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Renouncing Jewishness: Shlomo Sand and Gilad Atzmon

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Sand launching 'How I Stopped Being a Jew'
Sand launching 'How I Stopped Being a Jew'
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For years now, I've known there was something wrong when my well-meaning anti-Zionist Jewish friends found it necessary to join Jewish anti-Zionist groups opposing Israel. In the US, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network; in Canada, Not in Our Name; in Britain, Jews Against Zionism -- every country has its group, usually more than one. "I am a Jewish witness against Israel," I would be told. Sounds good, even brave. Sand's latest deconstruction of Jewishness and Israel, How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014), makes it clear why my suspicions were well founded.

Barely 100 pages, it is a page-turner, a precis of his earlier more scholarly works, arguing that the romantic, heroic age of Jewish nationalism, as embodied in the creation of a Jewish state, is coming to an end. Israel will not disappear, but it is an anachronism, an embarrassment in the postmodern age. A reminder of the horrors of Nazism, but not as the Zionist crafters of the "holocaust industry", or "holocaust religion", would have it. The Zionist project is exposed by Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, and many more Jewish critics as reenacting the same policies of yesteryear. A flawed answer that is doomed, "an insidious form of racism".

For the Israeli Sand, the Jewish "national" identity is a fraud (an Israeli identity is fine); the only viable Jewish identity is a religious one, and as a nonbeliever, he logically concludes, "Cogito, ergo non sum."

Gilad Atzmon takes Sand's logic further. He tore up his Israeli passport, becoming an ex-Israeli as well as an ex-Jew.

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What's so wrong with a secular, ethnic Jewish identity? Well, it can be based on only one of two things: persecution (being "forced" into being a Jew whether one likes it or not, as in the Nazi's racial laws) or being "born" into the Jewish people. The former is no longer an issue and the latter is full of holes, and based on a dangerous myth.

When were the Jewish people invented?

Sand's answer is simple: "At a certain stage in the 19th century, intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany, influenced by the folk character of German nationalism, took upon themselves the task of inventing a people 'retrospectively', out of a thirst to create a modern Jewish people." For Jews, this required a homeland, and the westernized Jewish elite were able to provide this. As the West suffered one mortal blow after another (WWI&II), Zionism took on a new meaning. Voila! Israel.

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But the exile legend is a myth. Sand is a historian and couldn't find any texts supporting it. The Romans did not exile peoples. "Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled." Jews continued to live in the Holy Land through thick and thin, freer under Muslim rule than Christian, but even the latter never "ethnically cleansed" them. Most converted to Christianity or Islam. Voila! The (Christian, Muslim) Palestinians. However, a tiny core stuck stubbornly to the original monotheism, nurtured by the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC (the only bona fide exile, the earlier Egyptian exile legend being crafted much later, when the Torah was written down and collected in the 3rd century BC).

Jews are not a race but rather a collective of many ethnic groups who were hijacked by a late 19th-century 'national' movement. There is no racial or ethnic basis for being Jewish any more than there is for being Christian or Muslim. The great majority of those who today consider themselves Jewish are descended from converts in Central Asia, eastern Europe and north Africa, not from ancient Hebrews expelled from the Holy Land by the Romans. They are not ethnic "Semites", of near-eastern origin, or ethnic anything else.

Atzmon is a noted jazz musician, and deconstructs a popular 1970s Israeli pop song by Shlomo Artzi: All of a sudden a man wakes up in the morning. He feels he is people and to everyone he comes across he says shalom. Artzi's youth suggests Jews suddenly became "people" thanks to the state of Israel, conflating being Jewish with being Israeli, suggesting only Israelis can really feel free as Jews. What Artzi ignores is that feeling proud to be an Israeli is only for those Israelis who have "Jew" stamped in their passport, and, among them, only those who are blind to the bloody colonial basis for this privilege. Hardly a recipe for a healthy feeling.

Can a liar tell the truth?

Israel is a "democratic and Jewish state" according to Israeli law. The "Jewish" nature was first defined in the Declaration of Independence of 1948. The "democratic" character was added by the Knesset in 1985. This is a contradiction in terms, as Jewish by definition determines the state according to race, making it undemocratic for those in the state not Jewish. In cartesian lingo, both 'A' and 'not A' are true.

This flawed logic now lies at the heart of what it means to call oneself a secular Jew, either Israeli or 'diaspora'. Sand joins other ex-Jews, Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, and Will Self, who have renounced Jewishness, either as secularists, or as converts to Christianity, shedding a contradictory, now empty, signifier. Given what Israel has become, "democratic" and "Jewish" are no longer compatible. Sand rejects the faux Jewish nationalism served up by Zionism, which excludes non-Jews from the narrative, and is left with nothing except himself, his books, his sense of right and wrong. A lonely world.

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Atzmon takes Sand's attack on identity politics a step further, arguing in The Wandering Who that secular Jewish anti-Zionism feeds into the Zionist narrative, the do-gooder counterpoint to the more sinister role of the diaspora, taking Sand's concerns to an even more uncomfortable conclusion: The Jewish Diaspora is there to mobilize lobbies by recruiting international support. The Neocons transform the American army into an Israeli mission force. Anti-Zionists of Jewish descent (and this may even include proud self-haters such as myself) are there to portray an image of ideological plurality and ethical concern.*

Sand dismisses both religion and nationalism as the basis for his identity. Atzmon argues both are legitimate, though they both are perverted in the case of the Israeli state. Nationalism is an authentic "bond with one's soil, heritage, culture, language", a cathartic experience, not at all "empty" as a signifier. Though nationalism may well be an invention, it is still "an intrinsically authentic fulfilling experience". It can be misused, is often suicidal, but nonetheless, "it sometimes manages to integrate man, soil and sacrifice into a state of spiritual unification."

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http://ericwalberg.com/
Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games" and "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" are available at (more...)
 

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