by Shlomo Sand. With Foreword by IAM Editor and Review by Gordon Haber


For some years now, Israeli Academia Monitor (IAM) has reported on Shlomo Sand, a professor of French culture at Tel Aviv University, who parleyed a modest academic record for a high profile venture of bashing Israel. Unencumbered by empirical research, including genetics studies indicating the common origin of the Jews, Sand claimed that Jews are an invented people, that is, invented by the Zionists who wanted to colonize Palestine.[The Invention of the Jewish People.] The book received enormous publicity as it provided academic legitimacy to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that claimed that the Jews were descended from the Khazars. Encouraged by his success, the ever entrepreneurial Sand went to write a book, The Invention of the Land of Israel.

Sand has recently retired from Tel Aviv University but his career in bashing Israel is not over. On the contrary, with all this free time, he is planning to take the show on the road. He is scheduled to speak in London on October 14 about his new book, How I Stopped Being a Jew.

Sand, like others before him, discovered that writing anti-Semitic polemics is a winning formula. What makes him stand out in this rather large crowd is his title as a professor, now emeritus, at TAU.

Social sciences and humanities at Tel Aviv University provided a position and a salary (paid by tax payers) to Sand and other academic activists. His website on the TAU page lists his main areas of teaching: "French Intellectual History, Political History of the 20th Century, Cinema and History, Nation and Nationalism, History and Theory."

Before joining the academy, Sand, a member of Matzpen, a radical splinter of the Communist Party, worked a clerk in the post office. TAU gave him an opportunity to take his politics to a new level under the guise of academic freedom. — Editor, Israel Academia Monitor.

Shlomo Sand: 'I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew'

His past was Jewish, but today he sees Israel as one of the most racist societies in the western world. Historian Shlomo Sand explains why he doesn't want to be Jewish anymore [*]

shlomo sand
'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' &mdash Shlomo Sand. (Photograph: Gali Tibbon/Graphic)

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.

Although the state of Israel is not disposed to transform my official nationality from "Jew" to "Israeli", I dare to hope that kindly philosemites, committed Zionists and exalted anti-Zionists, all of them so often nourished on essentialist conceptions, will respect my desire and cease to catalogue me as a Jew. As a matter of fact, what they think matters little to me, and still less what the remaining antisemitic idiots think. In the light of the historic tragedies of the 20th century, I am determined no longer to be a small minority in an exclusive club that others have neither the possibility nor the qualifications to join.

By my refusal to be a Jew, I represent a species in the course of disappearing. I know that by insisting that only my historical past was Jewish, while my everyday present (for better or worse) is Israeli, and finally that my future and that of my children (at least the future I wish for) must be guided by universal, open and generous principles, I run counter to the dominant fashion, which is oriented towards ethnocentrism.

As a historian of the modern age, I put forward the hypothesis that the cultural distance between my great-grandson and me will be as great or greater than that separating me from my own great-grandfather. All the better! I have the misfortune of living now among too many people who believe their descendants will resemble them in all respects, because for them peoples are eternal — a fortiori a race-people such as the Jews.

I am aware of living in one of the most racist societies in the western world. Racism is present to some degree everywhere, but in Israel it exists deep within the spirit of the laws. It is taught in schools and colleges, spread in the media, and above all and most dreadful, in Israel the racists do not know what they are doing and, because of this, feel in no way obliged to apologise. This absence of a need for self-justification has made Israel a particularly prized reference point for many movements of the far right throughout the world, movements whose past history of antisemitism is only too well known.

To live in such a society has become increasingly intolerable to me, but I must also admit that it is no less difficult to make my home elsewhere. I am myself a part of the cultural, linguistic and even conceptual production of the Zionist enterprise, and I cannot undo this. By my everyday life and my basic culture I am an Israeli. I am not especially proud of this, just as I have no reason to take pride in being a man with brown eyes and of average height. I am often even ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel military colonisation, with its weak and defenceless victims who are not part of the "chosen people".

Earlier in my life I had a fleeting utopian dream that a Palestinian Israeli should feel as much at home in Tel Aviv as a Jewish American does in New York. I struggled and sought for the civil life of a Muslim Israeli in Jerusalem to be similar to that of the Jewish French person whose home is in Paris. I wanted Israeli children of Christian African immigrants to be treated as the British children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent are in London. I hoped with all my heart that all Israeli children would be educated together in the same schools. Today I know that my dream is outrageously demanding, that my demands are exaggerated and impertinent, that the very fact of formulating them is viewed by Zionists and their supporters as an attack on the Jewish character of the state of Israel, and thus as antisemitism.

'I am often ashamed of Israel, particularly when I witness evidence of its cruel military colonisation, with its weak and defenceless victims who are not part of the "chosen people",' writes Shlomo Sand. Photograph: Hatem Moussa/AP

However, strange as it may seem, and in contrast to the locked-in character of secular Jewish identity, treating Israeli identity as politico-cultural rather than "ethnic" does appear to offer the potential for achieving an open and inclusive identity. According to the law, in fact, it is possible to be an Israeli citizen without being a secular "ethnic" Jew, to participate in its "supra-culture" while preserving one's "infra-culture", to speak the hegemonic language and cultivate in parallel another language, to maintain varied ways of life and fuse different ones together. To consolidate this republican political potential, it would be necessary, of course, to have long abandoned tribal hermeticism, to learn to respect the Other and welcome him or her as an equal, and to change the constitutional laws of Israel to make them compatible with democratic principles.

Most important, if it has been momentarily forgotten: before we put forward ideas on changing Israel's identity policy, we must first free ourselves from the accursed and interminable occupation that is leading us on the road to hell. In fact, our relation to those who are second-class citizens of Israel is inextricably bound up with our relation to those who live in immense distress at the bottom of the chain of the Zionist rescue operation. That oppressed population, which has lived under the occupation for close to 50 years, deprived of political and civil rights, on land that the "state of the Jews" considers its own, remains abandoned and ignored by international politics. I recognise today that my dream of an end to the occupation and the creation of a confederation between two republics, Israeli and Palestinian, was a chimera that underestimated the balance of forces between the two parties.

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.

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.

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.

[*] This is an edited extract from How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand, published by Verso. We reprint it exactly as it appeared October 14, 2014 in the Guardian.


This below is an estimate of the man and his accomplishments by Gordon Haber, a frequent contributor to the Forward. The Forward started as a Yiddish newspaper for Jewish immigrants of the Socialist-Marxist persuasion. It is currently written in English but, as the reviewer's belief in the existence of the downtrodden Palestinian makes clear, retains some of its historic ideology. This article appeared October 10, 2014 in the Forward and is archived at

'How I Stopped' Reading Shlomo Sand's Crackpot Memoirs

New Book Mixes Conspiracy Theories and Provocation

'How I Stopped Being a Jew" is the strangest book that I have ever reviewed. I used to grant that distinction to the memoir by the psychic who claimed that aliens healed her anal cyst. But this one is even stranger. At least the psychic didn't have world-historical pretentions or the arrogance of an intellectual delighting in his own ignorance. Nor did the psychic, in the end, hit on a painful truth.

A little background: Shlomo Sand is an Israeli academic trained in the history of 20th-century France. More recently he has turned his attention to his native country. This is no big deal: Many serious scholars, over the course of a career, shift to other topics. But when it comes to Israel, Sand is less historian than upper-middlebrow conspiracy theorist.

In his 2009 book, "The Invention of the Jewish People," Sand took on the Israeli national myth — in particular, the false notion of an unbroken genealogical line from the Jews of the Roman exile to the Jews of today. He was right to poke holes in the story. But Sand believes Israeli historians have purposely ignored the various conversions and population shifts since the first century in a mendacious attempt to bolster Zionism. Sand, in short, invents a conspiracy where none exists.

Another conspiracy: Sand believes that Israeli historians deliberately suppressed the so-called "Khazar Theory," which posits that the Ashkenazi community is descended from medieval Slavic converts. Sand loves the Khazar Theory because it "proves" the ahistoricity of Zionism — and (wait for it) that there's no such thing as the Jewish people.

Never mind that there is absolutely no evidence to support the theory, or at least what disinterested scientists and historians consider evidence. Dr. Sand takes it at face value. And so did his readers. A best seller, "The Invention of the Jewish People" was dutifully translated into English and various European languages, thus providing succor to the hordes of drooling Judeophobes desperate to discredit Jews.

In "How I Stopped Being a Jew," Sand goes further, rejecting the Jewish religion for its "genocidal Yahwestic tradition," as if the Hebrews invented smiting. Neither can he identify with secular Jews, since they have no common culture — no shared language, customs or literature. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, for example, did not often explore (or eviscerate) Jewish themes; instead, they expressed an "Eastern European sensibility." Even Jewish humor is really "Yiddish-Slavic humor," since neither the "Rothschilds nor the marvelous Judeo-Iraqi writers ever shared it." Secular Jews can't even claim an emotional bond: "They do not experience today joys or pains shared by other secular Jews the world over." For these reasons, Sand has an announcement to make: "I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew."

If Sand wants to turn in his Jew card, what do I care? What I find more interesting is how he arrived at these giant conclusions without any evident research. He seems completely unaware that Judaism can almost be defined by the tensions between universalism and tribalism, or that any culture is more like a Venn diagram than a list carved in stone. His assertion about Jewish humor is also dubious, as it took me about three minutes of Googling to learn that even if the Rothschilds weren't a laugh riot (although I heard that Mayer Amschel did a killer Prince Wilhelm), the folklore of Spanish Jewry had Makeda, its own version of Chelm, the fictional town of idiots and schlemiels.

Actually, in one respect, there may have been too much "research." Although Sand doesn't believe that a secular Jewish culture exists, he provides a long critique of the secular Jewish culture that defines itself by the supposed uniqueness of the Holocaust and its support for Israel, the worst country in the entire world. The better parts of these passages blatantly echo Peter Novick's seminal "The Holocaust in American Life," the worse ones recall Norman Finkelstein's "The Holocaust Industry."

In sum, "How I Stopped Being a Jew" is a bizarre mixture of memoir, crackpot history and (to put it generously) borrowed ideas of Jewish identity. And it's all to prove that a Jew is a terrible thing. For this, Sand will no doubt be branded with that silly epithet, "self-hating Jew." Bear in mind, though, that it's other Jews he hates. Sand holds himself in the highest esteem.

And yet, if I am to be honest, Sand does raise a question of grave importance. For Sand, there is a "close link" between an essentialist Jewish identity and how Israel treats its non-Jews. Many, of course, will argue that Israel is a haven for Muslims and everything's hunky-dory in Gaza. But those of us who strive for intellectual honesty must acknowledge the contradiction between Western ideals and an ethno-religious government that humiliates and brutalizes people under its jurisdiction. American Jews, in particular, need to ask themselves why they support a situation in Israel that they would never countenance in their own country. That Sand raises these questions, though, reminds me of the drunken darts player who miraculously hits a bull's-eye. For the most part, "How I Stopped Being a Jew" filled me with a kind of befuddled amazement at how anyone could take Shlomo Sand seriously.

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