The geneticist, Harry Ostrer, in his latest book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, is very keen to present all of the genetic evidence that apparently demonstrates that we, the Jewish People, are a race. I’m not coming from a place of liberal discomfort with geneticists looking at our differences. Yes, there are Ashkenazi genes, Sephardi genes, Levitical genes, and so on. And, yes, looking at these genetics commonalities can be tremendously beneficial to our understanding of medicine and more. But, we, as a people, are not defined by our genes. We are not a race.
A race, whatever that notion really means, is certainly not something that can be joined. The Jewish people can be joined. We might have plenty of arguments among us as to what constitutes a valid conversion, but conversion is certainly possible. Ever since Abraham and Sarah’s legendary outreach program in which the residents of Charan were convinced to journey with them to Israel, almost every generation of the Jewish people has welcomed non-Jews into its midst. In fact, given any contemporary Jew, it is statistically inconceivable that there shouldn’t be a single convert anyway up their family tree. Admittedly, members of the tribe of Levi claim an unbroken patrilineal chain all the way back to Abraham; but there are bound to be converts on some of the maternal branches of their family tree. There is no such thing as a racially pure Jew. We are not a race.
The Oxford political philosopher, David Miller, has a fantastic study of Nationality, simply entitled “On Nationality.” He defines a nation in terms of five characteristics; none of these characteristics alone define a nation, but they are certainly jointly sufficient.
1) The members of a nation have to view each other as somehow connected, or even responsible for one another. The Jews have long expressed such feelings with their dictum that “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh; Every member of the Jewish people acts as surety for every other member.”
2) A nation has to view itself in terms of a collective history; as such, the nation will have a story, or a collection of competing stories, that it tells itself. For instance, “We were slaves in Egypt.”
3) A nation views itself as somehow active. Unlike a church, that might view itself as passively responding to the will of God, a nation views itself as a player in history. We certainly view ourselves as an active people; a people who overcome adversity; a people who made the Israeli desert bloom; a people who introduced monotheism to the world; a people who value education and contribute to the arts and sciences.
4) A nation is associated with a land that it aspires to rule over; even through our years of exile, we always yearned for our promised land.
5) A nation will have a distinct public culture, with subcultures too. And, of course, there is such a thing as a Jewish culture, often informed by religious Jewish texts, but not exclusively. We certainly have a religion (whether we believe in it and adhere to it, or not), but we are not a religion. Many of us might have similar genes, noses, and hair, but anyone can join us.
The notion that we are a race is destructive. If the Jews are a race, then Zionism is racism; the belief that our state should be there to serve a particular racial type. If the Jews are a race, then parents who don’t want their children to intermarry are racists, pure and simple.
Israeli society is in the middle of a long-running drama in which it is slowly coming to terms with the racism in its midst. Anti-black pogroms threaten to infect Tel Aviv and anti-Arab price-tags have seen mosques in flames. The Jewish people was given a mission to be a vehicle through which all of the nations of the earth would be blessed. The Jewish people were selected to be a light unto the nations. But, our thinking of ourselves in terms of racial categories is only set to inflame our latent xenophobia. It is little surprise, though it runs completely against the grain of our national reason d’etre, that the most recent peace index of the IDI has found a striking correlation between Jewish religiosity in Israel and the holding of racist beliefs.This has to be stamped out, and religious leaders from Rav Aaron Leibowitz, to Rabbi Yaakov Meidan are beginning to rise to this challenge.
The racism that I have witnessed among some religious Jews has been anything bus subtle. Among secular Jews, I have found a much more insidious form of racism, especially in the Diaspora. Do you want your children to have a decent Jewish education because you want them to be Jewishly literate? Is it that you want your sons and daughters to feel at home in the pages of the Talmud, qualified to view this fast changing world through the prism of Jewish tradition; qualified to play their unique role in bringing blessings to the entire world? Or, living in the Diaspora, do you send them to Jewish schools, first and foremost, because you do don’t really want your children fraternising with gentiles? Many of these schools won’t really equip their students with high-level Jewish literacy anyway.
Do you want your children to marry Jews because you want them to play their part in writing the continuing story of the Jewish people? Or, with very little pride in Judaism as a religion or a culture, do you want them to marry Jewish because you don’t want them to marry “goyish”? To think how far we have strayed from the right path, consider how hard is it for black converts to feel at home in a white Jewish community in the Diaspora or Israel. We will be a much greater light unto the nations when we finally realise that we are not a race.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.