Review – How I Stopped Being a Jew

Neil Rogall reviews How I Stopped Being a Jew, the third part of Shlomo Sand’s trilogy of books about Zionism and Israel.

Photo: Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Photo: Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Shlomo Sand
How I Stopped Being a Jew
Verso, £9.99

This is the third part of a trilogy. The previous installments, The Invention of The Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel were grenades thrown into the heart of Zionist mythology about Israel and Jewish history. The first showed that the whole notion of a Jewish exile from Palestine was mythical. Further, the masses of Jews living today are descendants of converts who have no inherited link with the “Holy Land” whatsoever.

The second work traced the way that the notion of “a return to Zion” became a physical event rather than one that would take place at the end of the world. The most interesting part was his mapping the role of Christian Zionism in the development of this, something I had never been aware of before.

The this volume however is much more personal:  a cry from the heart.  There are two main arguments that dominate this short book.

The first is that being a “Jew” in Israel makes you part of an elite ethnic group. Jews around the world can get an Israeli passport and citizenship on demand but Palestinian citizens, over 20% of the Israeli population, are treated as unwanted aliens. The Israeli cabinet last November defined Israel ‘as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”. Sand argues that to be a Jew in Israel is the same as being a white southerner under Jim Crow or an Afrikaner in Apartheid South Africa. This is why he “stopped being a Jew”; he is renouncing his “privilege”.  The difficulty is he wants to continue to be an Israeli.

He is well aware that Israel is one of the most racist countries on earth and that the state oppresses and murders Palestinians both within and without the “green line” with impunity. Sand’s solution to this is that Israel within the pre 1967 borders becomes a “state for all its people”, a “republican state” and ends its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  In other words he is for a “dezionised” version of the 2 state solution. Sand’s difficulty is that even within his own framework he has no agency for change, except rationality and good will, something sorely lacking in most Jewish Israelis.  His is a deeply pessimistic account.

But the bigger issue is that Israel is not a horrendous place because it is “Jewish” but because it is a colonial settler state. This is built into its DNA. Yet he is very dismissive of those calling for a single democratic state in the whole of mandate Palestine since Israelis are “too racist”.

Similarly he is hostile to those Jews around the world who play an important role in the Palestinian movement worldwide because he believes that our Jewish identities are “fake”.

They are phony because, he argues, there is no such thing as a secular Jew. According to Sand there is no common spoken language, no Jewish way of life, contemporary poetry, literature or philosophy that is not dependent on religion.  What people often take as Jewish culture is Yiddish but this culture was destroyed. In Israel a militaristic Jewish Israeli culture has been created which bears no relationship to Jewish life outside Israel.

He contrasts this with the situation before the 19th century. Until then, being Jewish meant worshipping a particular god, stubbornly following a host of religious commands and undertaking a series of prayers. But the rise of scientific racism transformed this religious identity.  Now you were born “part of a Jewish people” and stayed a Jew irrespective of what you did, believed or created. This notion of an essentialist “Jewish people” for him indicates that Hitler won the ideological argument.

This argument has its attractions but is flawed.  Attractive because of what passes for being a Jew in the west is often simply the last remnants of Yiddish culture or an obsession with supporting Israel. I’m not sure what else there is. Nonetheless I think it is faulty because its places belief as the determinant of being. Identities change and transform under the pressure of lived experience. That doesn’t make them “fake”.

Although I have picked on some of the weaknesses of Shlomo Sand’s book I would still recommend people read it. It is a delightful read, written in easily navigated language, far from the often-academic tone of his two earlier books. It raises lots of questions and informs argument on all sorts of issues about Jewish identity and the colonial settler regime in Palestine.

There are 2 comments

  1. Michael Rosen

    There’s something perverse (in the true sense of the word) about Jews saying they’re not Jewish, taking a very, very long time to say it, whilst writing about the history and culture and politics of various kinds of Jews. Of course, there isn’t (and never was) one kind of Jew. On the other hand it’s absurd to deny that groups of Jews in various parts of the world have not developed some kind of common habits. It’s no big deal. It’s just what people do over time and space. And you don’t have to be ‘essentialist’ about it. We are all intercultural beings, fusing and adapting what we find and what we make. Some of the most ‘stuck’ people are the ones going on and on and on about how they’re ‘NOT’ something.

  2. Michael Rosen

    Incidentally, Emma-Louise Williams and I have just put to bed a Radio 3 doc for Jan 11 on Zola in England. This moment brought together three crises in Zola’s life: his involvement in the Dreyfus case, his move away from ‘naturalism’ to ‘romans à thèse’ and his personal dilemmas with what was a kind of de facto bigamy. The more you look at Zola’s stand on the Dreyfus case, the more it becomes clear that there was something gloriously brave and ‘pure’ about the way he stuck to his guns that it was a matter to do with truth and justice, even as the huge anti-semitic groupings said that Dreyfus was guilty because he was Jewish. Zola himself had started out with a kind of ‘conventional’ anti-semitism (he manifests that in his novel ‘L’Argent’ (where else?!) but then slowly became appalled by the level and fury of anti-semitism in France in the 1890s. (He wrote two liberal articles against anti-semitism). Then some time after the pro-Dreyfus group had tried to get justice for Dreyfus, he joined in. He politicised the campaign by accusing the government and the military high command of conspiracy. When Zola himself was found guilty of libelling the military by saying this he fled to England. In the meantime, in France he had always been depicted by the right as a sewer-loving pig (for writing ‘obscene’ fiction) and now his ‘pig-ness’ was attached to their anti-semitism towards him. He was the ‘jew-lover’ the prisoner of the Jewish syndicate and even a de facto Jew.

    When Sartre wrote his book about anti-semitism, he is in part reacting to both Zola and Vichy both of whom in their different ways defined Jews no matter what Jews have got say about themselves.

    In the programme we ‘reveal’ that the Maison Zola, is to house a new wing: the Musée Dreyfus – which will combat racisms and discrimination of all kind. This marks the fact that Zola made his stand for Dreyfus, when he had countless reasons to do just the opposite. In consequence, he lost his living, for nearly a year, his home(s)-life and ultimately his life – probably. He died of asphyxiation from a blocked chimney which many years later an anti-dreyfusard admitted he had done…

    Jan 11, 6.45 ‘Zola in Norwood’ – the Sunday feature, BBC Radio 3.

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