It’s a religion, yes — but then again, many who identify as Jews aren’t religious. It’s passed down from parents to children and bears recognizable genetic characteristics — but then again, Jews come in all colors and racial backgrounds.
Ethnicity? Nationality? Faith? Culture? Heritage? Even Jews don’t agree on just what Judaism is. And President Trump has thrown that eternal question into sharp relief by signing an executive order meant to strengthen protections against anti-Semitism on college campuses, where the debate over Israel and Palestinian rights has grown increasingly toxic in recent years.
Trump’s order, which he signed at a White House Hanukkah party last week, says anti-Semitism is punishable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — a clause that deals only with race, ethnicity and nationality, not discrimination on the basis of religion. The order says Jews can be considered to have been targeted on the basis of their nationality or race as Jews.
Jewish Americans, who are presumably the beneficiaries, are deeply torn about what it all means.
Barry, director of innovation and teen engagement at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, said that before last week, the only time anyone asked her whether Judaism is a nationality was when she taught seventh-graders about the Holocaust. This week, adults walked into the JCC in Fairfax to share their thoughts and seek hers.
“It’s definitely brought the conversation of Judaism as nationality to the forefront,” Barry said.
When hate crimes are on the rise, dark corners of the Internet are flooded with vitriol about Jews and both the president and members of Congress have been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes, the Trump administration’s attempt at protection is viewed with both suspicion and, in some corners, relief.
“Throughout Jewish history, categorizing Jews into a separate group has led to othering and sometimes violence. So we’re just cautious,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, the denomination’s government relations arm. “Any good-faith attempt to protect any minority, including the Jewish minority, from anti-Semitism or violence is a good thing. … We’re just cautious about government defining who we are and government defining who is part of us.”
Pesner was in Chicago at the denomination’s biennial convention, along with 5,000 other rabbis and Reform Jews, when Trump announced the order. Immediately, discussions of how to accommodate increasingly diverse American Jewish communities, and ensure synagogue security amid rising anti-Semitism, expanded to include conversations about whether Trump’s order had defined Judaism properly.
“We have people here who are born Jewish and not. Black, brown, white, Asian. People with Muslim and Christian members of their extended families,” Pesner said. “You have people who chose Judaism because of its theology … and you have people who don’t understand Torah study and don’t believe in God.”
In Washington, some responded to the discussion with a Twitter hashtag, #MyJudaismIs, and filled in the sentence with non-nationality-related responses such as “queer,” “fiercely feminist,” “loving the stranger” and “debating whether or not gefilte fish is actually good.”
Early Americans commonly viewed Jews as a separate racial category, wrote Yale professor of African American studies Matthew F. Jacobson, who cited a 1775 text that described “the nation of the Jews, who, under every climate, remain the same as far as the fundamental configuration of face goes, remarkable for a racial character almost universal, which can be distinguished at the first glance.”
That perception became far rarer after the Nazis’ racially motivated Holocaust. As the United States grew more ethnically diverse, Jewish Americans increasingly were seen as white, a characterization that brought its own awkwardness and ambivalence.
“There is such variation: Yes, I’m white in the sense that as I walk around publicly, I have all the privileges allocated to white women,” said Karen Brodkin, a University of California at Los Angeles anthropologist who has written extensively on the subject of how Jews came to be considered white. “But there’s a hell of a vicious history of anti-Semitism.”
Anti-Semites and white nationalists clearly see Jews as “other.” Witness the demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and hate-filled Twitter attacks on Jewish members of Congress, including Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), which focus not just on their leadership in the ongoing impeachment inquiry but also on their heritage.
Jews continue to see Judaism as a biological inheritance, not just a religious or cultural community, researchers at Clark and Brown universities found — especially those who have only one Jewish parent and those who do not belong to a synagogue. For them, Jewishness is inherent and immutable in their genes.
Attacks on Jews, which are on the rise, are sometimes based on Jewish religious practices or moral values. The suspect in the gun attack that killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year had denounced Jewish support of HIAS, the religious refugee resettlement organization.
Other attacks, including verbal and physical assaults on college campuses, have been based not on religion but on perceived support of Israel.
And some anti-Semitism, including many of the online taunts, is based on perceived ethnic characteristics shared by Jews.
“What we’re seeing now being directed against the Jewish community is something that is earth-shattering, that we have not seen in this country for decades,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, 45, adding that members of his Ohev Sholom congregation in Washington are more fearful about being visibly Jewish.
“People have told me that they’ve removed their mezuza scrolls from their doors so people will not know they’re Jewish,” he said, bringing up last week’s fatal shooting in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. “Not one. More than half a dozen. And that’s people willing to tell the rabbi that. … It is heartbreaking.”
In the 1970s, according to General Social Survey data, 99 percent of U.S. Jews were categorized as white. Most of them were Ashkenazi, a European ethnic lineage specific to Jews. In this decade, data shows that 11 percent of U.S. Jews are not white — and some say that is an undercount, since people of color are sometimes overlooked by researchers trying to tally Jews. There are Jews of Ethiopian descent, Sephardic Jews from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Egypt, converts from across the racial spectrum, children of color adopted by Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jews — and all of their children and grandchildren.
Calling Judaism a racial or ethnic identity inappropriately erases Jews of color, some say. And suggesting that the federal government considers Judaism to be a nationality or ethnicity can add to confusion that Jews already face in their schools and workplaces.
“I’m worried now that the incorrect belief will be that I’m Israeli or that I’ve even been to Israel,” said Zoe Terner, 19, a leader in the Reform movement and a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “My family’s from Russia, I’m pretty sure.” (She said she doesn’t see Russian as her nationality, either — nor Austrian, another place from which her relatives fled, facing religious persecution — but just American, based on the place where her family found safety.)
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., said even young children often debate how to categorize Judaism. “When they’re asked what their race is or ‘what they are,’ they say that they’re Jewish,” said Mates-Muchin, 45. “Often people tell them that’s not an ethnicity — that’s only a religion.”
Mates-Muchin, whose father is Ashkenazi and whose mother is a Chinese American Jewish convert, said she believes she is the first Chinese American rabbi. But she, too, feels “a Jewish ethnic identity.”
“We’re Ashkenazi. My family left Austria in the ’30s. They were escaping the Holocaust,” she said. “That story is really important to who we are.”
The increasing number of ethnicities represented in many Jewish communities doesn’t mean Judaism’s ethnic component is irrelevant, just changing, Mates-Muchin said. “We are developing a very distinctive Jewish American ethnicity and identity.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander, co-senior rabbi at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, said he taught Hanukkah study sessions on two nights last week and both times participants spent the first 20 or 30 minutes asking questions about the executive order.
“Are we a nation?” they asked the rabbi.
Like many good Jewish questions, the answer was both no and yes.
No, Alexander said, Jews are not a nation-state: “To start to suggest that Jews could be considered a separate nation — that has been and will continue to be dangerous for Jews, to be seen as having some other nation that they are more loyal to than the one in which they live and pay taxes.”
And, yes, he added, Jews’ sacred texts tell them that they are connected to fellow Jews, as one people, wherever they live. The Hebrew words for the nation of Israel, “am Yisrael,” he noted, appear throughout Jewish liturgy — sung and recited in synagogues, schools and community centers.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where Reform rabbis met for a biennial convention last week. The meeting was in Chicago.