Shay Szabo
Israeli-Jew Peace Activist

My Ethnicity? Simply: I’m a Jew.

Shay Szabo holding the Israeli flag with the Western Wall in the background. Background image captured by Kasim Hafeez.
Shay Szabo holding the Israeli flag with the Western Wall in the background. Background image captured by Kasim Hafeez.

When someone asks me about my ethnicity, my response is straightforward: “I am a Jew.” A puzzled look often follows, revealing a gap in their understanding of my identity. I always have a follow-up line: “Being a Jew is an ethnicity.” I elaborate on how the Jewish ethnicity is established through shared distinct chromosomal markers, our indigenous language, literature, archeology, and collective culture. To reduce the Jewish identity to solely a religious designation is to overlook what defines a Jew. 

The term “ethnoreligion” is commonly used to explain the phenomenon of Jews being an ethnic group linked to a tribal practice called Judaism. Even if someone chooses not to follow the religious practices, they will still be a Jew. Notably, this layered identity is not exclusive to Jews. It applies to many other people like the Sikh in Northern India, Druze in the Levant, and even Native Americans in the United States, where their ethnicity and spiritual beliefs are tied.

The very term “Jew” stems from the word “Judean,” denoting our ethnic lineage from Judea, now modern-day Israel. When expelled by colonizing forces, we preserved our identity in the metaphorical “suitcase” of what we call Judaism…a suitcase packed with our culture, language, beliefs, and collective memory. Jews tightly carried this suitcase as we dispersed to Africa, Europe, and beyond. In these foreign lands, the Jewish experience was consistently marked by struggle rather than belonging. We were always seen as “outsiders.” We were never Germans, we were never Polish, we were never Iraqis, we never were Moroccans. We were Jews.

From the Roman exile (70 AD) through the Nazi regime, Jews have never been allowed to live with equality in the white European world…from the ghettoization and legal marginalization to the pogroms and the Holocaust. The inequality was a stark reminder of our non-European status, as Jews were constantly told to “return to Palestine,” a term that added insult to injury. Palestine was the name the Romans gave to Judea; renamed after one of the Jews’ most historical enemies, the Philistines, who were a Greek people unrelated to the Palestinian Arabs of today. 

The Dreyfus Affair serves as an apt example of how Jews were never fully accepted as Europeans, even when they believed they had assimilated. In late 19th-century France, Alfred Dreyfus (a Jewish officer serving in the French military) was wrongfully convicted in a trial steeped in antisemitism. This event exposed the deeply ingrained hatred toward Jews within European society. It demonstrated how quickly society could turn against its Jewish members, irrespective of Jewish loyalty or contributions.

The Jewish experience of being viewed as outsiders stretches far beyond Europe, touching communities like the Igbo, Beta, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews. In the SWANA region, Jews faced various forms of discrimination, including the onerous Jizyah tax and the relegation to second-class citizens (Dhimmis). What’s often forgotten is the expulsion of almost one million Jews from Arab lands from the 1920s to the 1970s; a traumatic exodus that stripped Jews of their belongings and homes. Forced to leave everything behind, Jews embarked on a journey spanning hundreds of miles on foot, returning to their true home in Israel.

Contrary to popular belief, Jews did not start randomly showing up in the British Mandate of Palestine as a result of the Holocaust. Jews have always maintained a presence in Israel despite the efforts of colonialism. This Jewish presence is validated by abundant archaeological evidence—from the ancient City of David to the Dead Sea Scroll. Jews have even made up the majority in Jerusalem in different centuries, as indicated by the Ottoman population census and other records.

Moreover, Jewish indigeneity is substantiated by science. Studies revealed that diaspora Jews are distinct from the populations of their host countries. The genetic composition of the Jewish diaspora reflects a predominant Levantine ancestry despite our geographical dispersion. The classification of Jews as “White” or European is a recent phenomenon that emerged only after the establishment of Israel. This is not a coincidence. Jews are intentionally mislabeled to unjustly discredit the Jewish indigenous right to self-determine in their ancestral land. This new antisemitic narrative attempts to shift the perception of Jews from a vulnerable group to one associated with power and privilege. 

The erroneous portrayal of privilege thrives despite Jews—who constitute merely 2% of the U.S. population—being the most targeted group for hate crimes in the U.S., per a 2021 FBI data report. In the 21st century, Jews are facing accusations of colonialism and oppression, ironically mirroring the injustices Jews, themselves, have faced. The fallacy of “Jews are Europeans on stolen land” perpetuates Jew hatred under the guise of activism. This makes denying the Jewish ethnicity not just inaccurate, but dangerous. 

This recent mislabeling of Jews is best highlighted between Latinos and Ashkenazi Jews in the Western world. According to a genetic study reported by, Latinos have been shown to carry an average of 65.1% European ancestry, yet, are commonly categorized as non-white. Despite Ashkenazi Jews having a generally lesser degree of direct European ancestry, they are not labeled as non-white in the same way Latinos are. Another example is the comparison to the Lebanese Arab population. Lebanese have an admixture of ethnicities and range in complexion, yet are not denied their Arab identity or right to reside in Lebanon. 

There is no such thing as a white Arab, yet the notion of a white Jew is prevalent. Jews are seemingly the only minority group intentionally miscategorized for a particular agenda. The dismissal of Jews as an ethnic group permits one to overlook that Israel is the most successful act of decolonization in history. The rebirth of Israel allows an indigenous group to govern themselves in a land where they no longer have to fear persecution. Jews no longer have to accept their fate being decided by others. It is an indigenous dream that even inspires other native groups, such as the Kurds and Tibetans, to also pursue their right to self-determination.

We must understand that acknowledging Jewish indigeneity to Israel does not dismiss the rights of other ethnic groups coexisting in the Levant: diversity is part of the beauty of Israel. Caring for the Palestinian people does not have to come at the cost of erasing Jewish history. Recognizing and respecting the Jewish ethnic identity is not just an act of tolerance but a commitment to humanity’s collective dignity and pursuit of truth.

As we reflect on the core of the Jewish identity, it becomes clear that the sharpest tool in the fight against Jew hatred is knowledge. So, if you are a Jewish person and you are asked, “What are you?” respond bravely: “I am a Jew,” and begin explaining the truth of our people.

About the Author
Shay Szabo, a dedicated Juris Doctor candidate, holds a bachelor's degree in Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. As an Israeli-Jew, she is passionate about combating Jew hatred and fostering unity in Arab-Jewish relations. Shay has been advocating for improved Israeli-Palestinian relations from a young age, earning the Princeton Prize for Race Relations Award in 2015. She actively fights against Jew hatred by creating educational content on social media (@judeanceo) and participating in academic panels. Shay's work reflects her deep-seated belief in the power of education and dialogue to bridge divides.
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