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The Invention of the Jewish People

A lecture by Shlomo Sand, Tel Aviv University on October 12, 2009.

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Duration: 28:18

“The Invention of the Jewish People is an indispensable challenge and a very complex intellectual exercise … a more secure society [than Israel] would include the book in the core curriculum of its school system.”
— Avraham Burg, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth

“This well-documented and fearless book explodes the myth of a unique Jewish people, miraculously preserved, in contrast to all the other peoples… [Sands’] conclusions, which are prudently formulated, nonetheless lead one towards a sole solution: the construction of a secular and democratic Israel.”
— Jacques Julliard, Le Nouvel Observateur

Enlightened or enraged, shocked or intrigued—whatever reflex Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s taboo-demolishing tour de force provokes, 19 months on Israel’s bestseller list and the coveted Aujourd’hui Award in France stand testament to its priority among a handful of books demanding to be read and reckoned with. Now available in English, THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE (Verso, distributed W. W. Norton; HB $34.95; Publication date: October 19, 2009) oversteps the standard criticisms of Zionism and Israeli politics, reaching across disciplines and further into history to complicate the collective mythology of a people and also a state whose historical foundations are of central political importance—even if they have remained far from clear.

Throwing into question the various ‘ethno-biological’ claims made on the Jewish homeland, Shlomo Sand argues that most Jews actually descend from converts whose native lands were scattered far across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The formation of a Jewish people and, subsequently, a Jewish nation out of these disparate individuals could only take place under the sway of a new historiography that developed in response to the rise of nationalism throughout Europe. Beneath the biblical backfill of the nineteenth-century historians and twentieth-century intellectuals who replaced rabbis as the mythologizing architects of Jewish identity, THE INVENTION OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE uncovers the realities of such accepted histories as the first-century Jewish exile at the hands of the Romans while connecting the fictions into a bold theoretical picture of nationalism that raises the urgent question. Should the Jewish people continue to regard themselves as a biologically and historically singular group, or might this doctrine, and the doctrine of a ‘Jewish state,’ give way to a more inclusive Israeli state, content within its borders?

Shlomo Sand studied history at the University of Tel Aviv and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris. He currently teaches contemporary history at the University of Tel Aviv. His other books include L’Illusion du politique: Georges Sorel et le débat intellectuel 1900, Georges Sorel en son temps, Le XXe siècle à l'écran and Les Mots et la Terre: Les Intellectuels en Israël.

Center for Near Eastern Studies