A few recent events have, once again, brought to the fore questions that have preoccupied people for (at least) the last couple of centuries: Who is a Jew? And who (or what) are the Jews?
Let me try to distill the significance of each of those events.
A kingdom of priests
A few days ago, Israel’s High Court of Justice issued a breakthrough decision: converts to Judaism, it said (even those ‘fast-tracked’ through non-Orthodox conversion processes — Reform and Conservative/Masorti) are Jews. It would seem that Jews are, therefore, a religion. After all, that’s what ‘conversion’ means — changing one’s faith. But here’s the catch: why has the High Court waded in what appears to be a religious issue, a matter for rabbis to debate? Because in Israel there are legal consequences: Jews — not Israeli citizens, but Jews wherever they come from — are covered by the provisions of the Law of Return: they are entitled almost automatically to reside in Israel and (if they so desire) to become Israeli citizens.
But what does religion have to do with the right of residence? Or with citizenship? Try explaining this to a Westerner and you’ll get — at best — a funny look. This brings me to the second recent event.
A majority of that minority…
On March 1, 2021, A BBC programme called ‘Politics Live’ asked a panel made up of four non-Jews to debate whether Jews should count as an ethnic minority. The only Jew who participated (as a guest) was outraged that the question was even asked; so was the vast majority of British Jews who heard about this ‘debate’. On the other hand, a lot of non-Jews (including the programme’s hapless editor Rob Burley) found the whole notion baffling. After all, the Jews (in their minds, at least) are white-skinned; their eyes are straight in their faces — and not slanted like those of Asians. How, then, can they possibly be ‘an ethnic minority’? And, even assuming they are a separate ethnicity, despite their similarity to white Brits in all but hard-to-perceive details, how come one can ‘convert’ to being a Jew at the say-so of a religious conclave? Can one ‘convert’ to being black, brown or Asian?
Sociopathic Political Sociology
Only a few days earlier, a Bristol University professor of Political Sociology had produced a rant against the Uni’s Jewish Society, accusing them of being “political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing”. A.k.a. Israel — ‘the Jewish state’. This outraged those students, along with the vast majority of British Jews. Who — yes — are ‘British’, but also ‘Jews’; yes, their country is Britain, to which they are eminently loyal, though most of them are really fond of ‘the Jewish state’. Confusing? Wait, that’s not all!
Come, curse me Jacob…
A Jewish comedian of national fame (and by ‘national’ I mean in Britain, but mostly among British Jews) just published a book complaining about anti-Jewish racism — including those who claim that they don’t mind Jews, they only really hate the Jewish state. Well, to make things slightly clearer, the Jewish comedian solemnly declared in his book that he doesn’t give a rat’s about the Jewish state! He even echoed some of those he had just complained about — by cursing ‘Fuck Israel!’ Which in itself drew the ire of those British Jews — the vast majority, according to opinion polls — who care a lot about the Jewish state; to the point of seeing it as an essential pillar of their Jewish identity…
Their own country
I’m talking about recent events — but in truth this isn’t new: the Torah talks about ‘Am Yisrael’ — the People of Israel. A ‘people’ then, an ethnicity. Yes, but woe unto the People of Israel if it were to worship other Gods… So a religion, after all?
Around 1650, a certain Manasseh ben Israel was writing honey-tongued letters to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, pleading for him to remove the interdiction and allow Jews to once again live on the Island of Britain. A Sephardi Jew, Manasseh was born Manoel Dias Soeiro, scion to a family of ‘Marranos’ (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, but secretly continued to cling to Judaism). Having fled their native Portugal to escape the Inquisition, the family found refuge in Amsterdam, in the Low Countries, where they could, at the time, overtly practice their religion and attempt to help other exiled Jews. Yet when Manasseh — appealing to Cromwell’s humane feelings — described Jews as ‘banished from their own country’, he made it clear that he did not mean Portugal or Spain, but the Land of Israel; the land these Jews longed for was not the one they had to leave a few years earlier, but the one they lost many centuries before Manasseh was even born… Odd, ‘innit? Well, there you have it — the third dimension of Jewish identity: not just peoplehood and religion, but a strange longing for a country lost some time, somewhere.
But why did I drag poor ol’ Manasseh ben Israel into all this? Well, he happens to be the main architect of the ‘return’ of Jews to England, some four centuries after the 1290 exile. One could even call him the founder of the modern British Jewish community…
Trial and Error
It’s not that Jews did not experiment with their identity. In the 19th century Germany, some Jews established the Reform Movement, which initially tried to do away with ethnicity, while maintaining the element of faith. Those Jews declared themselves ‘Germans of Mosaic faith’. ‘Their own country’ was definitely Germany — and none other.
Also in the 19th century, but to the east of Germany (in Lithuania, Poland and Russia), another group of Jews established a secular Jewish movement, the Bund. The Bundists had no interest in religion, but they somehow envisaged Jewishness as a type of distinct cultural ethnicity within the socialist brotherhood of peoples.
Neither group faired very well, however. The Reform Jews may have viewed themselves and each other as ‘Germans of Mosaic faith’; but the ‘real Germans’ still viewed them as… Jews — and murdered them along with their Orthodox brethren.
As for the Bundists, they lived as socialists but died as Jews: those who escaped the Shoa’h met their bitter fate during Stalin’s purges. Only a handful survived — and at the cost of selling their souls to the devil: they became the infamous ‘Yevsektsiya’, Stalin’s tiny group of Jewish enablers.
While the Reforms chose religion and the Bundists cultural ethnicity, they both jettisoned the third aspect — ‘their own country’. But there was another movement that started (or at least got its name and fame) in the 19th century: the Zionists. Like the Bundists, initially the Zionists had no interest in religion; unlike both Bundists and Reforms, they were only really interested in ‘their own country’. This is ironic, given that these days roughly half of that country is made up of religious or ‘traditional’ Jews, a fifth of non-Jews and the balance of Jews who preach the importance of close ties with the Diaspora. Go figure!
Traduttore, traditore: translating identity
Here’s some more Zionist irony: I believe that the most serious contribution to the understanding of these concepts (Jews, Jewishness, Jewish identity) has just been made… by an Arab.
I must admit I never before heard about Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. On Twitter, he introduces himself as
A freedom-loving Egyptian dissident and American citizen.
Also on Twitter, on 2 March 2021, he opined:
I’m not Jewish but I want to throw my ring in the hat of the question of Jewish identity that a lot of people are fighting about. Is it a race? A religion? An ethnicity? Can we say Arab Jew? I see a lot of people fighting without being knowledgeable or humble enough to simply say ‘Idk’ [I don’t know]. Judaism is a unique Middle Eastern structure. Modern Western languages simply don’t have the analytical tools adequate to explain it. Judaism will never comfortably map on notions expressed in the English words of ‘religion, race, civilization, etc.’ Thats my opinion.
And a very astute, insightful opinion it is, too! Languages (words, sentences, verbal descriptions) are mirrors that reflect reality; but, like any imperfect mirror, a language can also deform, rendering an inaccurate, false image. Modern Western languages developed to express contemporary Western concepts, attitudes and realities; why do we expect them to accurately describe centuries-old Middle Eastern idiosyncrasies?
Even within that broad family of ‘Western’ (i.e. European) languages, there are significant differences. Most native speakers of the English language would understand the term ‘nationality’ as meaning something similar to ‘citizenship’. French speakers would probably feel the same about the term ‘nationalité’. But, for instance, in Russian (and other Eastern European languages), ‘natsionalnost’ (национальность) should really be translated ‘ethnicity’. It is fundamentally different from the concept of ‘citizenship’ — in Russian ‘grazhdanstvo’ (гражданство). Asked what his ‘natsionalnost’ is (and assuming s/he wanted to respond candidly), a Jew living in Russia would respond ‘Jewish’, rather than ‘Russian’. S/he would of course say that his/her ‘grazhdanstvo’ is ‘Russian’. The former refers to ‘tribal’ identity; the latter — to legal status.
Although in recent times the German concepts of ‘Nationalität’ and ‘Staatsbürgerschaft’ (citizenship) have often been used interchangeably, as their equivalents are in English or French, many native German speakers would perceive a difference between the two terms: the accurate English translation of the former is, I feel, ‘national origin,’ referring either to ethnicity (‘tribal’ identity) or, more often, to the country of one’s birth — irrespective of current citizenship status.
Back to English: the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are vague and not very well understood – as the above-mentioned BBC programme abundantly demonstrated.
Such terms change meaning with the passing of time: a century ago, ‘a race’ would’ve been understood to mean a people or an ethnicity. British Jews (and Jews in general) would definitely be seen as ‘a race’; they would not be subsumed into the ‘British race’. But these days the concept of ‘race’ most often refers to predominant physical characteristics such as skin colour or the shape of one’s eyes.
Even there, things are less than crystal-clear. People who originate on the Indian subcontinent tend to have dark skin colour (but not as dark as ‘black’ people), as well as other specific physical particularities. But they are seldom referred to as a separate ‘race’ these days.
Most Westerners view Jews these days as just a (rather weird) variety of ‘white people’; not a ‘race’ onto themselves. Nonetheless, they would call antisemitism or Islamophobia ‘forms of racism’, despite the fact that neither Jews nor Muslims are seen as ‘races’. Did I manage to confuse you completely, folks? Wait, there’s more!
What about ‘ethnicity’? What does that mean, actually? Jews (who come in many shades and shapes) would often refer to themselves as am ethnicity or, just as the Torah does, as ‘a people’. But they are also part of numerous ‘nations’.
When casually asked about their identity, many (most?) British Jews would say they’re ‘British’. A few times, when discussing this with friends and acquaintances, I commented that they don’t usually say they’re ‘English’. “It’s the same,” they typically react, as an afterthought. “Sure, I’m English”. But, of course, while ‘British’ and ‘English’ may be “the same” for a member of the dominant majority, I very much doubt that a Scot or a Welsh person would see things this way!
Nor is this type of identity embraced uniformly across the Jewish world. I am told that in Sweden, for instance, a Jew who marries out is said to have ‘married a Swede,’ notwithstanding the fact that the Jew him/herself is the proud holder of a Swedish passport. I remember well a similar attitude from my youth in Eastern Europe.
That’s, by the way, not an exclusive Jewish phenomenon: an ethnic Finn born in Sweden for many generations would most often say s/he is ‘from Sweden’ — rather than ‘Swedish’; members of the ethnic Magyar (Hungarian) minorities would most often say they are ‘from Romania’ or ‘from Slovakia’, rather than ‘Romanian’ or ‘Slovak’; and Arab Israelis would often describe themselves as ‘Arabs (or Palestinians) citizens of Israel’ — rather than ‘Israelis’.
Things change as we move along the time-space continuum. Once upon a time, the West defined itself as ‘Christendom’ — a moniker that bundled together religious, territorial and cultural identity. It had a somewhat equivalent term for Jews (albeit, of course, less sympathetic in tone and usage): Jewry in English, Judentum in German. Few people use these terms anymore; fewer still understand their complex meaning.
But let’s go back to Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. I would suggest, that his own sense of identity (an Egyptian Arab, now a US citizen) is what produced his astute remarks. Arabs are (speaking as an outsider) people who belong to a broadly-defined Arab culture — some define it as a nation — one of whose main expressions is the use of the Arab language. Development of a more clearly contoured Arab identity was actively discouraged for centuries, first by the Ottoman rulers, then by Western colonialism and finally by local despots keen on keeping their fat arses on the gilded thrones of arbitrarily-delineated fiefs. Since it gained autonomy — from the Ottomans and from the Western colonial powers — earlier than other Arab countries, Egypt boasts a more mature identity. (Geography and historic legacy also helped.)
If language remains a major identifier of ‘the Arab World’, it isn’t a very straightforward one. An Egyptian like Mr. Mansour will be, most likely, a speaker of the Egyptian (Masri) dialect. Should he want to have a conversation with a Palestinian or a Syrian (i.e. a speaker of the Levantine, a.k.a. Syrian or ‘Shami’ dialect of Arabic), they might understand each other, with some difficulty — perhaps like a Spaniard attempting to talk with a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian. If, however, he wanted to speak with a Moroccan (a speaker of the N. African — Maghrebi — dialect), he may experience a degree of difficulty similar to a German trying to communicate with a non-German speaking Dutch person. Assuming they are both educated people, Mr. Mansour and his Moroccan friend should be able to communicate better by using the literary or ‘Modern Standard’ Arabic — a language they would both have learned in school. MSA is often referred to as الفصحى (Al-Fusha or Eloquent Arabic); it is much closer to Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an.
Another Arab ‘identity glue’ is religion — Islam. But that’s also far from straightforward: there are Christian Arabs, too; there are plenty of non-Arab Muslims; and, as we know, there are several different Muslim denominations.
Not to mention that Arabs live in more than 20 different countries, each having (or trying to develop) its own national identity.
My point is that Arab identity is also very complex — which may have helped Mr. Mansour grasp the intricacies of Jewish identity.
Since it originated also in the Middle East, the Arabic tongue copes much better — in comparison with European languages — with dual or multi-faceted aspects of identity. There are, for instance, at least three different ways to convey the concept of ‘nation’ or ‘national’ in Arabic:
Qawm (قوم) comes from the word for ‘mother’ (umm). It refers to a relationship of mutual solidarity (identity) between people who are not necessarily bound to a particular geographic territory. It is to a certain extent (though not exactly) what we try to convey by saying ‘ethnicity’ in English. There is even a religious connection: a related word is Ummah (الأمة) — that’s what one calls the ‘nation’ of Islam, the global collectively of Muslims; the Islamic equivalent of ‘Christendom’, if you wish.
Watan (وطن), on the other hand, has a strong territorial meaning: it has to do with home or homeland.
And then there is balad (بلد), which also has a strong territorial dimension, but has to do with the place (country, area or perhaps village) a person was born in. Just to show how rich the Arabic language is, ‘balad’ is also translated in English as ‘homeland’.
So Arabs can say ‘nation’ or ‘national’ in three different ways and convey slightly different meanings, somewhat distinct, nuanced aspects of their identity. This may be particularly poignant for someone like Hussein Aboubakr Mansour: a US citizen born in Egypt. With two places that are ‘homeland’ — only in different ways — which would be ‘his own country’, I wonder? That’s, perhaps, why he gets Jews…
Among Westerners, there are at least as many anti-Arab racists as there are antisemites. But, with the exception of the far-right fringe, anti-Arab animus is much more rarely expressed in public. After all, the wokeocracy has already made up its collective, narrow mind that, ‘unlike Jews,’ Arabs are indeed an ‘ethnic minority’; they are ‘people of colour’ and therefore oppressed by definition.
So, look… it sounds counter-intuitive, I know; but perhaps what we need to do is this: let’s all petition the Beeb, so that next time those conceited, closed-minded, arrogant and Western-centric people ask what Jewishness is, they interview Hussein Aboubakr Mansour. He gets it! And, as an Arab, they’ll at least listen and feign respect for his opinion…