Is Judaism a nationality? What is the Jewish identity in the age of the Jewish Question?
These two questions are the topics are the subject of two articles written in response to President Trump’s recently signed executive order to prohibit anti-Semitism. They are both worth reading.
In June of this year I posted another question: Are You Jewish? It may also be worth reading as a reminder of the some of complexities surrounding the Jewish Questions.
For the question Are You Jewish, click on this link: https://lifferthsinjerusalem.com/?p=566
Is Judaism a Nationality?
Judaism is not a nationality
Trump’s executive order will lead only to US Jews feeling unsafe and strangers in a land we have called home since we came in 1654
DEC 11, 2019, 7:26 PM
This week, news outlets around the world reported that President Donald Trump will be signing an executive order that would interpret Judaism as a nationality. This order, pushed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is meant to curb anti-Israel sentiment at U.S. college campuses. As CNN reports:
The move would trigger a portion of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that requires educational institutions receiving federal funding to not discriminate based on national origin, according to senior administration officials. The Department of Education can withhold federal funding from any college or educational program that discriminates based on race, color or national origin, according to the Civil Rights Act. Religion is not covered in that portion of the law so the administration would have to interpret Judaism as a nationality in order to potentially punish universities for violations.
While there are many conversations to be had about anti-Semitism on college campuses, the criticism of Israel, and free speech, what most Jews should be concerned about is the move by a governmental body defining Judaism. It is certainly possible that the move to define Judaism as a nationality was made in good faith, the repercussions are complicated and dire.
For one, it is not the role of any country or government to define Judaism. In Jewish history, when Jews have been defined as a race, a religion, or a nationality, it has not been for positive reasons; rather, quite the opposite. Jews have been “classified” as certain types throughout the centuries in order to marginalize and remove citizenship. Additionally, Jews do, and should, feel uneasy when a government makes laws about them at all. From the Laws of Constantine (337-361) to the Nuremberg Laws (1935), governments have targeted Jews with laws and definitions for unsightly purposes. Even if President Trump’s order was meant with good intentions to curb anti-Semitism, it very well may lead to a misunderstanding of what Jews in America are, and create more problems than solutions.
Second, the definition of Judaism is one not easily found, nor is it solidified simply by a Christian President’s executive order. There are entire classes at the highest education levels entitled “What is Judaism?” It is a question we, as Jews, have attempted to answer throughout the millennia. It would have been prudent for Kushner, and Trump, to discuss the trichotomy of Israel, namely: Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) before creating such a problematic order, again with arguably good intentions.
Israelites began as a tribe, a patriarchal familial group defined by bloodlines and Near Eastern traditions. Israelites were semi-nomadic, related to the Canaanites, who created their own history, language, and culture. From there, Israelites emerged as a kingdom, with citizens and subjects, all who (in theory) worshipped the same God. With the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE, Jews lost their central homeland and were scattered throughout the world, forming communities in multiple countries and inheriting their cultures and customs. Even when the Second Temple was built, not all Jews returned, as they had found a life elsewhere.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism’s cultic personification came to an end, and synagogues and temples were created around the globe, each with their own ways. From the Middle Ages to Modern Times, Jews lived and worked under the reign of non-Jewish governments and countries, building their own families, cultures, and traditions.
Today, Judaism cannot be easily defined. It is not a race, despite what many who wish to destroy us would say, as there are Caucasian Jews, African Jews, Asian Jews, Latino Jews, Indian Jews, indeed Jews of every race in the world. It is not a religion, as there exists an undeniable spectrum of observance of Judaism, including secular and cultural Judaism. It is not a culture, as I have stated, as each Jewish diasporic community built its own culture, whether it be Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or others. And finally, Judaism, most certainly, is not a nationality.
With the State of Israel’s creation in 1948, Israeli nationality was born (or reborn), but the diasporic community of Jews are not Israeli citizens, or Israeli nationals. Rather, Jews have sought citizenship and nationality in the countries in which they resided and were finally granted such an honor from Napoleon in the early 19th century. Since then, many diaspora Jews have found nationalities in the countries they resided, proclaiming themselves citizens of the country first, and Jews second, starting in Germany and then in America.
This leads me to my third and most important point. American Jews see themselves as Americans. We have refused to be considered “a nation within the nation,” and strongly reject the anti-Semitic trope of “duel-loyalty.” Again, I wish that Kushner and Trump had read the history of Jews, especially in the United States, most notably the words of the American Jewish Committee in 1950 who stated that the “…Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment, namely the United States of America.” While support for Israel was profound and clear, America was called “the New Zion,” a place where Jews could live and practice safely and securely in a country that, as George Washington stated in his letter to the Touro Synagogue in 1790, “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Defining Judaism as a nationality in America, separate from American nationality, is not the proper route to curb anti-Semitism on college campuses. It is a misguided approach to attempting to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel. Again, there is much to be discussed regarding free speech, Palestinian human rights, and criticism of Israel; but, most importantly, we must express to our leadership in America that defining Judaism as a nationality comes with terrible baggage, and will lead only to American Jews feeling unsafe, and strangers in this land which we have called home since we landed on its shores in 1654.
Judaism is not a nationality, and American Jews are Americans.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
What is the Jewish identity in the age of the Jewish Question?
What is the Jewish Question?
The return of the Jewish Question
The identity of Jews in Western countries is the topic of widespread public debate, and it’s a conversation Jews should be having too
DEC 11, 2019, 6:46 PM
What is Jewish Identity in the age of the Jewish Question?
Why has President Trump’s new executive order exploded in the Jewish Twitterverse? Why is Jewish identity a central topic in the UK elections? Why are the French debating the definition of anti-Semitism? Why does it feel like ground is shifting under the feet of Jews in the Western world? History may be repeating itself, and this may be the return of an old problem.
The term “Final Solution” is quickly identifiable by educated people as a Nazi euphemism for the Holocaust. But what was it solving? The solution to what, specifically? Decades after the term has fallen into disuse, most have forgotten the phrase “Jewish Question,” which is what the Nazis were talking about.
And so while many are troubled by the quantifiable rise in global anti-Semitism, they may not realize that something else has changed. The Jewish Question has returned.
The term used by the Nazis was “Endlösung der Judenfrage.” In English, the “final solution to the Jewish Question.” There were also other answers to the Question. Perhaps the most notable was Zionism. How two such opposite movements can be responding to the same question requires some explaining.
What was the Jewish Question?
Detail of cover page of “The Jewish Question in Hungary” or “Die Judenfrage in Ungarn” by Ottokár Prohászka , 1920, Hamburg http://www.hurryupharry.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Prohaszka-Titelbild.JPG Permitted for reuse.
When the Jews of the West were emancipated, a profound transformation was expected. The idea was that the formation of secular Nation/States would create places where people of different (or no) faiths would exist in harmony. Assimilation into French, German, and British nationals would make Jews indistinct from their neighbors. The Jews of Denmark, Belgium and the US could expect to blend in with a citizenry that replaced faith and ethnicity with nationality as the marker of belonging.
The hypothesis was based on the assumption that anti-Semitism was a religious intolerance, and secular nationalism would eliminate it along with other forms of racism and bigotry. Modernity would eliminate the base hatreds of the Middle Ages with enlightened humanism and healthy coexistence.
It didn’t work out that way.
And so the Jewish Question was born. Essentially it asks, “Why are the Jews still different, and what should we do about it?” It is essentially a neutral question that can be discussed by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves. How one answers the Question will determine which of those categories one fits into.
Early Zionist thinker Leon Pinsker stated it this way,
This is the kernel of the problem as we see it: the Jews comprise a distinctive element among the nations under which they dwell, and as such can neither assimilate nor be readily digested by any nation.
A brief stroll through the relevant Wikipedia page will take you through the historical use of the term Jewish Question (and the synonymous “Jewish Problem”) from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries. For our purposes we need to understand that there was a vigorous debate about the distinctness of the Jewish minority, the continued presence of (a now secular and racist) anti-Semitism and what should be done about it. It was used by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves when discussing these matters. Solutions included assimilation, Communism and Zionism.
And, of course, the Nazis ultimately chose yet another approach, elimination, as their Final Solution. In the aftermath of that horror, it became socially inappropriate to even discuss the Question. Anti-Semitism persisted, but was officially condemned by establishments. The place of the Jew in Western Nation/States became inviolate and unquestionable, and the Question became unmentionable.
Where has it appeared again?
We have all noticed the rise in anti-Semitic violence and vandalism over the last decade. This is deeply unsettling and much discussed. But it is only part of the change we are seeing. The Jewish Question is being asked again in mainstream conversations, in ways that it hasn’t been asked since World War II.
The opening paragraph of this essay contains just a few examples of triggers for the current iteration of the Question in the US and Europe. It is being argued over by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves when discussing these matters.
This time, however, there is a major difference. In the past, a Jewish State was one of the answers to the Question. Today, that State exists, and is often a trigger for the Question.
Here are some aspects of the Question commonly being discussed:
- Are the Jews a religion or a nation?
- Should Jews be loyal to, and support, Israel?
- If that support is to be expected, isn’t that dual loyalty?
- Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?
- If Jews define their identity differently, who speaks for the Jews?
- Do Jews have “white privilege”, or are they replacing “whites”? Are they “white” at all?
In other words, the role and identity of Jews in Western countries is being discussed and debated in mainstream political and social discourse. You can take whatever side you choose in these debates. But the role of Jews, and how to talk about them, is unclear and debatable again. The Jewish Question, in its 21st Century iteration, is being asked aloud by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves. And again, how one answers it will determine which of those categories one fits into.
Why is it back?
It will require the historical reflection of future thinkers to explain the return of the Jewish Question. But two observations seem apposite.
- The presence of anti-Semitism was part of the background to the Jewish Question. And the resurgence of that old hatred is making it a relevant discussion again. It can be heard in shouts fromYellow Vest rallies, and dabbled with by the National Front. It can be heard in chants at Charlottesville, and read in tweets from a Minnesota Congresswoman. As political discourse becomes more polarised, anti-Semitism gets louder on both extremes. This recapitulates the atmosphere of pre-Shoah society. In other words, the return of ubiquitous anti-Semitism revives the Jewish Question.
- Israel has made Jewish identity for diaspora Jews more complicated. In general there is a desire to support Israel, but not be held accountable for Israeli policies. This is a reasonable self-image, surely. In practice it seems hard for many to keep these lines, between Israel criticism and anti-Semitism, clear. That lack of clarity generates the return of the Jewish Question.
The first of these problems is probably best addressed by non-Jews. Other than identifying anti-Semitism when it appears, and calling it out, there is not much Jews can do to reduce it.
But the second problem is one that Jews themselves must wrestle with. Complex self definitions will be weighed and chosen. Values will be prioritised differently by various groups, leaving clear lines of demarcation hard to come by. Jews will debate questions of their own identity with varying levels of respect and tolerance. This is inevitable, traditional, and positive in many ways.
What might this mean for the future?
There is no way to know. Apocalyptic doomsaying seems incredibly premature, if not also immature. But Jews should be aware and attentive to their place in Western democracies. And they should listen to how their role is understood by others. When people tell you what they think, believe them.
Perhaps more importantly, Jews should continue to think about and identify their own answers to the Question.
Zionists long ago answered that the Jews are a nation/people, and Judaism is that people’s culture/religion. Where do you stand on that formulation?
To quote my Makom colleague, Robbie Gringras,
In the end, beneath the contemporary politics, there lies a fundamental question of Jewish identity you might wish to explore around a Friday night dinner table.
- If I agree with [the opinion] that Jews are not a nation, then what do I think about the State of Israel?
- And if I agree with Ben Gurion and countless Zionists since, then what do I think about my American nationality?”
Theodor Herzl used the term freely and frequently. In his address to the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in 1897, he said,
We Zionists, seek for the solution of the Jewish question, not an international society, but an international discussion…. We wish to place the question under the control of free public opinion.
It may be disquieting to acknowledge that the Jewish Question is being asked again. To quote Ahad Ha’am, “The truth is bitter, but with all its bitterness it is better than illusion.”
Even if it is somewhat uncomfortable to discuss it, it should also be exciting and enriching. Let the conversations continue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael is a Senior Israel Educator at Makom. He is a very proud father and grandfather, and lives in Efrat.