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Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora is historically wrong?
 
 
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What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same "children of Israel" described in the Old Testament?

And what if most modern Israelis aren't descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn't "return" to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora -- the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews' exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh's clutches -- is all wrong?

That's the explosive thesis of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? , a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand) that sent shockwaves across Israeli society when it was published last year. After 19 weeks on the Israeli best-seller list, the book is being translated into a dozen languages and will be published in the United States this year by Verso.

Its thesis has ramifications that go far beyond some antediluvian academic debate. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that decades-long cycle of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Each group lays claim to the same scrap of land -- holy in all three of the world's major Abrahamic religions -- based on long-standing ties to that chunk of earth and national identities formed over long periods of time. There's probably no other place on Earth where the present is as intimately tied to the ancient.

Central to the ideology of Zionism is the tale -- familiar to all Jewish families -- of exile, oppression, redemption and return. Booted from their kingdom, the "Jewish people" -- sons and daughters of ancient Judea -- wandered the earth, rootless, where they faced cruel suppression from all corners -- from being forced to toil in slavery under the Egyptians, to the Spanish massacres of the 14th century and Russian pogroms of the 19th, through to the horrors of the Third Reich.

This view of history animates all Zionists, but none more so than the influential but reactionary minority -- in the United States as well as Israel -- who believe that God bestowed a "Greater Israel" -- one that encompasses the modern state as well as the Occupied Territories -- on the Jewish people, and who resist any effort to create a Palestinian state on biblical grounds.

Inventing a People?

Zand's central argument is that the Romans didn't expel whole nations from their territories. Zand estimates that perhaps 10,000 ancient Judeans were vanquished during the Roman wars, and the remaining inhabitants of ancient Judea remained, converting to Islam and assimilating with their conquerors when Arabs subjugated the area. They became the progenitors of today's Palestinian Arabs, many of whom now live as refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 20th century.

As Israeli journalist Tom Segev summarized, in a review of the book in Ha'aretz:

There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened -- hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua.

But this begs the question: if the ancient people of Judea weren't expelled en masse, then how did it come to pass that Jewish people are scattered across the world? According to Zand, who offers detailed histories of several groups within what is conventionally known as the Jewish Diaspora, some were Jews who emigrated of their own volition, and many more were later converts to Judaism. Contrary to popular belief, Zand argues that Judaism was an evangelical religion that actively sought out new adherents during its formative period.

 
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