How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand, book review

Why secular Jewish identity is a contemporary delusion

In or out? Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men read from a religious book
In or out? Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men read from a religious book

If politics today is often identity politics, the renunciation of a particular identity is inevitably a controversial act. Just as ex-Muslims such as Ayan Hirsii Ali act as lightning rods for fierce arguments over the place of Muslims in the modern world, ex-Jews such as Gilad Atzmon provoke vituperative debates over contemporary Israel and anti-Semitism.

In some ways, the Jewish identity refusenik Shlomo Sand does not deserve to be lumped in with Hirsii Ali and Atzmon. He does not present his renunciation as a heroic act. He does not imply that Jewish identity is necessarily perverse and evil. He does not deny or condone the history of anti-Semitism. What Sand does argue, though, is that contemporary secular Jewish identity is at best a delusion and at worst (in the case of Israeli secular Jewish identity) an insidious form of racism. For Sand, the only viable Jewish identity is a believing, religious Jewish identity – and he is not a believer.

While Sand's argument in this slim volume rests in part on his personal experience, it is the corollary of his previous work as a historian. A Professor at Tel Aviv University, he has in recent years received considerable notoriety for his books The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel.

The thesis that he developed in those books can be easily summarised: the idea of a single "Jewish people", tracing their origins back to ancient Israel, is a myth. Jews are an ethnically and racially varied collection of peoples, whose irreducible diversity was elided by the Zionists in their successful attempt to legitimise their colonisation of Palestine.

Despite the considerable controversy over his work, it is little more than the Israeli version of the deconstructions of national identity that have enriched historical research in recent decades. Israeli/Jewish identity is as historically "invented" as every other national identity is. In How I Stopped Being A Jew, Sand goes much further. He argues that secular Jewish identity can only be based on two things, persecution (being "forced" into being a Jew whether one likes it or not, as in the Nazi's racial laws) or being "born" into the Jewish people. The former is no longer an issue and the latter is based on a myth that is not only untenable, but "tribal" and "ethnocentric" into the bargain. If one is intellectually honest, there is simply nothing left on which to base a secular Jewish identity.

To the obvious objection that there are today and have been in the past many secular Jews, Sand is simply dismissive: there is no such thing as secular Jewish culture. He asserts that while writers such as Pinter, Kafka and Koestler may have had Jewish origins, that fact is entirely incidental to their work.

There is an ironic echo here of orthodox Jewish dismissals of secular Jewishness. Sand similarly dismisses the lingering involvement in Jewish "religious" rituals by many secular Jews as mere nostalgia. But the book is on stronger ground in his critique of Israeli Jewish identity. He yearns for a civil Israeli identity that can encompass the country's substantial non-Jewish minority. Sand retains an affection for Israeli/Hebrew culture but rejects Zionist efforts to treat it as intrinsically Jewish. There are many in Israel – including Jews – who would agree with him.

It is wrong to accuse Sand of anti-Semitism. However, there's no doubt that his example will be lauded by anti-Semites, just as ex-Muslims are used by Islamophobes. As a personal act, the renunciation of an identity is entirely legitimate, but when renunciation is treated as a model for others to follow, bigotry inevitably follows.

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