Are the Jewish People an Invention?

Is the narrative that defines the Jewish people an invention, or does it have a factual basis? It’s an invention according to a book by a professor at Tel Aviv University. In a review in the NY Times Patricia Cohen discusses the method author Shlomo Sand utilizes to build his case. Central to his thesis is that Jews were not expelled from Palestine in AD 70. This undercuts the claim to a Jewish homeland and the right to return.

Sands also challenges the lineage of Jews by making a case for European ancestry. This would further buttress the proposition that Jews have no ancestral claim to Palestine.These contentions are obviously controversial and spark debate and I don’t advocate for them. In fact, the conflicted situation in Palestine is so multi-layered that I wouldn’t hazard to claim enough knowledge to speak about the right to return in this historical framework.

What interests me is an underlying, equally compelling thought. We are shaped by our story and our story shapes us. This process includes facts, but it is beyond fact.

Cohen quotes historians who acknowledge that historical narrative is written from within a context and some historians shape the narrative to meet the needs of the situation in which they write. The narrative is a "mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration," she says.

Out of this mix, self-definition develops and truth emerges. As Cohen writes, even if the AD 70 Diaspora didn’t occur the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple shaped the self-understanding of Jews as an exiled and persecuted people.

The mingling of diverse pieces of fact, fiction, aspiration and experience coupled with religious tenets become the story of a people. We are the products of our environment as well as our genes, of our hopes as well as our memories. Reality itself is multilayered and contextual.

In this sense, and it’s probably not the sense about which Professor Sand is writing, the history of all groups is an invention. It can be nothing less. We shape our story and we are shaped by our story.

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