The persistent debate over the “racial” origins of the Jewish people makes a mockery of scholarship, trivializes history and perpetuates conceptions of identity that have been misused to justify everything from violent repression to affirmative action.
It is hardly surprising that Johns Hopkins’s Eran Elhaik “stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy,” as the Forward recently put it, with his genetic study alleging the Khazar origins of the Jewish people — for, as readers undoubtedly know, deracinating Jewish DNA from ancient Israel undermines the legitimacy of the modern Jewish state.
If nationalism is based on the premise of “We were here first” and “we Jews” were not here first, then the land is not “ours,” and Zionism is little more than an instance of European colonialism.
But of no less significance is the second layer to this controversy, which involves the debate over whether the Jewish people constitute a race or a religion. Many people, particularly in the West, recoil at the suggestion that the Jews constitute a race or even an ethnicity.
After all, the racialization of the Jews fueled Hitler’s campaign for Aryan purification and paved the way to the Holocaust. It was the Holocaust that rendered the concept of a Jewish race repellent in respectable circles, and in the United States, where race and ethnicity continue to be accepted instruments of classification, the Jews are accorded the status of neither; they are white — according to the census and according to affirmative action practices.
But our current understanding of race, ethnicity, nationality and religion and the way we use these ideas did not emerge until the 18th-century Enlightenment. The ideas were politically mobilized during the American and French revolutions, and later refined through European colonialism and the global wars of the 20th century.
It is not that these concepts were invented, but scientists, philosophers, and politicians have deployed them as rigid categories to define people, to bestow upon them certain rights and to reconstruct history through an anachronistic conceptual lens.