The Invention of the Jewish People

In a post published yesterday I wrote about different meanings of “people”, and I concluded it with some remarks about what role these ideas can have in liberation and in oppression. These remarks are obviously influenced by the work of Sand, whose 2009 book “The Invention of the Jewish People” I have been reading. The remarks of the last post serve as a kind of introduction to this post, which is on the idea of the “Jewish people”. The idea was invented by 19th century anti-semites, and at that time it was basically the belief that the people in Europe who belong to the Jewish religion do not belong to the nations of Europe and they should either leave or remain as guests rather than citizens of the new European nations. This was a product of longstanding oppression of people of the Jewish religion in Europe, who were often confined to ghettos and restricted from some spheres of employment. These oppressions were gradually phased out through the process of Jewish Emancipation , the process by which Jews acquired rights as equal citizens across the nations of Europe.

Unfortunately, there were Jews who agreed with the anti-semitic idea that people of the Jewish religion could never truly belong to the European nations, they were initially a tiny minority (actually, initially they were mostly Christian anti-Jewish racists), but they took advantage of the rise of anti-semitism in the 20th century and eventually convinced most Jews that Jewish emancipation had failed and that the only solution was their dream of re-uniting the Jewish people in their ancestral home.

But they failed, because you will find no “Jewish People” in the state of Israel, other than in rhetoric and written in the state’s Basic Laws. What you will find are Israeli people, a people who speak Hebrew, people who share a culture and language and a literature and a cinema (but not a religion by the way, about half of Israelis are not religiously Jewish). Sands argument is roughly this: there is nothing that people of the Jewish religion shared prior to Zionism, other than religious practice.  Since Zionism there is clearly a sense of international solidarity with the Jewish state, but insofar as this denotes a common culture, the culture is just Israeli culture – a culture shared by non-Jewish citizens of Israel. What’s more, the Zionists gave up a long time ago the idea of kicking every last non-Jew from Israel, and they also gave up a long time ago trying to convince all the Jews in the world to move to Israel, and very few Zionists in Israel remain committed to that original project. According to the Zionists today, who are the Jewish “people”, other than Jewish people, i.e. persons, people who happen to be of the Jewish religion? If what bonds them together is a sense of solidarity with Israel, and perhaps some Israeli culture and perhaps a higher likelihood of speaking modern Hebrew, then those are not the attributes of the “Jewish” people, but of the Israeli people. What the zionists have done is create a new Hebrew or Israeli nationality, and then structured the Zionists state politically so that Jews have privileged rights in it and to it. They haven’t created a jewish “people”, what they have created is a liberal ethnocracy – a state with many liberal values, but which belongs to people of the Jewish religion and Jewish descent, despite the fact that those people do not share a common culture other than the one which is also shared by the Isralis to whom the state of Israel does not belong.

Of course, the Zionists don’t ground the notion of a Jewish people in a shared culture, but in a shared ethnicity – in a story that all the Jews of today are literally descendants of the Jews of ancient Jewish kingdoms. But Sand shows that this is not a serious proposition, that it is easy to show that most Jews today are actually descended from people who converted to Judaism after the fall of 2nd temple and before the rise of Christianity. For the approximately 3 centuries in between Judaism was the only major Monotheism out there, and it proved popular in the Roman empire, and many whole kingdoms converted to Judaism over the centuries as well. This is commonly discussed in terms of the idea of Ashkenazi jews being descended from Khazars, an argument sometimes used by anti-Jewish racists. But the fact is the Khazar hypothesis was held by most Jewish historians up until the 1960s, and although Sand does believe that the Khazar hypothesis is false, he thinks its false because most Easter European Jews came from other kingdoms which converted, not the Khazar kingdom.

Sand is honest that this anti-ethnic analysis can be made for any European nation. The French are not Gauls, the Germans are not Teutons. In fact, there is no ethnic “French” people, or ethnic “German” people. But the difference is, we already knew that, and the national structure of other states no longer depends on a pure ethnic origin, on a long story about a people which existed along time ago which today’s citizens of such and such country are all descended from. The reason Sand didn’t have to write “the Invention of the French People” is that other historians already did this, mostly back in the 1960s. Israel, on the other hand, was really feeding and building its myth of a common ethnicity at the same time as other countries were undoing theirs.

So, if there is no “Jewish people”, why does everyone believe that there is?  Well, there has been for more than a century a massive public relations campaign, with U.S. support, trying to convince people of the Jewish religion or descent from people of the Jewish religion otherwise – trying to convince them that they are a “people”, like the American people, the Italian people, etc… And it’s not like the PR campaign is talking about nothing, about something which simply doesn’t exist. What they do is talk about something which is mis-described, and mis-described for particular ideological purposes. What is being described when they speak about the “Jewish People” is the Jewish portion of the Israeli people – and this group does share a culture and a language, and to some extent a religion. This is the group that dominates the state politically, an easy affair because the state is set up as belonging only to belong to people of Jewish ethnicity, thereby excluding from any serious political power the 25% of its population which is non-Jewish (although they are free to participate in politics so long as they support the Zionist agenda).

It would be desirable for this idea to go away. And many of the same reasons that I’m happy the idea of a “Christian people” (used to motivate the brutal Crusades) went away, and for similar reasons as to why I do not support political Islam, especially political Islam which sees all of Muslims as a single people, and who therefore need a single muslim state.

But it seems unlikely the idea is going to go away on its own. Sure, you will find anti-Zionist activists in Israel, some of which identify as Israel but most of which I’m told identify as Anarchists. And it seems unlikely Israel can transition from religious/ethinic-nationalism to stateless anarchism without a stage of civic nationalism in between.

One way to get rid of the idea is by force, the same kind of force that was used against segregation in the schools of the American south. Force could be used to de-segregate Israel/Palestine. Jewish-Israelis would be deprived of their instituted political superiority, and they should be forced to integrate by sitting alongside each other in schools. But this is undesirable for various reasons. One, there is no equivalent of the US federal government to come in and impose such a solution – Israel would simply go to war with any force attempting to force integration. Second, unlike in the United States, the oppressed population here is also mostly opposed to integration and the perceived assimilation this would produce.

A more likely way for the idea to go away is for it to be rejected by people of the Jewish religion around the world, who do not wish to identify with Israel as the “Jewish people”, and who do not want to be served by a renegade state which refuses to make peace with its neighbors and which commits daily acts of brutality against the indigenous population. If Jews outside turn against Israel Zionism might be forced to recognize that it has lost, that Judaism is in fact a religion, not an ethnic people.

Mulling on this problem, I find myself always coming up against the same dilemma – when people try to fight the zionists, all you do is convince them that they are right, that everyone is against “the Jewish people”, and that they must defend themselves to the last, as on Masada, and fight to the last man or commit suicide rather than surrender, because surrender is only a way to genocide. Zionism, the belief in the Jewish people and in “Jewish National Liberation” as the conquest of another people’s land, is perhaps not an idea that can be fought like other forms of colonization. In the end, victory over Zionism is not the expulsion of anyone, but the friendly co-existence of people of all religions in the land, a position supported by the PLO since ’69. Friendly co-existence was also the position of the minority of Zionists who saw the creation of Israel as a disaster for Zionism, and who wanted co-operation and co-habitation with arabs, not the exclusive “Jewish Land, Jewish Produce, Jewish Labour” of labour-zionism or the Iron Wall of the Revisionists. But how do you fight for friendly co-existence?

But how do you fight someone who is your jailer to live freely alongside them, when your jailer has a pathology inside his head which says that if he lives freely alongside you, you will murder him in the night?

5 thoughts on “The Invention of the Jewish People

  1. But how do you fight someone who is your jailer to live freely alongside them, when your jailer has a pathology inside his head which says that if he lives freely alongside you, you will murder him in the night?

    You disprove his fears. That is what the ANC did in South Africa.

    For the Palestinians, assuming they wanted this, which I don’t think they do. You try and slowly work backwards through the decades. Restore economic cooperation. Then restore migratory labor so that Israelis have at casual discourse with Palestinians again. Then start to setup common institutions again so that their is social discourse and friendship. From there start unifying the big institutions like schools and hospitals. And then after a generation or two, nature takes it course, you interbreed and there aren’t two people anymore.

  2. How did the ANC do this?

    1) The ANC was always absolutely crystal clear that they consider the Afrikaners to be legitimately South African. The issue was behavior not being. Conversely the Palestinians have always had the opposite message that the Jews are colonists, a question of being not behavior. There is no behavioral change that can switch one from a colonist to a legitimate fellow citizen.

    2) The ANC was always crystal clear that armed struggle was a response to armed oppression only. It was purely defensive. The ANC made it clear they did not consider violence an acceptable way to end apartheid, that is discuss politics with his fellow citizen. Violence was only only an acceptable means of ending the violent repression of anti apartheid activism. If the Afrikaners were willing to forgo violence so would the ANC. Again the Palestinians have consistently taken the opposite position that the conflict is intrinsically violent and that politics would be used only when it was likely to produce results more cheaply and more effectively than violence. And what exactly are the criteria for ending violence are generally kept deliberately vague with words like “just resolution”.

    3) The ANC did not massacre (white) civilians even when they had the chance. The Palestinian population ranges from wildly enthusiastic to at best tactically opposed to anti-civilian violence. The ANC would never have a parade in favor of a suicide bomber. Let me comment I’ll agree though that the Israelis are much more prone to massacres than the Afrikaners were, but the differences is important in terms of establishing intent regardless of the reasons.

    4) The ANC always avoided a mentality of action in response to long ago past wrongs. The focus was always on the here and now. Afrikaners started each and every day with a fresh slate where they got to decide if they wanted to live as fellow citizens or as oppressors. Palestinians want to constantly ever discussion about the illegitimacy of the Balfour declaration and how Palestinian’s ancient ancestors were more moral than Israeli’s ancestors.

    5) The vision for what post Apartheid South Africa would look like was always explicit. The non racists parts of the South African model from prior to 1912 with group rights where needed from India’s model. Afrikaners could not believe that the ANC meant it, but they understood what the claim was. It is 45 years since 1967 and it is still unclear what the PLO, much less the Palestinians even want in detail. The major factual debate on the right in this 2013 election between Naftali Bennett (your home / religious zionist party) and the Benjamin Netanyahu Likud is about what the PLO / Abbas’ position is on issues like: how water rights are to be resolved, right of the West bank to admit additional immigrants beyond Palestinians, what the definition of Palestinian refuge is, etc… and Abbas is not weighing in here. Credible very knowledgeable intelligent Israelis 45 years later still don’t understand what the proposals are and what they mean. They can’t even make sense of them enough to decide whether to believe them or not.


    Now the Palestinians have a much worse hand to play than the ANC did. There was no equivalent of Christian Zionism. The Dutch in the Netherlands didn’t support Afrikaner Calvinism and argue that it was authentically Dutch and that opposing it was an attack on the Dutch people. The Afrikaners while they had a rough time with the British didn’t have the sheer number of problems and horrors like the holocaust to create paranoia. But they’ve played their bad hand worse.

      1. I haven’t read anything. HS 1984-8, college 1988-92 so I lived through the whole anti-apartheid movement and the newspapers and magazines were informative. The ANC’s website ( ) is very detailed with all sorts of documents from over 100 years of activism. The SACP is less good but has quite a lot:

        But I don’t have any strong suggestions beyond the obvious.

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