In our world today, riven as it is by political conflict for a myriad of reasons, we are continually faced with endless questions regarding the identities of various population groups, national or otherwise. One such distinctive populace at the centre of world affairs, due to the unfortunate situation in Palestine, are the Jews.
Growing up in Ireland, I was aware of the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and the horrific attempts that were made to completely exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. I later learned of the persecution of this people throughout the centuries.
As I matured, I developed a wary approach to speaking the word, Jew. I noticed that then, and now, many others in society were extremely cautious about discussing world Jewry or using such terms. It may be that, as in my case, individuals are afraid of upsetting anyone, and fear employing such terms as Jew, Jewry and Jewish, as they may carry a perceived tenderness that could cause Gentiles (non-Jews) to inadvertently offend a Jewish person.
Such is the power of the imagery from the death-camps of the Holocaust, that many citizens who would otherwise have a healthy curiosity towards the Jewish people, as they might hold for Mormons for example, shy away from all topics related to Judaism. This reluctance is compounded by virulent rhetoric emanating from Israel and its supporters. Insults such as ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘Holocaust denier’ are levelled willy-nilly at many who take an interest in Judaism. This has the unfortunate effect of intimidating Gentiles away from any examination of Judaism and/or the Jewish identity.
Judaism is defined in the Oxford English dictionary thus: 1- the religion of the Jews, based on the Old Testament and the Talmud. 2- Jews as a group.
In the same publication, a Jew is described as: a member of the people whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins to the ancient Hebrew people of Israel.
Yet questions are often asked and argued. Are the Jews a single population group? And what exactly defines a Jew?
If we were to examine the different components that, in the main, are used to define a Jewish identity, perhaps we might better understand the Jewish people in their entirety. For the purpose of such an analysis, four strands would appear to present as the fundamentals of the Jewish identity. These are;
- A combination of two or more of the previous strands.
Ethnicity – It is widely understood and accepted that the first Jewish people were a Semitic tribe living in the general area of ancient Canaan. These antecedent Jews were a pagan group worshipping a rich and diverse pantheon that included the sometimes supreme/ sometimes minor deity, El (dependent upon your region and particular faith). El, in ancient Hebrew, means god or divine presence, and said presence became elevated to that of primary import in the pagan beliefs of the Jewish tribe at that time. Eventually, said tribe embraced monotheism, and El assumed an unassailable role as the supreme and singular deity.
The Jewish tribe were – and in many instances are – closely related to all other Semitic peoples in the region, but became separated by virtue of their unique religious beliefs. In this, the first Jews were not unusual, as many (perhaps all) population groups have taken the same path. Both Christianity and Islam were founded along similar lines.
Over centuries, the Jewish tribe expanded and migrated, sometimes voluntarily, as when drought afflicted Canaan, and sometimes forced, as when the Romans expelled them in punishment for their failed rebellion during the Great Revolt of 66 CE. Many of these ethnic Jews made their way across north Africa, and from there into Spain and Portugal with the arrival of the Moors to the region. These Jewish Semites are today known as Sephardic, and they form a minority of the people collectively known as the Jews. They are closely linked to the Arabic peoples in terms of their genetic inheritance.
The second and much larger group within world Jewry is that of the Ashkenazim. Much debate still rages around the origins of Ashkenazic Jews. One explanation widely given, is that the Ashkenazim descended from a Caucasian tribe known as the Khazars, who resided on the eastern edges of Europe.
The story goes; in the 8th century CE, the Khazar elite decided to adopt a monotheistic religion for their people. The three main one-god faiths sent representatives to the Khazars so that a religion might be selected. The Khazars chose Judaism. Their reasoning was, that selection of either Christianity or Islam would upset the other not chosen, as both were incredibly strong. The Khazars were therefore said to have selected Judaism as it was more politically expedient and less likely to be viewed as a threat to either of the other two larger faiths.
The ‘new’ Jews of the Khazars were then forced to migrate sometime in the 13th century, due to pressures from the Mongols who were rampaging across the Steppes. The Khazars settled in eastern Russia and Poland where they eventually became known as Ashkenazic Jews.
Of course, such a suggestion as that just related, regarding the origins of the Ashkenazim, is controversial. If true, it would seem to state that the Ashkenazi are not Semites, but are instead Gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith. If we consider the physical characteristics of many of the Ashkenazim of today, we can certainly observe genetic indicators that would suggest the lack of a stereotypical Middle Eastern heritage consisting of dark complexions and hair colour. This could be due to the lengthy period of time that the group spent in Europe, resulting in a greater incidence of intermarriage with those of a lighter racial background. It could also be due to a non-Middle Eastern ancestry.
There are others who now propose that this separate branch of the Jewish world instead descended from Persian Jews who converted Turks, Greeks and Romans, as they moved along the ancient Silk Route. Such proponents suggest that Yiddish is actually a Slavic language with Iranian and Turkish influences, as opposed to the long-held belief that it has Germanic origins. If Yiddish is indeed Slavic, then it could add credibility to the Khazar theory, as the Slavic peoples entered Europe from the same direction. Additionally, and just to add greater confusion, the Khazars were said to be Turks, who would therefore have been of similar colouration to the Semites. It’s a conflicting picture. In any event, only independent and in-depth DNA investigations will suffice in reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
What can be stated with confidence, though, is that only those Jews with a proven Semitic lineage can be said to be ethnically Jewish.
Religion – Judaism is a faith. It has unique and specific ceremonies and rituals. The religious Jewish identity does not depend upon blood-lines. Anyone can convert to the Jewish faith if certain criteria are met. This means that, theoretically at least, all Gentiles are eligible for membership of the Jewish faith. The same applies, of course, to both Christianity and Islam. Religious Jews may, therefore, not be Semites. It is a common misconception among Gentiles that this is not the case but, as stated, being of the Jewish faith is not a determinate of ethnicity.
A factor that plays a strong role in modern Jewish identity is that of secularism, and its close associate, atheism. Today, a sizeable percentage of the population of Israel are secular. Many are atheists. If, for the sake of argument, some of these individuals are descended from those who converted to Judaism, as opposed to those of the Sephardic line, then they can claim neither an ethnic Jewish identity, nor a religious one. So is there another aspect to the greater Jewish identity that such persons might lay claim to, thereby allaying accusations that they are not really Jewish at all?
Culture – Jewish culture is not a single entity. Although strongly associated with the faith, the wider cultural aspects might include language, food and certain other cultural values.
As the Ashkenazim dominate world Jewry, it is understandable that their cultural features are to the fore. Thus, we are familiar with the aforementioned Yiddish language of northern, central and eastern Europe. We read of tales such as that of the Golems of both Chelm and Prague. Ashkenazi cooking includes lots of potatoes, bread, pastries, noodles, meat, honey, and pickled foods. We know of bagels, lox, matzah ball soup, gefilte fish and chopped liver.
On the other hand, those of the Sephardic world would be unfamiliar with these delicacies, and would not consider them to be a part of their culture. The Sephardic would instead dine upon Filo (phyllo) dough pastry with cheese or spinach fillings, and bourekas. They would use fresh vegetables, fish, fruits, spices and olive oil in their cooking, with shakshuka and hummus in their dishes. Sephardic Jews, of old, would likely have had little experience with a dreidel.
It would seem plausible, therefore, that a Jewish person who is not Semitic, and who has abandoned the faith that their ancestors converted to, might still be described as Jewish if they continue to embrace one of the two flavours of Jewish culture.
A combination of two or more of the previous aspects – If the three previous strands within the Jewish identity are, individually, indicators of a characteristic within said identity, then a combination of any or all of those three would surely serve to broaden and strengthen the Jewish identity of an individual.
This gives rise to the instance whereby a person might be both ethnically and culturally but not religiously Jewish if, for example, that individual has converted to a different faith (or none), but is of Semitic lineage and still embraces their Jewish culture. We could then have a Jewish Catholic, or indeed a Jewish Muslim, as implausible as that might seem.
Yet those who can claim all three strands can be said to be (if such a superlative can be applied) the most unquestionably Jewish.
Finally – from the previous piece we can see that the one inescapable fact emerging, from even a cursory glance at the Jewish people of history and the world, is that one size does not fit all. There are many different aspects to what can be described as the Jewish identity. Sephardic Jewry differs from that of the Ashkenazim; secular from religious; Israeli from north American and European.
Judaism, in whatever form it presents, is an identity that both fascinates and excites. It is an identity worthy of paying attention to. We can but hope that such analysis might serve to make we Gentiles more comfortable, with not only using the terms associated with such a misunderstood population group, but also in encouraging non-Jews to better understand the lingering pain suffered by a much maligned and often persecuted people.
Such an understanding of the various strands of Judaism would go some way to uncovering the truths that lies hidden beneath fear, anger, resentment and propaganda. Such truths should be embraced.
And what of those individuals who are not Semites, yet are atheist and have no interest or truck with Jewish culture; are they Jewish simply because they say they are?
Perhaps that’s a question best answered another day.