The Question of Jewish Identity

Shlomo Sand’s gracefully written and translated short book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, deals with a question many have wondered about but have been afraid to ask: What makes someone a Jew? While it has been a puzzle from time immemorial, it is more salient today as Israel welcomes all deemed Jewish, regardless of their nationality or religious beliefs (or lack of them). On the other hand, non-Jews (25% of Israelis), even if born and resident in Israel, are not quite full citizens of the Jewish state.

“If the United States of America decided tomorrow that it was not the state of all American citizens but rather the state of those persons around the whole world who identify as Anglo-Saxon Protestants, it would bear a striking resemblance to the Jewish State of Israel.” (p. 82)

Sand is an Israeli, and a secular and atheist Jew, defined by his parentage as Jewish by the state of Israel. He is a professor at Tel Aviv University, specializing in French history. He is best known as the author of two controversial books, The Invention of the Jewish People (2009) and The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012).

His major argument is that the claim that today’s Jews are descendants of the ancient Israelites is simply a myth, of considerable use to the Zionist cause. Sand’s theories are ably expounded in a CounterPunch article of February 14-16, 2014, by Paul Atwood.

Briefly, Sand contends that European Jews, and even many of the Middle Eastern ones, are descendants of converts to Judaism, with no biological connection to ancient Israelites. Yet the founders of Zionism, mostly secular and atheist Jews, while rejecting the supernatural aspects and miracles of the Old Testament, proposed its stories to be accurate history.

“To justify colonization in Palestine, Zionism appealed above all to the Bible, which it presented as a legal property title to the land. It then proceeded to depict the past of various Jewish communities not as a dense and varied fresco of the motley groups that converted to Judaism in Asia, Europe and Africa, but rather as a linear history of a race-people, supposedly exiled by force from their native land and aspiring for two thousand years to return to it.” (p. 48)

This provided a somewhat shaky justification of “return” to the “Promised Land,” in already inhabited Palestine, but it was adequate to persuade the great powers, which were feeling guilty about the fate of Jews in WWII, and also anxious to have an offshore place for the survivors to migrate.

In addition, it provided an identity and rationale for the secular and atheist Jews of the US and elsewhere who were urged to “return” to
shlomostoppedIsrael to help develop and defend the land, by joining the kibbutzim and the military.

Sand, who identifies as an Israeli and wishes it were the only form of national identity for all inhabitants, rejects the historical as well as the cultural, racial, ethnic, and biological bases of Jewishness. He questions the orthodox definition of a Jew: a person born of a Jewish mother, who was herself thus born since time immemorial, “I have the increasing impression that, in certain respects, Hitler was the victor the Second World War…his perverted ideology infiltrated itself and resurfaced.” (p. 5)

He explores the idea of a common Jewish culture apart from religious belief, but finds no convincing evidence. Jews of Western Europe, Africa, and the Middle East may have practiced their religion, but in everyday life shared the culture and settlements of their fellow nationals. (p. 35) In contrast, the Yiddish speakers of Eastern Europe had a distinctive culture in dress, food, language, and religious fundamentalism. (p. 36) The children of these Jews often became atheist socialists, some of whom, rejecting the shtetl culture, founded the Zionist movement.

“The Yiddish colonists [of Israel], in fact, were very quick to discard their despised mother tongue. The first thing they needed was a language that could unite Jews the world over, and neither Theodor Herzl nor Edmond de Rothschild could communicate in Yiddish. The early Zionists subsequently aspired to create a new Jew, who would break with the popular culture of their parents and ancestors as well as with the wretched townships of the Pale of Settlement.” (p. 41)

Sand maintains that Jewish holidays serve only as nostalgia for secular Jews and do not honor their universalist culture. For example, the traditional Haggadah for Passover Seder includes an “explicit demand to exterminate all the peoples who did not believe in the God of the Jews and had dared to attack Israel. . .” (p. 67) In the book of Exodus (23:23), God promises to “exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan in order to make room in the Promised Land for the sons of Israel.” (p. 72) The Old Testament command to love thy neighbor as thyself was applied only to fellow Jews. (p. 70) The Talmud states: “You shall be called men, but the idolaters are not called men.” (p. 71)

Sand provides a long list of Jews who adopted a universalistic morality (from Karl Marx to Naomi Klein) and also distanced themselves from the Jewish religious tradition. (p. 73)

Sand refutes those who claim that what binds all Jews is their history as unique victims of persecution: “Zionist rhetoric [insists that] there are hosts of murderers like Hitler, while there have never been and never will be victims like the Jews.” (p. 63) Yet millions of non-Jews were killed by the Nazis; persecution, genocide and ethnic cleansing have been and continue to be inflicted on many peoples.

Some critics of Sand argue that a motive for remaining Jewish despite enjoying nothing of its culture or religion is the ability to have legitimacy when criticizing Israeli policies, but this is a merely pragmatic basis for a major decision.

Sand concludes: “I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew.” (p. 97) Although he considers Israel “one of the most racist societies in the Western world” and the perpetrator of “cruel military colonization [of] weak and defenceless victims who are not part of the ‘chosen people,’” he remains “by everyday life and basic culture” an Israeli. (p. 98-99)

Others have resigned from Judaism in protest of Israeli policies; Sand has the additional motive of seeing no convincing basis for Jewish identity other than the religion. Contemporary concepts of free choice of religion and ideology are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , and warmly championed by secular Jews. So why wouldn’t a person be able to resign from any or all religions and systems of belief? In contrast, one can’t resign from one’s ethnic background; Sand acknowledges that his is Austrian.

While I do not have the expertise to assess Sand’s historical assertions, the status of secular Jews is of personal significance and an issue independent of the exiles, migration, and conversions of people long ago. One problem with Sand’s choice is that Israeli authorities, Jewish religious leaders, the general public, and anti-Semites are not going to let him or others slip out of it so easily. Joining another religion makes resignation more convincing, even legally recognized in Israel, but Sand does not want to do this.

Another issue is how to have holiday celebrations, weddings, funerals, potluck suppers, youth groups, communities of shared values, etc., if you eschew the Jewish institutions. Religion has been a source of social justice activism and solace, despite its flaws. Many secular Jews remain in the faith without faith for these reasons. A solution is to join one of the religions (it means bind together) welcoming atheists, such as Unitarian Universalism, or the burgeoning atheist churches of England.

Sand’s fine accessible book is likely to provoke heated controversy, and it should.

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996). Web site:  Contact:



Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site:  Contact: