For a number of days now, the NYT review of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which has recently been published in an English translation, has been on the list of 'most emailed articles' - a remarkable feat for a book review. As the reviewer points out, the hype around the book was mostly generated by some of Sand's less controversial claims.
Yes, Jewish public consciousness continues to be formed by the idea that Jews were exiled from Israel by the Romans, whereas the truth is that close to two million Jews continued to live here until the fall of the Roman empire. Yes, a large portion of the Roman Empire Jews became Jewish by conversion, and hence most Jews today are unlikely to be descendants of Jews who lived here two thousand years ago. But, as Sand repeatedly points out, none of this is disputed by historians.
Yes, the Zionist narrative has created a semblance of continuity between the Jews living in Israel two thousand years ago and modern Jews, much more than actually exists. But, as Sand shows, all modern nation states have created narratives aimed at legitimizing cultural, linguistic and political hegemony of the dominant group. In this respect Israel is not different from Germany, Italy or Indonesia. Sand's claim is that Israel doesn't need to shroud itself in myth for its continued existence, and this, in my view, is the book's most important merit, and should come as a relief rather than be seen as an attack on Israel.
Sand's book is not a pure work of history. In fact, it has a clearly stated political agenda. From all the sound and the fury you might think that his agenda is to expel all Jews from Israel, or to abolish the Jewish state. It might come as a surprise to some who have not read the book that Sand's goal is to preserve Israel as a democracy with a Jewish character based on a Jewish majority.
Sand points out that modern democracies fall into two categories that emerged in modern Europe: East of the Rhein, the dominant model was that of ethnocracies: countries that were supposed to have a special attachment to a particular ethnos. West of the Rhein the model of pure liberal democracies prevailed: for them the sovereign is simply the totality of its citizens. The clearest case of this model is, of course, the U.S. No one could conceivably argue that the Caucasian conquerors of America had some special historical relation to the land. The U.S. continued to be an immigrant country, and every new citizen had the same right, whatever his or her provenance.
Sand claims that most of Israel's present ills stem from its being an ethnocracy that gives Jews special privileges. This keeps raising the question 'who is a Jew', and makes it very difficult for the large minority of Israeli Arabs to feel that they have equal rights. Sand's book came out early in 2008, too early to address one of the utter perversions that the current state of affairs presents: Notoriously, Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's platform would require every citizen in Israel to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state. Most commentators saw this as an attempt to delegitimize Israel's Arabs - which was certainly true. But they forgot that most of Lieberman's voters are from the former Soviet bloc, many of whom are not recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate. His move was supposed to help them by substituting Jewish ancestry or orthodox conversion with loyalty to the state as their stamp of legitimacy.
Lieberman's outlandish and totalitarian proposal would have been unnecessary if Israel was a pure liberal democracy: once immigrants receive citizenship, they would not have to worry about their status and legitimacy. However, as Sand points out, Ben-Gurion's historical compromise with the orthodox establishment created an anomaly unique in advanced democracies: in Israel the state actually tells Jews who we can marry and how.
One of the reasons for all these maneuvers is, of course, Hok Hashevut, the law of return, which allows Jews from anywhere to receive automatic Israeli citizenship. Sand argues that this law must be repealed. By turning Israel into a liberal democracy, all Israeli citizens at this point in history, never mind their ethnic provenance or religion, would be its sovereign. Given Israel's current demography, this would guarantee Jewish hegemony without making recourse to non-democratic means ranging from the involvement of the Rabbinate in citizens' private lives to Lieberman's loyalty oath. Sand also argues that abolishing Hok Hashevut is necessary in preventing Palestinians from claiming their Right of Return, as nobody would, from that moment onwards, have an automatic right to citizenship.
I disagree with this aspect of Sand's conclusion: I think that Hok Hashevut has little weight in the Palestinians' accepting or rejecting the existence of Israel. I also think that Sand's criticism of the efforts of legal scholars like Amnon Rubinstein to work out a liberal platform that would safeguard Hok Hashevut are mostly not convincing, and he doesn't mention law professor Ruth Gavison's important work in this context. This law is one of Israel's raisons d'etre, and should be maintained, even though some of its specifics need to be reworked to make sure that it is not abused for political and other purposes.
Disagreements aside, I think that Shlomo Sand's questions about how Israel's democracy can be liberalized and stabilized are thought-provoking and deserve serious discussion. But most of all, the book's success in Israel (it was on the bestseller list for nineteen weeks) is a success for Israel. The fact that very basic questions about Israel's foundations can be discussed trenchantly shows that Israel is a vibrant, if at times flawed, democracy. It will resist all attempts by politicians like Lieberman to prescribe its citizens what to think or feel.