By Charles Sarvan –
The title of Shlomo Sand’s book, How I Stopped Being A Jew (2014), intrigued me. Isn’t it as impossible for a Jew to cease to be a Jew as it is difficult and unusual for a man to become a woman or vice versa? Isn’t identity in these terms inscribed at birth and, in most cases, unalterable? A Jew is a Jew, and there is no way a person can escape an identity given at birth. It is not within the range of free choice (Sand, pages 1-2.) However, Tamils can become Sinhalese; often it is as simple as changing the consonant ending of the surname into a vowel, Rajaratnam becoming Rajasinghe; Gunaratnam becoming Gunaratne. I quote from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2:
“Professor Yasmine Gooneratne (born Bandaranaike; a niece of SWRD Bandaranaike) suggests in her Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka that the family name may have come from a Tamil officer, Neela Perumal, made high priest of the Temple of the god Saman, and in 1454 ordered to take the name of Nayaka Pandaram, that is, Chief Record Keeper. With time, the name changed to Pandara Nayaka, and thence to the present Bandaranaike. Similarly, there is evidence that the Salagama, Durava and Karava castes were originally Tamil, from South India, and that ‘Hettiarachige’ derives from ‘chief of the Chettis’. (The chettis are described as “a Tamil trading caste”.) End of quote.
Shlomo Sand, born in a displaced-persons’ camp in Austria in 1946 to parents who had survived the Shoah, is now Professor of History at the University of Tel Aviv and the author, among other works, of The Invention of the Jewish People: see, Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, Colombo, 3 July 2013. Professor Sand is an atheist and holds that human beings created god or the gods, and not vice versa. But, as he observes, a Christian who gave up her religion would not be classified as a Christian – so too, in the Sri Lankan context, a Buddhist who gave up Buddhism – but a Jewish atheist still remains a Jew.
Identity is multiple: a woman can be a medical doctor, a mother, a daughter, member of a religious group and supporter of a certain sports-team. Identity is related to our different roles, and the different roles we are permitted or debarred from enacting help to form our identity. If identity is multiple rather than single, it is also not fixed but subject to change, be it voluntary or enforced. However, what the individual sees as her identity may be quite different to what others see her as being, and the two perspectives and valuations can be very different. For example, in the Sri Lankan context, a woman may hold that what is essential to her being, and therefore to her identity, is her Christian belief but others may see her, first and most significantly, as a Tamil. (As Jean Paul Satre wrote, it is anti-Semites who create the Jew. The Jew represents much that the anti-Semite hates and if the Jews did not exist, they would have to be created: ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’, 1944.) Individual identity feeds into a collective identity; in turn, group-identity influences (sometimes determines) the former. Finally, it is very difficult to fashion and hold on to a sense of self-identity that is immune from the opinion and identity that others project at us of ourselves, even impose and enforce.
I read this particular book as a symbolic gesture of protest and rejection; one whose title perhaps should have been, ‘Why I Stopped Being A Jew’. What is it that Sand rejects about Jewishness today? The simple and simplified answer would be its ethnoreligious nationalism. Israel today is made ugly by “brutal racism, a frenetic desire for territory” and a crying failure to take others into consideration (page 76). There is no Semitic race and yet any criticism of Israeli policy and action is taken to be an expression of anti-Semitism: Jewishness is taken to be an eternal, mysterious and ahistorical essence (page 7). Israel defines itself as a Jewish state but is unable to define who a Jew is: there is no Jewish DNA (page 79). In effect, the main feature of being a Jew today is not being Arab: so too, it can be that the main point of being Sinhalese now is that one is not Tamil. To define oneself as a Jew within the State of Israel is “an act of affiliation to a privilege caste which creates intolerable injustices around itself (page 87). Racism exists deep in the country’s fabric; is taught in schools, spread in the media, reinforced by religion (page 98). Regarding the last, many Sinhalese choose to believe that the Buddha visited the Island thrice (though there is no objective evidence whatsoever that he ever wandered far out of his region) and decreed the land should preserve his teaching of compassion, moderation and self-discipline in its purest form – “purest” in actual, daily, practise and not in empty protestation. Similarly, religion is exploited by Israel and words in The Bible are taken to constitute “a legal property-title to the land” (page 48). Religion provides justification for the “cruel military colonization” (page 99) of a defenceless people largely ignored and abandoned by the world. Religious texts and commentary validate a double morality, one for Jews and a very different one for non-Jews (pages 70 – 72): compare the reassurance given to grieving Dutugemmunu in The Mahavamsa that the thousands of non-Buddhists he had killed were not human; they were beasts and therefore don’t count. Inhumanity is given divine sanction.
The other structure supporting this ‘racist’ nationalism is History. Islam today is associated by many, if not identified with, mindless and extreme violence, and the cruelty, destruction and tragedy which this violence leaves in its wake. But it was not always so, and few pause ponder and to probe for underlying causes. “The fate of Jewish communities in the shadow of Islam was very different from the often dark fate they experienced in Europe” (page 29). “By the end of the Middle Ages, not a single Muslim community remained in Europe, whereas Christian communities continued their existence in the lands of Islam” (ibid).
History can be suppressed or falsified: it is the politics of memory (page 56). “How many people did the Nazis murder, either in concentration and extermination camps or in the other massacres they perpetrated?” The answer is six million Jews but, states Sand (ibid), the real figure is between ten and eleven million: the other five to six million, not being Jews, are not mentioned. Of the five million Poles murdered by the Nazis, two and a half million were Jews, and two and half million Catholic (page 59). The proportion of Roma murdered in relation to the size of their community is very close to that of the Jews (ibid) but this fact is ignored. On somewhat similar lines, the killings by the Tigers is held in the forefront of memory while the far larger number killed by the state of civilians, combatants and surrendering combatants is denied, minimised or simply consigned to the dustbin of forgetfulness.
Israel defines nationality by ‘race’ and not, as is many other places, by citizenship. Every Jew, even though s/he has never even visited Israel, is counted as a national with the right of entry, settlement and citizenship. “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” (page 82). Similarly, those who claim that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese-Buddhist island must ask what would happen to Sinhalese abroad if each Western country (disregarding geography, I here include Australia and New Zealand) were to suddenly declare that it belonged only to those originating from a specific group. A Palestinian in Israel should be as free as a Jew living in America (page 99).
Sand rejects such a narrow and intolerant attitude. I can’t be free unless others are also free (page 74). “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here-and-now” (page 27).