This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Say it ain’t so, Shlomo Sand. I thought you resigned from being a Jew in your magisterial deconstruction of Jewish identity – The Invention of the Jewish People. But now you’re back again with an even more definitive resignation in a new book – How I Stopped Being a Jew.
Reading your Op-Ed excerpt in the Guardian, I’m not sure you’re done resigning.
On a personal note, Shlomo, if I were your psychoanalyst, I think your ongoing desire to resign from being a Jew is fraught with entanglements. Some of them are in plain sight, others are hidden in your subconscious. In any case, I doubt resignation is going to take you far enough from where you want to be. Even if you change identity locations, your continuing resignations won’t take you far enough from who you are either.
In short, Shlomo, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to carry through with your resignation.
Besides, resigning from being Jewish is one of the more ancient of Jewish traditions. As starters, think of Moses and the Biblical prophets. Though they were intimately engaged with Jewish life or perhaps precisely because they were, at times they longed to get as far away as they could from the people Israel.
Even God wanted out on more than one occasion. To create a people with a destiny, to promise to accompany them as they created a new social and political order based on justice – to see the people Israel devolve into the Egypt they barely escaped from – and so very early on! – I can certainly understand the prophets and God wanting out. I’m not sure your desire to opt-out is very different.
Personally, I’ve never had the urge to resign my Jewishness, even if I could. However, your sentiment is certainly understandable. In the Golden Age of Constantinian Judaism, what Jew with a conscience wants to identify with normative Jewish life?
Like many Jews of Conscience, Shlomo, you’re fed-up with all things Jewish. Your tone is searching and declarative. However, your reasoning is entangled and sometimes confused. You want out – totally, mostly, almost.
Here’s how you begin your resignation:
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 victims.
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.
But just as you want to cease considering yourself a Jew, Israel, your home, is caught up in perverted logic that defies resolution:
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 it.
The personal conundrum is obvious:
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.
You conclude on an interesting – shall I say quite Jewish – note:
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.
“I shall continue to write.” Shlomo, you know what this sentence means even in your deconstructed sense of Jewish identity. Translated historically in Jewish history: “I shall continue to protest against injustice in public, regardless of the consequences. Under no circumstance will I remain silent. Especially when it involves my history, my people, my community. There is a path beyond this madness. Even if I don’t experience it in my own life, I will continue on.”
Shlomo, this sounds like the Jewish prophets and the prophetic tradition you so ably deconstructed and seek to resign from? Is it so difficult to see your own life here?
On the contemporary scene you sound a bit like the French Jew, Jean Daniel, who years ago wrote a similar broadside with a fascinating title – The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism. Like you, Shlomo, Daniel wants to cease defining himself as a Jew and wants others to stop identifying him as a Jew as well. Yet in the end, it hasn’t worked. Daniel feels like he is trapped in a prison. No (Jewish) exit.
As a citizen of Israel, you are likewise trapped but your Jewish identity is only one part of the problem. Your Israeli identity isn’t working out either.
But then, at least on the international scene, Shlomo, you are known primarily for your writing on Jewish identity and Israel. You don’t seem to mind that notoriety. In fact, your last three books have focused on deconstructing and resigning from Jewishness and Israel. If you would like to be released from the contradictions of Jewishness and Israel why not return to your expertise in the history of nationalism, film travel and French intellectual history? Or perhaps call it a day and retire to parts unknown and live in blessed anonymity. If you didn’t make a fuss about it you might even be able to mingle with your neighbors without them knowing you are Jewish or Israeli.
As yet, you haven’t taken the easy way out, Shlomo, and for that the highest praises – and much derision – come your way. You remain in the Jewish prison, from which, if the truth be told, your prophetic fire comes.
Shlomo, tell me – better, tell us – as you continue to write – would the world be better off if you actually resigned from being Jewish once and for all?