Interveiw

Shlomo Sand on his new book How I Stopped Being a Jew

Interview

“Winter here in Tel Aviv is wonderful,” Shlomo Sand tells me, before adding: “I think it’s the only thing here that is wonderful.”
A Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Tel Aviv, Sand’s published work has attracted much controversy. His new book, How I Stopped Being a Jew, is a personal account of the author’s break with secular Judaism; such an identity, he says, means belonging to a select group which comes with a set of privileges he would like to renounce.
“In Israel there is no doubt that to be a Jew means power and privilege,” he says. But this is at the expense of Arab-Israelis, who are not Jewish, and are therefore second class citizens. Worse still, such privileges are unreachable thanks to the nature of secular Judaism. If you believe in God you can become a religious Jew, for example, or with a lot of effort you can become British, French, a Labour Party member. But for Sand’s Palestinian students to become secular Jews, first they would have to become religious, then secular.
“For the first time in my life I define that being a secular Jew is to belong to an exclusive club that you cannot join. Nobody can become a secular Jew if he is not born to a Jewish mother. I decided I didn’t want to join, for the rest of my life, a club that you cannot join.”
“Because the Israeli state declares itself as a Jewish state, being a Jew in Israel is to be a privileged person. To give you an example, if Great Britain declared it is not a state of all British people but only of English Christians, to be an English Christian person will be a privilege in this state. There is a lot of the population who are not Jews, and cannot become Jewish. This is one good reason not to consider myself in Israel as a Jew.”
Still, despite its selective nature Israel is often held up as the only democracy in the Middle East. Sand says that a liberal, political culture does exist within Israel – the fact that his book was published there, and became a bestseller, is proof of that. But a real democracy, it is not. Israel is not looking out for the good of its citizens, believes Sand, but the benefit of Jews across the world.
Not only are Sand’s Arab-Israeli pupils citizens of a state that doesn’t belong to them, Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are living without any political or civil rights, says Sand. “It’s not 47 days or weeks or months. It’s 47 years. It’s a historic period – Israel cannot be defined as a democracy when it’s keeping a population without any basic rights…Tunisia can maybe become the first stable democracy in the Middle East. Maybe.”
Israel could start by defining itself as an Israeli state, rather than a Jewish state, says Sand, or even as a republic or a monarchy.
As for longer term plans for the country, Sand explains that “morally” he prefers one state. “We are living too close with Palestinians to live completely separate, it’s not possible. But politically, when I’m thinking of a political project that can progress in the Middle East, I don’t believe in the one state solution. The Israeli Jewish society is a very racist society. To become a minority in their own state overnight, I don’t think that it’s possible.”
Sand is keen to distinguish himself from “writers of the Zionist left,” like Amos Oz, by pointing out that this isn’t a project of divorce. “I don’t want a pure Jewish Israeli state at all. I think that any separation will still keep Arabs in Israel and maybe Jews in Palestine. But I think that the only political solution for the moment, even if there are so many settlers, colonisers, in the Occupied Territories, is a separation on the border of 67. It doesn’t mean that I believe that we can realise this project. But it’s more realistic than one equal state between Arabs and Jews.”
As for the settlers, Sand tells me that if he were in the place of Bibi Netanyahu he would ask the Palestinian Authority to offer them a choice of continuing to live in their houses, in equal conditions, as Palestinian citizens in a Palestinian state. Or give them the choice to go back to their homeland near Tel Aviv or near Haifa. “It depends on the will of the Palestinian Authority because you have to understand that the fact there are settlers is not the fault of the Palestinians, it is the fault of the Israeli government. Israel has to find a solution for it.”
Then there are the 5 million Palestinian refugees who live in camps in the surrounding countries. Sand believes that Israel has to recognise responsibility for what happened in 1948 and the Palestinian refugee problem. But he believes that the right of return cannot be realised without the destruction of the Israeli state.
He also believes that continuing to educate children in the Palestinian refugee camps that one day they will come back to Haifa and Jaffa is criminal. “Keeping them 67 years in this camp is a crime in itself. Yes, Israel committed the first crime by throwing them away when they established their state. But the second criminals are the Arab states that kept them in this camp.”
Instead, Israel has to accept a number of refugees and share the responsibility with surrounding Arab countries. “You can’t give them back the house you destroyed, but you can recognise what you did, first of all, and secondly you can pay a lot for it.”
“This is one of the conditions I think as an Israeli I would put forward in any peace process in the Middle East,” he continues. “Palestinians would receive Syrian, Lebanese or Jordanian nationality as one of the conditions of the process. If I am against the right of return it doesn’t mean I am against the return of some number of Palestinians to the Palestinian state.”
As it is now, Israel cannot survive, says Sand. There are a number of references to apartheid in Sand’s book, a contentious term when used in relation to Israel.
“In the Occupied Territories it is pure, pure apartheid, even if it’s different from South Africa. Jewish settlers do not live with Arabs. Arabs do not have the right to live in Jewish settlements. They are completely separate. The only contact between Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is when Palestinians come to build houses for the settlers. They don’t live together; they don’t go to school together. Then tell me why I cannot apply the word apartheid?”
In fact only this Sunday Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered that it be made illegal for Palestinian labourers working in Tel Aviv to catch Israeli buses, which travel through the West Bank and onto settlements, back home.
“They say this is a security measure. It’s becoming a parody because the workers are checked in the morning. If they have bombs they could set them off in Tel Aviv, in Haifa. Why take the bomb back on the road, back in the evening to their village?” Sand believes it is not actually a “security measure,” it is a result of settlers not wishing to travel on buses with Arabs. “Yes, it is a Jewish apartheid. History is a stage of victims and hangmen, who are changing places all the time. The victims of yesterday can become the hangmen of today. The hangmen of today can become the victims of tomorrow.”
In the opening chapter of How I Stopped Being a Jew, Sand has written that one of the motivations to write this essay was “to place a large question mark against accepted ideas and assumptions that are deeply rooted, not only in the Israeli public sphere but also in the networks of globalised communication.” Does he believe his book has had this effect?
“Not at all. A book can never, never change the world. The reason that I write is the belief that books can’t change the world, but when the world comes to change, people are looking for other books. This is the reason that I continue to write… I think it can make people less racist,” he adds, admitting that he has received hundreds and hundreds of letters in response to his work. “If my book helped people not to be racist, I achieved my goal.”
“Today I am so desperate and so pessimistic I think that any action to force Israel to leave the Occupied Territories and to stop this situation is acceptable. Besides one thing – terror.”