Judaism: A Race or Religion?

Race” is by its nature divisive:

3. biology: “a group within a species that is distinguishable (as morphologically, genetically, or behaviorally) from others of the same species”

I can recall hearing, as a young person, that Judaism was somewhat unique as a religion, in part because the Jewish people were also a race. This was quite a common term to hear in relation to them.

It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that race became a popular concept and one in which humans could (and in the eyes of those “scientists” who spearheaded the use of the term, should) be categorized.

No one—even those who disagree—should be surprised to hear accusations of Israel being a racist, prejudiced state. Even the big human rights NGOs make this claim.

But I’m uncomfortable with the term “racist” in this context as well as what it implies.

Of course, while the term “racist” is problematic, that is not to say Religious Zionists aren’t “racist.” This is because distinguishing between “Jewish blood” and others is, I would argue, a defining characteristic of their ideology.

Call me a hair-splitter if you will, but I think it matters. And I’m not alone in that regard either.

Perhaps the paradigmatic racist state in modern times was Germany under National Socialism. While we often hear that in committing unspeakable harms on the Palestinians, Israel has become its own worst enemy, what we hear less frequently is this: Zionism and the Israeli state’s employ a similar ideology to that of the ethnocentric National Socialists in order to determine who is a Jew and who has a right to be a true part of their ‘ethno’ state.

The first time I happened upon this was in college, when I overheard a Jewish student encouraging people to make birthright (basically a free trip to Israel for young Jews, with the concept that it’s their birthright to go to Israel; here’s an example). The woman he was talking to said she wasn’t Jewish but that her great aunt on her father’s side actually was (her father was Christian). The student’s response to this was:

“If it was good enough for Hitler, it’s good enough for us.”

The remark was an instant head-tilter for me. It’s stayed in the back rooms of my mind ever since. Later I found myself at a talk by the one of the New Israeli Historians, Shlomo Sand (Israeli and secular).

The talk was about his book, The Invention of the Jewish People. He explained in the talk, in front of an audience of mostly interested folks and one very angry one, that he categorically rejected the idea that Jews are a race, on historical grounds (and I suppose you could say biological grounds too). To him, this notion and the Zionists’ and the Israeli state’s use of it, is as dangerous as their worst enemy’s ideologies in relation to race:

“Dominated by Zionism’s particular concept of nationality, the State of Israel still refuses, sixty years after its establishment, to see itself as a republic that serves its citizens. One quarter of the citizens are not categorized as Jews, and the laws of the state imply that Israel is not their state nor do they own it…Instead, Israel insists on seeing itself as a Jewish state belonging to all the Jews in the world, even though they are no longer persecuted refugees but full citizens of the countries in which they choose to reside. The excuse for this grave violation of a basic principle of modern democracy, and for the preservation of an unbridled ethnocracy that grossly discriminates against certain of its citizens, rests on the active myth of an eternal nation that must ultimately forgather in its ancestral land.”1

First thing’s first: Sand is secular, so we’re not going to go and rely on him for any kind of religious perspective. Nonetheless, while we could more easily understand Orthodox Jews, say, than Sand could, his points about the problem with using the term “race” to describe Jewish people do deserve consideration.

This is Sand’s basic argument:

“Jews have always comprised significant religious communities that appeared and settled in various parts of the world, rather than an ethos that shared a single origin and wandered in permanent exile.”2

I recall that, during his talk, he also mentioned that there had been periods which saw people convert to Judaism, complicating the argument of there being a genetic component to Judaism.

To really understand Sand’s zeal for the subject, we need look no further than the early Zionists, whom he quotes in his book. Perhaps you’ve heard of them before, but the extent to which their ideas are racist is really quite remarkable.

Disturbing Ideas

Jabotinsky (1880-1940), one of the early Zionists, had this to say about Jews:

“‘It is quite clear that the source of the national sentiment cannot be found in education, but in something that precedes it…in the blood…The sense of national identity is inherent in man’s ‘blood,’ in his physical-racial type, and only in that…The people’s mental structure reflects their physical form even more perfectly and completely than does that of the individual…That is why we do not believe in mental assimilation. It is physically impossible for a Jew descended from several generations of pure, unmixed Jewish blood to adopt the mental state of a German or a Frenchman, just as it is impossible for a Negro to cease to be Negro.’”3

If someone had told me this was taken from the letters of Heinrich Himmler, I would have believed them.

Jabotinsky was an admirer of an earlier Zionist Socialist scholar (he was also communist for a time), Moses Hess (1812-1875). As Sand points out, Hess happened to live during a time when “race” became let’s say, more of a concept and one to be studied at that:

“It was in 1850 that the Scotsman Robert Knox published his well-known book The Races of Man; two years later, James W. Redfield’s book Comparitive Physiognomy, or, Resemblances between Men and Animals, appeared in the United States. In 1853, Carl Gustav Carus’s Symbolism of the Human Form appeared in Germany, as well as the first volume of the Frenchman Arthur de Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. These works were follow by other ‘scientific’ books, and some of the leading thinkers in the second half of the nineteenth century began to paddle happily in the swamp of racist and Orientalist conventions. The fashion spread, gathering support among both the political left and prominent academics. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Ernst Renan published prejudiced writings about Jews, Africans or peoples of the Orient, which very quickly became the norm.”4

Hess read this literature. He also wrote the book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Last Nationalist Question, in which he describes the conflict that he believed trumped any class conflict:

“that behind the problems of nationality and freedom there is still a deeper problem which cannot be solved by mere phrases, namely, the race question, which is as old as history itself and which must be solved before attempting the solution of the political and social problems”5

For him, the way for Jews to escape this problem was by returning to their biblical origins.

The Right of Return

It seems that even Jews cannot agree on who is Jewish. As the coalition government currently forms, or Orthodox and right-wing parties, calls are being made for the 1950 Right of Return Law (please ponder upon the absurdity of this concept within their law when there are Palestinians with the keys to their homes in refugee camps) to be reformed.

RELATED: Zionist Settler-Colonialism and Its Relation to Jewish Sacred Texts

Under the law, persons with a Jewish parent or grandparent, or those who have converted to Judaism, can immigrate to Israel with their spouse (spouses were included in 1970), settle there and obtain citizenship. Changing the law would mean that conversions conducted by Reform or Conservative rabbis would not be honored by the State of Israel.

Interestingly, Jews who have converted to another religion are also not eligible for “return.” What does this mean though? If Judaism is truly a race, how can leaving the religion of Judaism remove your racial eligibility to “return.”

It’s reported that this law is unlikely to pass, in part because of the message it would send:

“But any amendments to the law could have significant symbolic — and some real — impact in the United States, where 89% of the Jewish community identifies with a non-Orthodox denomination, or no denomination, according to the Pew Research Center.”

The supposed genetic component of being Jewish is the cause of discomfort for some Jews too:

“As well as being deeply humiliating, Shindler told me that there is confusion around what being genetically Jewish means. ‘How do they decide when someone becomes Jewish,’ he asked. ‘If I have 51% Jewish DNA does that mean I’m Jewish, but if I’m 49% I’m not?’”

The author of the article quoted above also stated the following regarding the dubiousness of equating Judaism with genetics:

“For David Goldstein, professor of medical research in genetics at Columbia University whose 2008 book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, outlines a decade’s worth of research into Jewish population genetics, translating scientific insights about small genetic variants in the DNA to normative judgments about religious or ethnic identity is not only problematic, but misunderstands what the science actually signals.”

The author of this article also quotes an Orthodox rabbi who also rejects the notion that genetics plays a key role in defining someone as being Jewish:

“’The central principle is that when it comes to Jewish identity, the most important determinants are social – trust, kinship, commitment – not biological. “Our tradition has always been that if someone lives among us and partakes in communal and religious life, then they are one of us,’ Farber said. ‘Just because we have 23andMe doesn’t mean that we should abandon this. That would be an unwarranted and radical reinterpretation of Jewish law.'”

Others, however, seem to have less of a problem with laying claim to Judaism and genetics.

RELATED: The Secularization of Judaism

A few years ago, The New York Times published what became a hotly-contested piece, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius.” In it, the let’s just say controversial NYT columnist, Bret Stephens, claimed that Ashkenazi Jews (Jews originating from eastern Europe) tend to be more intelligent because of their tradition and culture. He then also used a contentious academic study to argue that this was genetic.

To their credit, the NYT and Stephens retracted the reference to the article, and a note has been added at the top of the piece:

“An earlier version of this Bret Stephens column quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors [Henry Harpending], who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. He went on instead to argue that culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements and that, as he put it, ‘At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.’ We have removed reference to the study from the column.”

Stephens wrote, as reported here:

“‘How is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?’

Stephens wrote that the ‘common answer’ was that ‘Jews are, or tend to be, smart,’ and claimed that ‘when it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true.’ He quoted as evidence a 2005 academic paper that argued ‘Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data.’”

With this having been retracted, we won’t hold it over his head, but there’s another problem that still remains within the piece. It’s no shocker, but given the quotes we’ve just read from famous Zionists, it puts into question the extent to which Stephens has rethought his ideas about genetics and Jews:

“It’s no surprise that Jew hatred has made a comeback, albeit under new guises. Anti-Zionism has taken the place of anti-Semitism as a political program directed against Jews.”

Couple this with the existence of things like the Jewish Nation-state Law, and I think your head may now start tilting too.

I want to be very clear: I see no problem with a group of people celebrating their traditions (as long as there’s of course nothing wrong with those traditions). I recently heard a Jewish person say on a travel documentary about LA that he thought his community in LA was successful because they had a culture of working hard. There’s nothing wrong with that. What he did not say, however, was that they have a genetic component that makes them work harder than other people.

I have come to take issue with the use of the term “race” in general. Aside from being highly divisive, it just seems fraught with inaccuracies. More profoundly, I cannot even fathom any positive use for the term.

Referring to a religion as a race removes the idea of belief from the religion. This is in large part why Zionism is so cantankerous. It is somehow about religion but also not. It divides people based on notions of “race” and what amount to cultural practices more than religious ones and then kills based on it.

Alongside humans’ problematic search for differences is something else that is deeply problematic. A religion should not be a race. Allah’s message was sent for all of mankind. We accept the Jews and Christians as People of the Book because they believe, at the very least, in God. It’s not because of any particular skin tone that they have, or some origin story. It’s based on belief. If it were any other way, all meaning would be lost. Nationalism, skin tone, origins, etc., all are hollow, superficial and dangerous grounds for separating human beings.

RELATED: The Polytheism in Judaism (Expect the Unexpected)

Notes

1 Shlomo Sand. The Invention of the Jewish People, London: Verso, 2009, p.21-2.

2 Ibid., p.22.

3 Ze’ev Jabotinsky. “Letter on Autonomism,” in Selected Writings: Exile and Assimilation, Tel Aviv: Shlomo Zaltzman, 1936 (in Hebrew), 143-4. Quoted in: Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, London: Verso, 2009, p. 260-1.

4 Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, 78.

5 Quoted in: Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, 79.

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MSReader

Excellent article Dr. Tumadir. Jazakallah Khairan.

Zaid Diaz

…there had been periods which saw people convert to Judaism…

Reminds me of the Khazar Khaganate, whose people converted to Judaism. Now, if you even utter the word ‘Khazar’ to any Jew of today, they’ll go insane. Also, there are Karaite Jews who are Oghuz Turks, and probably Bukhara Jews too. China’s Kaifeng Jews are Sinicized, India has Maratha Bene Israel and some Mizo/Naga Jews, Ethiopia has Beta Israel.

Takeshi

Exactly, the native arabs from the Levant(Sham:Palestine,Jordan,Lebanon, Syria) and the mizrahi jews(natives from Sham too) are the real descendants of the ancient people of Israel that are described in the Qur’an. They just eventually mixed with the people that came there with the centuries(romans,arabs,persians,very long etc..) and became christians first and then muslims when Islam came.

Anti PC Akhi

Now if these people believe that a bedouin man who lived in the desert 1500 years ago who out did all of them, and every other religion, by creating a truly universal monotheistic religion, where he was so foresighted, more than their Jewish and Christian sages of all times, that his religion gave NOBILITY TO ALL, removing the specialness of any tribe or race including his own by directing worship towards the UNCREATED IMMATERIAL GOD, is A HUGE WIN for just a mere bedouin.

Anti PC Akhi

1500 years ago the bedioun created a religion that was going to out HIGH IQ every other religion which will be rendered tribalist, racist, confusing, where their prophets and saints have shady morals, the concept of god is mindnumbing, religion itself is missing a proper designation, so are the followers. Named after tribes and persons.

AND, unlike theirs which can be altered at whim he created a human blockchain of memorization which made it impossible to change his.

What a HIGH IQ man.

Anti PC Akhi

But even that isnt recoginzed. Even that is too much to accept from a bedioun. Forget about believing that he was a Prophet of God, that he recieved revelations, these kuffs wont even recognize these other amazing feats from just a mere man who created a religion that is far more diverse, equal, than their own deceased concepts of secularism, liberalism, communism, capatalism, marxism, where all their utopian theoritical concepts of human rights and equality fail or are unsustainable.

Abdullah Ali
Anti PC Akhi

I was using the kuffs terms and speak.

Keep up.

Abdullah Ali

I get your point, but Bedouin is a rude way to describe the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.

A I

May Allah bless you and your family, the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) did not “create a religion” – apologies if it comes across as nitpicking but it’s important to clarify for the unaware reader

Takeshi

It is a revelation from the creator of the universe almighty Allah, not a creation from the bedouins……

Mohammad Talha Ansari

The ziopigs are themost fitting successors of Fir’aun and the most fitting successors of Hitler. It suits them perfectly.