But the vast majority of Jews in the United States do not see themselves as a separate nationality or a race. In most polls, they describe their Jewishness as a cultural or religious identity, or simply as a matter of heritage, while their nationality is American.
The announcement of Trump’s policy change echoes older debates about Jewish identity over the past 250 years — which is why the first reports of the executive order sparked such controversy. The accusation that Jews have not been devoted to the countries in which they live but rather have different national loyalties instead of or in addition to their formal citizenship is an age-old anti-Semitic trope. It was often used to deny Jews full rights and privileges in their respective countries of residence and opens up a question of Jewish belonging that the United States has not seen before — a scary proposition for American Jews.
Until the late 18th century, the definition of what Jews were did not matter much, because they were marginalized and not recognized as part of the broader societies where they lived, whether in Europe or the Middle East. They had lived as a largely autonomous group in society and were seen simultaneously as a religion and a nation of their own.
The big change in Western Europe came with Jews’ fight for acceptance as citizens with equal rights in their respective societies, beginning with the French Revolution. But acceptance and equality came with a price: eliminating anything that smacked of their own nationality. During the French Revolution, Count Clermont-Tonnerre declared the conditions for Jewish integration into French society: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”
Jews complied, giving up their Jewish nationality and becoming French or German citizens “of the Jewish faith.” This meant no longer forming autonomous communities with their separate living quarters, abandoning speaking Yiddish and writing in Hebrew letters and eliminating their own rabbinical courts. As early as 1848, a spokesperson for German Jews, Hamburg lawyer and Vice President of the German National Assembly Gabriel Riesser, stated: “The nationality of the Jews lives only in our memories. . . . In reality, it has died.”
In Eastern Europe, Jewish history took a different course. Jews did not have the same opportunity for integration as in the West. They were regarded as a national minority, and many of them continued to speak Yiddish and to adhere to more traditional forms of Jewish culture. This persisted into the 20th century. Even in the Soviet Union, where any positive expression of Jewish nationalism was banned, Jews were marked in their identity papers as having “Jewish nationality.”
Anyone with this mark in his or her passport knew that this could cause severe disadvantage when applying to college or for jobs. Even though Jews were citizens of the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism was officially banned, the notion of Jews not being loyal to the state was widespread. If declaring their nationality set the Jews apart from the majority populations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany went even further: characterizing and demonizing Jews as a race and stripping their German citizenship, which ultimately led to the Holocaust.
These different categorizations all had one commonality: It was the state, not individual Jews themselves, that decided what Jewishness meant — a religious identity, a nationality or a race.
Ironically, the same was true when Israel was established as a Jewish state in 1948. In Israel, “Jewish” refers to nationality rather than to religion, as is stated in each citizen’s identity papers. This was confirmed in 2018 when the Knesset ratified the basic law of “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” The decision of who is a Jew was several times brought before the Israeli Supreme Court, as it is a question of far-reaching legal consequences: Every Jew has the automatic right to immigrate to Israel.
Even today, the countries in which Jews live have enormous power to define Jewishness. While in most European countries, Jews, like Christians and Muslims, are defined as a religion, in Sweden they are recognized as a national minority, together with groups such as Roma and Swedish Finns. Moving from one country to another, a Jewish person might be seen in the eyes of a country as a member of a minority nationality, a member of a religion or a member of the majority nationality in Israel.
Given the historic tie between seeing Jewishness as a nationality or race, and persecution, this is far from a theoretical distinction. And whatever a state’s official categorization, it has nothing to do with what a person considers to be his or her Jewish identity.
In modern times, Jews have embraced various definitions of their identities, expressing their ties to a community regardless of their religious beliefs and practice. Take Sigmund Freud. He called himself a “godless Jew” but regarded himself as a Jew nevertheless. What connected him to Judaism, Freud said, was neither religion nor “national pride,” which he always despised. Rather, “plenty of other things remained over to make the attraction of Jewry and Jews irresistible [including] many obscure emotional forces which were the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words.”
The United States distinguished itself from Europe and the Middle East by never having asked its Jewish citizens to express in words how they defined their Jewishness. There was no Count Clermont-Tonnerre to set conditions for their integration and no necessity for the U.S. Supreme Court to define Jewishness, as its Israeli counterpart did. While Jews, especially those of Eastern European descent, confronted persecution in the early 20th century, Jews in the United States have enjoyed freedoms far beyond those of their counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world.
One reason for this is the fact that they do not have to register as part of a Jewish nationality or sign a state document declaring their belonging to the Jewish religion. Unlike many other countries, Jews in the United States have always resisted attempts to categorize Jewishness and thus to open the door to attacks against their loyalty. This has been one of the big achievements of American Jews.
And thus it should remain. It is important to take measures to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campus, but not at the price of classifying Jews as a nationality. This contradicts the feelings of most American Jews and opens up a dangerous discussion that really never existed in this country. In the end, in the name of protecting Jews from anti-Semitism, such a maneuver might lay the groundwork for a much more serious anti-Semitic threat.