Tony Greenstein | 23 November 2014 | Post Views:

From Debunking to Denying History

Two days ago I was
sent a review from Ha’aretz (see below) on Shlomo Sand’s
new book ‘How I stopped being a Jew’.  Shlomo Sands
wrote a best selling book The Myth of the Jewish Nation.  This one
is a dogmatic assertion (if Ha’aretz and others are to be believed  – I haven’t read it yet) of what Sand considers Jewish
identity to be, which is that based on the Jewish religion.  In this he agrees with the anti-Semitic Gilad Atzmon who argues that only Zionism provides another alternative Jewish identity, that of being Israeli and that Jews who are neither should not be criticising Israel.  
Below is my instant analysis of the book, based on the review and also the
interesting rejoinders of Matzpen member and former Israeli Moshe Machover and
David Finkel.    I hope to write a more considered review
once I’ve read the book.
Tony Greenstein
i.  Many of the
themes echo those of Gilad Atzmon, who has been all over Sand like a rash.
ii.  Sand has a
fixed and static concept of what Jewish identity is.  He correctly sees
that an Israeli identity is not the same as a Jewish identity, despite Israel’s claim to be a Jewish State (the significance of which he fails to understand entirely) and adopts a lazy analysis of what Jewish
identity consists of. 
Historically being
Jewish was not just a religion, though for tactical reasons it’s often simpler
to assert this.  However in the transition from the feudal era, emancipation and the
escape from the grip of the rabbis, where religion and social occupation were
entwined, (Leon’s ‘people class’ i.e. a caste) did indeed mean that being
Jewish took on aspects of nationhood..  This doesn’t mean that Jews were a
nation but that in their heartland, the Pale of Settlement in Russia, Poland
and Lithuania where they were confined, they did have territorial contiguity
and a separate language (Yiddish).  They could be loosely defined as a
national minority in that part of Eastern Europe.
iii.  In the US
and UK being Jewish meant for most Jews being an immigrant section of the
working class, with its own trade unions even.  It meant resisting the
fascists and Police and being the advance guard of the working class (e.g. the
election of England’s only elected communist MP was in Mile End, the heart of the Jewish East End of London).
iv.  Today a
secular Jewish identity in the West is primarily defined either by support for Israel or
opposition to Zionism.  The majority of Jews are ‘disappearing’ i.e.
integrating into the wider population because it is a transitory identity but
Sand is wrong to suggest that there is therefore no secular Jewish identity,
even if it is forged in opposition to Israel and what it stands for.
v.  Sand argues
that there is nothing specifically Jewish in a secular Jewish identity. 
But is there any specific national identity in  anything?  What does being Hungarian or
British actually mean?  All national identities look back to national myths and
borrow from other cultures and identities whilst claiming to be unique.
vi.  When he
says that ‘No achievement of Jewish secularists can be regarded as being Jewish,
but is, rather, universal or belonging  to the nations where they took
my response is so what?   But why  did American Jews
participate out of all proportion to their numbers in the civil rights
struggles?  Or why did Argentinian Jews participate in and suffer
disproportionately under the Junta?  Possibly the answer is that they saw
their Jewish heritage as part of their anti-racism.
vi.  Hence the
ridiculous claim that the involvement of people of  Jewish ancestry to
him is totally incidental.’ 
Clearly it isn’t to those who are
involved.  Jewish values are not the same as Jewish religious ones,
although the Orthodox (and the Nazis) proclaimed it as such.
vii.  Sand’s
denial of the right of secular non-Zionists to organise together is that of an
Israeli academic who resents the solidarity movement.  Again he echoes
Atzmon (in more elegant language and without the anti-semitism). 
viii.  His
suggestion that Israel’s War of Independence was just like other similar wars
suggests he either doesn’t understand the specific nature of Zionism and its
quest for demographic purity or he is unconcerned. 
Even more absurd is his attack on those who ‘claim to be upholding Jewish
values  while criticizing Israel,’
and writes that they are no different
from  “overt pro-Zionists.”   The latter are out and out
chauvinists and often overt racists.  Hence their links with fascist
organisations.  The same is not true of anti-Zionist Jews but one suspects
that Sand is simply ignorant in this respect.  Jews have no greater rights
than non-Jews but they do have a greater impact which is why
we are targeted as ‘self haters’ by the Zionists.
x.   Sand’s refusal to support the right of return of the
refugees suggests that Sand himself accepts some of the tenets of Zionism
(again  like Atzmon)
xi.  I agree with him is that the Palestinian
people were the creation of Zionist colonisation.  That is also true of other colonised people, but
so what? 
There were a few comments from other people when I first circulated this critique and I print them below:
Tony Greenstein
From  Moshé
I suspect that you are missing some significant fact about Sand and what
he is trying to do and say. I think you are tacitly assuming that he is some
kind of leftist. He was, but no longer is, and part of what he is trying to do
is to make this clear. He comes from a CP family and in his youth was member of
the Israeli Young Communists League. Following the 1967 war he and some of his
friends attended Matzpen discussion circles; I recall them from that time when
they described themselves as “between the CP and Matzpen”. After some
vacillation he joined Matzpen. But not long after that he decided to follow an
academic career and no longer engage in political activity.  He has since
moved steadily to the right, and is now a kind of middle-of-the road liberal
bourgeois nationalist. 
However he did not become a Zionist. In fact, he has retained some of
the analysis of Zionism that he absorbed in Matzpen (although he is very
careful not to mention this). So in the perverted Israeli classification he is
regarded as a “leftist” (which simply means that he is not a Zionist or an
anti-Arab racist).
His nationalism is of course not Zionist or any kind of Jewish
nationalism; it is Hebrew (or “Israeli”) nationalism. Like Avnery (another
Hebrew/Israeli bourgeois nationalist) he is patriotic about the 1947–49 “War of
Independence” and opposed to the return of the Palestinian refugees; but
supports equal individual rights for all Israeli citizens. 
His project is to establish his Hebrew/Israeli nationalism by rejecting
and undermining Jewish nationalism and indeed any kind of Jewish identity. At
the same time he is keen to disavow leftism and establish a bourgeois liberal
persona. For this reason he attacks Jewishness in general, but most
particularly left-wing anti-Zionist Jewish identity (this is where he meets
On 18 Nov 2014, at 14:27, CFC <[email protected]> wrote:
Thanks, Tony — these are interesting observations. Sand’s book (which
I’m just now reading) is serious, where Atzmon’s is a lunatic rant. In any
case, however, there’s an additional complication: The  statement that “The
majority of Jews are ‘disappearing’ i.e. integrating into the wider population
because it is a transitory identity“ sounds logical, even axiomatic to us
materialists but  doesn’t hold up, at least in the U.S. context. A recent
study (by the Pew institute, not a Jewish organization) indicates that while
only 33% of U.S. Jews have any congregational affiliation, and only 23% attend
synagogue or temple at least once a month, a much higher percentage affirm a
Jewish identity and that this persists even in intermarriage – indeed, Jewish
partners in intermarriage seem to feel a certain obligation to maintain the
Jewish part of the family’s character. So Jewish identity is undoubtedly
changing and becoming way less institutionally structured, but it is not
disappearing. And support for Israel or opposition to Zionism – whatever any of
us might like – does not seem to be decisive either way.  
David Finkel

Sun Nov 16, 2014 2:44 pm (PST) .

In his new book, the controversial historian challenges secular and
anti-Zionist Jews to define their identity.
By Anshel Pfeffer, Nov. 15, 2014 
Perhaps the most telling passage in Shlomo Sand’s new book – “How
Stopped Being a Jew” (Verso Books, 112 pages, $16.95/£10) – comes
about halfway through, when he mentions the famous meeting in 1952
between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (known by his followers as the Hazon Ish), at
the time one of the most influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis. According to one
version of what happened at that meeting, Rabbi Karelitz lectured Ben-Gurion that, in collisions between religion and state, the
rabbis must prevail. To back this up, he cited the talmudic case of two
carts blocking each other on a narrow road. The ruling is that the empty
cart must give way to the full one. The inferred analogy – that secular
Jews are the empty cart, devoid of heritage and learning, while only
the Orthodox have any authentic Jewish culture, has been an enduring
insult ever since to many Israelis.
But Sand, the controversial and iconoclastic Tel Aviv University  historian, whose
previous books “The Invention of the Land of Israel”  and “The Invention
of the Jewish People” caused furor within and outside academic circles, and who
takes pride in being a total atheist, is on  the rabbi’s side. Not only, he
argues, is there no Jewish culture that  is not derived from religiosity, but
the very notion of secular Judaism  is indeed an empty one, since no such
thing exists. His new book,  actually a moderately long essay,
should instead have been called “Why I Never Was a Jew,” since Sand is emphatic
that nothing he has ever  believed in has really been Jewish. His entire
life, or as much of it as comes to light in what is also an abbreviated
autobiography, led up to  the moment he realized his total lack of a Jewish
identity. But more than anything else, while reading Sand’s new book, I felt
I  was a religious affairs reporter once again, back in the days when
I  read the ultra-Orthodox newspapers daily. Sand could have easily been
a  pundit for one of them. I don’t mean those of the rabidly
anti-Israel  Neturei Karta sect, but the more mainstream Haredi publications,
like  Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia and Mahane Haredi, whose standard line is
to  deride and denigrate any manifestation of Jewish secularity.
Just like the Haredi ideologues, Sand denies there is such a thing
as  Jewish secular culture. No achievement of Jewish secularists, he
says,  can be regarded as being Jewish, but is, rather, universal or
belonging  to the nations where they took place. The involvement of people of  Jewish ancestry to
him is totally incidental. This is classic Haredi  thinking: Judaism
and Jewishness only manifest in rabbinically  prescribed
religious practice – everything else is goyishe stuff. Once again, Sand’s
most recent offering has caused much anger,  particularly among Israelis and
Jewish supporters of Israel from the  right. This time most of the fury has
been directed at his  characterization of Israel as “one of the most
racist societies in the  Western world” in a shortened version of the book
that appeared in The  Guardian. But while that is only to be expected,
the new non-Jewish Sand poses little threat to the right wing; it is Jewish
secular leftists he is challenging, particularly the anti-Zionist ones. I realized this at
a lecture he gave last month at the London Middle  East Institute and
the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of  Oriental and
African Studies, University of London. Nearly 300 people  came to listen to
Sand talk about his new book; a great many of them of  that specific
demographic that, for want of a better description, can be labeled “conflicted
 In the Q&A part of the
lecture, two of  them asked Sand, with real pain in their voices, “instead of
stopping  being a Jew, why didn’t you write ‘How I Stopped Being an Israeli?’” They simply
couldn’t understand how their admired writer, who has  dedicated a major
part of his writing career to dismantling what he sees as the fake mythology of
Jewish nationalism, and lambasting the Israeli state, could deny the Jewish
part of his identity in favor of his  Israeli one. But Sand has done the
opposite of what they expected of him (and some of them have actually done
themselves). Not only has he  constructed for himself a new form of
Israeli identity, but he denies  these secular, progressive,
non-Zionist Jews their intellectual  integrity. He ridicules those who
claim to be upholding Jewish values  while criticizing Israel, and writes
that they are no different from  “overt pro-Zionists.” These
“anti-Zionist Jews” who have never lived in  Israel, he writes, “claim a
particular right, different from that of  non-Jews, to make accusations against
Israel.” Living in their  “diaspora,” a term he dismisses with quotation
marks, they are “granting themselves the privilege of actively intervening in
decisions regarding the future and fate of Israel.”
No universalist ethics
Sand denies the special right of secular non-Zionists to band
together  as Jews, as they do in dozens of organizations and forums, and sit
in  judgment of Israel. He goes further, accusing them of the same sin
as  Jewish nationalists; of trying to claim that there is something
special  or better about their Judaism. “But Zionism did pick up a lot of
things  from Judaism,” he argues. “And even if Zionism is not Judaism, it  doesn’t mean that
Judaism is an ethical religion – Judaism doesn’t allow marrying a non-Jew.
Jewish ethics are not the ethics I dream of, it’s  not universalist
Sand here is echoing both the ultra-Orthodox, who accuse the secular of
transplanting foreign ideals into “authentic” Judaism, and Benjamin  Netanyahu, who
famously said, “the leftists have forgotten what it is to be Jews.” Sand wants
Jews to choose: You can be either religious or  nationalist (or
both), but if you are neither, then you are not Jewish.  And don’t bother
him with talk of Jewish ancestry and DNA, because if  that’s your
alternative, then your definition of Jewishness is racial,  just like the
There is nothing ethical about Judaism, says Sand, blasting away
the  much cherished liberal notion of tikkun olam – if it’s enlightened, then
it’s universal, and therefore not Jewish. The long lists of brave  Jewish
revolutionaries and human rights advocates so beloved of  progressive Jews
mean nothing, he claims. If anything, they were denying their parochial Jewish
roots and joining a bigger and better global  brotherhood of man
and woman.
Sand is the scourge of anti-Zionist secular Jews. Criticize Israel,
by  all means, he tells them; but if you identify yourselves as Jews
when  doing so, you’re phonies. You don’t get any special moral standing
just  by accident of birth. You are no better than the goyim. He of course does
have a special right to excoriate Israel. He is an  Israeli and prefers
the citizenship of Israel to being a Jew, despite  Israel’s many
faults, and racism that leads him to believe it will  “perhaps soon” be
as bad as “1930s Germany” (though not 1940s, he  insists). His
vision of a better Israel is simply a less Jewish one. “I  grew up there and
lived there,” and these ties bind him forever: “My  culture is Israeli
culture” (yes, there is such a thing). He even ends  the book with
Theodor Herzl’s exhortation, “If you will it, it is no  legend.”
Mirroring the right
And here is his next major letdown for the anti-Zionist left. Of  course, Sand wants
Israel to relinquish its notions of Jewish supremacy  and end the
occupation, in the hope that it will end the conflict with  the Palestinians;
but he isn’t willing to accept the Palestinian  narrative. Many of
the audience were distressed to hear that he opposes  the Palestinian
“right of return” because “it’s a denial of the  existence of the
State of Israel.” This led an astonished  British-Palestinian academic to say
to him, “I really liked you until  you said that.”
How awful for her that this fierce critic of Jewish nationalism refuses
to embrace Palestinian nationalism instead. She would have been  devastated if she
knew that Sand agrees with the Zionist right that the  Palestinian people
are an invention. In 2012, he said in a Haaretz  interview that “the
Palestinians were Arabs who lived in this region for hundreds of years. Zionist
colonization forged the Palestinian people.” Many of his arguments against a
return of the Palestinian refugees  mirror those used by the right.
He says that Israel’s War of Independence was just like other “wars
of  the 1940s that kicked out minorities,” and the Palestinians don’t  deserve any special
right of return just because unlike those expelled  in other wars, they
were forced to remain refugees. He blames the Arab  states for
perpetuating the refugee problem, along with Israel for  creating it. “The
Arabs kept these children in the camps and they have  their
responsibility, also with their nice solidarity. Let these people  go out of this shit
of the camps.”
Sand advocates equal rights for all Israeli citizens; indeed, one
of  his reasons for proclaiming he is not a Jew is that he doesn’t want
to  belong to one set of “privileged” Israelis. But at one point in
his  lecture, he echoed Avigdor Lieberman, when he raised the following fear:
“What if the Arabs in Galilee want to have a Kosovo?” He also rejects  the Israel =
apartheid equation much beloved of the anti-Zionist left;  not because Israel
is any less racist in his reckoning, but because  unlike South
Africa, which could not exist without its black population, Israel’s economy is
robust enough to do without the Palestinians.
Sand’s challenge to secular Jews who refuse to be defined by
religious  belief and practice is a strong and eloquent one. In the absence
of  religion, he claims, there are only ersatz identities, such as
clinging  to memories of persecution, which has largely disappeared from the  world. Everyone
wants to be a survivor, he says, that’s the real  “Holocaust
industry.” Or else Jewishness in this day and age is defined  by one’s artificial
relationship with Israel, whether it’s support or  repudiation.
Sand takes advantage of a peculiar vulnerability of today’s  non-religious Jews
– their failure to articulate what it means to be  Jewish in a century
where no one is trying to shut them into a ghetto or murder them. Being Jewish
without religion, he insists, means living in the past; it has no base in the
present or future. But his insistence that if it cannot be defined, then it does not exist,
is also his weakest point. Just like the Haredi outlook, Sand’s perspective of
Judaism is a  fundamentalist one. He disregards the fact that ultra-Orthodoxy is
also  just another reinvention of Judaism – in this case a reaction to
the  18th-century Enlightenment and the auto-emancipation of the next
two  centuries. In every generation, Jews fought with the contradictions
of  their faith and allowed themselves to pick and choose. It was always
a  nebulous identity, but never the weaker for that.
The identity of the skeptics and the heretics and the rebels was  Jewish, precisely
because they chose it to be, and denied the rabbis the right to decide for
them. Who can deny them that?

Sand implores his readers
to allow him not to be Jewish; that should be his right. But at the same time,
he cedes the right to define who is a  Jew to the rabbis. To win his freedom to define himself as he
chooses,  he wants to deprive the
rest of us of our freedom to remain Jews on our  own terms.   

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