3 Stories on Identity and Movement by Shlomo Sand

Shlomo Sand. Photo by David Bachar, Haaretz.
Shlomo Sand. Photo by David Bachar, Haaretz.

There are few books which have aroused my curiosity in recent years more so than Shlomo Sand‘s “the Invention of the Jewish People‘. It is only fitting, then, that Eric Hobsbawm, the late famed British historian would describe it as such: “Perhaps books combining passion and erudition don’t change political situations, but if they did, this one would count as a landmark.” In his review, he would emphasis on Sand’s valuable contribution to “the dismantling of nationalist historical myth.”

It is this dismantling of a nationalist historical myth – in his case, Israel’s – which is particularly fascinating to me and, hopefully, to you too. I will very likely be using his own experience in future essays regarding with my own mixed identity as a Lebanese. For now, I’ll leave you with this.

The following is the introduction of ‘the Invention of the Jewish People’, also available on the book’s official website. The part that impressed me the most was the story of Mahmoud, a man born in a Palestinian village which no longer exists, destroyed by Zionists. Mahmoud was a famous poet, and we all know him. Yes, the Mahmoud that Shlomo Sand talks about is none other than Mahmoud Darwish.

Mahmoud got in trouble in 1967 for writing a poem called “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies” which told the story of an Israeli soldier’s remorse of conscience for having participated in the brutal conquest of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor. The soldier had sought out Mahmoud. The soldier didn’t speak Arabic, but read Mahmoud’s poems in translation, in Hebrew. They were both Communists at the time, comrades. Who was the soldier? None other than Shlomo Sand himself.

But the text isn’t just about them. There’s also the other Mahmoud, the elevator installer who was born in Jaffa in 1945, 3 years before the city became part of the State of Israel. Mahmoud’s crisis of identity went from him wanting to change his name to Moshe after befriending a Jewish boy to ‘going back’ to his original name and moving to Sweden permanently, and having his children speak only in Swedish. There’s also the story of Shulek, a Polish Jew and father of Shlomo Sand, who was described as being “always much more of a Communist than a Jew, and more of a Yiddishist than a Pole”. There’s also Bernardo, a non-Jewish Barcelona Anarchist and father-in-law of Sand who ended up in Israel only to have both his nationality and religion stamped as “Catalan” because the State won’t recognize an Atheist. There’s also the story of Gisele and Larissa, who end up learning Hebrew for different reasons, in Paris and Tel Aviv respectively, and only having one thing in common: Shlomo Sand as a teacher.

I’ll leave you with the three stories. The following is extracted from the book.

A Nation … is a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbors.” —Karl Deutsch, Nationality and Its Alternatives, 1969.

I do not think I could have written the book on nationalism which I did write, were I not capable of crying, with the help of a little alcohol, over folk songs.” —Ernest Gellner, “Reply to Critics,” 1996

This book is a work of history. Nonetheless, it will open with a number of personal stories that, like all biographical writing, required a liberal amount of imagination to give them life. To begin like this is less strange than readers may at first imagine. It is no secret that scholarly research is often motivated by personal experiences. These experiences tend to be hidden beneath layers of theory; here some are proffered at the outset. They will serve the author as the launch pad in his passage toward historical truth, an ideal destination that, he is aware, no one ever truly reaches. Personal memory is untrustworthy—we do not know the color of the ink with which it was written—and thus one should view the depiction of the following encounters as inexact and partly i ctitious, though no more so than any other type of biographical writing. As for their possibly troublesome connection with the central thesis of this book, readers will discover it as they proceed. True, their tone is sometimes ironic, even melancholic. But irony and melancholy have their uses, and might jointly be suitable attire for a critical work that seeks to isolate the historical roots and changing nature of identity politics in Israel.

The First Story —Two Immigrant Grandfathers His name was Shulek. Later, in Israel, he was called Shaul. He was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1910. At the end of the First World War his father died of the Spanish flu, and his mother went to work as a laborer in a textile plant near the city. Two of her three children were put up for adoption with the help of the local Jewish community; only Shulek, the youngest, remained at home. He attended a heder for a few years, but his mother’s straitened circumstances forced him out into the streets at an early age, and he began to do various jobs associated with the processing of textiles. That’s how it was in Lodz, Poland’s center of textile production.

The young man shed his parents’ ancient faith for fairly ordinary reasons. As his mother had been impoverished by his father’s death, the local synagogue ordered her to sit in the back rows of the congregation. Hierarchy ruled in this traditional society. The reduction of financial capital almost always led to a rapid reduction in symbolic capital, and so the mother’s distance from respectable social status was mirrored in her distance from the holy Torah. Her son, carried along by the momentum of exclusion, found himself cast out of the house of prayer. Loss of faith among the young in the Jewish quarters of major cities was becoming widespread. Overnight young Shulek, too, found himself without a home and without a faith.

But not for long. He joined the Communist Party, as was the fashion, which brought him in line with the cultural and linguistic majority of Polish society. Soon Shulek became a revolutionary activist. The socialist vision filled his imagination and strengthened his spirit, prompting him to read and think in spite of the demanding work he did for a living. The party became a haven. Before long, however, this warm and lively shelter also got him thrown in prison for political sedition. He spent six years there, and while he never finished school, his education was considerably broadened. Though unable to assimilate Marx’s Das Kapital, he became familiar with the popular writings of Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilych Lenin. He who never finished his heder education, and did not fulfill his mother’s hope that he would enter a yeshiva, became a Marxist.

One cold December day in 1939, Shulek saw three Jews hanged in Lodz’s central avenue—a stunt by some German soldiers who’d been drinking in a nearby beer hall. A few days later, he and his young wife and her sister were swept up with a flood of displaced people rushing eastward toward the Red Army, which had occupied half of Poland. Shulek did not take his mother along. Later he would say she was old and frail; in fact, she was then fifty years old. She was similarly old and also indigent when the ghetto dwellers—and she among them—began to be eliminated in slow and cumbersome gas trucks, the primitive extermination technology that preceded the more efficient gas chambers.

When the refugees reached the Soviet-occupied area, Shulek knew better than to reveal that he was a Communist: Stalin had recently eliminated the leaders of Polish Communism. Instead Shulek crossed the German-Soviet boundary bearing an old-new identity: that of an avowed Jew. At the time, the USSR was the only country willing to accept Jewish refugees, although it sent most of them to its Asian regions. Shulek and his wife were fortunate in being sent to distant Uzbekistan. His sister-in-law, who was educated and spoke several languages, enjoyed the privilege of being allowed to remain in civilized Europe, which, sadly, had not yet been dubbed Judeo-Christian. So it was that in 1941 she fell into the hands of the Nazis and was dispatched to a crematorium

In 1945, Shulek and his wife returned to Poland, but even in the absence of the German army the country continued its rejection of the Jews. Once again the Polish Communist was left without a homeland (unless we count Communism, to which, despite all his troubles, he remained loyal). He and his wife and two small children found themselves in a camp for displaced persons in the mountains of Bavaria. There he met one of his brothers, who, unlike Shulek, disliked communism and favored Zionism. History looked on their fates with an ironic smile: the Zionist brother got a visa to emigrate to Montreal, where he remained for the rest of his life, while Shulek and his little family were transferred by the Jewish Agency to Marseilles, whence at the end of 1948 they sailed to Haifa.

In Israel, Shulek lived for many years as Shaul, though he never became a real Israeli. Even his identity card did not classify him as such. It defined him as Jewish by nationality and religion—since the 1960s, the state had recorded a religion for all citizens, including confirmed unbelievers—but he was always much more of a Communist than a Jew, and more of a Yiddishist than a Pole. Though he learned to communicate in Hebrew, he did not much care for the language, and continued to speak Yiddish with family and friends.

Shulek was nostalgic for the ‘Yiddishland’ of Eastern Europe and the revolutionary ideas that had seethed and fermented there before the war. In Israel he felt he was stealing other people’s land; though it wasn’t his doing, he continued to regard it as robbery. His obvious alienation was not from the native-born Sabras, who looked down on him, but from the local climate. The hot breath of the Levant was not for him. It only intensified his longing for the heavy snows that blanketed the streets of Lodz, the Polish snow that slowly melted in his memory until his eyes finally closed. At his graveside, his old comrades sang “The Internationale.”

Bernardo was born in Barcelona, Catalonia, in 1924. Years later he would be called Dov. Bernardo’s mother, like Shulek’s mother, was a religious woman her entire life, although she attended a church rather than a synagogue. His father, however, had early on abandoned any intensive preoccupation with the soul and, like many other metalworkers in rebellious Barcelona, become an anarchist. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the anarcho-syndicalist cooperatives supported the young leftist republic and for a while actually ruled Barcelona. But the right-wing, Francoist forces soon reached the city, and young Bernardo fought alongside his father in the final retreat from its streets.

Bernardo’s conscription into Franco’s military, a few years after the end of the Civil War, did not soften his feelings about the new regime. As an armed soldier in 1944, he deserted to the Pyrenees, where he helped other opponents of the regime cross the border. Meanwhile he waited eagerly for the American forces to arrive and bring down the cruel ally of Mussolini and Hitler. To his dismay, the democratic liberators did not even try. Bernardo had no choice but to cross the border himself and become a stateless person. He worked as a miner in France, then stowed away on a ship in hope of reaching Mexico. But he was caught in New York and sent back to Europe in shackles.

Thus in 1948 he, too, was in Marseilles, working in one of the shipyards. One evening in May, he met a group of enthusiastic young men in a dockside café. The young metalworker, still dreaming of the human beauty of Barcelona’s revolutionary cooperatives, became convinced that the kibbutz in the new state of Israel was their natural successor. Without the slightest connection to Judaism or Zionism, he boarded an immigrant ship, arrived in Haifa and was promptly sent to the battlefront in the valley of Latrun. Many of his companions fell during combat, but he survived and immediately joined a kibbutz, just as he had dreamed of doing that spring day in Marseilles. There he met the woman of his life. Along with several other couples, they were married by a rabbi in a speedy ritual. In those days, the rabbis were still happy to provide this service and asked no superfluous questions.

The Ministry of the Interior soon discovered that a serious error had been made: Bernardo, now known as Dov, was not a Jew. Although the marriage was not annulled, Dov was summoned to a formal meeting to clarify his true identity In the government office to which he was directed sat an official wearing a large black skullcap. At that time, the religious-Zionist party Mizrahi, which ran the Ministry of the Interior, was cautious and hesitant. It was not yet insistent about “national” territories or the politics of identity exclusion.

The exchange between the two men went more or less as follows:
“You are not a Jew, sir,” said the official.
“I never said I was,” replied Dov.
“We shall have to change your registration,” the official said casually.
“No problem,” Dov agreed. “Go right ahead.”
“What is your nationality?” “Israeli?” Dov suggested.
“There is no such thing,” stated the official.
“Because there is no Israeli national identity,” the ministry official said with a sigh. “Where were you born?”
“In Barcelona.”
“Then we’ll write ‘nationality: Spanish.’ ”
“But I’m not Spanish. I’m a Catalan, and I refuse to be categorized as Spanish. That’s what my father and I fought about in the 1930s.”
The official scratched his head. He knew no history, but he did respect people. “So we’ll put ‘nationality: Catalan.’ ”
“Very good!” said Dov. Thus Israel became the first country in the world to officially recognize the Catalan nationality.
“Now, sir, what is your religion?”
“I’m a secular atheist.”
“I can’t write ‘atheist.’ The State of Israel does not recognize such a category. What was your mother’s religion?”
“The last time I saw her, she was still a Catholic.”
“Then I shall write ‘religion: Christian,’ ” the official said, relieved.
But Dov, normally a calm man, was growing impatient. “I won’t carry an identity card that says I’m a Christian. It’s not only opposed to my principles; it offends the memory of my father, who was an anarchist and set fire to churches in the Civil War.”
The official scratched his head some more, weighed the options, and found a solution. Dov left the ministry office with a blue identity card that declared both his nationality and his religion to be Catalan.

Over the years, Dov took pains not to let his national and religious identity adversely affect his daughters. He knew that Israeli schoolteachers often referred to “us Jews,” despite the fact that some of their pupils, or the pupils’ parents, might not be among that group. Since Dov was antireligious, and his wife was opposed to his being circumcised, conversion to Judaism was not on the cards. At some point he searched for some imaginary link to the Marranos (forced converts) of Spain. But when his daughters grew up and assured him that his being a non-Jew did not trouble them, he abandoned the search.

Fortunately for him, the graveyards of kibbutzim do not bury gentiles outside the fence or in Christian cemeteries, as all other Israeli communities do. Dov, therefore, is buried in the same plot of land as the other members of the kibbutz. His identity card, however, has disappeared, though he could hardly have taken it with him on his final journey.

In due time, the two immigrants, Shulek and Bernardo, shared Israeli granddaughters. Their father was a friend of two men whose stories begin here.

The Second Story—Two “Native” Friends Mahmoud One (both protagonists in this story are named Mahmoud) was born in Jaffa in 1945. In the 1950s there were still some Arab neighborhoods whose inhabitants had not fled to Gaza during the fighting and were permitted go on living in their native city. This Mahmoud grew up in the impoverished alleys of the city, which was almost entirely settled by Jewish immigrants. Unlike the population in the Sharon Plain and the Galilee, the Palestinians of Jaffa had been left depleted and orphaned; too few of the city’s original inhabitants remained to carry forward an independent culture, and the immigrant society refused to become involved or integrated with them.

One outlet from the small, narrow ghetto of Arab Jaffa was the Israeli Communist party. Young Mahmoud joined its youth movement, in which he met Israelis his own age. The movement also enabled him to learn Hebrew well and to travel in and become familiar with “Eretz Israel,” which was still quite small. Moreover, the movement took him beyond the scanty education he had received at the Arab school, and, like Shulek of Poland, he studied Engels and Lenin and tried to read Communist writers from around the world. His Israeli youth guides liked him, and he was always willing to help his comrades.

Mahmoud befriended an Israeli boy a year younger than he was. They shared an outlook, and Mahmoud helped his friend cope with the intense, challenging street life of Jaffa. His physical strength made the younger lad feel safe, while the latter’s sharp tongue sometimes served Mahmoud well. They grew very close. They told each other their deepest secrets. The friend learned that Mahmoud dreamed of being called Moshe and of being accepted as one of the boys. Some evenings as they wandered about the streets, Mahmoud introduced himself as Moshe and succeeded in convincing peddlers and shopkeepers of his Jewishness. But he could not maintain the other identity for long, and always reverted to Mahmoud. Nor did his pride allow him to turn his back on his family.

One advantage Mahmoud enjoyed as an Arab was exemption from military service. His friend, however, received a conscription notice, which threatened to separate them. One weekend in 1964, they sat on Jaffa’s beautiful beach and speculated about the future. Fantasizing freely, they resolved that as soon as Mahmoud’s friend completed his military service they would travel the world, and perhaps, if they were lucky, would not have to come back to Israel. To cement this fateful resolution, they carefully cut their palms and pressed them together and, like a pair of silly little boys, swore to make the great journey together.

Mahmoud waited for the younger man to complete his national service. It lasted more than two and a half years. But the friend came back changed—in love, emotionally shackled, confused. Though he remembered their pact, he became hesitant. Tel Aviv’s vibrancy attracted him. Its abundant temptations were too great to resist. Mahmoud waited patiently but finally had to admit that his friend was very attached to the excitement of Israeliness and would not be able to break away from it. So Mahmoud gave up, saved his money, and left. He crossed Europe slowly, putting Israel farther and farther behind him, until he reached Stockholm. Despite Sweden’s unfamiliar cold and blinding white snow, he tried hard to adapt. He began working for an elevator company and became an expert installer.

But during the long northern winters he still dreamed of Jaffa. When he wanted to marry, he returned to the place that had once been his homeland but that history had decided, when he was three, would not be his. He found a suitable woman, took her back to Sweden, and raised a family with her there. Somehow the Palestinian from Jaffa became a Scandinavian, and his children grew up speaking Swedish. They taught their mother their native tongue. Long ago, Mahmoud stopped wishing his name were Moshe.

The other Mahmoud was born in 1941 in a small village, now long extinct, near Acre. In 1948 he became a refugee when his family fled the fighting to Lebanon, and his birthplace was erased. A thriving Jewish village rose on its ruins. One moonless night, a year after the war, Mahmoud and his family quietly crossed back across the border and made their way to the house of relatives in the village of Jadida, in the Galilee. In this way, Mahmoud came to be included among those who for many years were classified as “present absentees”— refugees who remained in their country of birth but had lost their land and possessions. This second Mahmoud was a dreamy, gifted child who used to amaze his teachers and friends with his eloquence and imagination. Like the first Mahmoud, he joined the Communist Party and soon became famous within its ranks as a journalist and poet. He moved to Haifa, which was then the biggest mixed Jewish-Arab city in Israel. There he met young Israeli men and women, and his poetry attracted a growing public. His bold poem “Identity Card,” written in 1964, excited an entire generation of young Arabs, both inside Israel and beyond its borders. The poem opens with a proud challenge to an official of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior:

I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after the summer
Will you be angry?

Israel compelled its indigenous non-Jewish citizens to carry an identity card in which their nationality was listed neither as Israeli nor Palestinian, but as Arab. Paradoxically, it thus became one of the very few countries in the world that recognized not only Catalan but Arab nationalities. Early on, the poet foresaw that the growing number of non-Jewish residents in Israel would begin to worry the authorities and politicians.

Mahmoud was soon labeled seditious. In the 1960s, Israel still feared poets more than shaheeds (martyrs). He was repeatedly detained, sentenced to house arrest, and in quiet periods forbidden to leave Haifa without a police permit. He suffered the persecution and restrictions with a stoical, rather than a poetical, sangfroid, and took comfort in the friends who made the pilgrimage to his flat in Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood.

Among his distant associates was a young Communist from Jaffa. This comrade knew no Arabic, but Mahmoud’s poems in Hebrew translation fired his imagination and tempted him to try his hand at writing. Once discharged from the army, he would travel to Haifa from time to time to visit the poet. Their talk not only strengthened his faith in the struggle, but was also a useful deterrent against writing puerile verse.

At the end of 1967 the young man again visited Haifa. While taking part in the conquest of East Jerusalem, he had had to shoot at the enemy and intimidate terrified inhabitants. Israelis were intoxicated with victory; Arabs were sick with humiliation. Mahmoud’s young friend felt bad and smelled bad with the stink of war. He longed to abandon everything and leave the country. But he also wanted a final meeting with the poet he admired.

During the fighting in the Holy City, Mahmoud was manacled and taken to prison through the streets of Haifa. The soldier saw him after his release. They passed a sleepless, drunken night immersed in the fumes of alcohol beside windows made dim by cigarette smoke. The poet tried to persuade his young admirer to remain and resist, rather than flee to alien cities and abandon their common homeland. The soldier poured out his despair, his revulsion with the general air of triumphalism, his alienation from the soil on which he had shed innocent blood. At the end of the night, he vomited his guts out. At midday, the poet woke him with a translation of a poem he had written at first light, “A Soldier Dreaming of White Lilies”:

as he told me
that home
is drinking his mother’s coffee
and coming back safely at evening.
I asked him:
and the land?
He said:
I don’t know it.

In 1968, a Palestinian poem about an Israeli soldier capable of feeling remorse for his violence and for having lost his head in battle, of feeling guilty about taking part in a conquest of the land of others, was perceived by the Arab world as a betrayal—surely such Israeli soldiers did not exist. The Haifa poet was roundly chastised, even accused of cultural collaboration with the Zionist enemy. But this did not last. His prestige continued to grow, and he soon became a symbol of the proud resistance of the Palestinians in Israel.

Eventually the soldier left the country, but the poet had left before him. He could no longer bear being suffocated by the police, subjected to continual persecution and harassment. The Israeli authorities quickly abrogated his questionable citizenship. They never forgot mat the cheeky poet was the first Arab in Israel to issue his own identity card, when he wasn’t supposed to have an identity at all.

The poet traveled from one capital to another, his fame growing all the while. Finally, during the ephemeral Oslo Initiative thaw, he was allowed to return and settle in Ramallah, on the West Bank. But he was forbidden to enter Israel. Only when a fellow writer died did the security authorities relent and allow Mahmoud to set his eyes on the scenes of his childhood, if only for a few hours. As he did not carry explosives, he was subsequently permitted to enter a few more times.

The soldier, meanwhile, spent many years in Paris, strolling its beautiful streets and studying. Finally he weakened. Despite the alienation, he was overcome by longing for the city in which he had grown up, and so he returned to the painful place where his identity was forged. His homeland, claiming to be the “State of the Jewish people,” received him willingly.

As for the rebellious poet who had been born on its soil, and the old friend who had dreamed of being Moshe—the state was too narrow to include them.

The Third Story—Two (Non-)Jewish Students. Named Gisèle, after her grandmother, she was born and brought up in Paris. She was a lively, impetuous girl whose first response was always, No. Yet despite the stubborn no, or perhaps because of it, she was an excellent student, though barely tolerated by her teachers. Her parents indulged her in every way, even when she suddenly decided to study the Holy Tongue. They had hoped she would be a scientist, but she made up her mind to live in Israel. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and learned Yiddish and Hebrew at the same time. Yiddish she chose because it was the language spoken by her grandmother, whom she never knew, and Hebrew because she wanted it to be the language of her future children.

Her father had been imprisoned in the camps. Owing mainly to the help of German fellow prisoners, he was saved, and thus was fortunate enough to return to Paris after the war. His mother, Gisela, who was taken with him in the summer of 1942, was sent directly from Drancy to Auschwitz. She did not survive. He joined the French socialist party and there met his future wife. They had two daughters, one of whom was named Gisèle.

By the time she was in secondary school, Gisèle was already a wild anarchist, associating with the remnants of the legendary groups of May ’68. When she turned seventeen, she abruptly announced she was a Zionist. At the time, there were not yet many books in French about the fate of the French Jews during the Nazi occupation, and Gisèle had to be content with general writings about the period, which she read avidly. She knew that many of those who survived the death camps had gone to Israel, but that her grandmother Gisela had perished. Gisèle sought out Jewish women who resembled her, and prepared to undertake “aliyah.”

In the winter of 1976 she took an intensive Hebrew course given by the Jewish Agency in the heart of Paris. Her teacher was an irritable, sensitive Israeli. She annoyed him with her questions and did not hesitate to correct him on tricky verb declensions. Although her critical remarks displeased him, she intrigued him and he did not strike back: she was the best student in the class, and he could not help but respect her.

Before the end of the year, however, Gisèle suddenly stopped attending the course. The Hebrew teacher wondered if he had unwittingly offended her during one of their disputes in class. A few weeks later, as the course was coining to an end, she suddenly turned up, haughtier than ever but with a touch of melancholy in her eyes. She informed him that she had decided to stop studying Hebrew.

Gisèle had been to the Jewish Agency to arrange her travel to Israel. There she was told that she could study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and could receive the usual immigrant benefits, but that she would not be considered Jewish unless she converted. Gisèle, who always insisted she was a Jew and was proud of her typically Jewish surname, had known that her mother, despite her wholehearted identification with her husband, was a gentile. She also knew that in the Jewish religion the child’s religious identity is derived from the mother’s, but she had considered this only a minor bureaucratic detail. Being young and impatient, and also convinced that the history of her father’s family provided sufficient grounds for her self-identification, she had expected these matters to be easily resolved.

Impertinently, in French, she had asked the Jewish Agency official if he was a believer. No, he replied. Then she asked him how a nonreligious person who regarded himself as a Jew could advise another nonreligious person who regarded herself as a Jew to convert in order to join the Jewish people and their country? The representative of the Jewish people replied drily that this was the law, adding that in Israel her father would not have been able to marry her mother, as only religious marriage was allowed. Suddenly Gisèle understood that she was, so to speak, a national bastard. Though she thought of herself as a Jew, and since becoming a Zionist was also seen by others as a Jew, she was not enough of a Jew to satisfy the State of Israel.

Gisèle refused to consider conversion. She could not bear clerics of any persuasion, and having heard about the embarrassment and hypocrisy involved in conversion to orthodox Judaism, she recoiled in disgust. There were still traces of radical anarchism in her personality, and she promptly eliminated Israel from her list of desirable destinations. She decided not to migrate to the state of the Jewish people, and gave up learning Hebrew.

Having conducted her final talk with her Israeli teacher in French, she ended it by saying, in strongly accented Hebrew, “Thanks for everything, so long and perhaps good-bye.”

The teacher thought he could discern a Yiddishist intonation in her voice. She had, after all, learned Yiddish. He never heard from her again. Years later, he came across her name in a respected Paris newspaper. She’d written an article about Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories; beneath her name, it was noted that she was a psychoanalyst. No doubt many French Jews immediately classified her as a self-hating Jew, while the anti-Semites probably thought hers was a typically Jewish profession.

The other student, whose name was Larissa, was born in 1984 in a small town in Siberia. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, her parents migrated to Israel, where they were sent to a so-called development town in the Upper Galilee. There Larissa was brought up amid a balance of immigrant and Israeli children, and appeared to integrate well. She began to speak Hebrew like a Sabra and was content with herself and with daily life in Israel. Sometimes she was upset when called a Russian and teased because of her golden hair, but that was how local youngsters treated newly arrived children.

In the year 2000, at age sixteen, she went to the Ministry of the Interior office to obtain her first identity card. She was received cordially by a woman clerk and given an application form to complete. When it came to the question of nationality, she asked, naively, if she could write “Jewish.” The clerk looked through the information she had already entered and explained, apologetically, that she could not. She would be in the same category as her mother, and thus bear the taunting title “Russian.” Later she would say at that moment she felt the same pain as when she began to menstruate—something that occurs in nature and can never be got rid of.

Larissa was not the only girl in the town who bore this mark of Cain. At school they even formed a sorority of non-Jewish girls. They shielded each other and tried to smudge the nationality information on their identity cards to make it illegible, but that didn’t work and they had to continue to carry the incriminating document. At seventeen they all hastened to get a driver’s license, as that did not detail nationality and could substitute for an identity card.

Then came the school’s “Roots” trip to the death camps in Poland. A problem arose. To obtain a passport, Larissa had to bring her identity card to school. Fear that the entire class would discover her secret, as well as her parents’ limited means, made her forgo the trip. So she didn’t get to see Auschwitz, which has gradually been replacing Masada as the site of formative memory in modern Jewish identity. She was, however, conscripted into national military service, and although she tried to use her Russian national status to avoid the draft—even writing a long letter to the recruiting office about it—her request was turned down.

Military service actually did Larissa some good. Fumbling for the Bible during the swearing-in ceremony, she trembled and even shed tears. For a moment she forgot the little cross she had received from her maternal grandmother upon leaving Russia as a little girl. Once in uniform, she felt she belonged, and was convinced that from now on she would be taken for an Israeli in every way. She turned her back on the detested, faltering Russian culture of her parents, choosing to date only Sabras and avoiding Russian men. Nothing pleased her more than to be told she did not look Russian, despite the suspicious color of her hair. She even considered converting to Judaism. Indeed, she went so far as to seek out the military rabbi, but then desisted at the last moment. Though her mother was not devout, Larissa did not want to abandon her to an isolated identity.

After her military service, Larissa moved to Tel Aviv. Fitting into the lively, carefree city was easy. She had a new feeling that the nationality detailed on her identity card was insignificant, and that her persistent sense of inferiority was merely a subjective invention. Yet sometimes at night, when she was in love with someone, a worry nagged at her: What Jewish mother would want non-Jewish grandchildren from a gentile daughter-in-law, a shickse?

She began to study history at the university. She felt wonderful there, and liked to spend time in the student cafeteria. In her third year she signed up for a course called “Nations and Nationalism in the Modern Age,” having heard that the lecturer was not too strict and that the work was not difficult. Later she realized that something else, too, had attracted her curiosity.

During the first class the teacher asked if any of the students in the room were registered as something other than Jewish by the Ministry of the Interior. Not a hand was raised. She feared that the lecturer would stare at her, but he only looked slightly disappointed and said nothing more about it. The course appealed to her, though the lessons were sometimes boring and the professor tended to repeat himself. She began to understand the unique nature of Israeli identity politics. Unwrapping situations she’d experienced while growing up, she saw them in a new light; she understood that in her mind, if not in her lineage, she was in fact one of the last Jews in the State of Israel.

Later in the semester, obliged to choose a subject for a term paper, she quietly approached the professor.

“Do you remember the question you asked in the first class?”
“What do you mean?”
“You asked if any student present was not classified as Jewish. I should have raised my hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” Then she added, with a smile, “You might say I once again failed to come out of the closet.”
“Well, then,” he said. “Write a term paper about what made you ‘pretend.’ Maybe it will spur me to start writing a book about a confused nation pretending to be a wandering people-race.”

Her paper received a high mark. It was the final push that broke the barrier of anxiety and mental struggle.

By now, you may have guessed that Larissa’s history teacher in Tel Aviv was also Gisèle’s Hebrew teacher in rainy Paris. In his youth, he was a friend of Mahmoud the elevator installer, as well as of the Mahmoud who became the Palestinians’ national poet. He was the son-in-law of Bernardo, the Barcelona anarchist, and the son of Shulek, the Lodz Communist.

He is also the author of the present troublesome book—written, among other reasons, so that he can try to understand the general historical logic that might underlie these personal stories of identity.

Here ends the Introduction.

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