Shlomo Sand’s new book, How I Stopped Being a Jew (Verso, 2014), as he says, an extended essay (of just over 100 pages), is something that may come to be seen as very significant in years, maybe even decades to come. This Israeli writer and academic is someone of considerable courage who has braved death threats and opprobrium in Israel, not just for support for the rights of the Palestinian people, but also for his attempts to analyse the history and myths that provide the ideological, and insofar at those ideologies grip people and social classes, material basis for the oppression of the Palestinians.
Sands has written scholarly works that question in historical terms the idea that Jews were seen as in any sense a nation prior to an attempt to create a nation-like mythology for them during the mid-to-late 19th Century. His work The Invention of the Jewish People resurrected from obscurity several facts that are very inconvenient for Zionist ideologues – such as the fact that there was no exile of Jews from Palestine in late Roman times, andthat the so-called Jewish diaspora around the Mediterranean, later spreading throughout Europe and the Middle East/North Africa and even wider, was the product of widespread proselytism and conversion, not exile.
He reiterated the long-known, but historically buried understanding that many, if not most, Jews of East and Central European heritage had their ultimate origin, not from the Levant, but rather from Khazaria, an early medieval kingdom and empire of Turkic origin in the far Eastern fringe of Europe, roughly coinciding with today’s Ukraine and Caucasus region, that was converted from above by its monarchy around the 8th Century. He therefore concluded, in a manner that is really very devastating to the entire Zionist project and the racist myths that justify it, that the Palestinians were much more certain to be descendants of the ancient population of Hebrews, whose state Israel claims to be the resurrection of, than the Jewish population whose armed settler movement created Israel. This resurrection of facts at least some of which were once acknowledged by many, including by many early Zionists, turns the entire rationale for Israel upside down.
He was also the author of a sequel, also highly regarded but perhaps less well-known, titled the Invention of the Land of Israel, as well as a number of shorter essays on similar topics.
The historic importance of his new book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, is that is a part of the crystallisation of a trend among radical intellectuals of Jewish and often Israeli origin that offers the potential to provide an opening whereby the Israel-Palestine conflict can be resolved in a democratic manner. This means as a matter of democratic principle that it has to be resolved through the restoration of the full rights of the Palestinians. Sand represents a part of this broad trend, with some differences, whose most prominent representative up to now has been the Jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, representing people of Jewish origin who have come to recognise that the secular Jewish identity, which was the basis of the Zionist movement that created Israel, and which is still the mainstay of Israel’s ruling class, is empty and self-contradictory, and insofar as it has a political manifestation, harmful.
At first sight, the title of Sand’s book seems impossible – no one can ‘stop being’ a person of Jewish origin, any more than someone can stop being black, European, Chinese, or of any other ethnic background. But for Sand, it is not his ethnic origin that he is renouncing, but something else. One weakness of his book is that it is not entirely clear what, if it is not an ethnic origin, Sand is renouncing and ceasing to be.
During the first half of the 20th century, my father abandoned Talmudic school, permanently stopped going to synagogue, and regularly expressed his aversion to rabbis. At this point in my own life, in the early 21st century, I feel in turn a moral obligation to break definitively with tribal Judeocentrism. I am today fully conscious of having never been a genuinely secular Jew, understanding that such an imaginary characteristic lacks any specific basis or cultural perspective, and that its existence is based on a hollow and ethnocentric view of the world. Earlier I mistakenly believed that the Yiddish culture of the family I grew up in was the embodiment of Jewish culture. A little later, inspired by Bernard Lazare, Mordechai Anielewicz, Marcel Rayman and Marek Edelman – who all fought antisemitism, nazism and Stalinism without adopting an ethnocentric view – I identified as part of an oppressed and rejected minority. In the company, so to speak, of the socialist leader Léon Blum, the poet Julian Tuwim and many others, I stubbornly remained a Jew who had accepted this identity on account of persecutions and murderers, crimes and their victims.
Now, having painfully become aware that I have undergone an adherence to Israel, been assimilated by law into a fictitious ethnos of persecutors and their supporters, and have appeared in the world as one of the exclusive club of the elect and their acolytes, I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew.