Nick Lieber

Judaism is not a religion

It is absolutely crucial that supporters of Israel understand, and be able to adequately explain, what it means to be Jewish and, therefore, what it means for Israel to be the Jewish state.

Some people will insist on distinguishing between the terms  “Judaism” and “Jewishness,” saying that Judaism by definition is purely a faith while Jewishness is more broad.  While that may be true according to Webster’s dictionary, in reality there’s no such distinction and I use the terms interchangeably.  The term I would use in Hebrew is יהדות, which is translated into English as Judaism, Jewishness, and Jewry.

Judaism is a mixture of religion, ethnicity, nationality, peoplehood, and culture. Judaism is ancient, and these words we use to try to define it aren’t really adequate.  Some Jews or Jewish communities may emphasize one aspect over another, but they’re still part of Judaism as long as the Jewish people as a whole accept them as such.

The best comparison I have for this is the Greek people. The Greeks are an ethnicity, a nation, and a people with strong attachments to a particular culture, religion, and even land. You can be an ethnic Greek and shun religion but you’re still part of the Greek people. Additionally, a person who’s not ethnically Greek can embrace the Greek Orthodox religion, marry a Greek spouse, and become accepted as part of the Greek people.

In the same way, it’s possible for a person to be born to Jewish parents, Jewish grandparents, Jewish great-grandparents, etc. etc. and be an atheist. That person is still a Jew, is still part of the Jewish people. It’s also possible to be born to Chinese parents, without a drop of Jewish blood in their veins, and become a Jew by embracing the Jewish religion and people.

It’s important to note that different groups of Jews have different specifications for who is a Jew.  Orthodox Jews, for example, hold that you’re only Jewish if you’re born to a Jewish mother or if you convert with orthodox rabbis and commit to upholding Jewish law.  The reform community, by contrast, accepts people as Jews even if they were born only to a Jewish father, and their conversions don’t require adherence to the law.  Still, for all groups, you’re either born Jewish or you convert by accepting the religion.

This is because Jews consider themselves the spiritual and physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since there are Jews of all different colors, it may seem strange to think that all Jews from all over the world are physically related. Remember that thousands of years ago, the Jewish people were exiled from their land and spread all over the world.  Since then, they have mixed to an extent with the local populations. Even so, Jews have always remained relatively separate from their non-Jewish neighbors and have continued to consider themselves a distinct people.

The Jewish people, along with the Greek people, the Polish people, the Turkish people, the Armenian people etc. deserve the right to sovereignty and self-determination. The modern nation-states of Israel, Greece, Poland, Turkey, and Armenia, respectively, are expressions of that right.

Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, yet it affords equal civil and political rights to all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion. The only rights given to Jews in Israel that aren’t given to minorities are national rights. Only the Jewish people have the right to sovereignty and national self-determination in the State of Israel.

This isn’t unique to Israel, and it applies to Jews abroad as well. To continue using Greece as an example, there are ethnic and cultural Albanians in Greece who are Greek citizens. They have all the same rights as everyone else, except the right to national self-determination. That right belongs to the Greek people. The Albanian people exercise their right to sovereignty in Albania.  There are also Jews in Greece who have full rights under Greek law and have the right to determine their future as individuals and as individual Jews but not as a Jewish nation.  That is done in Israel.

Some anti-Israel groups compile lists of Israeli laws that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens.  Many of them are misleading and inaccurate but usually when the information is correct, the laws in question merely preserve the national rights of the Jews.

The Israeli “Law of Return” for example gives Jews, and only Jews, the right to automatic citizenship in Israel.  Others can apply and do get citizenship, but it’s a different process.  All of the states mentioned above also have laws that allow members of their people to obtain citizenship faster or easier than others.

In general, self-determination occurs simply as a result of one people being a majority in a state.  Most nations don’t have to fight to preserve that right.  Israel probably fights more aggressively than other states do, but never forget that for thousands of years, the Jewish people were without the right to self-determination, had no ability to protect themselves, and were horribly persecuted almost everywhere they lived.  Especially in Europe but also throughout the Muslim Middle East.  Even today, there are still people trying to strip the Jews of the right to sovereignty.

The Jewish people deserve the right to self-determination, as embodied in the State of Israel, and aren’t prepared to give it up.

About the Author
With an eye toward advancing the two-state solution, the only solution that would grant both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples their right to self-determination and secure Israel's existence as a Jewish and democratic state, Nick is working to build connections between Israel and the Arab World.