Watching the recent toll of civilian deaths in Gaza rise ever higher, it is a hideously apt time to review the latest text from the controversial Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand. In How I Stopped Being a Jew, Sand turns his historical gaze to exploring issues of Jewish identity: who or what is a Jew? Is there any coherence to contemporary Jewish identity, and can one stop being a Jew? This is the third, and shortest, book in his purposefully provocative trilogy on the history of “the” Jewish people.
In the explosive opening to that series, The Invention of the Jewish People (2009), Sand argued that what he calls Zionist historiography is primarily a set of myths that distort the actual history of Jews, Judaism and their relation to historic Palestine. The concept of “the Jewish people”, he contended, conceals the historical evidence that Jews worldwide have no genuine common heritage, owing to the conversions to Judaism that occurred in Europe during Judaism’s triumphant crusading practices in the ancient world. This provoked one Jewish geneticist, Harry Ostrer, to point to shared genetic threads among members of this Semitic tribe, even as another, the Israeli-born Eran Elhaik, claimed to identify European genes in support of Sand’s more complex account of Jewish “origins”. Moreover, Sand said, it cannot be religion, rather than origin, that unites Jewish “people”, when so many Jews are secular and even religious Jews differ significantly in practices and beliefs.
In the second book of the trilogy, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (2012), Sand probed historical and biblical texts to show that even the geographical location of the “Land of Israel” was invented, or partially so. The idea of this promised land is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament, while references to the Land of Canaan embrace only northern Israel (Samari), excluding Jerusalem, Hebron and Bethlehem. This geographical uncertainty about Israel’s borders continues to this day, to put it mildly: for some, its boundaries include the whole of the West Bank, and for others it extends right into Jordan. Sand highlighted the weird irony that the classic Zionists, who emerged in Europe only in the late 19th century, were predominantly secular Jews who did not believe in God, yet who invoked the truth of God’s promise of a holy land for the Jews. Furthermore, God’s promises to these secular Zionists kept growing, suggesting that he offered Abraham and his descendants not only what is now northern Israel but also land rights extending from “the river of Egypt unto the Euphrates”, thereby including parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. These “promises”, Sand concluded, are the product of Zionist mythology. What else could they be?
Here, Sand returns to that tricky question, Jewish identity. What shared history, beliefs, practices or experiences might cohere to constitute it, however loosely? When asked about this issue more than a decade ago, Sand says he responded by suggesting: “History has left its mark on Jews…Hostility towards them in modern times has given Jews a specific identity, which has to be taken into account and respected.” Most Jews today would agree. However, Sand now questions his earlier response, suggesting that, except in marginal pockets, the horrific Judaeophobia of the past no longer exists in Western cultures. No longer do Jews in most parts of the world display what he recalls his father describing as “that fleeting and sad look, the sign of fear and apprehension” that marked the face of the European Jew in the late 1940s. Sand’s critics today would point to the rise of anti-Semitism once again in Europe, although this increase itself certainly reflects the rise and fall of conflict in the Middle East, and is far from orchestrated by Western elites.
Of course, Sand knows that the tragedies of the first half of the 20th century both explain and are exploited to nurture Jews’ emotional ties to Israel. But this hardly gives “Jewishness” any “ethnic core”, he reflects, given the deep diversity of cultural, religious and secular practices of those expressing such ties. Indeed, it was Israel itself, he argues, which did more to destroy than to preserve Jewish cultural traditions, working hard at least in its early decades to shame and obliterate the Yiddish language, culture and practices of so many Jews arriving there from Europe. A law forbidding European Jews from staging public performances in Yiddish greeted the Holocaust survivors who made it to Israel in 1949, although this was for most their mamaloshen – their mother tongue. Sand recalls that he was one of very few students prepared to admit that he spoke “the wretched language of exile” when attending university in the early 1970s. Other forms of disdain and humiliation greeted the cultural ways of “Oriental” Jews arriving from Arab countries such as Iraq or Morocco, despite their being, in the main, more traditional in their religious practices than the typically more secular Yiddish speakers. The Zionist enterprise was determined to create its own Jewish identity, with scant attachment to the cultural baggage of either “God-fearing”, rabbinical Jewry or the Talmudic rabbis of antiquity. “What mattered now,” Sand argues, “was to be Israeli or, more precisely, Hebrew.” This meant affirming the bold “identity marks of the virile sabra”, while “the old Jewish tradition became the object of thinly veiled contempt not devoid of hypocrisy” – given those Talmudic promises ratifying Israeli land rights.
With its Western backing, the speedy agricultural and military success of the Zionist enterprise strengthened the production of what Sand sees as its shifting fabrications and hypocrisies, including the intransigent refusal (as in the Israeli-funded film Shoah) to acknowledge the 5 million non-Jews who were massacred or died in extermination camps as victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Sand argues persuasively that it is the constant evocation of this “uniquely Jewish victim” (emerging in Israel only after the victory of the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967) that is deployed to justify Israel’s ever-mounting colonial ambition, as it steals further swathes of Palestinian land. Meanwhile, the Israeli elite stubbornly refuse to embark seriously on any lasting settlement with the Palestinians it has dispossessed, while treating those who remain in Israel as second-class citizens, or worse, pursuing the goal of an exclusively Jewish state.
The arguments presented here certainly explain why Sand feels he no longer wants to be a “Jew” in a place where that identity means “fundamentally and above all else, not being an Arab”. He rejects the injustices of a country that in principle belongs more “to non-Israelis than to its citizens who live there”, since Jews around the world are welcomed in, claiming prerogatives denied to non-Jewish Israelis. He also highlights how Zionist mythology has tried to fashion a new “Israeli” identity, which it falsely presents to the world as fundamentally “Jewish”.
However, what this book fails to deliver is any understanding of recent work on the shaky nature of all identities. It is not only Jewish identity that is shifting, contradictory and fractured. We gain our identities only through the ways in which we are positioned by others, and then spend our lifetimes trying to stabilise (or resist) them in our own differing ways. As an Israeli, Sand can present cogent reasons for refusing to identify as a Jew. But the world at large will never see him as anything else. Meanwhile, not living in Israel, and being of Jewish descent, has given some of us, myself included, cogent reasons to claim our diverse inheritances in order to say to Israel, “Not in our name”. As a tiny handful of Jews have done recently, Sand can choose to burn his Israeli passport. It is harder for him to shed completely the complicated heritage of his “Jewishness”.
“I live in Tel Aviv with my wife Varda Sand, a painter, and our daughter Liel, a student,” says Shlomo Sand, emeritus professor of history at Tel Aviv University. His city “is very ugly but very lively and even quite sexy. The most beautiful thing in it is the space without buildings – I mean the beach.”
Austrian-born Sand moved with his family to Israel in 1948. As a child, he was “an obsessive reader but didn’t like school”, and was expelled at 16. “The reason is banal: I was a bad pupil who didn’t understand what the teachers wanted from me.” He entered Tel Aviv as an undergraduate at 25 “after being in the army, in the war, and spending a few years as a worker. I was certainly quite different from my fellow students: I continued not to listen my teachers, just as in high school. This time it worked better.”
His latest work is much shorter than the best-selling books that preceded it. “People complained that I was writing overly long stories,” Sand says. “This time I decided, for the first time, to write without footnotes. In the beginning it was like walking without crutches for a lame person; later it became easier, because this one is much more a personal story and a kind of conclusion to the two before it.”
In daily life, Sand experiences “sometimes a lot of hostility. But it is much more for my ideological views than the political ones. Saying that the Jews are not a people-race and are not the descendants of the ancient Hebrews is a greater sin than fighting against the occupation.”
Does he see himself as a brave person? “If I compare myself to my colleague-professors, yes indeed. If I compare myself to my personal heroes, not at all.”
Asked if he believes his daughter will inherit a better Israel, Sand replies, “Unfortunately no. But as a historian I am a prophet of the past, not of the future, and my hope is that I am wrong.”