Are Jews members of a religion, a nation, an ethnicity, or a race?
Jewish self-identification usually differs from what non-Jews consider them as being. This is because being a Jew has personal, genealogical, political, religious, and cultural dimensions. As Jews are scattered all over the world and have assumed different ideologies, this paper holds that at the core, Jews are members of an ethnicity, a religion, and a nationality.
An ethnic group is a collection of people bound together by similar culture, language, social experiences, common ancestry, or nationality. Jewish self-identification primarily lies in the circumstances of birth. According to traditional law (Halakha), a person is a Jew if both parents are Jews or if the mother is a Jew (DeLange 2000b:3). This definition holds despite personal or religious beliefs, language, or place of birth.
Contemporary Judaism however considers children from a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother Jewish if they have been raised according to Jewish laws. Under modern laws, a non-Jewish can also assume a Jewish identity by applying to a court composed of three rabbis, water immersion, and for males, circumcision (DeLange 2000b:3). Jews are also members of an ethnicity mainly due to share common experiences.
According to Efron, Weitzman, and Lehman (2013:259), in the 1700s, Jews could be easily distinguished from other groups of people based on their dressing, their cuisine, art, and literature. Their way of earning a living was also different from their neighbors as they mainly indulged in low-level commerce. While most Jews speak in English, Hebrew is an important language for Jews. The Hebrew language affirms their shared history, their connection to the land of Israel, and their connection to God. Synagogues around the world use Hebrew as a liturgical language. Jews also identify themselves as an ethnic group based on various dealings with persecution and survival.
In 1935, Nazi Germany enacted the Nuremberg Laws that classified Jews as a race different from other people. These laws promoted anti-Semitic actions by forbidding intermarriages, and acceptable Jewish housing and professions. By classifying Jews as a different race, the Nazi regime was able to perpetrate other atrocities that culminated in the Holocaust. Jews all over the world identify as an ethnic group as they all acknowledge this dark period in their history and share in the pain afflicted to their families. As all Jews celebrate similar holidays, practices, and cuisine, they can identify as an ethnic group.
The second most important aspect that identifies Jews is Religion. Around the world, most Jews follow Judaism. At the heart of Jewish self-identity lies the Halakha. The Halakha is the collection of law derived from the Torah, Jewish customs, rabbinical decrees, and laws. Orthodox Judaism holds the Halakha as divine law and defines Jews as those born of Jewish parents or a Jewish mother Delange (2000a:70).
They believe that while one can convert to Judaism, only by birth can one identify as a Jew. Liberal Judaism holds that one can convert to Judaism and thus belong as a Jewish member. Whether one takes the orthodox or liberal view, religion lies at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. According to DeLange, “all Jews should consider themselves as if they were led out of Egyptian slavery by Moses, stood before God at Mount Sinai and received the gift of the Torah” (2000b:2). In Israel, the halakhic definition is the official means to determine the number of Jews in the country. Most Jews observe religious holidays important to Judaism such as Passover. Non-religious Jews also observe these holidays and as such confirm the fact that Jews are members of a religious group.
Most Jews identify themselves by their connection to Israel. During the period between ancient Rome and the 1700s, most Jews existed in small communities that were self-contained and largely autonomous. Jewish Law (Halakha) was the main basis of governing in these communities while the Yeshiva (academy) provided a means to transmit culture between one generation and the next and to maintain connections with other communities all over Europe (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013:259).
Historical circumstances led to the development of different cultures within Jewish communities resulting in different subgroups such as the Sephardim Jews from Spain and Portugal, Ashkenazim Jews from Eastern Europe, Germany and France, and the Mizrachi Jew from North Africa and the Middle East. All these subgroups however held Israel as a Holy place even before the nation was given status as an independent country.
Anti-Semitic sentiments led different groups of Jews to come together for protection and safety. According to Herzl all Jews are one people and insisted that Jews have tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which they lived while seeking only to preserve their culture and religion (Sachar 1986: 40). He however noted that these nations did not permit them this right and thus the only option left to Jews was the exodus and founding of their Nation. The Holocaust and the subsequent birth of the Israel state generated a new identity as to what being Jewish entailed. The law of return instituted in the state of Israel at its birth gave all Jews the right to citizenship. The halakhic definition was used to identify Jews and to formulate the laws of the country.
Anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th Century
During the 19th century, Jews began migrating from predominantly insular Jewish communities into large cities in western and central Europe. This led to a continental-wide discourse as to the issues of the Jews dubbed as “the Jewish Question”. While anti-Semitic sentiments gained prominence due to different reasons, the main cause of anti-Semitism was poor social condition rampart in 19th century Europe that led to Jews being selected as political scapegoats.
The first main cause of anti-Semitism in the 19th century was financial problems arising from the economic depression of 1878. All over Europe, people were feeling the impact of economic depression particularly the lower-middle-class and small farmers. During this time, Jews were migrating from rural areas into larger cities. By 1925, a quarter of all Jews in Europe were concentrated in the 14 major cities across the continent (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013: 325).
Due to the strong allegiance between Jews, they were able to help each other survive the economic depression and prosper. Jews also began dominating certain fields in the European economies. The success enjoyed by Jews while other Europeans were struggling to survive was the root cause of the rapid rise of anti-Semitism during this period.
The second cause of anti-Semitism during this period was social discontent among the population. At the end of the 19th century, urban workers were becoming exceedingly discontent while most of the local population was wallowing in poverty (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013: 329). Existing ruling authorities were coming apart and people were demanding better governance. Since the local populace could not easily fight against ruling regimes, they found a good scapegoat in the form of Jews. Jews were blamed for all the social ills facing the population. Anti-Semitism gained route among the lower-class population and the displaced middle-class. With each success enjoyed by Jews, anti-Semitic sentiments spread among the population.
The third cause of anti-Semitism in Europe was politics. The end of existing monarchies created a vacuum for new political parties. The organizational structure and most of the tropes of the modern anti-Semitic movement originated from Germany. The Christians Social Workers Party started in 1878 in Berlin was the first anti-Semitic political party in Europe. Soon after, German political parties all picked up anti-Semitism and finally made it an acceptable part of life in the country. Similar situations occurred in neighboring countries such as Austria and France. Politicians took advantage of the plight of the lower class to shift blame to emerging Jewish communities. During the 19th century, anti-Semitism grew in popularity and became a regular ideology in politics across the continent.
The final cause of anti-Semitism in Europe was religious antipathy. Political anti-Semitism was largely absent in Italy however the Catholic Church was a great opponent of Jewish religion and practices. As the Church was the leading authority in the Vatican and had a lot of power across the rest of the country, citizens of Italy began harboring anti-Semitic sentiments.
In the 19th Century, Anti-Semitism was expressed in different ways across Europe. The most common expression was through the spread of propaganda by political parties among the population. With crumbling society and wide spread poverty, the lower-middle-class in Europe displayed a high antagonism towards Jews (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013: 343). In America, Jews were restricted from working in various firms, living in certain areas, and staying in certain hotels across the country. Jews were also discriminated against in schools especially in attaining internships in the legal and medical fields.
After World War I, the political climate in Europe was volatile and people were without direction, filled with hatred and vengeance. Fascist regimes cropped up all over Europe preaching militarism, anti-Semitism, anti-Communism, and integral nationalism. All over the continent, Jews suffered from outbreaks of violence, the imposition of quotas, anti-Semitic propaganda, and economic boycotts.
In Germany, Fascism took an extreme variant that emerged in the form of Nazism. Adolf Hitler led the Nazi party into dominance by using extreme virulent anti-semitic rhetoric. Hitler had a pathological hatred toward the Jews and unleashed a violent political campaign to exterminate his opponents and all inferior races, especially the Jews (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013:407). He created labor concentration camps all over Europe and advised his allies to do so in their own countries. Hitler instructed his army and police to carry out the mass murder of Jews in all the territories that Germany controlled. The German army arrested Jews without any explanation and took possession of all they owned. All over Europe, the mass murder of Jews took place at alarming regularity.
Anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th centuries mainly began due to social pressures that arose due to economic depression and political changes in Europe. Politicians used the frustration of the people to ferment anti-Semitism. The success enjoyed by Jews as well as their fierce loyalty towards one another was also a main cause of anti-Semitism. While the 19th century saw the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe, it is the 20th century when sentiment turned into aggressive action against the Jews. Discrimination, looting, desecration of synagogues, and finally violence occurred all over Europe.
The culmination of all these actions was the Holocaust in which the Jewish population faced genocide. The mass murder of Jews occurred with such regularity that it became a spectator sport in various places in Europe. While not everybody was involved in the holocaust, most people disregarded the plight of the Jews, a crime that is just as bad as active participation. The Jews had no one to rely on except each other. The suffering and persecution suffered unified the Jews and has shaped their evolution over the ages.
In 1895, Theodor Herzl argued that giving handouts to Jews was creating a society of weak and cowardly Jews who will eventually turn into beggars (Sachar 1986:36). Herzl began writing a diary that he later edited into an essay title Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). His thesis was that all Jews irrespective of where they lived or what they believed in were one people. He wrote:
“We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live in, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted to us.” (Sachar 1986:38)
The Der Judenstaat was published in 1896 and became the force behind Jewish nationalism that swept among the Jews across the world.
Due to discrimination and poor economic conditions in Europe, a massive migration of Jews from the continent into America took place in the 19th century. According to Efron, Weitzman, and Lehman (2013:359), about 2.5 million Jews fled Europe between 1881 and 1924 with nearly 85% migrating to the United States. Two main groups of Jews immigrated to America during this period, the central and eastern European Jews. The central European (mostly German) Jews initially settled in Midwestern cities and were mainly composed of single men without families. These Jews mainly began as itinerant peddlers but soon created small businesses that grew successful at a very fast rate. German Jews quickly became part of the middle-class society in America.
To consolidate American Judaism, the initial immigrant sought to create a central form of leadership. The German Jews established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) that called for the creation of institutions to teach Jewish theology and Hebrew (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013:325). Eastern European Jews came to America years after their German counterparts and settled mainly in New York. They found help from their predecessors and work was easy to come by. Jews constituted over 50% of skilled workers in the clothing industry and about 40% in the leather goods production industry (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013:361).
The Americanized German Jews and the eastern European Jews had deep cultural differences. The German Jews saw the new immigrants as inferior and were ashamed of their mode of dressing, political inclinations, and cultural institutions. The eastern European Jews on the other hand resented the superiority complex of the German brethren (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013:363). They disapproved of the lax religious practices of the German Jews and were disgruntled that they had to ask for charity from them despite being better educated. The eastern European Jews quickly established self-help groups to help each other and to develop vital institutions such as schools and hospitals.
The beginning of World War I led to an increase in Jewish migration into America. Jews already in America were forced to come together to form a larger community that could support each other as well as the new arrivals. Work commitments, few synagogues, and the appeal of socialism all contributed to helping Jews to shed their adherence to tradition (Avieneri 1979:143). American Judaism began losing its hierarchical authority structures and fewer Jews were visiting the Synagogues. Due to threats from other religions, Jewish Reform congregation were created and were characterize by regular English Sermons, short sermons, and vernacular prayers.
Jews who had previous education in Europe soon started engaging in professional jobs allowing others to shift from basic trade into commerce and the public sector. Education was also very important to the immigrants and allowed a new generation to adapt to the American culture. The need for the young generation to fit into mainstream America led many Jews to consider abandoning Yiddish. The Zionist movement however saw Yiddish as a means to preserve the Jewish national culture (Zhitlowsky 2011:551).
The movement succeeded in convincing the American authorities to introduce Hebrew as an elective in the public schools of the country. This helped Jews to integrate with American society. Widespread education opportunities allowed young Jews to interact with other ethnic groups better. This ultimately led to intermarriages between Jews and other cultures causing another shift in Judaism.
American Jews however still faced anti-Semitic rhetoric mainly from hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Discrimination also existed mainly during employment or when seeking housing. After noticing that many Jews had rushed to enter American universities, quotas were placed to restrict the number of Jews able to access education. However, unlike in the past, Jews fought back against their perpetrators. Jewish gangs that had cropped up in New York violently disrupted meetings that promoted anti-Semitic sentiments.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster brought Superman to life in their comic books and popularized aspects of Jewish culture among Americans. Anti-Semitism also led Reform Judaism to gain strength in America. Hebrew became a subject in American schools and Reform rabbis began performing intermarriage ceremonies and the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism. Reform Judaism also began accepting all children from intermarriages on the condition that they undertake Jewish education.
The feminist movement of 1970 had various influences on American Judaism. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first ordained female rabbi in the country (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013: 466). New rituals were developed to show appreciation to women such as rituals during the birth of a girl child, or menstruation (Efron, Weitzman and Lehman 2013: 467). Judaism also set in place systems to allow women to study religious texts and carry out rituals specific to them. Jewish women sought to access higher education and currently are free to follow whatever career path they wish.
Judaism is an evolving religion and is highly influenced by the culture of Jews. Through social experiences, Jews have always incorporated their way of life into their religion. When Jews immigrated to the country, they began changing their culture to assimilate with others in America. Their religion also needed to adapt to achieve this goal. Currently, Jewish History is studying in class at various educational levels. This allows other cultures to understand what Judaism means to Jews and allows Jews to be proud of their past.
Efron, J.; Weitzman, S.; and Lehman, M. 2013 The Jews: A History, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall De Lange, N.
2000a The Jewish Religion. Pp 67-85 in An Introduction to Judaism. N. Delange, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press De Lange, N.
2000b The Jews in the World. Pp 1-25 in An Introduction to Judaism, N DeLange, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press Sachar, H.
1986 A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Knopf Avineri S.
1979 Zionism as a National Liberation Movement. Jerusalem Quarterly 10: 133-44.
Zhitlowsky, C. 2011 Yiddish and the Future of American Jewry (1915). Pp 551-552 in The Jew in the Modern World, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, ed. New York: Oxford.