Shlomo Sand to Secular Jews: I'm Not Jewish and Neither Are You

In his new book, the controversial historian challenges secular and anti-Zionist Jews to define their identity.

David Bachar

Perhaps the most telling passage in Shlomo Sand’s new book – “How I Stopped Being a Jew” (Verso Books, 112 pages, $16.95/£10) – comes about halfway through, when he mentions the famous meeting in 1952 between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (known by his followers as the Hazon Ish), at the time one of the most influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis. According to one version of what happened at that meeting, Rabbi Karelitz lectured Ben-Gurion that, in collisions between religion and state, the rabbis must prevail. To back this up, he cited the talmudic case of two carts blocking each other on a narrow road. The ruling is that the empty cart must give way to the full one. The inferred analogy – that secular Jews are the empty cart, devoid of heritage and learning, while only the Orthodox have any authentic Jewish culture, has been an enduring insult ever since to many Israelis.

But Sand, the controversial and iconoclastic Tel Aviv University historian, whose previous books “The Invention of the Land of Israel” and “The Invention of the Jewish People” caused furor within and outside academic circles, and who takes pride in being a total atheist, is on the rabbi’s side. Not only, he argues, is there no Jewish culture that is not derived from religiosity, but the very notion of secular Judaism is indeed an empty one, since no such thing exists. His new book, actually a moderately long essay, should instead have been called “Why I Never Was a Jew,” since Sand is emphatic that nothing he has ever believed in has really been Jewish. His entire life, or as much of it as comes to light in what is also an abbreviated autobiography, led up to the moment he realized his total lack of a Jewish identity.

But more than anything else, while reading Sand’s new book, I felt I was a religious affairs reporter once again, back in the days when I read the ultra-Orthodox newspapers daily. Sand could have easily been a pundit for one of them. I don’t mean those of the rabidly anti-Israel Neturei Karta sect, but the more mainstream Haredi publications, like Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia and Mahane Haredi, whose standard line is to deride and denigrate any manifestation of Jewish secularity.

Just like the Haredi ideologues, Sand denies there is such a thing as Jewish secular culture. No achievement of Jewish secularists, he says, can be regarded as being Jewish, but is, rather, universal or belonging to the nations where they took place. The involvement of people of Jewish ancestry to him is totally incidental. This is classic Haredi thinking: Judaism and Jewishness only manifest in rabbinically prescribed religious practice – everything else is goyishe stuff.

Once again, Sand’s most recent offering has caused much anger, particularly among Israelis and Jewish supporters of Israel from the right. This time most of the fury has been directed at his characterization of Israel as “one of the most racist societies in the Western world” in a shortened version of the book that appeared in The Guardian. But while that is only to be expected, the new non-Jewish Sand poses little threat to the right wing; it is Jewish secular leftists he is challenging, particularly the anti-Zionist ones.

Emil Salman

I realized this at a lecture he gave last month at the London Middle East Institute and the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Nearly 300 people came to listen to Sand talk about his new book; a great many of them of that specific demographic that, for want of a better description, can be labeled “conflicted Jews.” In the Q&A part of the lecture, two of them asked Sand, with real pain in their voices, “instead of stopping being a Jew, why didn’t you write ‘How I Stopped Being an Israeli?’”

They simply couldn’t understand how their admired writer, who has dedicated a major part of his writing career to dismantling what he sees as the fake mythology of Jewish nationalism, and lambasting the Israeli state, could deny the Jewish part of his identity in favor of his Israeli one. But Sand has done the opposite of what they expected of him (and some of them have actually done themselves). Not only has he constructed for himself a new form of Israeli identity, but he denies these secular, progressive, non-Zionist Jews their intellectual integrity. He ridicules those who claim to be upholding Jewish values while criticizing Israel, and writes that they are no different from “overt pro-Zionists.” These “anti-Zionist Jews” who have never lived in Israel, he writes, “claim a particular right, different from that of non-Jews, to make accusations against Israel.” Living in their “diaspora,” a term he dismisses with quotation marks, they are “granting themselves the privilege of actively intervening in decisions regarding the future and fate of Israel.”

No universalist ethics

Sand denies the special right of secular non-Zionists to band together as Jews, as they do in dozens of organizations and forums, and sit in judgment of Israel. He goes further, accusing them of the same sin as Jewish nationalists; of trying to claim that there is something special or better about their Judaism. “But Zionism did pick up a lot of things from Judaism,” he argues. “And even if Zionism is not Judaism, it doesn’t mean that Judaism is an ethical religion – Judaism doesn’t allow marrying a non-Jew. Jewish ethics are not the ethics I dream of, it’s not universalist ethics.”

Sand here is echoing both the ultra-Orthodox, who accuse the secular of transplanting foreign ideals into “authentic” Judaism, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who famously said, “the leftists have forgotten what it is to be Jews.” Sand wants Jews to choose: You can be either religious or nationalist (or both), but if you are neither, then you are not Jewish. And don’t bother him with talk of Jewish ancestry and DNA, because if that’s your alternative, then your definition of Jewishness is racial, just like the anti-Semites.

There is nothing ethical about Judaism, says Sand, blasting away the much cherished liberal notion of tikkun olam – if it’s enlightened, then it’s universal, and therefore not Jewish. The long lists of brave Jewish revolutionaries and human rights advocates so beloved of progressive Jews mean nothing, he claims. If anything, they were denying their parochial Jewish roots and joining a bigger and better global brotherhood of man and woman.

Sand is the scourge of anti-Zionist secular Jews. Criticize Israel, by all means, he tells them; but if you identify yourselves as Jews when doing so, you’re phonies. You don’t get any special moral standing just by accident of birth. You are no better than the goyim.

He of course does have a special right to excoriate Israel. He is an Israeli and prefers the citizenship of Israel to being a Jew, despite Israel’s many faults, and racism that leads him to believe it will “perhaps soon” be as bad as “1930s Germany” (though not 1940s, he insists). His vision of a better Israel is simply a less Jewish one. “I grew up there and lived there,” and these ties bind him forever: “My culture is Israeli culture” (yes, there is such a thing). He even ends the book with Theodor Herzl’s exhortation, “If you will it, it is no legend.”

Mirroring the right

And here is his next major letdown for the anti-Zionist left. Of course, Sand wants Israel to relinquish its notions of Jewish supremacy and end the occupation, in the hope that it will end the conflict with the Palestinians; but he isn’t willing to accept the Palestinian narrative. Many of the audience were distressed to hear that he opposes the Palestinian “right of return” because “it’s a denial of the existence of the State of Israel.” This led an astonished British-Palestinian academic to say to him, “I really liked you until you said that.”

How awful for her that this fierce critic of Jewish nationalism refuses to embrace Palestinian nationalism instead. She would have been devastated if she knew that Sand agrees with the Zionist right that the Palestinian people are an invention. In 2012, he said in a Haaretz interview that “the Palestinians were Arabs who lived in this region for hundreds of years. Zionist colonization forged the Palestinian people.” Many of his arguments against a return of the Palestinian refugees mirror those used by the right.

He says that Israel’s War of Independence was just like other “wars of the 1940s that kicked out minorities,” and the Palestinians don’t deserve any special right of return just because unlike those expelled in other wars, they were forced to remain refugees. He blames the Arab states for perpetuating the refugee problem, along with Israel for creating it. “The Arabs kept these children in the camps and they have their responsibility, also with their nice solidarity. Let these people go out of this shit of the camps.”

Sand advocates equal rights for all Israeli citizens; indeed, one of his reasons for proclaiming he is not a Jew is that he doesn’t want to belong to one set of “privileged” Israelis. But at one point in his lecture, he echoed Avigdor Lieberman, when he raised the following fear: “What if the Arabs in Galilee want to have a Kosovo?” He also rejects the Israel = apartheid equation much beloved of the anti-Zionist left; not because Israel is any less racist in his reckoning, but because unlike South Africa, which could not exist without its black population, Israel’s economy is robust enough to do without the Palestinians.

Sand’s challenge to secular Jews who refuse to be defined by religious belief and practice is a strong and eloquent one. In the absence of religion, he claims, there are only ersatz identities, such as clinging to memories of persecution, which has largely disappeared from the world. Everyone wants to be a survivor, he says, that’s the real “Holocaust industry.” Or else Jewishness in this day and age is defined by one’s artificial relationship with Israel, whether it’s support or repudiation.

Sand takes advantage of a peculiar vulnerability of today’s non-religious Jews – their failure to articulate what it means to be Jewish in a century where no one is trying to shut them into a ghetto or murder them. Being Jewish without religion, he insists, means living in the past; it has no base in the present or future.

But his insistence that if it cannot be defined, then it does not exist, is also his weakest point.

Just like the Haredi outlook, Sand’s perspective of Judaism is a fundamentalist one. He disregards the fact that ultra-Orthodoxy is also just another reinvention of Judaism – in this case a reaction to the 18th-century Enlightenment and the auto-emancipation of the next two centuries. In every generation, Jews fought with the contradictions of their faith and allowed themselves to pick and choose. It was always a nebulous identity, but never the weaker for that.

The identity of the skeptics and the heretics and the rebels was Jewish, precisely because they chose it to be, and denied the rabbis the right to decide for them. Who can deny them that?

Sand implores his readers to allow him not to be Jewish; that should be his right. But at the same time, he cedes the right to define who is a Jew to the rabbis. To win his freedom to define himself as he chooses, he wants to deprive the rest of us of our freedom to remain Jews on our own terms.