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

(page 2 of 3)

To put it simply, the questions “Who are the Jews?” and “What does it mean to be Jewish?” are modern conundrums; they had little meaning before the Enlightenment, because nobody asked whether the Jews were a nation, a race or a community of faith. The inclusion or exclusion of the Jews in feudal Europe was not contingent on this.

Moreover, the Jewish communities of Europe did not question whether they were a nation, a race or a religion. They were all of these things and none of these things; they were the Chosen People in Exile whose identity was built upon theology, ritual and a narrative of common descent.

Until the the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, Ashkenazi Jews did not, and had no reason to, separate religion, nationality, ethnicity and race, for they had no bearing on their present and there was no reason to think that such concepts would have profound implications in the future.

But the implications did become profound, because ethnic nationalism became the order of the day during the 19th century. “All nations have the right to self-determination” is rooted in the concept of kinship and common descent; “We were here first” became the battle cry of those seeking a state, and continues to be the mantra of those denied one. It is the primary rhetorical device through which Palestinians have demanded Palestine, much as the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars deployed it to violently dismember Yugoslavia two decades ago.

The genetic origins of the Jewish people have no relevance as to whether Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, even if the Jews can no longer say, “We were here first.”

For it is undeniable that throughout the 2,000 years of galut, or exile, world Jewry articulated a theological and genealogical connection to Eretz Yisrael. But more important, a Jewish state became necessary because of the pseudo-scientific racialization of the Jews in the 20th century, which rhetorically and politically transformed 9 million Europeans into a stateless Semitic race, unwelcome on the continent and slated for elimination.

The Wandering Jews of medieval Europe may have suffered severe persecution as the killers of Christ, but in the 20th century, “exile” took on a far more sinister meaning, as it rendered the Jews into a deracinated people who allegedly (and one might say genetically) lacked loyalty to European blood and soil.


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!
  • 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.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • 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.