I have not finished reading Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People. But I have made a good beginning and have some thoughts that could be placed beside the videos of an interview of Sand’s that is on the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
My first impression has to do with the theologian Paul Tillich. His idea of symbols and whether they can be broken were helpful in looking at Nazi and other totalitarian ideologies and their symbols. Tillich felt that what he saw as the great symbol of Christianity, the cross, was important because the cross as a symbol could be so easily broken. Here I believe he ran up against both a reality and an absolute. The cross is more than a symbol and the whole world is changed if it can be broken.
Sand’s ideas about nations and history are also meant to deal with Nazi ideology and totalitarian nations. With empathy I see him attempting to make sense out of his past. That is, as a Jewish man who is the child of those who suffered under Nazi rule he must be looking through the lens of the question which shape all survivors, “why.”
He is also a historian who knows that it was an idea of essentialism which invaded the thought processes of nations and created the climate for Nazism to rise. And he sees the word ethnos operating in the same manner. As Sand puts it:
”The murderous first half of the twentieth century having caused the concept of race to be categorically rejected, various historians and other scholars enlisted the more respectable concept of ethnos in order to preserve the intimate contact with the distant past. Ethnos, meaning ‘people’ in ancient Greek, had served even before the Second World War as a useful alternative to, or a verbal intermediary between ‘race’ and ‘people.’ But its common ‘scientific’ use began only in the 1950s, after which it spread widely. Its main attraction lies in its blending of cultural background and blood ties, of a linguistic past and biological origin in other words, its combining of a historical product with a fact that demands respect as a natural phenomenon.” (28)
So how does a Christian use Sand’s book? Hopefully, to understand that it was essentialism on the whole that helped to create a totalitarian nation; that it is perhaps ethnos that might lead to the same problems anywhere. A people who see themselves as superior to others because of their past, their culture or their particular strengths tend to look down on others. But still there is a problem with Sand’s book. And this is where Tillich enters the picture for me.
Sand like Tillich believes that by eliminating an absolute, the nation as essential, the nation which arises out of an eternal people and their culture; there can be a prevention of totalitarianism. But he has run into an absolute that cannot be broken on his rock.
The Jewish people are God’s people, his beloved. They are a people with roots in antiquity and this is Sand’s particular anti-theme. Sand sees Israel as he sees other nations. There is no Israel but what belongs to myth and modern history. In other words Israel is an invented nation with myth for its history. For Sand there is no Israelite tribes, no Abraham, no Moses, no Kingdom of David, no exiles.
Sand looks at the Jewish historians based in the Zionist outlook and attempts to show that they were intent on providing a mythological foundation for Israel. He quotes Yitzhak Baer, after writing about his criticism of another Jewish historian who failed to write Jewish history from an ‘organic’ beginning. As Sand puts it the historian had “detached Jewish monotheism from its homeland in the first stage of its appearance, and then erroneously depicted an idealized and fairly comfortable exile. There was no description in his work of the longing for a natural existence in the homeland or the aspiration for sovereignty that had accompanied and defined Jews throughout their wanderings in history.” (101)
But one must disregard the Hebrew Bible as well as such Jewish historians in order to follow Sand. And for the Christian there is no faith without the truthfulness of the Hebrew Bible. When Jesus walked the road to Emmaus with two disciples after his resurrection he taught them about himself by reference to the whole Hebrew Bible. “Then beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, he explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24: 27)
Also: “Now he said to them. ‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24: 44)
Added to Sand’s rejection of the ancient history of the Jews is his rejection of the Jews of Europe and the Middle East as those who are descended from any ancient Hebrew peoples. While this kind of thought has been used by various anti-Semitics, Sand does not intend it that way. But those Christians who use it will eventually fall into such categories if they pick up and use other exaggerated views about the Jewish people.
With empathy and care for the author, still one must not accept the main idea in Sand’s book about the history of the Jews. To use his book or his ideas and interviews as a means of discounting a Jewish State is from a Christian point of view an unfaithful exercise. The idea that Sand’s ideas are helpful can only mean an endorsement of secularism and in many cases anti-Semitism.