How Shlomo Sand Ceased to be a Jew – or Did He?
GA: The following is my book review of Shlomo Sand's latest book. It was published a year ago. Following the publication of the English edition of How I Stopped Being A Jew last week, I decided to post it again.
By Gilad Atzmon
Sand’s latest book, How I Stopped Being A Jew, is a tragic testimony made by a morally awakened Israeli Jew who comes to realise that his spiritual, cultural and political existence is contaminated with Judeo-centric exclusivism and is fuelled by ethno-centric racism. Shlomo Sand decides to stop being a Jew – but has he succeeded?
Sand, as we all know, is a wonderful writer; witty, innovative, poetic and fluent, his voice is personal, at times funny, occasionally sarcastic and always genuinely pessimistic.
Sand’s writing is scholarly, deep, reflective and imaginative; however, his scholarship is pretty much limited to French liberal thinking and early post-modernist theory. The outcome is disappointing at times. How I Stopped To Be A Jew is a ‘politically correct’ text, saturated with endless caveats inserted to disassociate the author from any possible affiliation with anyone who may be viewed as an opponent of Jewish power, critical of Jewish identity politics or a challenger of the mainstream historicity of the Holocaust.
“I don’t write for anti-Semites, I regard them as totally ignorant or people who suffer from an incurable disease,” (p. 21/Hebrew edition) writes the author who claims to be humanist, universalist and far removed from Jewish exclusivism.* It all sounds very Jewish to me. When it comes to the Holocaust, Sand uses the same tactic and somehow manages to lose all wit and scholarly fashion. The Nazis are “beasts”, their rise to power metaphorically described as a “beast awakening from its lair.” I would expect a leading historian and ex-Jew to have moved on beyond these kinds of banal clichés.
Sand writes about identity politics and is certainly sensitive to the complexities of this subject. He argues forcefully that nationalism is an ‘invention’, yet, for some reason he attributes some forensic qualities to identity and the politics involved. Perhaps Sand fails to realise that identity politics is actually a form of identification – it is there to replace authenticity. For example, Zionism was born as an attempt to replace Judaic authentic orientation with an imaginary sense of national belonging – Israeli identity is a collection of signifiers set to make the Jew believe that he or she has a past, present and future. Identity is basically a set of symbolic identifiers that evoke a sense of collectivism. If you pierce your right ear, you become a club member, if you sport a kaffiyeh you become a solidarity activist, if you manage to utter a few Israeli sound-bites you may become a Zionist. All these identities lack any authentic depth.
Little Britain, a BBC comedy show, provides us with an invaluable insight into this. Daffyd Thomas (The Only Gay in the Village) exhibits a wide range of gay symbolic identifiers without ever once being engaged in a single homosexual intercourse. So Daffyd, while identifying as gay – politically, socially and culturally – saves himself of the elementary authentic experience as a homosexual.
Sand understands that Jewish identity politics is hollow, but he may fail to grasp that all identity politics are hollow. On the contrary, nationalism, which he clearly despises — the bond with one’s soil, heritage, culture, language, landscape, poetry is actually a cathartic experience. Though nationalism may well be an invention as Sand and others insist, it is still an intrinsically authentic fulfilling experience. As we all know, patriotic national feelings are often suicidal – and there’s a reason for this – because just sometimes it manages to integrate man, soil and sacrifice into a state of spiritual unification.
On a lighter note, reading Sand’s poetic writing in Hebrew is for me, an ex-Jew and ex-Israeli, a truly authentic experience that brings me closer to my roots, my forgotten homeland and its fading landscape, my mother tongue or shall I simply say my Being. The medium that connect me to Sand’s prose is not ‘identity’ or politics but rather the Israeliness, that concrete nationalist discourse that matured into Hebraic poetry, patriotism, ideology, jargon, a dream and a tragedy to follow. Somehow I believe that Sand himself understands this point as he refers to those exact kind of feelings in the end of the book. I also believe that Sand’s pessimistic inclination is rooted in his realisation of himself being robbed of that Israeliness which was once to him a home.
Sand realises that the Zionist journey has come to an end and that ‘Israeli secularism’ is doomed. From an ethical and universal perspective Israel is at a dead end. Yet, he still fails to grasp that Israel is only part of the problem. More and more thinkers are now regarding Israel as a mere symptom of Jewish identity politics. More and more, commentators are becoming aware of a tribal ideological and spiritual continuum between Israel, Zionism, the so-called Jewish anti Zionists and the Left in general. It is no longer a secret that, like Zionists, Jewish ‘anti Zionists’ invest most of their political energy chasing the so-called ‘anti Semites’ – those who analyze Israeli and Zionist politics within the context of Jewish culture and philosophy.
Nevertheless, moral awakening is a slow journey rather than a swift gestalt switch and it is interesting how Sand’s encounters with Jewish anti-Zionists led him to adopt a similar criticism to the ones I express in The Wandering Who.
“There are a few who define themselves as secular Jews, they attempt to protest, either collectively or alone, against (Israeli) segregation and occupation. Rightly, they grasp that these policies threaten to bring along Judeo-phobia that may identify all Jews as a separate race and confuse between Jews and Zionists.” However, Sand continues, “their wish to be a part of a Jewish ethnic identity while not being able to fill it with positive cultural content, makes their tactic, in the best case, short lived that lacks weight and political future, and in the worse case, support indirectly the sense of (Judeo) tribalism.” (p. 145/Hebrew edition)
Sand clearly detects here an element of intellectual dishonesty inherent to the Jewish ‘Left’ in general and anti-Zionists in particular. He continues, “if those who consider themselves Jewish anti Zionists, in spite of the fact that they’ve never been in Israel, are unfamiliar with the (Hebrew) language and foreign to the (Israeli) culture, insist upon the right to criticise Israel, shouldn’t the pro-Zionists enjoy a (similar) unique privilege in determining the future of Israel?” (p. 146, ibid). Sand is obviously correct here, yet his point could be pushed even further: if the Jewish anti-Zionists enjoy a privilege due to their ‘unique’ ethnic origin, they actually affirm that Israel is the Jewish State and in fact their own very State. When a bunch of righteous Jews criticise the Jewish State ‘as Jews’ and in the name of their Jewishness, they paradoxically assert that Israel is indeed the Jewish State while simultaneously asserting their own choseness and privilege as Jews.
It is unsurprising that Sand is impressed with the contribution of Jewish progressive and radical thinkers. He presents a list of Jewish thinkers who “made an effort to drift away from (Jewish) egocentric ethical legacy in an attempt to adopt a universal morality” (p. 114). Sand mentions names such as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Lion Blum, Noam Chomsky and a few others. “As distant these people and others were from religious heritage, as close was their affinity to humanist perception and the strong will to change the living conditions of all people rather than their own.” (p. 115).
Unlike Sand, I am less convinced of the pure universalist motivation behind these progressive Tikkun Olam (fixing the world) heroes. Unlike Sand, I am convinced that the ‘progressive’ is but a secular extension of Jewish tribal ‘chosesness’. After all, if you are a ‘progressive’, someone else must be a ‘reactionary’. In other words, progressiveness is in itself a non-universal intolerant discourse.
Drifting away from Jewishness towards true and genuine universalism can be realised as the emergence of a unique critical sensitivity towards every possible aspect of Jewish tribal operation. Such an act involves a certain amount of self-loathing rather than merely ‘despising’ the ‘Jews around you’. Sand is not there yet. Instead of hating himself, he actually perfects his argument against his Jewish neighbours. In practice, he is still engaged in an internal tribal debate.
Jewish identity politics is an emerging critical topic and I take some credit for such a development. Two years ago, my The Wandering Who was published, which opened a Pandora box. I unleashed a critical assault on identity politics in general and also exposed the deceitful nature that is intrinsic to Jewish-Left thinking. Following the publication of the book, all hell broke loose, Zionists, together with their Jewish anti-Zionist siblings joined forces in a desperate attempt to stop the book and to censor my thoughts — but they failed — the book became a best seller, translated into many languages and endorsed by some of the most important humanists and academics around. Most importantly, it made Jews and their politics (not just Israel or Zionism) subject to intellectual and philosophical scrutiny.
A few months ago, Judith Butler attempted to rescue Jewish humanism and progressive identity. But her text, Parting Ways – Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, was pretty problematic and intellectually dishonest. Consequently it received no serious attention. If anything, it conveys a clear lack of humanist as well universalist thinking at the heart of the Jewish Left discourse. Sand’s new book is another attempt to deal with the topic, but unlike Butler, Sand deserves our full attention. Sand is a man in transition (a quality I myself modestly share with him). Sand is honest, a superb writer, closely familiar with Jewish historicity and, though he may be slightly mistaken on some issues, his text provides us with a unique glimpse into the authentic journey of a pessimistic yet poetic Jewish soul in search of meaning.