The Uncivil Servant: Where the Hell Did We Come From?

Mitchell Abidor
April 1, 2018

Discussed in this essay: The Origin of the Jews, by Steven Weitzman. Princeton University Press, 2017, 408 pages.


AT THE END of Steven Weitzman’s Origin of the Jews, a scholarly but eminently accessible account of the search for the origin of the Jews (which we should not confuse with their beginnings), the author writes: “At the end of the day . . . it is not clear what we can say with any degree of confidence about the origin of the Jews.” There are certainties: “At some point in the past, there were no Jews in the world, and now there are.” But beyond that, Weitzman, in his careful, modest, (mostly) fair-minded way, cannot give us an answer.

He seeks it in genealogy, in archaeology, in linguistics, in psychiatry, in various visions of history, IN genetics. He presents the many and varied cases for the source of the Jews, discussing what is plausible about the various theses and what is implausible or unlikely about them.  All he can definitively state is that “[t]the Jews have one of the longest and most extensively studied histories of any population on earth” — also one of the most disputed, up to and including the proper name for the object of study. Are they to be called Jews? Even onomastics, the study of the history of names, has to be addressed.

Weitzman reports the discussion that occurred among translators concerning the correct translation of the Greek iudaios in the Bible. Its original meaning is “Judean,” which should properly be used. However, “the other side in the debate argued that translating the term as ‘Judean’ negates the evidence for historical continuity between the ancient iudaioi and later Jews.” Nothing in this search is simple. Was there continuity between the Judeans -- who certainly existed -- and the Jews of today?

For many scholars, the difference between the Judeans and the Jews is a significant one, signifying the movement from a simple ethno-tribal definition to one based on a conscious awareness of a shared set of beliefs, which can be considered a point of origin of the Jews qua Jews. But when this movement took place is subject to debate. Was it after the Persian exile? Was it the fruit of the encounter with Hellenism? Was it even a result of Christian influence?  As Weitzman shows, cases can be made for all these possibilities, and cases can be made against all these possibilities.

None of these mysteries can be solved, none of these theories finally confirmed. While some ideas about the origin of Jews can be definitively disproved -- particularly those that are a holdover from pre-World War II theories of race -- even they die hard. Recent attempts, for example, to locate Jewish genetic straisn have been (understandably) condemned for their at- least-partial reliance on notions connected to racial theory.


SCIENTIFIC DATA ARE always subject to interpretation, of course, and so cannot be taken as gospel. The results of DNA tests of Jewish groups, moreover, are quite simply all over the place and cannot be taken as an answer to the question of origins, at least not yet. Archaeological digs have also produced almost as much heat as light, and as in many of the areas that Weitzman cogently reviews, ideological  influences external to the fields examined play a strong if not preponderant role in the formation of various theories. If a historian who was formed in the revolutionary 1960s can be expected to see a revolutionary, cataclysmic source for the Jews, a religiously trained archaeologist will see the Bible as the source for all answers and the frame of reference for interpreting his findings.

For all his fairness and the scrupulousness of his analyses, however, Weitzman stumbles, and stumbles badly, on the matter of nationalism and Jewish origins. Central to this section of Origins is his critique of the leftwing Israeli historian Shlomo Sands’ controversial The Invention of the Jewish People.

Weitzman uses the Sand book, which contests nearly every element of Jewish history --  Sands questions the Roman expulsion of Jews, advocates for the Khazar thesis, insists on the importance of conversion to Judaism as a source for the Jewish population --  as a stick with which to beat Sand and other writers who view the idea of a nation and nationalism as inventions. Such writers are known as “constructivists,” as opposed to the “primordialists,” who see nationalism as an older, more natural, organic thing.

For the former group, the nation is a late event, artificially created, extolled, and spread by an intellectual elite through means of the press. Weitzman spends much time, in critiquing this point of view as applied to the Jews, by explaining the difficulties the Israeli education system has had in developing a consistent curriculum over time.

This is irrelevant to the case. The leftwing master thinker of the development of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, in his Imagined Communities, does not refer to nation states like Israel in his examination of the growth of nationalism. What is important and relevant for him is the pre-nation, pre-independence fight to develop nationalist ideas, which will then result in the formation of a national (at times nationalist) state.

This, not the struggles of Israeli educationalist Ben-Zion Dinur, are what Weitzman needed to address, and here he might have had a more difficult task. The mythos of the continuity between the Judeans and the Jews was one of the main weapons in the Zionist arsenal and continues to be so. And let us not forget that Zionism is considered by many historians to be the final flower of nineteenth century European nationalism.

From Herzl (though in a weak form), through the halutzim like David Ben-Gurion, who had a biblical quote for every situation, to the cult of Masada, Zionism is not an exception but rather a strong case for the factitiousness of nations and nationalism, and was unquestionably the fruit of intellectuals making use of the propaganda media available to them.

It was thus natural that once the state was created, Israeli and pro-Israeli archaeologists would use relics and sites as proof of their case for the historicity of the Bible, however absurd that notion might be to serious scholars. Yigal Yadin would be the perfect avatar of this, a military man wielding an archaeologist’s pickaxe, reconstructing the past of the land in accordance with the Zionist vulgate.

Weitzman, who is not shy of granting psychology a role in the development of thinkers’ ideas (which results in a surprisingly forgiving and fascinating chapter on Freud’s habitually dismissed Moses and Monotheism), seems to run off the cliff in examining this debate when he says that “constructivism and post- or anti-Zionism may correlate with each other not because one comes from the other, but because they both arise from a common psychological source -- formative experiences in the scholars’ backgrounds that shake them out of the primordialism to which they might otherwise have been predisposed.”

Such balderdash, such psychologizing of opposition thought, grants reactionary ideas automatic legitimacy explaining away the origin of opposing ideas as being the result of mental aberration is not worthy of a book so rich in ideas, so thought-provoking as The Origin of the Jews. 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.