Jews and antisemitism
What is a Jew, and what does a person mean when he says he is Jewish?
by David Sirkin
3 May 2009
The terms ,“Jew” and “Jewish,” are the cause of much confusion, especially in America, because each of the terms has two meanings: the terms can be used to indicate either an ethnic group or a religion. In the minds of most people, including most Jews, the distinction between ethnicity and religion is blurred, so that, for example, when a person says he is Jewish, very often he is not even thinking about whether he means ethnicity or religion, or he means both.
In the United States and Canada, which together have about half of the world's Jewish population, most followers of the Jewish religion consider themselves to be of the same ethnic group, as descendants of European Jews. (In Israel, the situation is different, as the majority of Jews originate from the Arab world, and they have racial characteristics visibly different from the minority whose families come from Europe. There are also small numbers of Jews from India and Africa, who also constitute racially distinct groups. In America, Jews used to make a distinction between those whose families immigrated from Germany, and the much larger group whose families immigrated later from Russia and Eastern Europe, but this distinction has largely disappeared.) The situation is somewhat similar to that of North Americans of (Asian) Indian descent. The words, “Hindu” and “Indian,” have the same Greek origin, and to a large extent they refer to the same people.
But if a person of Indian descent wants to indicate his ethnicity, he says, “Indian,” and when he wants to talk about his religion, he says, “Hindu.” That is convenient, because of course a large number of Indians are not Hindu, but Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or Jain, etc. In addition there are some Hindus who are not of Indian descent. Unfortunately, in the case of people whose ancestors are presumed to have left the Roman province of Judea (Judaea), the same word, “Jew,” means both a person presumed to have such ancestry and a person who practices the religion, Judaism. (“Jew” derives from “Judean,” and “Judaism” is the religion of the Judeans. The true ancestry of the Jews is a subject of much debate. An authoritative source of data is The Genetics of the Jews, by A.E. Mourant et al., Oxford Iniversity Press, 1978, which concludes that most likely most Jews are about 50% from a common origin, presumably Judea, and 50% from the people among whom they were living for a long time in whatever place they were living.) Very likely, this dual use of the word came about because in ancient times, when Judaism started, the concept of “religion,” as distinct from the religious practices of a particular group of people, did not exist. Since then, except for a brief period in Roman times, before the rise of Christianity, there has not been a great amount of conversion of other people to Judaism, so there never seemed to be a compelling reason to have a separate word for a person who practiced Judaism as distinct from a person of Jewish ethnicity. Judaism has remained by and large the religion of the Jews.
But that is changing. Today, in America and elsewhere, ethnic Jews have adopted other religions or have become atheists. Also, other people have become religious Jews by conversion, especially if they have married Jews, or by being adopted by Jews. It would be nice to have separate terms. Other terms in fact have been used occasionally in the past to describe persons of Jewish ancestry, including, “Hebrew” and “Israelite.” If one were to choose a new term for ethnic Jew, “Hebrew” might be better than “Israelite,” because the latter would cause confusion with “Israeli” or “Israeli-American,” which denote persons from Israel, or whose parents came to America from Israel, rather than persons descended from Jews who came from Europe, and whose ancestors were living in Europe for centuries. However, it is very difficult to change terminology that is centuries old.
Why do American Jews identify themselves as “Jewish,” or “Jewish-American,” and not Russian or Polish or German, etc.? For example, I say that I am half Jewish and half English. I do not say I am half Russian and half English. That is because Russian, German, Polish, and so on, are ethnic groups as well as nationalities. The Jewish minority in those countries for the most part were not considered, by themselves or by others, as Russians, Poles, etc. In Russia and Eastern Europe in particular they wandered across borders from one country to another, remaining Jews all the time (gypsies did the same, and were also always considered gypsies, a distinct ethnic group). My grandparents did not consider themselves to be Russians in Russia, and so they did not consider themselves to be Russians when they arrived in America (most Americans did not consider them to be Russians either). The great thing about America for Jews is that they can be as American as anyone else. There is no “American” ethnicity. If one is not Jewish-American, then one is Native American (American Indian), English (or Anglo-Saxon)-American, Irish-American, African-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American, and so on.
Jews and antisemitism