Modern Jewish Identity Is Not Racist or Nationalist: A Letter to Shlomo Sand

The way out of Israel’s current conundrum is not to detach Israeli identity from Judaism but rather to embrace a more modern, inclusive Judaism.

In the past few years, Shlomo Sand has enraged many Jews with his thesis, laid out particularly clear in his book, "The Invention of the Jewish People," that Zionism created something called the Jewish people that didn’t and doesn’t really exist, and that it has led to the ethnocentric policies of Israel’s government within and beyond the Green Line.

Now he has followed it up with a short pamphlet, so far only available in Hebrew, called "When and Why did I stop Being Jewish?" Its basic thesis is that the ethnocentrism and racism that characterizes much of Israel’s policies are a function of the country's Jewishness, which is why Sand prefers to identify with and focus on his nationality, not his religion.

I can understand Sand’s distress about many aspects of Israeli policies. I also don't like their ethnocentric aspects and believe that Israel’s mix of religion and politics is creating an impossible situation. But Sand is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and misdiagnosing the sources of the illness.

In contrast to Sand, I don't think the deplorable aspects of Israeli politics have anything to do with Jewishness. Psychological and political research shows that human beings tend to become more nationalist and racist when they feel threatened, and unfortunately Israel is no exception to this. Since its founding, Israel has been under threat from its neighbors.

Sand’s second main argument is that there is no such thing as secular Jewish identity, hence his insistence on calling himself Israeli, not Jewish. But here, Sand is profoundly unconvincing for a number of reasons.

First for philosophical reasons: The fact that secular Jewish identity cannot be defined easily does not mean that this identity doesn’t exist – in fact most identities cannot be defined, and yet exist. Political theorist Benedict Anderson has famously argued that all nations are “imagined communities,” bound together by narratives that are generally inexact historically. That’s true for the French, the Germans, the Swiss, the Indonesians and the Chinese, just as it's true for the Jews.

Jews are no different from any other nation or ethnicity in that their identity is not easily definable. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued, most concepts rely on family resemblance rather than on clear-cut criteria – and Jewish identity is also no different in this respect.

My second disagreement with Sand is based on my own personal identity. I deeply identify with my Jewishness, even though I am an avowed atheist and have been highly critical of Israel’s occupation and settlement policy for the last 46 years. I feel absolutely no need to defend this identity against any claim – mostly coming from Jewish orthodoxy – that it is shallow. I have my own pantheon of secular Jews: Spinoza, Heine, Freud, Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt (may their memory be blessed), Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua (may they live to 120 at least).

I have no qualms whatsoever about having no easy tools to define my pantheon’s common denominators. I am willing to settle for the famous ruling of a U.S. court that allowed James Joyce’s immortal Ulysses to be published. Judge John Wolsey famously said that while he could not define pornography precisely “I know it when I see it.” Well, I may not be able to define Secular Jews precisely, but I know them when I see them.

In fact I think that modern Jewish values are the best way for Israel to change the ethnocentric and racist aspects of its policies because the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Diaspora for many decades have endorsed Universalist values.

The third reason I disagree with Sand is that there is powerful evidence that modern Judaism is generally anti-racist and anti-nationalist. Many engaged Jews, most of whom identify as Reform, Conservative or Modern Orthodox, have taken similar positions, as have rabbinical figures like Abraham Heschel, Joseph Dov Soloveichik, a central figure in Modern Orthdoxy, and British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

Secular Jews in the Diaspora have been at the forefront of the fight against racism and nationalism: Sigmund Freud worked hard to expel racism from psychiatry; Hannah Arendt’s experience as a stateless Jew made her realize that humanity needs institutions that will defend the “right to have rights” independently of nationality; French-Jewish legal scholar Rene Cassin was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the UN Declaration of Human Rights; Steven Spielberg invested much time and energy in his video-documentation of the Holocaust but also directed "Munich", a complex film that raises the question of how Israeli and Palestinian narratives can coexist, written by Jewish playwright Tony Kushner.

Israel has produced an amazing array of anti-nationalist, anti-racist, Universalist thinkers, writers, artists and politicians, both secular and religious. Here is a fairly eclectic list: Politicians Shulamit Aloni, Moshe Arens and Yossi Beilin; Philosophers Yeshayahu Leibovitz, Avishai Margalit and Moshe Halbertal; Rabbis David Hartmann, Yuval Sherlo and David Stav; Writers Amoz Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman.

Thus, I think Shlomo Sand has made a big mistake in arguing that the nationalism and racism of much of Israel’s rabbinical ultra-Orthodox establishment and many of its right-wing politicians stems from their Jewishness. The opposite is true: this ethnocentrism is an anomaly in modern Judaism, not the norm.

The way out of Israel’s current conundrum, therefore, is not to detach Israeli identity from Jewishness. This is both a historical and a psychological impossibility. The very raison d’etre of Israel’s existence is for Jews to have a state of their own and to create a safe haven for every Jew under threat somewhere in the world.

The cure for the manifestations of chauvinism and racism in Israel is to make Israelis realize that Israel’s existence and safety depends on strengthening its ties with the free world, on embracing pluralism and detaching politics from religion. The way to liberate Israel from its current woes is not to make it less Jewish, but to make it more Jewish in the modern sense: cosmopolitan, open to the world, and committed to human rights.

Shlomo Sand
Lanai Yechiel