Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wobbly Times number 60

The Invention of the Jewish People. Shlomo Sand. Verso, New York, 2009
(reviewed by Mike Ballard)
Schlomo Sand is employed as a professor of contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv. The Invention of the Jewish People was originally published in Hebrew in Israel. Translations of his work are now being published throughout the world in many languages, including English.
Sand is the son of a World War II era veteran of the Polish Communist Party. He is also the son-in-law of a Spanish anarchist who fought Franco nationalists in the streets of Barcelona during the Civil War/Revolution. Professor Sand would probably describe himself as an apple, fallen somewhat distant from those trees, perhaps as a cosmopolitan liberal. His view of Israel is that it would better off giving up being an ‘ethnocracy’--Sand’s term for the ethno-biologically defined Jewish political State. Professor Sand’s preference is for Israel to become a garden variety, secular capitalist democracy like France or the United States of America.
Dr. Sand gives his readers many insights into the general intellectual foundations of the modern era’s nationalist ideological project and of Zionist nationalist project in particular. In this reviewer’s opinion, The Invention of the Jewish People is worth reading for these critical observations alone, as nationalism has been and continues to be a strong ideological force in our time.
Sand makes the case that class societies up until the 18th century were made up mostly of sedentary peasants and nomadic herdsmen. Sand effectively argues that there was no official ideology of nationalism embedded in the consciousness of the people who lived within these pre-industrial societies. Historically speaking, these agrarian formations were dominated by classes of aristocrats, landlords and slave owners. The nomadic and peasant majorities of this ancient world had no notion of being part of a nation. Comprehending this insight is fundamental to grasping Sand’s arguments about how nationalism, and in particular Jewish nationalism, was an ideological invention. As opposed to modern day nationalist consciousness, based on self-regulated ‘patriotism’ , schooled with ‘pledges of allegiance’, ubiquitous posters of ‘our fearless leader’ and ‘hats off at the sports match in honour of the national anthem’, ancient rulers relied on keeping the mostly peasant producers of wealth in a constant state of fear of the absolute power of the sovereign. There was no sense of being a part of a national political State amongst the general populace. At best, the sovereign only had to, “secure the loyalty of the state’s administration in order to preserve the continuity and stability of the government, but the peasants were required simply to pass along the surplus agricultural produce and sometimes to provide the monarchy and nobility with soldiers. Taxes were of course collected by force, or at any rate by its constant implicit threat, rather than by persuasion or efforts at consensus.” (p.26)
Capitalist rule erupted out of political revolutions against these ancient expressions of absolutism. The revolutions of modernity (from Cromwell’s Puritans in the mid 17th century to Colonial America’s yeoman farmers and private property owners, to the overthrow of monarchism in France by its citizens and in country after country well into the 19th and 20th centuries) all resulted in the establishment of national political States. All nationalisms were political expressions of the rapidly changing social relations of the producers of wealth. From peasant subjects, to wage-labouring citizens, the producing classes were united, after nationalist revolt, as citizens with the ruling capitalist and landlord classes in one big political State. These conditions were accompanied by new political notions, primary amongst them, the rule of law and the classless identity politics which proclaimed that sovereignty was no longer the king’s; but for the ‘people’ of the nation. From these material circumstances sprang a need by the ruling class for the legitimation of their system of political dominance thus, the impetus for public intellectuals to invent and spread the gospel of the various and sundry nationalist brands. One of the first tasks these amplified intellectual voices had to confront was to define who ‘the people’ were.
Sand contends that modern public intellectuals invented all nationalist ideologies thus, all ‘peoples’. Most of these intellectuals mixed history with cultural myths in order to fashion their nationalist ideologies. Sand calls these nationalist ideologies passing for history, ‘mythistory’. More than a few of these nationalist mythistories were combined with the pseudo-scientific invention of ‘race’, an ideology originating in the 18th century. “In the nineteenth century, national cultures often tied the soft term, ‘people’, to the rigid and problematic ‘race,’ and many regarded the two words as intersecting, supporting, or complimentary. The homogeneous collective origin of ‘the people’—always, of course, superior and unique, if not actually pure—became a kind of insurance against the risks represented by fragmentary, though persistent, sub identities that continued to swarm beneath the unifying modernity. The imagined origin also served as an efficient filter against undesirable mixing with hostile neighbouring nations.” (p.27)
However, by 1945, the horror of the Nazi holocaust, most especially its connection with ‘Ayrian’ racist mythhistory, prompted world leaders and public intellectuals to officially renounce ‘race’ as having any scientifically based, genetic substance. UNESCO statements on race in the early 1950s explained ‘race’ as a social myth and the 1998 American Anthropological Association statement on ‘race’ proclaimed it to be a pseudo-scientific concept. Still, the ‘commonsense’ notion that there are ‘races’ has persisted and is present to this day in public discourse even though, as Sand observes, pre-WWII notions of ‘race’ have more and more morphed into the bourgeois intellectually acceptable concept of ‘ethnicity’. To be sure, the oppressive force of racism persists. Not only that but, it is often legitmised, Sand would argue, by continuing to legitimate an ethno-biological linkage with nationalist ideological concepts defining, ‘the people’.
That the Nazi extermination of ‘inferior races’ during WWII, threw a spanner in the ideological works of those attempting to link ‘race’ with ‘nation’, is true. However, as Sand points out, it was particularly problematic for Zionist ideologists. Since its inception in the mid-19th century, its legitimacy was based on the notion of a genetic connection between ancient and modern peoples of the Jewish faith and culture. According to this mythistory, modern day Jews were genetically linked to those people who inhabited that portion of the Middle East known as Israel, Judea and Palestine in the early 1st century CE. A fusing of Biblical stories with actual history had long become part of the Zionist ideological project. As the nationalist ideological story goes (Sand writes a much more detailed account in a chapter he titles, ‘Mythistory’), the Jewish people were deported from their homeland after much of Jerusalem, along with the Second Temple, was destroyed in 70CE by the Roman soldiers under the command of Titus. As the story went, this came as punishment for an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Empire by the Jewish people. According to this mythical tale, the whole of this Jewish people then wandered the Earth in exile from their homeland. The Zionist nationalist project was designed to bring the Jewish people home to “Eretz Israel” from their long exile.
What Sand demonstrates, in his meticulously researched book, is that great mass of the people who lived in what was then the Roman province of Palestine in 70CE were not exiled. As he conclusively shows, conquerors of that era, including the Babylonian conquerors related in the Biblical story of the destruction of the First Temple and the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple, never exiled whole peoples because those peoples were the peasant producers of wealth and obtaining that wealth, along with the power that goes with it, is what being a ruling class is all about. Peasants are generally tied to their land and most people living in Roman Palestine were peasants. Peasants don’t move around. They’re sedentary. Ancient ruling classes always liked it that way. As Sand points out, conquering rulers of ancient times would routinely enslave defeated elites from the ruling class whom they had conquered but, they would leave the great mass of the people (mostly peasant farmers) on the land, to continue to produce wealth, as these peasants had done for various other ruling classes for centuries before. The implications of this revelation for the current relation between peoples identifying themselves as Palestinians and those identifying themselves as Jews both inside and outside the immediate borders of Israel are pretty obvious in this reviewer’s opinion. The classless nationalist identity politics, which keep rank and file Palestinian and Israeli workers at each other’s throats, is based on a series of invented fictions. Of course, this is true for all the world’s nationalisms, for all are ideological inventions which assume that the working class and the employing class have interests in common.
So, where do most of the people of the Jewish faith in the world come from, if not from an ethno-biologically connected people who were exiled from their homeland by the Romans in 70 CE?
Sand’s answer is that most come from “proselytising”. Sand demonstrates that the first great monotheistic religion, Judaism, was spread to eager pagan converts throughout the Mediterranean basin a long time before the competing monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam arose.
The question which came to this reviewer’s mind was, “Why would polytheists find this monotheistic religion, with its invisible deity so attractive?” Shorter work time is one of Sand’s fascinating insights. The weekly day of rest, the Sabbath, turned the practice of Judaism into a way of legitimising free time, much to the consternation of the slave owning ruling classes of the ancient, polytheistic world.
As Sand relates, a great victory for the proselytisers of the Jewish faith came with the conversion of the Punics. Punic Carthage was not a Hebrew speaking city state. It was located in what is today the political State of Tunisia. After the defeat of Carthage by the Roman Republic in 146 BCE, the Jewish religion continued to be practiced amongst the peasant people of this region. The faith also spread to nearby nomadic Berbers, who were later to accompany the Arabic Muslim conquerors of Spain as soldiers in 711 CE. The implications here are enormous, especially considering what happened to Jews who refused to convert to Christianity during Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign in Spain, circa 1492CE.
Sand presents historically documented evidence of the many other conversions to Judaism within the confines of the heavily used trading routes of Mediterranean, in the late BCE and the early CE of the Roman Empire. He shows that this proselytising tendency was more or less suppressed with the rise of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE and of Islam after the 8th century CE.
“Proselytizing Jews were driven from the arena of rival monotheisms, Christianity or Islam, to the land of paganism, with immigrants who convinced the pagans that their faith was preferable. The great mass proselytizing campaign that began in the second century BCE, with the rise of the Hasmonean kingdom, reached its climax in Khazaria in the eighth century CE.” (p. 220)
As Sand shows, the conversion of the Kagan of Khazaria, a kingdom located above the Black Sea, helped create a great mass of people of the Jewish faith. Many of these Jewish religionists spread out into what is now Eastern Europe after Khazaria was overrun by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the early 13th century CE. Sand writes, “The Khazars were a coalition of strong Turkic or Hunnic-Bulgar clans who, as they began to settle down, mingled with the Scythians who had inhabited these mountains and steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which was known for a long time as the Khazar Sea. At its peak, the kingdom encompassed an assortment of tribes and linguistic groups, Alans and Bulgars, Magyars and Slavs. The Khazars collected taxes from them all and ruled over a vast landmass, stretching from Kiev in the northwest to the Crimean Peninsula in the south, and from the upper Volga to present-day Georgia.” (p.214)
As Sand demonstrates time and again, actual history profoundly conflicts with the ‘mythistory’ of the BIBLE which forms the very foundation on which Israeli nationalist ideology and ultimately, the Israeli political State rests. For example, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 1948: “After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.” (p.129)
The Invention of the Jewish People is a work which will be useful to any Wobbly interested in making sense of the social relations of power and current political conflicts arising from them in the modern day Middle East. Doctor Sand’s work should be helpful to those eager to grasp the conceptual intricacies of nationalist ideology and how it has come to distort political judgements amongst and between workers of the world today.

No comments:

Post a Comment