Definitely not secular: but what about other Israelis?

The meaning of Jewish identity

Shlomo Sand How I stopped being a Jew Verso, 2014, pp102, £9.99

Shlomo Sand is a history professor at Tel Aviv University. He has written two widely read books which have demolished the national myths that Zionism has used to justify a ‘Jewish’ state. The first, The invention of the Jewishpeople1, which was in the Israeli best-seller lists for 19 weeks, deconstructs all the Zionist fables - for example, the Romans forcing the population of Judea into exile in 70 AD after a failed revolt. The contents of the book are not themselves new, but Sand’s originality lay in demonstrating how Zionism constructed a foundational myth of an eternal people, exiled from and desirous of returning to Palestine. It was in fact a Christian myth of ‘the return of the Jews’ that Sand was demolishing.

His latest book, How I stopped being a Jew, differs from his previous writings in that it offers nothing new by way of historical discourse. Having stripped the Zionist narrative bare, Sand offers his own interpretation of what it means (or does not mean) to be a secular Jew in the modern world. In a nutshell, Sand maintains that there is no cultural or political basis for the existence of a secular Jewish existence outside Israel. In Israel itself, Sand accepts that to be Jewish is to be entitled to privileges that non-Jews - ie, the Palestinians - do not possess and he therefore wishes to ‘resign’ from being Jewish.

That, however, is far from easy. The obvious problem with Sand’s thesis is that he wishes to continue living a privileged existence as a tenured professor. He does not wish to exchange these privileges for the life of the Palestinians and therefore his renunciation of Jewishness is essentially meaningless - a gesture confined to words. His whole life in Israel is predicated on the fact that he is defined as a Jew for racial purposes and by continuing to live there he accepts that. It is reminiscent of a meeting that the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had with Martin Buber of Brit Shalom,the Jewish-Palestinian peace alliance of Jewish intellectuals, founded in 1925, with a membership that never exceeded 100. Ben-Gurion asked Buber whether he had come to Palestine with the consent of the original inhabitants, and that was the dilemma of Zionism’s ‘peace wing’.2

Sand’s argument is symbolised in the meeting in 1952 between Ben-Gurion and Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, ‘the visionary’ (Hazon Ish), an extremely influential ultra-orthodox rabbi, who compared the conflict between secular Zionism and religious orthodoxy with the ruling in the Talmud that, where an empty cart and a full cart meet in a narrow lane, the empty cart must give way. Ben-Gurion was not best pleased that the achievements of Zionism - the colonies, the ‘return’ of the Jews, the foundation of the state itself - were not considered worthy. However, Sand does not seem to understand the irony that it was not the Hazon Ish who was vindicated, but Ben-Gurion. It was orthodox Judaism that moved from opposition to Zionism to becoming the most ardent, ‘not an inch’ nationalists. The financial resources of the ‘Jewish’ state overcame any liturgical objections.

Sand’s inability to understand why Zionism’s redefinition of what it means to be Jewish won out is equally applicable to his assertion that there is no secular basis to a Jewish identity outside of a religious definition. When I first read a review of Sand’s book in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz,3 I wrote that Sand’s book seemed to be little more than a refinement of the same thesis that the anti-Semite, Gilad Atzmon, has peddled.4 However, I was clearly wrong.

Atzmon in fact criticises the book precisely because it is not anti-Semitic:

“I don’t write for anti-Semites, I regard them as totally ignorant or people who suffer from an incurable disease” (p21, Hebrew edition), writes the author, who claims to be humanist, universalist and far removed from Jewish exclusivism. It all sounds very Jewish to me.5

As Moshé Machover has pointed out, Sand is an advocate of an Israeli/Hebrew nationalism which is devoid of any Jewishness and to which all citizens are equal members, be they Jewish or non-Jewish. The problem is that the Zionist movement established the Israeli state as a Jewish nation. The whole basis of Zionism is Jewish nationalism - as the mobs that shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ will confirm. Jewish superiority and privilege is entrenched in the pores of the Israeli state.

Sand does not understand the nature of Zionism and thereby the state of Israel. He declares, without any supporting evidence, that the foundations of the state were “essentially laid by socialists” (p48). This is one of those myths that Sand himself had previously devoted much time to debunking! The founders of the Israeli state, including the social democrats of Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), were almost uniformly hostile to socialism6 - Zionist guru Theodor Herzl believed that Zionism was an “antidote” to it.7 However, in order to win over the Jewish masses, Zionism had to use the language of socialism and it was in that context that the ‘socialist’ Poalei Zion was formed. Some on the left were attracted to this ‘socialist Zionism’. They believed that socialism and the fight for change in the here and now could be reconciled with Zionism, which actually postponed the fight for socialism until Palestine had been colonised. Some currents, such as Left Poalei Zion in Poland, moved away from Zionism towards socialism, but the founders of socialist Zionism, such as Nachman Syrkin, were always Zionist first and foremost, as was the Palestinian Poalei Zion.

Israel and Jewishness

The major failing of Sand’s thesis is his denial that there is any basis to a secular Jewish identity and indeed his angry criticism of Jews who do not live in Israel, but who nonetheless criticise Israel as Jews. He compares the latter to Jews in the diaspora who support Israel as Jews. There is a comprehensive failure to come to terms with the meaning of identity - not least Jewish identity - in the modern world. The fact is that many, if not most, Jews dodefine their Jewishness in relation to Israel. Indeed the destruction of Israel would probably destroy the secular basis of modern Jewry: “Israel is the living embodiment of the Jewish religion.”8

For Sand “there is no Jewish cultural bag that is not religious” (p47). How can you be a secular Jew, he asks, if you are not born to Jewish parents (p90)? The answer to this conundrum is not, however, as difficult as Sand finds it. It is true that there is no longer any objective, materialist basis to Jewish identity or any separate Jewish working class, as there was in the tsarist Pale of Settlement or the slums of London’s East End, speaking its own language (Yiddish). However, it is equally clear that Israel and Zionism have provided a new ideological basis for Jewish identity.

It is therefore equally possible for many Jews to base their identity on opposition to the mainstream form of Jewish identity and as part of this to recreate a Yiddish culture. Of course, both of these identities are tenuous and fluid, effectively a political, not materialist, identity and for that reason the majority of Jews will assimilate to the surrounding populations and melt away.

But an orthodox Jewish identity is not the only form of Jewish identity, though it is likely to be the longest lasting. It is equally possible for people who have a Jewish partner to take on that identity if they are Reform Judaists (the majority among American Jews) or for the children of mixed partners to identity with the Jewish parent. Identity is a mixed baggage and by its very nature fluid.

So the predominant Jewish diaspora identity today is based on identification with the state of Israel, which defines itself not as a state based upon its own citizens - Jewish or otherwise - but as a state which claims to represent all Jews, wherever they live. Unsurprisingly many Jews take umbrage at this and proclaim, ‘Not in my name’ - protesting that Israel does not speak or act on their behalf. Sand is what Ben-Gurion described as a “Canaanite” - someone who rejects the idea that the Israeli state rests on being Jewish, as opposed to representing all of its citizens.

Surprisingly for a book on Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish in Israel, Sand does not understand how Israel defines Jewishness. This is not a trifling matter, since it goes to the heart of how Zionism and the Israeli state have transformed being Jewish from a religious to a racial identity. It is this quest for the building of a Jewish nation/race which lies at the heart of the debate over the Jewish State Bill, which has precipitated the forthcoming Israeli general election and which is the ideological basis of racism in Israel today.

Sand writes that, although his “father was considered a Jew, while in the eyes of Israeli law my mother was ‘non-Jewish’, I would have been registered as an Austrian” on an Israeli identity card and in Israel’s population register. But this is not correct. Sand fails to appreciate that there are twodefinitions of being Jewish in Israel. The definition for the purpose of nationality (ie, under the 1950 Law of Return) is different from the definition for personal religious purposes (ie, marriage, birth and death), which is in the hands of the orthodox rabbinate, not the state. Under the Law of Return, every Jew in the world has the right to ‘return’: ie, emigrate to Israel and claim citizenship. They are in turn classified as a Jewish national (there is no Israeli citizenship, even though Sand refers to it on at least one occasion).

In 1970, the definition of Jewishness was deliberately widened under an amendment to the Law of Return. This was done for practical and demographic reasons (the immigration of Jews from Poland, and later Russia, many of whom were the offspring of mixed parentage). Ironically this new definition was identical to, if not wider than, the definition of who is a Jew under the Nazis’ 1935 ‘Nuremberg Laws’:

4A (a): The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh [immigrant] under the Nationality Law, 5712-1952, as well as the rights of an oleh under any other enactment, are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.9

No other review seems to have picked up on this central anomaly in Sand’s argument, despite it being fundamental to Jewish identity in the Israeli state. In Israel, being Jewish is not a matter of culture, but of politics - and in particular the politics of racial privilege. It is in reaction to this that a modern, secular Jewish identity has grown in the diaspora, with all the contradictions inherent in Jews having an interest in opposing racism, yet basing their whole identity on support for racism.

Based as it is on a negative, this identity will begin to disappear when the Jewish state itself disappears. However, the idea that Jewish identity can be reduced to a set of religious rituals and mystical beliefs is totally without basis. Today, unlike in pre-emancipation times, being Jewish and adhering to Jewish rituals are not synonymous.

Tony Greenstein


1. Y Lotan (translator), London 2009.

2. A Meyer Ploughshares into swords London 2008, p161.

3. ‘Shlomo Sand to secular Jews: I’m not Jewish and neither are you’ by Anshel Pfeffer, November 16 2014: www.haaretz.com/life/books/.premium-1.626312.

4. http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/shlomo-sand-stops-being-that-which-he.html.

5. www.gilad.co.uk/writings/how-shlomo-sand-ceased-to-be-a-jew-or-did-he-1.html.

6. Z Sternhell The founding myths of Israel Princeton 1999.

7. Von Plehve, the tsarist minister of the interior, who organised the pogroms against the Jews, has cited this expressed belief of Herzl. See C Weizmann Letters and papers Vol 3, p216, note 195.

8. See T Greenstein, ‘Redefining anti-Semitism’ Return No5, December 1990, where I cite WD Rubinstein The left, the right and the Jews London 1982, p129.

9. www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/Other_Law_Law_of_Return.html.