On December 11, President Trump held a Chanukah party at the White House where he signed an executive order combatting anti-Semitism. The New York Times reported that the order defines America’s Jews as sharing a national origin. It doesn’t. So what is a Jew?
The order relates to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on, among other things, national origin. But the order targets not discrimination against Jews but those who call for the delegitimization or destruction of Israel. It also states that federal agencies “shall not diminish or infringe upon any right protected under Federal law or under the First Amendment.” Confusing.
There should be no confusion that Jews are not defined by country of national origin. Many American Jews were born overseas. Most were born in the U.S.A. So what is a Jew?
To many Christians, a Jew is an adherent of the Jewish religion. But Judaism defines only part of the Jewish world. Most American Jews maintain no synagogue affiliation yet still identify as Jews.
Jews are a people. We’re joined not only by religion but any combination of secular factors such as family descent; shared history; use—even limited—of Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or Jewish Arabic; Israel; humor; education and attitudes; and to no small extent food.
Jews do not constitute a race. For over 2,000 years, Judaism identified anyone born of a Jewish mother as a Jew. Four decades ago, the Reform movement accorded Jewish identity to children of non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers if the children received a Jewish education. In either case, the “other” parent can be of any ethnicity.
Sadly, genetics have doomed non-Jews. Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws defined a Jew as anyone with one Jewish grandparent. Many “Jewish” Holocaust victims were Catholics or Protestants. In response, Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent to reside in the country, although he or she may not be considered Jewish by government-sanctioned religious authorities.
More reason to abandon the racial hypothesis: Anyone may convert to Judaism. At the recent Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs pointed out, “Between 10 and 20 percent of North American Jews are Jews of Color.” Many are born-Jewish children and grandchildren of converts.
Anti-Semites, alas, will keep hating Jews, even if they have no idea what a Jew is, believes or stands for. Sadly, the White House again offered anti-Semites a measure of support.
When the president signed his executive order, guests included the evangelical Christian leader Robert Jeffress. An ardent supporter of Israel, Jeffress, like many evangelicals, believes that only when all Jews go to the Holy Land will Jesus return. Jews then can accept Jesus or go to hell. As Jeffress said in 2010, “You can’t be saved by being a Jew.”
I wonder how the president’s daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared and grandchildren take the news that they can’t go to heaven.
Here on earth, Jeffress’ and other pastors’ statements, made in the name of theology and thus supposedly above reproach, create an image of Jews as “less than.” As Chanukah nears, they not only fail to light a candle in the darkness, they add fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism the president claims he wants to put out.
Happy Chanukah, Marry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa—Peace!
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