By David Ramírez
Counterpunch published a quaint Joan Roelofs article (“The Question of Jewish Identity”) based on Shlomo Sand’s book How I Stopped Being a Jew. I have not read Sand’s book, but I have seen a couple of his presentations on it in YouTube, and I have to say his arguments do not convince me. They do not convince me because he seems to ignore how Jewish identity has been historically formed. He seems to think that Jewish identity is intrinsically linked to religion, which is not entirely accurate. The reviews on this book also reinforce my notion on how vacuous are his arguments, something I have heard from friends who have actually read his books. I do not ever plan to spend my money of buying this book, although if I had the opportunity to borrow it from a friend or a library I think it would prove to be entertaining reading. I like myself to have a good chuckle now and then. I do not know why would anybody consider Sand an authority on Jewish identity, but here it goes.
I want to make this piece less about Sand’s book, and more on how Roelofs struggles with the notion of a Jewish identity.
I have to agree with her on her opening remarks that Jewish identity is a “puzzle,” sentiment that she shares with God knows how many non-Jews in history. The reason for this “puzzle” is that Jewish identity does not fit in any of the known historic notions of national identity. But once one understands the way Judaism projects Jewish identity, it is not so much of a puzzle. In her explanation, she says that Sand’s angle is that Jewish identity as tied to the ancient Israelites is a myth, because that connection cannot be historically proven. (The few book reviews I have read say that Sand’s argument is that Israeli secular identity has nothing Jewish about it. To each his/her own).
Being that is a myth, her argument continues, then the whole idea to claim a title to a land has no legs to stand on. Furthermore, bringing the racist argument into the equation, being that all modern-day Jews are descendent of converts (which per Roelofs that is one of Sand’s arguments), then the subtext of the argument is that they are ethnically not tied to the land they claim to belong. Yet furthermore, being that the founders of the Zionist state were mostly secular and atheist, the claim is even the more ridiculous when they did not believe a supernatural being giving the title to the land to the ancient Israelites. Like journalist Max Blumenthal would sardonically observe, the secular Zionist motto was, “I do not believe in God, yet God gave me the land.”
Step by step, Roelofs continues to list the number of refutations of Jewish identity based on cultural, religious, assimilationist, historic, and self-inventing grounds. Ultimately, she suggests that the final solution to Sand’s “problem” is to convert to another religion, which is something that the Israeli state recognizes to “legally” disavow a Jewish identity. Something that Sand admittedly does not want to do. (And who in the heck is the State of Israel to make such decision anyway?)
As long as people like Roelofs continue to understand national identity in their own terms, it will be impossible to come to grips with Jewish identity.
When it comes to “race,” it is true that Jews are not 100% homogenous. Jewish history, from the Biblical to post-Biblical periods, has never been shy to accept that across history the Jewish people has adopted or assimilated other human groups through conversion. Modern genetic studies show this diversity, although there is a good portion of genetic material that still is identified as coming from to the Middle East.
Being that this is so, it would not be so problematic to understand, and even celebrate in our Western leftist-move towards more diversity, that the Jewish people were the first multi-ethnic nation in history, all identifying as Jews no matter where we were. Just like you have today people of all sorts of ancestries becoming American citizens, and identifying as “Americans”, so did non-Jews converting to Judaism came to identify fully as Jews. Because becoming a Jew is not only about believing in a God, but first and foremost of accepting to follow Jewish Law (which includes belief in God)—not that different from swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution when becoming a U.S. naturalized citizen.
Even if a group would be of 100% non-Israelite stock, the dark and tragic side of being a Jew—at least in the Western experience—is that those persons still remain Jews in their eyes, they and their generations to come. Take for example the Ashkenazim, whose genetic studies show that their maternal genes are 80% to 100% from Europe. Does that make them ethnically less Jewish or more European? Well, history shows that no non-Jewish European identified Ashkenazim as Europeans. And no non-Jewish European bemoaning the Holocaust of Jews ever said: “Oh My God! We’ve committed genocide on our half-brothers and half-sisters!!,” which from a genetic-ethnic perspective that is exactly what happened.
And that is the “funny” thing about the privileged self-entitlements of peoples of “White” European ancestry, who get to decide á la Heidi Klum “who is in, and who is out.” This hypocrisy was perfectly illustrated by the genius of South-African comedian Trevor Noah’s “African-American” (starting at min. 34:34), when he described about how in the U.S. everybody is Something-Hyphen-American, except “White” people who are just called “Americans.” Maybe Roelofs, and Counterpunch et al, would do a great favor to themselves if they were to have a little bit more objectification on European racist culture, in order to come to grips with this cognitive disparity. Check first your entitlement at the door. Please.
When it comes to cultural diversity among Jews, so what? What seems to be the problem? We may eat different foods, depending where we are from, but still—at least for those who observe a modicum of religious laws—we all have to prepare food according to the laws of kashruth; our tunes and melodies may be different, but the text and structure of our prayers are very much the same; we may deliberate about Jewish Law in Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic, French, English, Persian, Isghaeli, etc.—but we all do so based on the same texts written in Hebrew and Aramaic eons ago. What ties all Jewish people together, even for the most secular ones in Israel, is a modicum of Jewish religious observance, something that we cannot separate ourselves from simply because it has been imbued into our being for generations.
And then comes Religion. Oh yes, such wonderful and treacherous chimera. But I am sorry to inform the merry-wishers that not even changing his religion liberates the Jew from his Jewishness in Gentile eyes. Just ask the hundreds of thousands of second or third generation Christian converts who were found out to have a Jewish ancestor by Hitler’s Reich. Just ask the tens of thousands of Iberian conversos in Europe and America who for nearly 500 years since 1391 were periodically snuffed out through harassment, torture and fire by the Catholic Church and its “Holy Inquisition.” And even when separated from the Jewish religion, the People of Israel were always identified as such from Biblical times to relatively modern times. Just read Maimonides’ Iggeret haShemad to get a few lessons on this history.
I do not think the “problems” of assimilating Jews to a “Universalist” culture is a Jewish problem per se, as is more of a Gentile problem. But who cares to observe that anyway?
And even if one were to project the Jewish people as a religious community, albeit with all the differences in religiosity or lack thereof, I cannot think of other religious community who expresses more solidarity with each other as Jews do. Some Jew gets hurt somewhere, and all the rest scream in protest. (This however is not replicated when it comes to Jewish on Jewish victimization). But never mind if such level of solidarity does not mean a strong and deeply established level of national identity, which of course deserves no respect by any casual observers of Jews and Judaism.
Yet elsewhere in the world, right now tens of thousands of Christians are being slaughtered in Africa and the Middle East, but do we see Christians in Europe or the United States displaying the same response to a Charlie Hebdo or 9-11?
Ooops! Sorry! Silly me! Those Christians are not “White.”
As for Jews like Sand “quitting from being Jews,” and though I am no one to claim to represent the whole of the Jewish people; on behalf of the tribe, we’re sorry if he has not been the best person to explain what Jewish identity is, but at least he tries. He struggles with it.
And ultimately that is what makes Sand most Jewish, because the very word “Israel” means to have struggled with God; but sorry to say, he did not win.