Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? Why Does it Matter?

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 13, 2019 / 15 Kislev 5780

The news out of New Jersey this week was very disturbing. The horrific and frightening attack on a Jewish kosher market in Jersey City by two gunmen was a terrible example of our contemporary and global climate of hate. So many different groups find themselves under attack and it is sickening and depressing. This week, it was the Jews turn again. Our hearts go out the families of the four victims who were killed. In a year in which we’ve seen a 20% global uptick in anti-semitic attacks, and large scale oppression against many minorities, I pray for a transformation of the human heart.

Summary: In this week’s Oasis Song, we will examine President Trump’s executive order which extends the protections of Title VI to some Jewish students. How should we feel about this order? What does it mean? Will it have unintended consequences?

Who’s a Jew? What does it mean to be Jewish? And who gets to decide? Those are loaded questions that touch close to the skin. There’s a lot of emotion involved in how we answer them, a lot of passion. There’s a lot at stake anytime our fundamental identities come into play.

Those questions about Jewishness were raised for many people after the Trump administration announced in an executive order, full text here, that Jews would be protected under Title VI.

People have been asking me what I think of this decision. Confession? It’s confusing; but since confusion is an invitation to learn, here’s some background:

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided “that no person shall on the ground of race, color, national origin, sex, or disabilities be exclude from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal funds.” In effect, colleges who receive Federal funds would be potentially liable to lose their funding when they don’t take action to protect their Jewish students who suffer discrimination.

Apparently, the definition that the Trump administration used to define antisemitism for this purpose is that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an international consortium, which in May of 2016 adopted the following language:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The Alliance goes on to explain that targeting the state of Israel, as a Jewish collectivity, may indeed be antisemitic, as is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Although when the “criticism of Israel is similar to that leveled against any other country,” such language, critiques or attacks would not be considered antisemitic.

It all sounds kind of like dry legal language, right? But implied in the executive order is a definition of Judaism which is more than just a religion. That is important, because Title VI does not provide protections for one’s religion!

This is the crux of the question and probably what causes this to be so confusing, because the executive order raises questions about Jewish identity itself. Are we primarily or exclusively a religion? Or is there an ethnic component to Jewishness?

In America, Jews have become, as a friend put it, “white Americans of the Jewish religion.” Indeed, according to Pew, 94% of American Jews view themselves as white (and we dare not forget how many Jews of color there are). It’s not only us, though. Antisemites on the left and even many on the right also view us as white. On the left, it is often used to strip us of our ‘hard-earned” (read ”persecuted”) minority status or our right to self-determination or our long history of oppression.

For Hitler, being Jewish had little to do with religion.
For anyone who attacks American Jews for what Israel does, being Jewish is not a religion.
For secular, atheist Jews who still identify, being Jewish is not a religion.
And for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, being Jewish is not a religion.

I don’t consider myself white. I more strongly identify with our historical, ethnic peoplehood. Jewishness includes but is far more than my religion.

For all these groups of Jews, finding ourselves protected under the law and specifically under Title VI ought to be a good thing. So should I, like all those non-religious people who are Jewish, be happy about this new executive order?

That’s a different question. With the rise in antisemitism on our college campuses and on our streets, I welcome greater legal protections. Yet there is a tension in this new executive order that rubs against freedom of speech, which is both a fundamentally American value and also a protection to Jews and countless other minorities.

Probably it would be better if the Congress could pass more explicit, focused legislation that provides us with proper legal recourse. Yet for long years they have not done so. Instead we have this executive order. Not quite as good. Not as durable as legislated law. Freighted with the possibility of unintended consequences.

I am ambivalent. What do you think? Let me know.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  • What does it mean to you to be Jewish?
  • Some American Jews neither view themselves religiously, nor do they feel connected to Israel or the international Jewish community. If that describes you, how do you ground your Jewish identity? What are its sources?
  • If a law is good, does it matter its source? Or does the messenger always change the meaning?

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