Jews: A Religious Community, a People, or a Race?

Mark Weber

Defining "Jew" has never been simple. Is he someone who practices Judaism, the Jewish religion, or is he identified by his ancestry? While many Americans assume that Jews are essentially a religious group, Jews themselves take for granted that their community is much more ethnic-national than it is religious.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who has served as Israel's prime minister, frankly regards Jews as members of a racial group. Speaking to a gathering of nearly a thousand Jews in southern California, he said: "If Israel had not come into existence after World War II than [sic] I am certain the Jewish race wouldn't have survived." (Daily Pilot, Newport Beach/Costa Mesa, Feb. 28, 2000, front page)

The Israeli leader went on to exhort his audience: "I stand before you and say you must strengthen your commitment to Israel. You must become leaders and stand up as Jews. We must be proud of our past to be confident of our future." (Similarly forthright appeals by non-Jews to racial-ethnic pride are, of course, routinely condemned as "racist" or "neo-Nazi.")

Echoing Netanyahu, an influential Jewish community paper with a nationwide readership referred to Jews as a racial group. An editorial entitled "Some Other Race" in the March 17, 2000, issue of the New York weekly Forward urged readers to fill out the federal government census form. It goes on to suggest: "... On question eight [of the form, which asks about race], you might consider doing what more than one member of our redaktzia [editorial staff] has done: checking the box 'some other race' and writing in the word 'Jew'."

Charles Bronfman, a main sponsor of the $210 million "Birthright Israel" project to "sell Jewishness" to American Jews, expressed a similar sentiment. He is co-chairman of the powerful Seagram company, and brother of Edgar Bronfman, Sr., president of the World Jewish Congress. "You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish," said Charles Bronfman, "but I think you're losing a lot -- losing the kind of feeling you have when you know [that] throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have." ("Project Reminds Young Jews of Heritage," The Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2000, p. A19)

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, stressed in his seminal book Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State"), published in 1896, that Jews around the world constitute a Volk, that is, a people or nationality, with interests different than those of the non-Jews among whom they live. Accordingly, Israeli political figures and Jewish community leaders in the United States routinely speak of "the Jewish people."

Consistent with that, Jewish leaders express alarm that so many Jews are marrying non-Jews (an attitude that is denounced as "racist" if expressed by non-Jews). Charles S. Liebman, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, bluntly declares that intermarriage "violates the most basic norms of Judaism [and] threatens Jewish survival." (Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2000)

For decades a small number of American Jews -- notably Alfred Lilienthal, author of The Zionist Connection, and Rabbi Elmer Berger, leader of the American Council for Judaism -- worked hard to persuade fellow Jews to reject Jewish nationalism (Zionism), and instead regard themselves essentially as a religious group. Overwhelmingly, though, Jews have rejected such pleas. Indeed, some of the most prominent Jewish personalities of the past century -- including Albert Einstein, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion -- have been non-religious.

As a matter of basic state policy, Israel actively encourages immigration of Jews -- defined by ancestry -- from around the world, while at the same time strongly discouraging settlement by non-Jews, even forbidding immigration of non-Jews who were born in what is now Israel.


This item slightly edited, was first published in The Journal of Historical Review, March-April 2000 (Vol. 19, No. 2), page 63.