What is a Jew?

Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews – alongside other students of race, color or national origin – on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling)? And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? How so? What are Jews, exactly?

Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none fit all Jews, so what is going on? Even Jews debate it all the time.

Jewish identity is defined by a document, a contract that defines membership in the gang. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. It’s a simple deal: follow the clauses of this contract and you will get to live in the nation called Israel, after your forefather Jacob, who was re-named Israel. Break the contract, and you are still beholden to it but your punishment is you will lose Israel.

A Jew is someone who is party to this contract. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that the Hebrew Bible originates from a Divine author and is a contract between a certain people and God explains why Jews behaved in a way that enabled them to survive when all the other kingdoms have faded. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds (even as it singles them out for persecution, which is also beyond all rational explanation). The fact that this deal doesn’t fit any of the usual categories – race, nation, ethnicity, language – may also explain why Trump’s move is at the same time both so fulfilling and troubling, even dangerous. On one hand, Jews surely deserve protections against discrimination like other people who are singled out because they belong to a general class. On the other, because it doesn’t define exactly which category the Jews fit, it begs the premise on which the protection is founded.

But here are the rules of the contract that makes a Jew a Jew:

  • You don’t get to sign the contract at birth. If your parents signed the contract, you are a Jew. It’s your birthright. Technically, only your mother has to have signed the contract. Even more technically, your parents could have signed it with their DNA if someone in their matrilineal line had signed up.
  • Whether or not you want to live up to your end of the deal or how much you do is all on you. But you’re still a Jew no matter what. Most Jews sort of know there’s a contract tucked away up there in the attic. Most have never read it cover to cover. Others build their lives around it intensely, reading it and doing what you do with a contract, which is trying to fulfill it. Still others may have completely forgotten about the contractSome don’t want to be part of the contract at all and walk away from it. Many were never given the chance to read it. Others are unable to appreciate it if they do.  Some are even actively hostile to it .All these Jews, except the few technical heretics who renounce the contract, are still Jews. It’s written in their DNA either because it can be traced back to Jacob (Israel) or someone along their ancestral line signed on (see below).
  • There isn’t a Jew who perfectly fulfills his or her end of the Torah’s bargain. Some fall very, very short. A few may have entirely lost the knowledge that there is a contract. However, history shows that the descendants of Jews who don’t claim their inheritance more than likely will not be Jews within a few generations. We know it in our bones, even if we want to deny history. The 2013 Pew Study proved it again for our generation:

 “Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.”

  • At the same time, the Jew club is open. If you’re not born into it, you can become a full-on Jew by showing to the keepers of the contract that you’ve read, understand, and signed the contract. It doesn’t make a difference what your ethnic, racial, national or religious heritage was. As a side benefit, if you choose Judaism, you will probably know a lot more about it than most born Jews.
  • The “nationality” of the Jew is indeed a part, but not all, of the contract. The contract promises a physical tract of land, the “nation” called Israel. Call it Zionism 0.0. A lot of the Torah is the constitution of that nation, a utopian document detailing the laws governing how to behave as citizens in a society where everyone is responsible for everyone else. As in most of Jewish history, even when Jews don’t own the land of Israel as their Jewish nation, or Jews live outside it, the constitution governs their behavior, giving Jews a “national” identity. Many but not all of the laws – the “mitzvot” or clauses of the contract – that constitute Jewish religion stem from these laws of how Jews are supposed to treat themselves, their families, each other, and the strangers who live among them.

This is why Jews cry that anti-Zionism is often antiSemitism. When you tear down the idea of the Jewish State, when you try to erase the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, you are demolishing the essence of Jewish identity. You are trying to destroy Jews. This is not withstanding all the realities on the ground: You can criticize the current State of Israel heartily and with justice; the constitution of Israel the current state is not the Torah. Many individual Jews aren’t Zionists. Many Israelis are not Zionists. Some Jews, over-achieving in this arena as in so many others, are ardent, articulate, charismatic and persuasive leaders of anti-Zionism. They reject the equation between being a Jew and being pro-Israel. They fight against it actively in the BDS movement, or furtively by proposing ways to re-structure the state so the Jewish claim on it is nullified. But when critiques of Israel single it out for special condemnation or critique because it is a Jewish State, they are seeking the fundamental and existential erasure of what it is to be a Jew and they attack the essential identity of Jews everywhere. 

  • Finally, even if you don’t believe that God is the Party of the First Part, what has kept the Jews going is trying to understand how to apply and fulfill a contract as if it has divine and absolute authority. Call it the ultimate constitutional strict constructionism, or maybe originalism. That’s why Jews are forever arguing over how to apply that contract in our world and our times.

As the joke goes, “That’s the tradition!” The arguing. But even a good argument means you and I agree on the fundamental assumptions.  As the above suggests, Jews are a nation. Like the Title IX class called “national origin,” even if members have renounced their citizenship as say, Guatemalans or Pakistanis, they are still protected. An atheistic Jew who originated as a Jew but renounces Judaism deserves protection. But the terms of that citizenship are different in a way Jew and non-Jew should recognize: unless they go to extreme and technical measures involving true heresy, Jews can’t give up their passport.


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