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Saturday, December 18, 2021

What makes a nation?

 A few weeks ago, browsing through the left wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz--whose opinion pages I prefer to those of any US newspaper--I came across an interview with a very iconoclastic Israeli academic named Shlomo Sand.  Sand, now 75, has been a leftist all his life and was once a Communist, and the interview dealt with his latest book, A Brief History of the Left, which is not yet available in English.  I did not agree with everything he said in a wide-ranging metahistorical discussion, but I liked his frankness about the collapse of the traditional left in the west, owing to the new disconnect between the old working class and the intellectual elite.   Sand understands "the left" to be focused on greater equality, whether obtained through democracy or by force.  He actually argues that capitalism is decreasing inequality in the poorer parts of the world today--a point which I would question, even though I agree that the standard of living in the lower classes in Asia and Africa has been rising--but he recognizes how much inequality has been increasing in the developed world in the last half century or so.  He has lived through the almost complete disappearance of a social democratic ideal in Israel and he sees it vanishing in countries like France and Germany as well.

The interview also mentioned that Sand had published a controversial book in 2008 entitled The Invention of the Jewish People (he is not a man to mince words), and I was moved to get it out of my local library system and read it.  It's a remarkable study of about three millennia of Jewish history, based on a very wide reading of secondary sources about the history of the Jews, the Mediterranean and the Near East in general, and Central Asia--including a great many archeological finds in various places.  It's a highly political document, among other things, aiming to undermine the central myth (I'm using that word in its broadest sense, without reference to truth or falsehood) of the Zionist state of Israel.  That myth holds that the Jewish people are a homogenous ethnic group descended originally from Abraham and Isaac that was scattered twice, first by the Babylonians and then in the first century A. D. by the Romans.  Exiles, it holds founded all the large Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in Central Asia, some of whom eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews lived by around 1900 or so. The late-19th century Zionist movement in Eastern Europe began their return to the Holy Land, and the creation of Israel in 1948 consummated that process. Meanwhile, in an effort to lay an historical foundation for their new state, Sand argues, a number of Zionist historians began to accept the Old Testament as a reliable historical document detailing the rise and fall of the original Kingdom of Israel.  

Step by step, Sand uses other histories and sources to explode these myths.  He draws on the much-neglected Bible criticism of 19th-century Germany, which used linguistic analysis, among other things, to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not in fact written by Moses, but were written many centuries after his death--somewhere between the 6th and 3rd century B. C.E.--if indeed Moses ever existed at all.  (I was quite surprised that Sand never mentioned another favorite book of mine, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which used the same sources to make a similar argument, concluding that Moses was in fact a rebel member of the Egyptian royal family.)  It turns out, Sand shows, that the Egyptians left behind considerable written records of their early history, and they say nothing about Jews or the events surrounding the exodus at all.  More importantly, he argues convincingly that there was no mass expulsion of Jews from Israel under the Roman Empire, and that the "exile" Jewish writers made so much of was metaphorical, referring to their evident loss of God's favor.  Judaism, he argues based on other scholarly works, was a proselytizing religion in the first centuries of the Christian era, creating large new Jewish communities in what is now Yemen, all along the North African Coast (from which they later moved into Spain), and a bit later, in Central Asia, where the Khazar tribe adopted Judaism.  The rise of Islam beginning in the 8th century converted many (but never all) of these new Jews to Islam, and the Mongol invasions centuries later destroyed the Khazar kingdom.  Following Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe, which I read when it appeared in 1976, Sand argues that the great Jewish communities of Russia and Poland began as Khazar refugees from the Mongols.  This remains a very strong argument, since there really has never been another convincing explanation of how those very large groups could have come from Germany (where the Jewish population was very small) or the Mediterranean.  These communities did eventually adopt Yiddish, mainly a German dialect, as their language, but that, he thinks, was because of the large Christian German immigration into the same regions during the Middle Ages. 

Sand argues, in short, that there is no genetically homogeneous  Jewish people with a common ancestry and more than there is a Catholic one, and that proselytizing created both.  (The  Catholic analogy is mine, not his, but I don't think he would object to it.)  Since the discovery of DNA there have been attempts in Israel to prove common ancestry, but Sand argues based on various studies that their claims to do so have not been validated. The real basis for Israeli citizenship, he says, is not race but religion, and a quite orthodox brand of Judaism at that, one that emphasizes the need to maintain the exclusivity of the Jewish community--the reason that there has never been a legal way for a Jew in Israel to marry a non-Jew, since there is no such thing there as civil marriage. Sand, like me, has obviously never been religious--his parents were left wing as well as himself--and he obviously bitterly resents that particular restriction upon Israeli citizens' personal freedom very much.  It offends me at least as much because I happen to be a child of the kind of marriage that can't take place in Israel, and I obviously can't accept any belief system that argues that I should never have been born.  The last part of his book is an extended argument--delivered as much in sorrow than in anger--that Israel should adopt a new definition of citizenship based simply on residence, not religion, and that it abandon the idea that it can proclaim itself a "Jewish state" and provide equal justice to its 20 percent non-Jewish minority (I am referring their to the population of pre-1967 Israel, not to the occupied territories, which present even more serious problems.)  From what I can see, Israel has in fact moved further in the opposite direction since the publication of his book.  He predicted that current policies might eventually lead to violent uprisings among the Arab population of Israel proper, and such uprisings indeed took place during the last year.  On the other hand, the current Israeli government includes some Arab representation.

I should certainly add, by the way, that Sand notes that the trend towards tribalism and away from universal values is a worldwide one, and he is right about that.  

Since I am not and could not be an Israeli, it is not my place to take sides in the arguments about the ruling ideology and the future of Israel.  Sand did set me thinking, however, about what has traditionally held the United States together.  Clearly that has never been either a common religion or a belief in descent from a common gene pool--even if some of the original immigrants from Britain have felt some superiority to the rest of the citizenry during various periods.  Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision argued that only white people could be citizens, but the two dissents from his decision, as I showed years ago, left no doubt that he was wrong as a matter of law and of history.    The Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments put an end to that controversy for all time.  What occurred to me as I read Sand was this: what really makes a nation is adherence to a common set of laws.  That is why law is, or should be, so important to history.  And in the United States this principle has another dimension.  We do commit merely to obey the law for its own sake, but because our laws are founded on a novel set of principles embodied in the Constitution--one based upon the legal equality of all persons residing within the country, and upon the use of democratic procedures--voting--to select our leaders.  The founding generation purposely created the nation based upon those principles and millions of immigrants came to this country because they wanted to live under them.

Of course, we did not initially apply those principles universally.  They did not apply in some respects to women, whom the law treated unequally, to slaves, or in some instances to free black people.  Yet as I have pointed out so many times, those exceptions were not demanded, or even specifically recognized, by the Constitution, which used the universal term "persons" throughout.  The question of who could vote--including women--was left entirely to the individual states, some of whom indeed did begin to grant women the vote well before the passage of the 19th amendment.  The common law did not protect slavery--it could exist only in states that specifically sanctioned it, and before Taney's decision in Dred Scott, dozens of slaves had in fact won their freedom in court after their masters had taken them into a free state.  That is why Frederick Douglass in 1860 could argue at length, and very effectively, that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  It is also why women and their allies could argue effectively that the restriction of the suffrage to men contradicted the spirit of the founding document.

We now face a serious threat to our nation and its principles--not as serious as in the late 1850s, in my opinion, at least not yet, but serious enough.  That threat comes in the first instance from the Republican Party which is threatening to use a gap in the Constitution to overturn the will of the electorate in the next election.  In creating the electoral college the founders left the manner of the choice of electors to the states.   Nearly all of them  rapidly gave the choice to all qualified voters, but even today, nothing requires that they do so.  Several presidents, led by Andrew Jackson, called for the abolition of the electoral college and a system of direct presidential election, but this has never been adopted.  Republicans in various states are trying to undermine popular election by giving their legislatures the power to certify the vote.  I still do not believe that voting rights are seriously threatened, as they were for much of our history.  The new laws Republicans are passing are taking away relatively new ways to vote conveniently, such as by mail or in drop boxes, but they have done nothing, in my opinion, that would keep a determined voter from casting a ballot.  Democrats should use them to mobilize and organize, not to claim that the election has already been lost.  They should also use them as issues in the next round of state legislative elections to try to change the balance of power in some states and perhaps get the laws repealed.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, critical race theory and its offshoots argue that the principles and guarantees of the Constitution have never really been worth anything, and one prominent academic argues that we need a new institution, an unelected Department of Antiracism with virtually totalitarian powers, to restructure our society.  

Both these attacks on our traditions and principles threaten to destroy the American experiment--the most thoroughgoing attempt to implement the principles of the Enlightenment for the benefit of all. Both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt recognized that those principles had to succeed here to have any chance of success in the rest of the world.  We still bear that responsibility.  We can restore those principles both for ourselves and the rest of the world by returning to our best traditions.  If we do abandon them, the whole world will suffer in ways we cannot foresee. 


Bozon said...

What a topic.
I read down to this and thought to make a remark.

"...That myth holds that the Jewish people are a homogenous ethnic group descended originally from Abraham and Isaac that was scattered twice, first by the Babylonians and then in the first century A. D. by the Romans..." DK

I may be naive re the Zionist Myth, but I had studied this and learned, I thought, that the people of Israel (Samaria, also) and Judah had been scattered at least three times in historical time.

First, the Northern Kingdom, by the Assyrians (twice) and finally in 720, scattering the Northern Kingdom, and then the Southern Kingdom falling to the Babylonians in 586. And then the Romans. Which makes maybe more than three total ...

Great topic

All the best

Bozon said...

I can see that I would take issue with Sand here or there.
The Bible Unearthed was useful, re examining archaeology conflicting with Torah.
Eastern European Jews came from somewhere, probably long before the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe.
Jews were highly endogamous (in David Reich's genetic sense), both before and after the destruction of the Temple.
The Diaspora(s) and persecution and ghetto only reinforced a long established socio-genetic endogamous form of life.
Hindu micro populations are also highly endogamous (back into prehistoric times) in the absence of diaspora, and of ostracism by a larger dominant host population.

All the best

Energyflow said...

Perhaps in Eastern Europe the tradition of young marriages with large families, similar to many in 19th century or in US wilderness, would explain their fast growth instead of the proselytizing theory. One must only keep in mind the orthodox Jews, similar to conservative Catholics. It seems unlikely to me that Jews are not at all related, but come from country of origin as converts. They would have so easily been reassimilated as the religion became unfashionable again. The extreme concept of a single blood line is equally absurd. Take gypsy immigration from India through the Middle East 500 years ago. Admixture occurred by infidelity, etc so that regardless of strict religious separation on both sides a basic change occurs. Statistically geneticists could likely determine how mixed jewish populations had become with local populations throughout Middle East, Europe by scientific method. WWII and later emigrations took away much of the population making such experiments unfortunately difficult. I have also read a Jewish history and recall that the levant or Near East had converted at one point mostly to the highly popular religion. Alexandria had 1/4 million Jews. I recall how Charlie Chaplin thought it advantageous to be mistaken or taken for Jewish. Fads come and go like New Age or Wicca. However those who remained through thick and thin likely had conservative views and family connections going way back. Scientists claim levi origins of the Cohn/ Cohen priest clan going back thousands of years.

Energyflow said...

Regarding makeups of nations in general it is really a mixed bag. Turkey is supposedly quite mixed genetically, being of greco- syriac roots with a small Turkic overlay and the language and culture. Speculation runs in a similar direction for Europe. Black Sea peoples invaded 5000 years ago, mated with the women but left the original settlers there, pre- indo- European. Even the Aryan invasion is called into question by modern indologists, insisting Indians settled Russia, Mesopotamia originally, reverse flow coming perhaps later, similar to white genes in ancient African gene poool. I also read a book on Black Sea Indo European expansion which explained that Romans, Greeks, Philistines, Phoenicians, Iranians all were from there. People obviously moved and mixed considerably for example buying tin at Cornwall to make bronze in the meditteranean, perhaps settling some in the area.

America wil be hard to define. Take 20 or 30 year snapshots of random crowds, schoolclasses and notice ethnic make up. A couple million illegals from the whole planet are pouring over the border due to current policies annually. Culture and character define a nation. Constitutions are like religions. People interpret or emphasize what they choose from their holy book. If Europe ere to become Muslim or the Middle East to turn Christian or one or the other to become Hindu then these religions would radically change to accomodate tradition. Antigay texts might be taken seriously from bible in middle East or head scarfs would be seen as a false interpretation of the koran in Europe. Cow, pig eating and vegetarianism it seems would be extremely difficult traditions to change even under wholesale regional religious conversions.

America' s culture is industrialism based on majority North European culture. Universities, businesses demand high acheivers. Entrenched advantages allow exactly these people to succeed at this game. CRT advocates and similar would likely demand quotas generally for minorities. Whites and Asians would demand blind testing. The new mantra is equality of outcome, not opportunity. I recall similar problems in the other direction in Malaysia, restricting Chinese ethnics. Perhaps quotas are a solution, so long as a minority is well defined. If Asian scores are x % higher than whites and those are on average x% higher than blacks over decades then a caste system in work, income would be created which creates a vicious cycle of advantage due to resource allocation.( home tutoring, opera visits) Obviously people change, mix marry so quotas could be reviewed as ethnic definitions got redefined by the census bureau. Maybe it will all seem primitive and national definitions will be introduced with hyphen ( Irish-, Philipino-, Iranian-, Mexican- American). It seems now that tide is turning conservative on crime and immigration in democratic areas. I recall that my home state of Alaska is internally democrat but sends republicans to Washington, basic state' s rights matters and local character being the issue. Local issues need local solutions.

Bozon said...

This is the beginning of a great chunky rant paragraph which you have rehearsed as you say in the past:

"Sand argues, in short, that there is no genetically homogeneous Jewish people with a common ancestry and more than there is a Catholic one, and that proselytizing created both..." DK

It is hard to imagine a more significant distinction than the one between the people of Israel and Paul's mission to the gentiles, whom Paul conceived as Greeks and Romans, the civilized world then.

Proselytizing to include or to exclude gentiles are very different missions.

Paul had done the one, and then he did the other one. That does not make Judaism and Catholicism, genetically or otherwise, the same genetically.

Even someone like David Reich, liberal to a fault, would not dream of asserting something like this.

I don't want to get into the rest of this chunky one again, having beaten the dead Dred Scott horse in the past many times.

All the best

Bozon said...

Bobbitt did a classification, transitions, of states, the most recent being state-nations, then nation-states.
Complicated interesting erudite eye candy account.
Lincoln's Union was Bobbitt's first nation-state, and, not coincidentally for Bobbitt, the first nation-state of terror, as well.
This analysis is, for me, while captivating, maybe a little too facile, and formulaic.
Michael Howard made what was for me a cryptic remark, printed on the cover.
All the best

Bozon said...

The concept of a nation as a racially, culturally, and genetically distinctive and closed population group certainly goes back to prehistoric times.

These groups could be quite small by modern standards.

From a modern perspective, they may seem, retrospectively, almost indistinguishable.

The ancient Greek city states might be an example, although they exhibited quite distinctive characteristics, even to the modern historian.

Countless tribes everywhere consider themselves distinctive in nation-like ways.

All the best

Bozon said...

Re What makes a nation?
I think that The Nation of Israel, from the dawn of recorded history forward, is the locus classicus.
All the best