What’s a Jew?

Replace the word ‘Jew’ in that question with, for example, Englishman, Frenchman or, for that matter, Christian or Muslim, and the answer would be reasonably straightforward.

You won’t run into Woody at your local schul

Yes, a few taxonomic variations may be possible. Yet after some discussion, heated or otherwise, the argument can usually be settled.

The discussion could proceed by the process of elimination. Biting the dust by mutual agreement would be such impossible phrases as “He isn’t English; he’s a Catholic” or “He isn’t German; he looks Dutch” or “He isn’t French; he’s a Christian”.

Actually, France adopted laïcité as her essential national characteristic in 1905, and these days those seeking naturalisation have to prove they are comfortable with the notion. However, espousing Christianity or Judaism is still not seen as a disqualifying characteristic for citizenship, though things may well be moving in that direction.

Anyway, I suspect that Muslim applicants aren’t often ready to abandon their faith for secularism but, judging by their numbers admitted, the French system isn’t without some elasticity.

Some nations use different words for political and ethnic affiliations. ‘English’, for example, is these days an ethnic concept, while ‘British’ is mainly a political and cultural one: it may not include the ethnic element.

An outlander can become British by pledging allegiance to Her Majesty and thoroughly integrating into the British society and culture. But someone cursed with a less fortunate nativity can’t become English no matter how eager he is to swap cold vodka for warm beer.

If, according to Cecil Rhodes, “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life”, then the lucky ticket can only be drawn out of the mother’s womb.

The Russians have a similar distinction, which is lost in translation. The words rossiyanin and russkiy are both translated as ‘Russian’, and yet the conceptual difference between them is the same as between, respectively, ‘British’ and ‘English’ – the former may not include an ethnic component; the latter always does.

What about Jews then? Here no such clarity exists for many reasons, some obvious, some less so.

First, until 14 May, 1948, Jews didn’t have a state of their own. Hence they lived all over the world, and no definition of a Jew could have possibly included political or geographic aspects.

Yet, since even now Israel accounts for less than half of the world’s Jewish population, its existence doesn’t entirely settle the taxonomic issue.

Then there was the Holocaust, when six million Jews were murdered simply for being Jewish. The Nazis, ably assisted by their enthusiastic accomplices from all over Europe, especially its eastern part, therefore had to adopt their own definition of a Jew.

It was purely ethnic, based on what the proto-Nazi philosopher Fichte called jus sanguinis. A person with two or more Jewish grandparents was a Jew who didn’t deserve to live. He might have espoused Judaism or any other religion or none: nothing but das Blut mattered.

This was in marked contrast to the Kaiser, who declared that “We have no Jews in Germany. We only have Germans of the Judaic persuasion.” The German language of the time could have clearly benefited from the nuances available in English and Russian.

The Holocaust has affected the definition of a Jew prevalent in the West, not least among Western Jews themselves, especially in America. Since to Hitler a Jew was defined by his ethnicity, then anyone who deplored Hitler had to drop ethnicity from his definition.

Therefore Jewishness became synonymous with Judaism, and American Jews in particular will insist on this overlap against all logic and every available evidence. Being an argumentative sort, I’ve often tormented them with provocative questions.

“So no atheist Jews exist?” The typical reaction is that of consternation. “Why not?” I’d press on. “If a Jew is defined solely by Judaism, then no atheist can be Jewish. And if an atheist can be Jewish, then why can’t a baptised Jew?”

Another one of my stock questions is: “Is it possible for a person to look Jewish?” The reply based on ideology and emotion is an unequivocal no. One based on evidence before our eyes has to be an equally decisive yes.

What does, say, Woody Allen look like? An agnostic? And what about Sammy Davis Jr, who converted to Judaism? He didn’t look Jewish, and – call me a Nazi and report me to the Equality Commission – Woody Allen does.

Israel’s Law of Return doesn’t clarify matters either. According to it, any Jew anywhere in the world has a right to settle in Israel. But that brings the definition of a Jew into sharp focus.

The Law states that ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.

The words I emphasised are a late addition to the ancient law, and they sound illogical to me. So worded, the Law of Return would bar such Christian converts as Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler or Simone Weil, while welcoming, say, Leon Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov or, for that matter, Woody Allen.

In other words, a person may be a Jew for most of his life, but then stop being one by getting baptised. I wonder what the first 17 bishops of Jerusalem, all circumcised Jews, would have had to say about that.

Obviously, centuries of peripatetic existence make it hard to talk about any ethnic purity among the Jews. But then isn’t that also the case about many other, stationary, nationalities?

Some Russians, for example, look like Mongols and some others like Swedes, and yet they are all Russians. Frenchmen born and bred may look like Arabs or like Germans, while Boris Johnson, who’s as English as they come, has an extremely eclectic blood mix.

Yet for all their geographic uncertainty, many Ashkenazi Jews look like, well, Ashkenazi Jews, which has to point to some genetic pool shared at least partially, if not wholly.

This is also proved by a long list of diseases specific to Ashkenazi Jews. For example, they are 100 times likelier than anyone else to be afflicted with familial dysautonomia (Riley-Day syndrome). On a more joyous note, Jews also seem likelier than anyone else to play string instruments in symphony orchestras and win Nobel Prizes for science.

All this shows yet again how ideology can cloud one’s judgement. For, with numerous qualifications and disclaimers, Jewishness is largely an ethnic notion. An Englishman can’t stop being English while retiring to the Costa del Sol, and a Jew can’t stop being Jewish by renouncing Judaism.

That this was a view taken by the Nazis disqualifies it no more than Heidrich’s affection for Beethoven means we should shun the 32 piano sonatas. The crime of the Nazi murderers wasn’t that they defined Jewishness ethnically, but that they deemed that ethnicity sub-human and therefore subject to extermination.

I think – and my Israeli and American Jewish friends may disagree – that, by denying the blindingly obvious ethnic input, they divert the problem into a dead end, where fighting anti-Semitism becomes harder.

It’s impossible to affirm racial equality by denying the existence of racial identity. But, and many of my pieces end on this note, when ideology speaks, common sense falls silent.  

1 thought on “What’s a Jew?”

  1. “Being born in a barn does not necessarily make one a horse!” McConnell addressing Wellington when the Duke asserting he was an Anglo-Irishman.

    And YES, Woody Allen even if an atheist is still a Jew.

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