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‘Times’ Weighs In on ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’

A brief history of polemics

by
Sara Ivry
November 24, 2009

The New York Times revisits the debate over whether the Jews have a “shared racial or biological past” today in an article tied to the publication in English of The Invention of the Jewish People, by Tel Aviv University professor Shlomo Sand. Sand is frank, writes reporter Particia Cohen, in his effort “to discredit Jews’ historical claims to the territory.” Though various “facts” of Jewish history (for example, that all Jews were expelled by the Romans from Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) have long been understood by scholars to be untrue, Cohen says, their occasional rehashing for popular audiences reignites polemics for and against the right of Israel to exist.

In the course of her piece, Cohen puts forth Sand’s assertion that Jews and Palestinians share DNA and notes that “early Zionists and Arab nationalists touted the blood relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their respective struggles for independence.” That kinship claim was later dropped, she observes, when it failed to help achieve political goals. Similarly, Sand retreads the idea (never proven and more or less accepted as myth) that the Jews descended from the Khazars, a group in the Caucasus which allegedly converted to Judaism in the 8th century, in order to suggest that the Jews can’t claim Israel as an ancestral home.

Ultimately Sand’s book, and others like it, forces us to grapple with the question of why some misconceptions gain traction and others do not. “A mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration,” writes Cohen, “envelopes Jewish history, which is, to begin with, based on scarce and confusing archaeological and archival records…. He is doing precisely what he accuses the Zionists of—shaping the material to fit a narrative.”

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.

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