“Is not the very fact of defining oneself as a Jew within the State of Israel an act of affiliation to a privileged caste which creates intolerable injustices around itself?” the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand asks, and in turn answers in the affirmative in the very title of his latest book, How I Stopped Being a Jew.
Sand is speaking as a secular Israeli Jew, an atheist, who ultimately rejects the idea that he belongs to a certain ethnos simply by virtue of matrilineal descent.
The bulk of the book is devoted to how he came to this conclusion — but as to why, that story is relatively simple. His epiphany began inside Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv when he witnessed a Palestinian citizen of Israel being escorted away by security agents while he breezed through check-in, his Jewish nationality stamped on his Israeli identity card.
Sand seeks to renounce the privileges that come with being Jewish in Israel, including being identified with the state itself, being able to own land non-Jews cannot, hold jobs non-Jews cannot, live in communities where non-Jews are not allowed, establish colonies on land that does not belong to you and resting assured that you will never be tortured or have your home demolished.
Sand teaches contemporary history at Tel Aviv University. He is best known for The Invention of the Jewish People (2009) and The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012). Both of those works did much to demolish Zionist propaganda myths.
Despite the provocative title, The Invention of the Jewish People is a scholarly inquiry into historiography — how history is written — that shows how histories of Judaism and the Jewish people changed over time. Only recently, Sand found, did Zionist-influenced historians weave a narrative myth of the Jewish people being forcibly exiled from Israel after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, wandering in the Diaspora until the Zionist movement finally succeeded in returning them to their “rightful, ancestral home” in 1948.
Sand shows what credible scholars of Jewish history have long known: that there’s no evidence of a mass forced exile by the Roman Empire and that Judaism spread to various parts of the world because it was a proselytizing religion at times in its history, aided by the conversion to Judaism of the rulers of several kingdoms.
Similarly, The Invention of the Land of Israel debunks the notion that ancient Israel was a nation-state, as we conceive of it today, promised to the Jews by God. Sand focuses on biblical texts that suggest the writers of those texts conceived of Israel as the land of monotheism in constant clashes with idolatrous or polytheistic religions, not as a nation-state or homeland of a particular tribe or ethnic group. He shows that, for centuries, most religious Jews did not conceive of the Holy Land as an actual place on earth. Only with the advent of nationalism and nationalist movements in the 19th century did a narrative emerge that depicted ancient Israel as a nation-state.
How I Stopped Being a Jew is a departure from Sand’s scholarly works. It’s a personal, reflective and brief essay in which he describes, often anecdotally, how he arrived at his decision to stop identifying as a Jew. Sand concedes that for a long time he held on to the belief that as long as anti-Semitism existed in the world, he would identify as a secular Jew because the anti-Semite would identify him as a Jew anyway, a formulation made famous by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Jew and Anti-Semite. “And yet,” Sand writes, “as the years have passed, and in view of the radicalization of Israeli politics … my assurance in this definition of my identity has steadily eroded.”
One incident, in particular, played a role in his growing doubts. While living in France, a controversy erupted when Zionists protested the inclusion of a representative of the Roma people at a university conference on the Nazi genocide. Sand’s research showed that the Nazis exterminated roughly the same percentage of European Roma as they did European Jews — that is, almost totally. This attempted misuse of historical memory to focus exclusively on Jews, rather than to recognize the massive extermination of others, such as the Roma and nearly 2.5 million Polish Catholics, contributed to his unease at identifying himself as a secular Jew.
Sand recognizes that Nazism was more than just a radical racist movement, targeting Jews, Slavs and Roma, but also was unique for its extreme Social Darwinism. The Nazi quest for an Aryan utopia, for example, resulted in the murders of 300,000 mentally ill and cognitively disabled people who were the first to be killed with gas.
Sand charges that by making the genocide appear to be exclusively anti-Semitic, Zionism attempts to cast the Jewish people as perpetual victims and renders Hitler and Nazism as just another in a long line of persecutors. The result, he argues, is that the focus remains on the Jewish Holocaust, Nazism escapes the special scrutiny it deserves and Zionist propaganda can attempt to portray the Palestinians as the new Nazis.
Critique of modern identity politics
Under Israeli law, Sand cannot change the Jewish nationality on his identity card unless he converts to another religion. Since he’s not religious, he’s stuck with the nationality designation, which Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, conceived as a way of creating a Jewish ethnocratic state while seeming to grant democracy for non-Jews. But Sand notes that even the Israeli government has difficulty defining what a Jew is, in effect, leaving the decision to religious criteria. This, he says, “explains the growing need, in the official identity policy of the State of Israel, to preserve religious customs.”
How I Stopped Being a Jew is ultimately a critique of modern identity politics, which the author describes as “packed with barbed wires, walls and roadblocks that define and limit collectives great and small.”
His own choice, given that he lives in what he describes as “one of the most racist societies in the Western world,” is to resign from being a member of “a fictitious ethnos of persecutors,” while continuing to write books that might one day help revive his dream of a “confederation between two republics, Israeli and Palestinian,” based on equal rights for all.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.