The Jewish People: Race, Ethnic Group, or Religion?

For years there has been an on-and-off, unofficial debate among Jewish and non-Jewish scholars as well as lay people on whether or not Jews constituted a race, ethnic group, or are just a group of people living all over the world in different cultures, united only by a common religion.  Let's examine, if only superficially, what these concepts are.

Here below are a few definitions of race :
1. A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics. 
2. A group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the German race.

3. A genealogical line; a lineage.

4. Humans considered as a group.
 Okay, so what is an ethnic group? Here's a definition, with "Hebrews" or "Israelites" as one example:
Noun1.ethnic group - people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive cultureethnic group - people of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture

Noun1.Hebrews - the ethnic group claiming descent from Abraham and Isaac (especially from Isaac's son Jacob)Hebrews - the ethnic group claiming descent from Abraham and Isaac (especially from Isaac's son Jacob); the nation whom God chose to receive his revelation and with whom God chose to make a covenant (Exodus 1)
Very well and good.  So what is religion? Here's a definition:
 a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

Let's see how the Jews fit into these definitions.  First, let's start with Religion. For certain, Judaism is a religion.  It is a comprehensive monotheistic belief system with a set of laws (613 to be exact) and customs that are extrapolated from the Torah--an all-encompassing word meaning a "teaching"--which can include the Five Books of Moses (the Written Law) or also, in its broader meaning, the Talmud (the Oral Law).

So how is one a Jew, or how does one become a Jew? Judaism goes by matrilineal descent: if your mother is a Jew, than you are.  Also, one can convert to Judaism, and is then considered Jewish (Reform Jews consider the father and how the child was raised; Orthodoxy only considers the mother's religion.  How the child is or was raised is immaterial).  A Jew can call him or herself an 'atheist,' and not 'believe' in any of the Jewish tenets: One G-d, Divine Commandments including kashrut (keeping kosher) and keeping Shabbat (the 7th day of the week, the Jewish holy day of rest), but if he or she is of matrilineal descent, s/he is a Jew by birth, no matter what s/he does or how s/he conducts him or herself.

In other words, once a Jew, that's it, baby.  You can live your life as a Buddhist and consider yourself nothing but.  According to Jewish law, however, you're still Jewish.  Even a BuJew (or JewBu)--if he has a Jewish mother--is still by Jewish law, or "halacha," considered Jewish.

So how about the ethnic group category?  Yes, Jews fit into this category as well; they are also an ethnic group, as they share, in different parts of the world, the same original history.  Although they may be currently living in different cultures and have different vernacular languages, they are still united by their common ancient language, Hebrew.  Among several other groups, there are the Ashkenazic Jews who lived in Northern Europe and Germany, with their own distinct customs, foods and culture, the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, before their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  Each of these groups not only have their own differing customs as mentioned above, but their own liturgy, liturgical as well as secular melodies, much in the style of the cultures within which they reside.

Finally, we get to that "R" word: that "Race" thing?  The Nazis believed it.  They tried to exterminate the Jews, considering them an inferior race (we should all be this inferior, as Mark Twain states).  Jews bristled at the thought--what a 'racist' way of thinking--Jews are not a race, some said: it was what bigots said.  Only a racist calls a people a race, especially the Jewish people, who have been persecuted and discriminated against for centuries, by just about everybody.

Now, in what could be explosive new studies, science has now shown us the truth. Folks, it's time to wake up and smell the hummus.  We can't hide from it, we can't pretend otherwise.  Actually, some of us knew it all along: Jews are a raceGenetically.  Harry Ostrer, a medical geneticist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine has written a book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, showing that Jews have a distinctive genetic signature.  There is now understood to be a biological basis for Jewishness: Jews are biologically more similar to other Jews than to non-Jews.

The findings, for some, are mind boggling:  North African Jews were found to be descended from Jews from the Biblical era, and not from groups who converted to Judaism.  One of the two North African Jewish groups studied were found to be genetically more closely related to European Jews, indicating migrations of people.

And here's a doozy, from my own state: there is a group of Colorado Indians (some call them "Native Americans") who are genetically related to Jews from the time of the expulsion of Jews from Spain.  Researchers found in two groups of Indians a mutation of the gene  BRCA1, commonly known as the "Ashkenazi mutation" which increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  Here is a portion of their findings.  Click on the link above for more, and also here and here.
The trail began with research conducted by Prof. Jeffrey Weitzel, an oncogenetic (cancer genetics) expert at the City of Hope Hospital in California. Weitzel examined samples from 110 American families of Hispanic origin, and followed them through a computational genetics study, and in 2005 published an article pointing to their common ancestry: People who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico and South America.
Weitzel's discovery of the BRCA1 mutation in these Hispanics led him to suspect that there was a genetic connection between them and European Jews, and he sought to confirm the connection.
A study recently conducted at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer whose findings have been accepted for publication by the European Journal of Human Genetics has found the missing link: The mutation was also found in a group of Mexican Indians who had immigrated from Mexico to the United States over the past 200 years and settled in western Colorado.
When their samples were submitted to a computational genetic study, it emerged that they, along with Weitzel's original Hispanic subjects, all had a common ancestor: A Jew who immigrated from Europe to South America up to 600 years ago, the period in which Christopher Columbus discovered America and the Jews of Spain were expelled.
Well,  as my D. H. pointed out, this would indicate that the Jews, or a Jew--probably Ashkenazi--came over to the New World around the time of the expulsion and intermarried with a Mexican Indian or Native American.  Because the history of Native Americans dates back thousands of years, not merely 600: 
  Many thousands of years before Christopher Columbus’ ships landed in the Bahamas, a different group of people discovered America: the nomadic ancestors of modern Native Americans who hiked over a “land bridge” from Asia to what is now Alaska more than 12,000 years ago. In fact, by the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century A.D., scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas. Of these, some 10 million lived in the area that would become the United States.

 But no matter.  I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that I am a member of a tribe in a race of people called the Jewish People.  And it's also quite fun to think that Mel Brooks, in his Blazing Saddles, was right--albeit partially.


Batya said…
There is nothing like us the Jews being a people, religion, land and more.
Lady-Light said…
Batya: We're a land? Didn't know that. We're on our own land, after 2,000 years. Finally. But we're still human. Some of us, anyway.

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