The Invention of the Jewish People  
English first edition cover
Author Shlomo Sand
Original title ?מתי ואיך הומצא העם היהודי
Translator Yael Lotan
Country Israel
Language Hebrew
Subject(s) Historiography of the Jewish people
Publisher Resling (Hebrew 1st ed.)
Verso Books (English 1st ed.)
Publication date 2008
Published in
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 358 p. (Hebrew 1st ed.)
332 p. (English 1st ed.)
ISBN 9781844674220
OCLC Number 317919518
LC Classification DS143.S23 2008 Hebr (Hebrew 1st ed.)

The Invention of the Jewish People (Hebrew: מתי ואיך הומצא העם היהודי?‎, Matai ve’ech humtza ha’am hayehudi?, literally When and How was the Jewish People Invented?) is a book on the historiography of the origins of the Jewish people by professor Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv University historian. The English translation was published by Verso Books in October 2009.[1] The book is considered controversial by some.[2]

The book was in the best-seller list in Israel for 19 weeks and quickly went to three editions when published in French (Comment le peuple juif fut inventé, Fayard, Paris, 2008). In France it received the "Aujourd'hui Award", a journalists' award for top non-fiction political or historical work.[2] More translations are in progress.[3]


Sand claims that he began looking for records of the exile from Israel, a constitutive event in Jewish history, but could discover no literature about the Jewish expulsion. His explanation is that no one exiled the people of the country. The Romans sometimes committed ethnocide but they did not exile peoples. Sand claims that mass exile was not logistically possible until the 20th century.

Jewish origins

Sand argues that most contemporary Jews do not originate from the ancient Land of Israel. They never existed as a "nation-race" with a common origin. Just as most contemporary Christians and Muslims are the progeny of converted people, not of the first Christians and Muslims, Judaism was originally, like its two cousins, a converting religion. Many of the present day world Jewish population are descendants of European, Russian and African groups.

According to Sand, the original Jews living in Israel, contrary to the accepted history, were not exiled following the Bar Kokhba revolt.[4] Sand argues that most of the Jews were not exiled by the Romans, and were permitted to remain in the country. He puts the number of those exiled at tens of thousands at most. Many Jews converted to Islam following the Arab conquest, and were assimilated among the conquerors. He concludes that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were Jews.[5]

Sand suggests that the story of the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. They portrayed that event as a divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel. Sand writes that "Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God."[3]

Jewish peoplehood

Sand's explanation of the birth of the myth of a Jewish people as a group with a common, ethnic origin has been summarized as follows: "[a]t a certain stage in the 19th century intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people "retrospectively," out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people. From historian Heinrich Graetz on, Jewish historians began to draw the history of Judaism as the history of a nation that had been a kingdom, became a wandering people and ultimately turned around and went back to its birthplace."[4]

In this, they did not differ from other national movements in Europe at the time. They invented a splendid Golden Age - for example, classical Greece, the ancient 'Belgians', the Dutch 'Bataven' or the Teutonic tribes - to prove they have existed as a separate people since the beginnings of history. Before this, according to Sand, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion not a common ethnic background.

Return from exile, Zionism

Sand believes that the idea of Jews being obliged to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism before the birth of Zionism and that the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. On the contrary, for 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem because their religion forbade them from returning until the messiah came. According to Sand, most of the Central and Eastern European Jews hail from the mediæval Turkish Khazars who were converted to Judaism.[6]

Translator's notes

The translation into English was carried out by Yael Lotan. She calls the book bold and ambitious, "forensically dissects the official story — and demonstrates the construction of a nationalist myth and the collective mystification that this requires". Avraham Burg, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is said to have called it "indispensable" and in a review in Yedioth Ahronoth says that "a more secure society [than Israel] would include the book in the core curriculum of its school system."[7]


Writing in The New Republic, Hillel Halkin calls this assertion "the exact opposite of the truth." and goes on to assert that "Believing Jews throughout the ages have never doubted for a moment that they belonged to an am yisra’el, a people of Israel--nor, in modern times, have non-believing Jews with strong Jewish identities. It is precisely this that constitutes such an identity. Far from inventing Jewish peoplehood, Zionism was a modern re-conceptualization of it that was based on its long-standing prior existence. "[8]

Critics of the book have called it a recycled version of The Thirteenth Tribe, another book with a controversial thesis on the genesis of the Jewish people published in 1976 by Arthur Koestler. "'The Thirteenth Tribe' was received coolly by critics, and Mr. Sand's repackaging of its central argument has not fared much better," commented Evan R. Goldstein.[6]

In a commentary published in Haaretz, Israel Bartal, dean of the humanities faculty of the Hebrew University, writes that Sand's claims about Zionist and contemporary Israeli historiography are baseless, calling the work "bizarre and incoherent," and that Sand's "…treatment of Jewish sources is embarrassing and humiliating."[9] There is not enough known about the 13th century demography of Eastern European Jews to credibly make as bold a claim as Sand's.[6] According to Bartal, "No historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically 'pure.'"

Bartal writes that Sand applies academically marginal positions to the entire body of Jewish historiography and, in doing so, "denies the existence of the central positions in Jewish historical scholarship." Sand, for example, does not mention the fact that, from 2000 onwards, a team of scholars from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem labored on the production of a three-volume study on the history of the Jews of Russia. He adds that "the kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews' exile from their homeland is pure fantasy."[9]

Historian Anita Shapira criticizes Sand for regularly "grab(bing) at the most unorthodox theory" in a field and then stretching it "to the outer limits of logic and beyond" during Sand's survey of three thousand years of history.[10] Shapira says that the Sand's political program makes the book an attempt to "drag history into a topical argument, and with the help of misrepresentations and half-truths to adapt it to the needs of a political discussion."[10]

According to historian Simon Schama, reviewing the book in the Financial Times, Sand thinks that "the Khazars, the central Asian kingdom which, around the 10th century, converted to Judaism have been excised from the master narrative because of the embarrassing implication that present day Jews might be descended from Turkic converts."[11] Schama himself, however, counters that "the Khazars were known by every Jewish girl and boy in my neck of Golders Greenery and further flung parts of the diaspora, and celebrated rather than evaded."[11] Schama, in his critique, contends that Sand's position is one that "no one who has thought for a minute about the history of the Jews would dream of taking,"[11] and proceeds to deconstruct many of the book's major points. Sand responded to Schama's critique on his website.[12]

Another Israeli historian, Tom Segev, says Sand's book "is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a 'state of all its citizens' - Jews, Arabs and others - in contrast to its declared identity as a 'Jewish and democratic' state."[5] Segev adds that the book is generally "well-written" and includes "numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time".[5]

Sir Max Hastings, in his review for the Sunday Times, writes that Sand "…rightly deplores the eagerness of fanatics to insist upon the historical truth of events convenient to modern politics, in defiance of evidence or probability.…Yet Sand, whose title is foolishly provocative, displays a lack of compassion for the Jewish predicament." Hastings continues that although it may be possible to accept Sand's thesis that there is no common genetic link either between the world’s Jews or to the ancient Israelite tribes that does not explain the empirical evidence "that there are remarkable common Jewish characteristics — indeed, a Jewish genius — that ­cannot be explained merely by religion." Hastings concludes that while "…Sand produces some formidable arguments about what Jews may not be, but he fails to explain what it is they are."[13]

Writing in The New Republic, Hillel Halkin calls Sand's work "a book so intellectually shoddy that once, not very long ago, it would have been flunked as an undergraduate thesis." [14]

By attempting to destroy the myth of a Jewish people driven from historic Israel Sand undermines the basis of many religiously minded Israeli politicians' claims to the land. Sand argues that, for a number of Zionist ideologues, "the mythical perception of the Jews as an ancient people led to truly racist thinking".[4] The insinuation that Israel should be a secular and democratic state rather than favoring the Jewish majority has caused huge criticism from the Israeli right and nationalists.

"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," wrote Jacques Julliard in Le Nouvel Observateur.

Sand told an interviewer that "The revelation that the Jews are not from Judea would ostensibly knock the legitimacy for our being here out from under us.... There is a very deep fear that doubt will be cast on our right to exist."[4] However, for Sand, that fear isn't justified. For him, the historical diaspora myth isn't the source of the legitimization for Israel. He believes that the Israeli nation shouldn't be based on an ethnocentric, 19th century, biological myth but on the promise of a better future, like the American nation.

Sand's qualifications

Some Jewish historians have said that Sand is dealing with subjects about which he has no understanding and that he bases his book on work that he is incapable of reading in the original languages.[4] Most of the book deals with the question of where the Jews come from, rather than questions of modern Jewish nationalism and the — according to Sand — modern invention of the Jewish people."[4]

The problem with the teaching of history in Israel, Dr Sand said, dates to a decision in the 1930s to separate history into two disciplines: general history and Jewish history. Jewish history was assumed to need its own field of study because Jewish experience was considered unique.

Sand admits that he is "a historian of France and Europe, and not of the ancient period…"[4] and that he has "been criticized in Israel for writing about Jewish history when European history is my specialty. But a book like this needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world."[3]

"There is no Jewish department of politics or sociology at the universities. Only history is taught this way, and it has allowed specialists in Jewish history to live in a very insular and conservative world where they are not touched by modern developments in historical research."[3]


  1. The Invention of the Jewish People, English Edition (Verso Books, 2009)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sela, Maya (March 12, 2009). "Israeli wins French prize for book questioning origins of Jewish people". Haaretz. Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Cook, Jonathan (October 6, 2008). "Book refuting Jewish taboo on Israel’s bestseller list". The National (Abu Dhabi). Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Ilani, Ofri (March 21, 2008). "Shattering a 'national mythology'". Haaretz. Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Segev, Tom (February 29, 2008). "An invention called 'the Jewish people'". Haaretz. Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Goldstein, Evan R. (October 29, 2009). "Where Do Jews Come From?". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 17, 2009. 
  7. Leading Israeli historian evaluates the national myth of the Jewish exile from the promised land, Verso books web-site 2009.
  8. Indecent Proposal, Hillel Halkin, Jan. 9, 2010, The New Republic, [The Invention of the Jewish People. [1]
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bartal, Israel (July 6, 2008). "Inventing an invention". Haaretz. Retrieved October 22, 2009. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Shapira, Anita (March 2009). "The Jewish-people deniers" (PDF). The Journal of Israeli History 28 (1): 63–72. doi:10.1080/13531040902752531. ISSN 1353-1042. Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Schama, Simon (November 13, 2009). "The Invention of the Jewish People". Financial Times. Retrieved November 17, 2009. 
  12. Sand, Shlomo (November 21, 2009). "Shlomo Sand responds to Simon Schama’s review in the Financial Times". Retrieved November 29, 2009. 
  13. Hastings, Max (November 15, 2009). "The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand". The Sunday Times. Retrieved November 29, 2009. 
  14. Indecent Proposal, Hillel Halkin, Jan. 9, 2010, The New Republic, [The Invention of the Jewish People. [2]

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