For centuries, people were only Jewish if they met one of two conditions. Either they had Jewish mothers, or they had converted to Judaism.
In 1983, the Reform denomination of Judaism wisely added a third possible way a person can be Jewish: a person who received a Jewish upbringing and has a Jewish father is also Jewish. This change is controversial. The Orthodox rabbinate does not accept it.
Jews define Jewish identity differently than Americans define black identity. In America, the child of a black father is black. Barack Obama is black even though he was raised primarily by his white mother and her white family.
Jews in America are an ethnic group; blacks in America are a race. One can convert to Judaism and thereby become a Jew. But one cannot convert to blackness. It’s a different concept.
The “one-drop” rule from the Jim Crow era defined a black person as anyone who had any black ancestry at all. But US courts never applied the “one-drop” rule to Jews. Jews did not apply it to themselves. When Barry Goldwater, like Tom Steyer the Episcopalian son of a Jewish father, ran for president in 1964 few people referred to him as being a Jew.
But now even some of my fellow Jews have become confused about this matter. And so we get news stories in the Jewish press such as the following from the August 6, 2019 edition of the Forward:
Rep. Tom Emmer has been accused of anti-Semitism after he sent a letter to fellow Republican officeholders claiming that three Jewish Democratic billionaires had “bought control of Congress for the Democrats.”
The three putative Jews in the Forward’s story are George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. It is important to note that Rep. Emmer never identified any of the three men as Jews.
There is a major problem with the Forward’s phrasing of its lead. It is this: Tom Steyer is not Jewish. He is the churchgoing, believing Christian son of a Christian mother. He was not born Jewish. He was not raised Jewish. He has not converted to Judaism. He does not even refer to himself as being a Jew, although if he did he still would not be Jewish.
Referring to someone such as Tom Steyer as being Jewish leads to all kinds of contradictions. For instance, this kind of false definition of who is a Jew would mean that there were Jewish Nazis who went to jail for war crimes.
Nazi antisemitic legislation defined three classes of persons who were subject to persecution: Jews (three or more Jewish grandparents, or two Jewish grandparents and a Jewish spouse); Mischling of the first-degree (two Jewish grandparents); and Mischling of the second-degree (one Jewish grandparent).
Under Nazi Germany’s laws, persons with some recent partial Jewish ancestry, such as Tom Steyer has, could apply for a “German Blood Certificate”. That usually involved submitting false claims that their nominal Jewish ancestors were not their actual ancestors. Typically a family friend would claim that he had had an extramarital affair with the applicant’s mother or grandmother.
The Luftwaffe general Erhard Milch received a German Blood Certificate. Milch was a Nazi. He was convicted of war crimes during the Milch Trial held before a US military court in 1947 and received a life sentence, later commuted for political reasons. No rational person would claim that the Nazi war criminal Erhard Milch was a Jew simply because his father was.
If one wants to know whether Steyer is a Jew, it might help to ask him. Steyer describes himself as a religious Christian. An article about him by Joe Hagan in the March 2014 Men’s Journal states the following:
As he approached 40, however, Steyer had what he has described as a revelation. He became more involved in the local Episcopalian church, the religion of his mother (his father was a non-practicing Jew).
So for those who might still insist that Tom Steyer is a Jew, I would like to ask the following: is any practicing Christian with any Jewish ancestry or a Jewish name therefore a Jew? It may be that most white Christians have some Jewish ancestry if one goes back far enough.
And if Tom Steyer is Jewish, then where does one draw the line? Are Christians with one Jewish grandparent, a grandfather, also Jews? What about great-grandfathers? How far back are those who view Steyer as a Jew prepared to go?
And how is it that Jews, who lived among Christians in Europe for centuries, never knew that such persons were Jews? Isn’t that odd?
Jewish law says that one who was born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Jewish law, including Reform Jewish law, does not say that anyone who is born of a Jewish father is a Jew. The latter is a make-believe expansion of both Jewish law and secular custom. It is not a fact.
In order for Tom Steyer to be a Jew he would have to convert to Judaism. He has not done so, and in fact practices Christianity. So Steyer is not a Jew. I have nothing against him. He seems to be a great guy based on what I have read of him. He is simply one of billions of great guys who are not Jews.
Later on in that same Forward story which claims Steyer is a Jew, its author Aiden Pink has second thoughts. Pink writes:
Soros and Bloomberg are Jewish; Steyer has a Jewish father.
Why then does the Forward frame this story as that of a Republican congressman who out of all the Democratic billionaires in the world attacks three, all of whom are Jews? After all, an argument based on a false premise can result in a false conclusion.
The first reason for the false claim that Steyer is a Jew is all too common in American journalism today. The false claim is clickbait. Framing the story as an attack on three Jews instead of an attack on two Jews and a Christian enables the story’s headline: “5 Things To Know About The Top Republican Who Said Rich Jews Bought Congress”. Of course, Rep. Emmer said nothing of the sort. But the purpose of a newspaper headline these days is to get people to read the story. Its purpose is not to be accurate.
The second reason for claiming that Steyer is a Jew is ideological. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) actually is an antisemite. That embarrasses some leftists, who in most cases are reluctant to criticize her for it. I view that reluctance as unfortunate. For many leftists who still want Jewish support, it is far easier to try to change the subject to a Republican congressman who they can allege is antisemitic. In this case, they can gin up a story about how an attack on two Jews and a Christian in which Jews are nowhere mentioned is actually an attack on “rich Jews”.
It is not so unusual to be Jewish in America. It is not so unusual for a group of three people to include two Jews and a Christian. A criticism of such a group is not usually an attack on Jews. It was not in the case of Rep. Emmer. Pretending that Steyer is a Jew in order to claim that Emmer was attacking Jews is wrong. It will make Republicans less likely to lend credence to valid charges of antisemitism, since this one is false.
Tom Steyer is not a Jew. Stop saying that he is.