Are Jews a people, religion, or ethnic group?

Are Jews a people, religion, race, or ethnic group?

Jews are an ethnic-religious tribal nation, with a shared religion, language, history, and homeland. The Jewish people are indigenous to  אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

Historically, the Jewish people have always understood themselves as a distinct “nation” or “people.” What does this mean? The Hebrew word for nation/people is ‘am, עַם.

We see this word in many places in the Bible. For example Ezra 7:13 says “that any of the people of Israel,” בְּמַלְכוּתִי֩ מִן־ עַמָּ֨ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל וְכָהֲנ֣וֹהי.

Am is the Jewish conception of who we are as a religious and secular polity. It could be translated as “nation” – but many people misunderstand this word because they use “nation” only for the modern idea of the nation-state. For example – Americans are citizens of the nation of America, Italians are citizens of the nation of Italy, etc.

Thus if one only knew the modern definition of the word then one would misunderstood what Jewish people traditionally have meant by “nation/’am”.

But that’s not what the word means – here’s an analogy: Native Americans are members of Native American nations (or tribes.) Each Native American nation has its own rules for membership, beliefs, customs, traditions, and holidays. Native Americans are their own “nations.” When a Native American says that they are Navajo, Sioux, Pueblo, or Mashpee Wampanoag, are they implying that they aren’t citizens of the United States? Not at all. Of course they are citizens of America. But they also a member in a special way of that specific tribal nation/group.

The same is true for Jewish people. Jews who lived in Russia, France, Algeria, or Iraq, were a tribal nation/people in diaspora. Jews are citizens of the nation they are born in, and are also part of the Jewish ethnic-national-religious group.

Are Jews defined by only religion? No. But Jews always been unified by common religious beliefs. All Jewish communities have the same rules on this – if a Jewish person rejects the Jewish faith and joins another religion then they and their descendants aren’t members of the Jewish community anymore.

An exception is if they or their descendants reject other faiths and want to rejoin the Jewish faith and people. In that case there are ways this can be done. See The Status of “Messianic Jews” by Kassel Abelson and Reuven Hammer.

It would be incorrect to say that Jews are only a religion. If that were so then someone who read a book about Judaism, and chose to believe in the Jewish faith, would then be a Jew. This concept is anathema to the Jewish people.

Consider: If one reads about and then believes in the ideas of Native American or African tribe, one doesn’t become Native American or African. Similarly, one can’t “identify” as a Jew. One either is a Jew, according to the traditions of the Jewish people, or one isn’t.

Isaac de Castro writes

Judaism is a religion, actually. It is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, who are an ethno-religious group. Saying that Judaism is not a religion or dismissing the religious component of Jewishness (pretty big one, if you ask me!) is untrue.

Religion is not a secondary or discardable component of Jewishness. It’s the central one, and it is what has kept Jews as, well, Jews. On a personal level, can Jews decide they don’t connect to religion and remain Jewish? Sure. But communally, absolutely not. It’s unsustainable.

and

What would have allowed Jews to remain an ethnicity, after being exiled, without religion? Judaism is an ethno-religion, meaning ethnicity and religion are codependent. One doesn’t exist without the other. What has maintained Jews as Jews is a communal commitment to Torah. Without it, Jews would have assimilated into the societies that hosted them thousands of years ago.

What about people who convert to Judaism? Are they just as Jewish as people born Jewish? Judaism’s indigenous rules do allow a non-Jewish person to join our people/tribe. They may choose to undergo giyur גיור (loosely but poorly translated as “conversion”); this is a process in which one is legally adopted into the Jewish tribe.

Does this change the ethnic-historical component of the Jewish people? No. Once someone converts into Judaism, if they marry then they are expected to marry another Jewish person. If they have children they raise their children as Jewish. Those children later marry other Jewish people. The community is thus as cohesive as any other ethnic group or tribe.

Are Jews a race? In colloquial use, a ‘race’ is a very large group made of many smaller ethnic groups. By this definition Jewish people aren’t a race. But Jews are an ethnic group – Jews are the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In a forced diaspora, many Jewish families were exiled from Israel, and went east to regions we today call Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. They later became known as Mizrahi Jews.

Other Jewish refugees made their way through the Caucasus, to Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and Great Britain.

The Jews of Eastern and Central Europe later became known as Ashkenazi Jews.

The Jews of the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) became known as Sephardim.

Many Jews were exiled to northern Africa, known as the Maghreb. They are sometimes known as Sephardic Jews of North Africa, or Maghrebi Jews.

All of these ethnic groups maintained their distinct heritage, all are part of Klal Yisrael.

References

On Jewish Identity and the Question of Nationhood, Isaac Choua & Raḥmiel ‘Ezra Travitz

Who are the Jews? Rabbi Stuart Federow, 12/11/2019

Who Is a Jew?, Tzvi Freeman, Chabad,

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