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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Shlomo Sand: ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew’

Shlomo Sand: ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew’

Shlomo Sand: ‘I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew’

past was Jewish, but today he sees Israel as one of the most racist
societies in the western world. Historian Shlomo Sand explains why he
doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore

  • The Guardian,

Shlomo Sands

‘When I am far
from Israel, I see my street corner in Tel Aviv and look forward to the
moment I can return to it’ … Shlomo Sand. Photograph: Gali

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

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.

Although the state of Israel is not disposed to transform my official
nationality from “Jew” to “Israeli”, I dare to hope that kindly
philosemites, committed Zionists and exalted anti-Zionists, all of them
so often nourished on essentialist conceptions, will respect my desire
and cease to catalogue me as a Jew. As a matter of fact, what they think
matters little to me, and still less what the remaining antisemitic
idiots think. In the light of the historic tragedies of the 20th
century, I am determined no longer to be a small minority in an
exclusive club that others have neither the possibility nor the
qualifications to join.

By my refusal to be a Jew, I represent a species in the course of
disappearing. I know that by insisting that only my historical past was
Jewish, while my everyday present (for better or worse) is Israeli, and
finally that my future and that of my children (at least the future I
wish for) must be guided by universal, open and generous principles, I
run counter to the dominant fashion, which is oriented towards

As a historian of the modern age, I put forward the hypothesis that
the cultural distance between my great-grandson and me will be as great
or greater than that separating me from my own great-grandfather. All
the better! I have the misfortune of living now among too many people
who believe their descendants will resemble them in all respects,
because for them peoples are eternal – a fortiori a race-people such as the Jews.

I am aware of living in one of the most racist societies in the
western world. Racism is present to some degree everywhere, but in
Israel it exists deep within the spirit of the laws. It is taught in
schools and colleges, spread in the media, and above all and most
dreadful, in Israel the racists do not know what they are doing and,
because of this, feel in no way obliged to apologise. This absence of a
need for self-justification has made Israel a particularly prized
reference point for many movements of the far right throughout the
world, movements whose past history of antisemitism is only too well

To live in such a society has become increasingly intolerable to me,
but I must also admit that it is no less difficult to make my home
elsewhere. I am myself a part of the cultural, linguistic and even
conceptual production of the Zionist enterprise, and I cannot undo this.
By my everyday life and my basic culture I am an Israeli. I am not
especially proud of this, just as I have no reason to take pride in
being a man with brown eyes and of average height. I am often even
ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel
military colonisation, with its weak and defenceless victims who are not
part of the “chosen people”.

Earlier in my life I had a fleeting utopian dream that a Palestinian
Israeli should feel as much at home in Tel Aviv as a Jewish American
does in New York. I struggled and sought for the civil life of a Muslim
Israeli in Jerusalem to be similar to that of the Jewish French person
whose home is in Paris. I wanted Israeli children of Christian African
immigrants to be treated as the British children of immigrants from the
Indian subcontinent are in London. I hoped with all my heart that all
Israeli children would be educated together in the same schools. Today I
know that my dream is outrageously demanding, that my demands are
exaggerated and impertinent, that the very fact of formulating them is
viewed by Zionists and their supporters as an attack on the Jewish
character of the state of Israel, and thus as antisemitism.

Palestinians crossing the border into Egypt

‘I am often
ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel
military colonisation, with its weak and defenceless victims who are not
part of the “chosen people”,’ writes Shlomo Sand.

Photograph: Hatem Moussa/AP

However, strange as it may seem, and in contrast to the locked-in
character of secular Jewish identity, treating Israeli identity as
politico-cultural rather than “ethnic” does appear to offer the
potential for achieving an open and inclusive identity. According to the
law, in fact, it is possible to be an Israeli citizen without being a
secular “ethnic” Jew, to participate in its “supra-culture” while
preserving one’s “infra-culture”, to speak the hegemonic language and
cultivate in parallel another language, to maintain varied ways of life
and fuse different ones together. To consolidate this republican
political potential, it would be necessary, of course, to have long
abandoned tribal hermeticism, to learn to respect the Other and welcome
him or her as an equal, and to change the constitutional laws of Israel
to make them compatible with democratic principles.

Most important, if it has been momentarily forgotten: before we put
forward ideas on changing Israel’s identity policy, we must first free
ourselves from the accursed and interminable occupation that is leading
us on the road to hell. In fact, our relation to those who are
second-class citizens of Israel is inextricably bound up with our
relation to those who live in immense distress at the bottom of the
chain of the Zionist rescue operation. That oppressed population, which
has lived under the occupation for close to 50 years, deprived of
political and civil rights, on land that the “state of the Jews”
considers its own, remains abandoned and ignored by international
politics. I recognise today that my dream of an end to the occupation
and the creation of a confederation between two republics, Israeli and
Palestinian, was a chimera that underestimated the balance of forces
between the two parties.

Increasingly it appears to be already too late; all seems already
lost, and any serious approach to a political solution is deadlocked.
Israel has grown used to this, and is unable to rid itself of its
colonial domination over another people. The world outside,
unfortunately, does not do what is needed either. Its remorse and bad
conscience prevent it from convincing Israel to withdraw to the 1948
frontiers. Nor is Israel ready to annex the occupied territories
officially, as it would then have to grant equal citizenship to the
occupied population and, by that fact alone, transform itself into a
binational state. It’s rather like the mythological serpent that
swallowed too big a victim, but prefers to choke rather than to abandon

Does this mean I, too, must abandon hope? I inhabit a deep
contradiction. I feel like an exile in the face of the growing Jewish
ethnicisation that surrounds me, while at the same time the language in
which I speak, write and dream is overwhelmingly Hebrew. When I find
myself abroad, I feel nostalgia for this language, the vehicle of my
emotions and thoughts. When I am far from Israel, I see my street corner
in Tel Aviv and look forward to the moment I can return to it. I do not
go to synagogues to dissipate this nostalgia, because they pray there
in a language that is not mine, and the people I meet there have
absolutely no interest in understanding what being Israeli means for me.

In London it is the universities and their students of both sexes,
not the Talmudic schools (where there are no female students), that
remind me of the campus where I work. In New York it is the Manhattan
cafes, not the Brooklyn enclaves, that invite and attract me, like those
of Tel Aviv. And when I visit the teeming Paris bookstores, what comes
to my mind is the Hebrew book week organised each year in Israel, not
the sacred literature of my ancestors.

My deep attachment to the place serves only to fuel the pessimism I
feel towards it. And so I often plunge into despondency about the
present and fear for the future. I am tired, and feel that the last
leaves of reason are falling from our tree of political action, leaving
us barren in the face of the caprices of the sleepwalking sorcerers of
the tribe. But I cannot allow myself to be completely fatalistic. I dare
to believe that if humanity succeeded in emerging from the 20th century
without a nuclear war, everything is possible, even in the Middle East.
We should remember the words of Theodor Herzl, the dreamer responsible
for the fact that I am an Israeli: “If you will it, it is no legend.”

As a scion of the persecuted who emerged from the European hell of
the 1940s without having abandoned the hope of a better life, I did not
receive permission from the frightened archangel of history to abdicate
and despair. Which is why, in order to hasten a different tomorrow, and
whatever my detractors say, I shall continue to write.

• This is an edited extract from How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand, published by Verso at £9.99. Buy it for £7.49 at Sand will discuss the book at SOAS, University of London on 14 October,

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