“White people with a Jewish religion”

Jews identifying as members of a religious community is a relatively modern phenomenon of the last 250 years or so.  Until that time, Jews saw themselves as members of a distinct tribe with an identity, culture, and historical narrative separate from those of the world around them.  Only fairly recently did those Jews living in the West begin self-identifying as “white people with a Jewish religion.” This process was very much the result of the Enlightenment and the desire of individual Jews to integrate into European society, whatever the cost.

When Jews today self-identify as “white people with a Jewish religion,” what they are essentially stating (even if it is not what they personally feel) is that they are not really part of the Jewish people. They are essentially identifying as part of the European nations, along with their ethos, culture, history, narrative, and identity, with the only thing distinguishing them from their non-Jewish neighbors being some trivial differences in “religious faith.”  Jews seeing themselves as “white people” and classifying their national culture as a “religion” are two clear expressions of a break with our authentic historical self-definitions and represent the colonization Jewish identity has undergone in the last couple centuries.

In truth, the process of the “whitening” of Jews in America is not much different from the Greek Hellenization of Jewish identity we were just reminded of this past Hanukah. The idea that if you look a certain way, make a certain amount of money, or gain certain privileges, this somehow automatically classifies you as “white” for all intents and purposes (regardless of whether or not this coincides with your authentic identity) is actually a form of cultural imperialism.  A truly liberal society acknowledges that uniformity is undesirable and that the real goal must be unity through diversity, which can only come about when we accept and respect the fundamental differences among peoples.  A truly accepting society acknowledges that no one should be required to sell out his identity in order to fit in.

Similarly to the claim that “Jews are white,” the insistence upon classifying Jews as “members of a religion” negates the fact that for thousands of years we have self-identified as a people, and this too is a form of cultural imperialism.  Those who automatically classify Jews as a “religion” by default- simply because we are not a “race” fall into the trap of thinking through purely Western paradigms. In fact, religion and race are not the sole legitimate classifications for identity.  Such a notion negates non-Western identities as that of the Kurds, the Native Americans, and the Pashtuns, as well as that of the Jews. Each of these collectives self-identifies in a way that is different from what is acceptable in the West.  And each is entitled to its own unique form of self-definition.

Despite the common misconception, just as it makes no sense to speak of the spiritual inheritances of the aforementioned groups as “Pashtunianism” or “Native-Americanism” it also makes little sense to speak of our spiritual and cultural inheritances as a religion called “Judaism”. Indeed none of these three groups can rightly be called a religion or a race. They are, in fact, tribes – with rules, customs, traditions, languages, calendars, leaders, historic homelands and national narratives unique to them. And, yes, among these we also find powerful spiritual messages.  The only reason the term Judaism is acceptable while ‘Pashtuniansm’ or ‘Native-Americanism’ are not is due to the fact that our national culture was transformed into a “religion” by those who succumbed to the social realities in Europe that resulted in the colonization of Jewish identity roughly 200 years back.

As a side note, any silly notions implying Jews “lost their status” as Jews by absorbing “converts” or going through a process of genetic evolution also come from the projection of foreign Western categorizations on a people whose identity is indigenous to the Middle East.  In fact, what is often termed “conversion to Judaism” should rightly be termed “naturalization into the Jewish nation.” As all Semitic tribes, it was always natural for the foreigner to be accepted into the tribe. Those who joined our nation throughout the centuries caused their individual identities to be fused with our collective national identity. The idea that Jews today are no longer the same people despite the fact that accepting converts is part of the original identity, despite the fact that the larger portion of their ancestors are the Judeans of ancient times and despite the fact they have meticulously preserved the original culture of their ancestors, is similar to those who act as if the 4 million Native Americans living in America today are not actually the same people since their genetic makeup is no longer identical to that of their ancestors 500 years back.

Beyond this, there are those who would replace our authentic tribal identity with a colonized religious identity not only out of blind cultural imperialism but also as a political weapon. A religious community, unlike a people, is undeserving of a homeland or of national sovereignty. These forces have a political interest in promoting the view that we are simply a religion; they think that by doing so they can weaken our legitimate claim of rights to our ancestral homeland.

But the truth remains: Outside of the last 250 or so years – and even that only in certain Western countries – Jews never self-identified as anything other than a tribal collective, a people sometimes in its homeland, sometimes in exile. This is reflected in every piece of art, liturgy, poetry and literature we find among our nation throughout the ages. This is as true for the generation of the kings and prophets of the First Temple, as it was for the Jews of the Middle Ages. It is this self-identification that drove Jews such as Judah the Maccabee to revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire during the times of the Second Temple, for Jews like Benjamin of Tiberias to lead the Jewish revolt against the Byzantines in Jerusalem, and for the modern Zionists to fight a war to liberate our land from foreign British rule in contemporary times. Let’s proudly embrace our people’s authentic identity and stop trying to redefine who we are, and who our people have been for thousands of years, in order to live up to modern Western standards. 

About the Author
Hila Hershkovitz is an Israeli-born teacher of English and Tanach. She lived in California for five years and now lives in Israel.
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