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This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

How I Stopped Being a Jew (Verso) by Shlomo Sand

The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand is best known as the author of The Invention of the Jewish People (2008), a historiographical study that challenged the myth that most of the world’s Jews were descendents of exiles from the Holy Land, calling into question the moral basis of Israel’s controversial “Law of Return”. The book was a critical and commercial success in Israel and beyond, winning France’s prestigious Prix Aujourd’hui in 2009. A follow-up, 2013’s The Invention of the Land of Israel, developed these ideas further.

Sand’s work has not been met with universal warmth in his home country: deconstructing national folklore might be a socially acceptable pastime in western Europe, but it is viewed with deep suspicion in Israel, a nation that happens to be rather attached to its foundation myths – and with good reason.

That Israel opted, at its inception, to define itself as “Jewish” rather than just “Israeli” was down to demographics – anything less would have meant putting the settlers on an equal footing with the Arabs. But who counts as a Jew? In the absence of a Jewish DNA genotype, or shared common language or culture, secular legislators had to fall back on religious criteria: one is a Jew either by being born of a Jewish mother, or by converting according to religious law. Thus the curious paradox that ethno-religious markers became integral to the construction of a secular national identity, in a state founded by socialists and modernisers. And therein lies the problem: any critical enquiry into secular Jewishness leads inexorably to the thorny question of Israel’s ethnocentrism.

Succinct, erudite and disarmingly reasonable, How I Stopped Being A Jew is Sand’s plaintive rejoinder to those – and there have been plenty – who have questioned his motives. Far from harbouring any animus against the Israeli state, he longs to see it take its place among liberal, democratic nations. The country stridently self-identifies as “Western”, yet it is hard to conceive of Britain, America or France treating their minorities the way Israel treats its Arab population, not to mention the Palestinians under occupation. Countless UN resolutions attest to the chasm between Israel’s rhetoric and its reality.

As Sand points out, liberal democracy in the West owes its success – or, at any rate, its basic legitimacy – to the fact that “it has ... been an object of identification for all its citizens, who are supposed to believe that they have a property title to it and in this way directly express their sovereignty.” In flouting this central universalist tenet, Israel struck out on a path all of its own, with consequences that endure to this day. “Being Jewish in Israel,” writes Sand, “means ... being a privileged citizen who enjoys prerogatives refused to those who are not Jews, and particularly to those who are Arabs,” before enumerating the various iniquities and indignities suffered by Israeli Arabs on a daily basis.

Supporters of Israel argue that its unique situation should afford it exemption from the normal rules. But times are changing: the unipolar world of the 1990s has given way to an international landscape that is more fragmented, and that makes this exceptionalism harder to sustain. It is telling that although Israel’s greatest ally remains constant, Washington’s diplomatic tone is of late increasingly equivocal and uneasy.

Given last summer’s events in Gaza – as well as Israel’s recent illegal seizure of a thousand acres of territory in the West Bank, its biggest land grab for three decades – it is imperative that intellectuals like Sand continue to ask such probing questions.