What 'Jews a Race' Debate Means for Israel

Zionism Is Independent of 2,000-Year-Old Genetic Link

rita rubin

By Jarrod Tanny

Published May 20, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.