What Are Jews? Who is a Jew?
The question is political, practical, spiritual, historical, and religious
Last year, Israel’s chief rabbi created a firestorm when he said Reform and Conservative Jews are not really Jewish.
He really said the religion they practice is not Judaism. It’s an ethical construct based on Judaism. In a clarification the next day, he added that there is no question they are Jewish.
Most Jews don’t get that nuance, and many think it’s nonsense or offensive. I do. But it is internally logical if you grant the man’s fundamentalist premise: God dictated 613 commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai and told Jews to follow them unchanged forever.
In fact, they do change, but only at glacial speed through evolving consensus of generations of deliberation by highly trained rabbinic authorities.
For an ultra-orthodox rabbi, like Israel’s chief rabbi, practicing Judaism means a following Jewish law. You can believe whatever you want. If you don’t follow the law, you are Jewish, but you are not practicing Judaism. You’re practicing something based on Judaism.
Who Decides Who Is a Jew?
Who is a Jew is more than an intellectual, spiritual, religious, or theoretical question. In Nazi Germany, if you had one Jewish grandparent, you went to the gas chamber.
In modern Israel, which is only about 20 percent orthodox, it’s a highly political question that affects everyone’s everyday life and is becoming increasingly polarizing.
In Israel, local orthodox rabbis, appointed by the chief rabbi, decide who is a Jew for purposes of marriage licenses and new immigrant benefits, which include a lot of cash and instant citizenship. Non-Jews can immigrate and become citizens, but they don’t get benefits under Israel’s Law of Return.
Orthodox rabbis in Israel will only issue marriage certificates to people they consider Jews. Christian and Moslem clerics issue marriage certificates to their people. This goes back to the Turkish Empire, 1,000 years before the modern state of Israel.
Since the Turkish Empire, local clergy in the region have served civil functions Americans associate with town clerks, issuing birth, death, and marriage certificates, divorce decrees, and recognizing religious conversions.
Most modern secular Israelis (80 percent of the people) would like to change that, but it’s been politically impossible since the country began in 1948.
Israel is a European-style Parliamentary democracy, with many political parties, who win seats in Parliament according to the party’s percentage of the popular vote.
Neither major party can win a majority in Parliament. To govern, they must form coalitions with various small parties. The religious parties have always held enough seats to preserve their special powers and privileges.
Most secular Israelis wish the buses would run on the Sabbath. The taxis raise their fares when there is no competition from buses. Government subsidies for unregulated orthodox parochial schools chafe many Israelis. Though many of those schools, and the modern orthodox Bar Ilan University, are excellent, some are like Muslim madrassahs.
Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitism
Right wing Jews often call people who oppose Israeli government policies, like me and many Israelis, anti-Semitic. They are wrong.
But people who oppose the State of Israel’s right to exist are anti-Semitic. Many of them are chic, sophisticated, liberal Americans who would be horrified to learn they are anti-Semites.
When they say they are “anti-Zionist,” not anti-Semitic, they are really saying gentiles like them, not Jews, decide what a Jew is. They will allow Jews to be a religion, and eat bagels, but not to be a nation.
Jews meet all the classic criteria of nationhood: a common history, sense of common destiny, literature and art, philosophy and culture, religion, language, and homeland, where Jews have lived continuously since Biblical times.
Palestinian and Vietnamese nationalism are OK, even hip, but Jewish nationalism (Zionism) is racism because we liberal gentiles say so.
Jews Disagree About What Is a Jew
For some of us, “Jewish” is our religion, our nationality, our heritage, our tribe, our culture, our civilization. For many, it is some, most, or all of the above. or none of the above. But they still call themselves Jews because their parents and grandparents were.
For sociologists and demographers, an active Jew is someone who contributes to a Jewish charity each year. Many Jews don’t practice or believe in any religion, but maintain that minimal connection. Then, there are bagel Jews, whose only connection is ethnic food and accepting the Jewish label.
Gentiles, whether Nazis or liberals, do not tell us who we are. And if you ask any 10 Jews what a Jew is, you’ll get at least 15 opinions.