There is no simple way to describe “Jewishness,” even among Jews. For better or worse, how others define us seems to be what really matters.
When Whoopi Goldberg commented that the Holocaust was “not about race” during the ABC television show, “The View,” she set off a firestorm of anger as her words went viral. Subsequently she was branded an antisemite and ABC suspended her from the show for two weeks so that she could reflect upon her words. Appearing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS later that day she attempted to explain her words by observing that both Nazis and Jews were white.
Hitler and Nazi Germany defined Jews as a race. They asserted a blood-based philosophy which viewed Jews as racially inferior, sub-human or Untermenschen, as opposed to their self-perception as being the “Master Race” or the Aryan Herrenvolk. They went to great lengths to scientifically “prove” that Aryans were physically and intellectually superior, that Jews posed a biological threat to pure Germans, possessed a hereditary, unpleasant odor and had distasteful physical characteristics.
Neo Nazis and White supremacists also see Jews as a race and adapted the basic Nazi doctrines. They also make it clear that they regard Jews as non-white. Contrary to what Whoopi and others may think, not everything is black and white. Even when Jews look white there are those who see us as “others.”
Goldberg also ignored, or was unaware, that many Jews do not appear white. For example, Jews from Cochin, India (also called “Malabar” Jews or Kochinim) are not white, nor are Ethiopian Jews. Yet, DNA testing has shown that despite differences in appearance, all Jews are “related.”
Two surveys, using genome surveying devices, published in 2010, found that Jewish communities from Europe (Ashkenazi) and Middle Eastern, central Asian and Caucasus (Sephardi) countries all share genetic ancestry that can be traced back to Israel. In fact, studies have shown that Jews are the genetic brothers and sisters of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese Arabs. (For the record, one study was conducted by Gil Atzmon of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Harry Ostrer of New York University and the other was the work of Doron M. Behar of the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa and Richard Villems of the University of Tartu in Estonia, publishing in the American Journal of Human Genetics and Nature respectively).
Whoopi Goldberg’s assertion that the Holocaust was “not about race” was wrong. Whether or not one can define Jews as a race, the Nazis singled us out for extermination based on racial grounds. Moreover, according to our genes and geographic origins we are Semites and not Caucasians, which is how white people are usually classified.
So how do you classify Judaism? In the western world, if not the entire world, it is regarded as a religion and by all appearances it is. However, Judaism predates western civilization and it does not fit as neatly into that designation as it seems. Is it also a race? That is an issue for another day.
What is clear is that regardless of how Jews see ourselves, the way others see or define us is the reality we must deal with.