Anti-Semitism & Defining Jewish Identity


Are Jews a people group or a religious group? One’s definition of what it means to be a Jew determines the definition of antisemitism.

Judaism as a Religion

There are many Orthodox Jews, Rabbis included, that argue that only Orthodox Jews are Jewish. As a result, Judaism is defined solely as a religion. Despite this, however, there are still cultural definitions of Jewish lineage. To be Jewish, one’s mother must be an Orthodox Jew. Conservative and Reform Jews are not considered Jewish by Orthodox standards, and neither are secular Jews. In fact, it is cited that there is a Halacha (Jewish religious law) that if a woman is Jewish but converts to another religion (say, Christianity), she loses her “Jewishness” and would have to undergo a conversion process in order to return to Judaism. This essentially limits Jews to only be Orthodox Jews, and therefore Jews to only be a religious group.

Treacherous Waters

What is antisemitism? As a complete term, antisemitism (or anti-Semitism) is hostility or actions against Jews. Under this definition, in light to the religious perspective, antisemitism would therefore only be hostility against Orthodox Jews. This is problematic in multiple regards. First, antisemitic actions have been taken out on all types of individuals associated to Judaism, including secular Jews. Second, if antisemitism only applies to a religious group, then is it really a hate crime? In order for antisemitism to be a real threat to the Jewish people, the Jewish people must be more than a religious group.

To have a negative opinion of a religious group is not new. There are many who hate Westboro Baptist Church but that has not been labeled a hate crime. The Evangelical Christian stance against Latter Day Saints and Jehovah Witnesses has not been labeled a hate crime. The Protestant Christian stance against the Roman Orthodox Church has not been labeled a hate crime. Religious intolerance to another religion has not been historically considered a hate crime. Correction – religious intolerance to another religious group, with the exception of Jews and Muslims, has not historically been treated as a hate crime. In fact, antisemitism and Islamophobia both are regarding groups that have a religious connotation as well as a ethnic/cultural people group.

If antisemitism is broken down into prefix, root, and suffix, the term is limited to a people group and not a religious group:

  • Anti: to be against.
  • Semite: a member of the people who speak the Semitic language (both Jews and Arabs) or those from Shem, son of Noah (traditional lineage of the Jewish people).
  • Ism: practice, movement, or philosophy.

Based on breaking down the components of the term antisemitism, the word origin seems to indicate that it does not apply to a religious group, but rather a people group. It would seem appropriate, then, to state that antisemitism does not exist in regard to a religious group but rather a people group.

Judaism as a People

Or more precisely, Jewish in relation to an ethnic people group. While it is clear there is a religion identified as Judaism, there are many who, despite observance or non observance to Judaism, claim to be Jewish. In fact, the Law of Return established by Israel in 1948 states that anyone who has a Jewish grandparent is eligible to make Aliyah (move to Israel with immediate Israeli citizenship). What is fascinating, however, is that despite this reliance on an ancestral relationship, Aliyah is also available to those who convert with a qualified Orthodox Jewish Beis Din (Jewish religious court). This is a marriage of religious and cultural perception. Further, in Israel, there is no distinction between being a Jew and being an Israeli, at least according to the Israelis interviewed in Jerusalem during my pluralistic Birthright trip. Thus, all Jews are Israelis, which gives a nationalistic sense but also marries to the concept of Israel being the national home of the Jewish people.

An Alternative Perspective

Judaism as a religion severely limits the conversation and discredits efforts against antisemitism. Judaism as a ethno-cultural people group validates efforts against hate crimes and supports those who identify as Jewish, especially non-religious Israelis (which are no doubt Jews according to not only their own self-identification but also the governmental authority). Yet, despite this dichotomy, there exists both a religious group that identifies as Jewish (not just Orthodox Jews but also non, and un, Orthodox Jews) as well as a ethno-cultural people that identify as Jewish.

This requires a different definition to consider. A holistic concept of Jewish identity permits both religious adherents as well as ethno-cultural participants. Thus, Jewish identity, from a holistic view, can be both religious as well as ethnic and/or cultural, either at the same time or independent from one another. One can be Jewish yet not be considered “halachically” Jewish (such as one who is Jewish from their father’s side and has not completed their own conversion process or one who does not subscribe to Orthodox belief and praxis) and one can be halachically Jewish yet not be ethnically or culturally Jewish (such as a convert with no prior Jewish ties or one whose mother is Jewish but grew up with no Jewish identity, religious or otherwise).

Concluding Remarks

Taking this holistic perspective – that one is Jewish by ethno-cultural connection or by conversion, is the same judgement as the State of Israel. So what is different? The holistic perspective views Jewish connection, or yiddishkeit, as not something that is lost or limited only to the female line, but rather something that stays with the person, much like a genetic marker or family heirloom. A holistic perspective considers the male lineage just as valid, even if not halachically so (after all, genetically the individual still is Jewish and Ashkenazi Jews have a traceable genetic marker). A holistic perspective also recognizes that an ethnic Jew’s status would not be lost by the choice to go secular or convert to another religion. This last statement is more problematic for traditional and conservative opinions and can be challenging when facing the issue of Messianic Judaism.