fully developed onto a parcel of this earth like manna from heaven.
While Sand posits that we aren’t who we say we are, there are writers galore who have claimed that other people are who we say we are, meaning that they are Jews even if they are not identified as such. There is much literature about the Khazars and other Asiatics. We obviously know about the Ethiopian story. Hillel Halkin has discovered a sect in India which he identifies as having Jewish roots. Around the globe and especially in Europe and North America there are millions who came from good Jewish stock and who are not identified as Jews. If DNA testing were mandatory, our demographers would have a field day.
The notion of “invention” flies in the face of significant contrary evidence. Not long ago, there was a flurry of articles regarding DNA tests showing the genealogical continuity of our Kohanic or priestly subgroup, this despite all of our marrying out over many centuries and other people marrying in. It is clear that from the early years of Christianity until the present, the outflow from Jewish life was far greater than the influx through conversion. Historical circumstances, including the persecution of Jews and Rabbinic stringencies, have served as formidable barriers against conversion into Judaism. Cohen’s reference to conversion into the early Middle Ages is wildly inaccurate.
The upshot is that if we are an invention, we are one heck of an enduring invention, a people whose character has been essentially maintained over an enormous span of time, perhaps significantly longer than any other nation or people, this despite the lack of a homeland and dispersal, horrific persecution, acculturation into other societies and massive Judaic abandonment.
The invention in Shlomo’s Sands’ book is his book, not the Jewish people. He now has his yearned for moment of attention. Soon enough, he will be forgotten and his work will not even enjoy the dubious fate of Arnold J. Toynbee whose voluminous writings are orphaned works that are bereft of attention.