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SmashTheState's avatar

Jew: Ethnicity, Religion, Nation, Self-Defined, or None of the Above?

Asked by SmashTheState (14220points) July 10th, 2010

As an activist and an anarchist, I run into the thorny problem of the word “Jew” fairly frequently. Just recently, for example, a comrade of mine – a tenured university professor – was quoted in a newspaper complaining about the “Jewish lobby.” His political enemies on Wikipedia used this as an excuse to smear him as an anti-semite, and I was threatened with banning for attempting to stop them, since they had a “citation” for it. Two weeks later the newspaper ran a full retraction and apology, because he hadn’t used the word “Jew” at all, he had referred in fact to the “Israeli lobby.”

I, myself, here on Fluther, have found myself the target of accusations of anti-semitism because of my belief that no nation is legitimate, whether it’s Kanada, Amerika, Mexiko, Kuba, Palestine, or Israel. Ironically, my own comrades have sometimes accused me of being a racist and imperialist because I won’t give typically leftist, unconditional support for Palestinian nationalism.

So what does the word “Jew” mean to you? Is it a cultural heritage of fashion, cuisine, and tradition? An ethnic, genetically-derived phenotype? A legally-defined identity based on nationality? A religion that anyone can join? A religion that only a rigidly-defined group can join? Is it enough to simply call oneself a Jew to be a Jew, or do other conditions apply?

More importantly, do you believe that there is an objective definition at all, or that it’s possible to have one?

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21 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Judaism is a religion.

BoBo1946's avatar

@SmashTheState agree with @marinelife!

(off subject, but) Having said that, Jews are like any other group of people, they must be treated individually on their merits!

janbb's avatar

It’s actualy all of the above, depending on to whom you are speaking.

gailcalled's avatar

My mother (and her mother and so-on) were Jews. I consider myself culturally one although I have stopped going to shul. Being Jewish means I can use Yiddish for bad jokes and sending secret signals to my sister.

Marva's avatar

I’m Jewish, and Israeli. Judaism is a religion, to be a part of this religion one has to either have a jewish mom or grandmother, or to convert to judaism, which is a long and demanding process that includes initiation into all jewish traditions, circumsision and even then, not all rabbis accpet these converted jews as “legal” in the jewish sense.
Aside for that, we are a nation, not in the sense of a country, but more in a sense of a large group who sees all that are part of it as connected. Jews from all over the world consider themselfs a part of this group. AND we have a cultural heritage and tradition, that bind us together aswell. But one cannot join the jewish nation or tradition, without first being jewish in his religion.
So it is firstly a religion, despite the fact that a lot of us are not religious and only see ourselfs as part of the Jewish nation, culture or heritage.

The_Idler's avatar

@Marva gave a great answer…

In my interpretation, Judaism is the religion, and the words Jew and Jewish can be very confusing, because they can refer to either an adherent of this religion, or a member of the cultural “Jewish” community (i.e. born into it), but often both.

Some people also use Jew to refer to specific ethnic groups closely associated with the Jewish religion and community, but this is misleading, because there are many of these ethnic groups, and few are wholly enough connected to the Jewish tradition to be generalized as “Jews.” Besides, however closely associated they are, they are surely not exclusively so.

So, to me, “Jewish” brings to mind the diaspora, an international community, predominately Jewish in culture, tradition and religion, and has ethnic connotations only in that I would most probably assume recent ancestry of traditional Jewish stock (which could be any of a number of “Jewish” ethnicities). That is, “Jew” has different (but related) implications, depending on where in the world one is referring to.

Some ethnicities might be generalized as being “Jewish”, but I think it is very misleading to say that “Jew” is a race/ethnicity in itself, kinda like how there is no British ethnicity and certainly no US American ethnicity. There might be one or two predominately associated with those identities, but any American or Brit knows how foolish it would be to assert that the American/British cultural identity is an “Anglo-Saxon” cultural identity!

It is a funny one…

Ludy's avatar

isn’t the word jew from the jewlry??? and most of the israeli people were jewlers so they started calling them jews? maybe i’m mistaken :)

Ron_C's avatar

The Jew is part of an ethnic group and a religion. They are the only group that hold that distinction, as far as I can tell.

The_Idler's avatar

I think it is bad practice to say “Jew” is an ethnicity, when all these ethnicities can be considered “Jewish” to one degree or another.

It is like saying “American” as an ethnicity, when there are so many different ethnic backgrounds in the USA, which have come together in various combinations throughout history, to produce the population of the USA today.

Just because the Jewish tradition is a more ancient and exclusive one, doesn’t mean all the extremely varied backgrounds of the numerous Jewish communities around the world can be any more lumped together as one ethnicity, than the Americans can.

The only situation I can see “ethnic Jew” being used reasonably, is to describe someone born to parents – Jewish in some way or another – who does not subscribe to the faith of Judaism. Even then it is misleading, because his parents could have been any one of those ethnicities, above.

I think it gets a bit silly, talking about race or ethnicity, when it comes to groups which have been expanding and settling all over the world for many centuries. You can talk about the different ethnic groups in China, for examples, as they have been living in the same place, doing their own thing, since before recorded history, but to discuss the “English” race or the “Jewish” race… well… noone really knows exactly what they are.

Marva's avatar

@Ludy I hope you’re joking… but if not, Jewhis comes from the word Jehova.

@The_Idler You are absolutly right, definitly not an ethnicity, on the contrary, Jews come from many diffrent ethnicitis, we have Black colored Jews from Ethiopea, to pale white from Poland and eveything in the way: Moroko, Iran, Ejypt, Germany, France, England and much more… Many have slightly diffrent ways of practicing the Jewish tradition, nuances and so..

DarlingRhadamanthus's avatar

Jew from jewelry?? Oh my stars! :) I will have to remember that one.

I am a Jew. I am not an Ashkenazic Jew. I am a Sephardic Jew. I come from a Spanish lineage that was driven out of Spain during the Inquisition. We have incorporated Moorish and Spanish customs, language and music into our traditions…some of which are so obscure that we do not even remember their origin.

I am more culturally a Jew than a practicing Jew. But I am very proud of my heritage.

The Jews were scattered all over the world….they are in every country, color, nationality. You cannot anymore categorize a “Jew” than you would anyone else.

You also cannot make generalizations….either. Stop putting Jews into a tidy box with a bow. We are all different…..incredibly brilliant….but all different. :)

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Jews come from and live in many different countries. We come from a common religious tradition whether we practice the religion traditionally, in a modern form or not at all. We identify with that tradition and we see all other Jews as members of our people.

How non-Jews choose to define us determines in large part how much abuse and suspicion to which we will be subject. It does not change who we are or what we are, just how many of us will survive the next round of attempts to purge us from the face of the earth.

I’m sure @Arisztid our Romane (Gypsy) jelly can understand my last statement. I am not paranoid, but I am a student of history and I am not convinced that humankind has changed much over the centuries.

SmashTheState's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence There is a problem with your definition of Jew. Last week I watched my mother take her last breath, then sat by while a Catholic priest gave her the last blessing. He asked me if I was Catholic. I told him I had been baptized Catholic, but that I was an atheist. “So you’re a Catholic,” he said. I repeated that, no, I was an atheist. He dismissed the idea, saying that an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in a higher power, that there were “perhaps a hundred atheists in all of North America,” and that I was an agnostic Catholic.

I didn’t feel like getting into a religious argument with him over my mother’s cooling corpse, so I just let it pass, but his attitude is a perfect example of the problem with your definition of “Jew.” It’s good to be inclusive, but not so inclusive that you force people to be part of your group whether they want to be or not.

DarlingRhadamanthus's avatar

@SmashTheState…First of all….my deepest condolences on the loss of your mother. And my deepest condolences on having that particularly insensitive priest on hand at such a difficult time.

According to Roman Catholic law….if you are baptized as a Roman Catholic, you remain a Roman Catholic all of your life. That’s is true. You are entitled to be buried as a Catholic. The only way to stop this assignation is to contact the diocese office of the church where you were baptized and then file papers to rescind your Catholic baptism. This is what is happening in many parts of the world because of the discovery of so much corruption and pedophilia in the Church. (Not that there isn’t in other churches, okay?) Hundreds of people have left the church.

If you don’t want to be designated as a Roman Catholic, you need to contact the diocesean head office and ask them what the correct procedure is to withdraw from the Church.

Marva's avatar

@SmashTheState I think you may have misunderstood @Dr_Lawrence: because of being persecuted in many diffrent times in the past and present, Jews have become somewhat united and tied to thier jewish identity. A lot of jews, even non religious, even not Israeli, feel a strong bond to the jewish identity. Sure, a rabbi would always see a born jew to be jewish, unless converted and maybe even if converted, and for as far as it goes in the eyes of jewish religion it will be true. But there is no enforcement of identification, but rather a need to feel this identity. In a lot of ways, I feel that this bondage between jews is much more than because of a common heritage, tradition or evevn history of persecution, we are really A people. I know wherever I am in the world and whatevever trouble I might encounter, another jew will always b there for me to whatever extent it will take. A lot of jews feel this way. It is beyond explanation to me.

jerv's avatar

I have always considers Jews to be a sub-culture that merely required adherence to a particular religion in order to evven be considered for membership.

However, according to the official definitions, “ethnicity” is the most correct word either on or off of that list.

An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage that is real or assumed. This shared heritage may be based upon putative common ancestry, history, Culture, Traditions, kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or/and physical appearance.”

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

@Marva, except for your use of bondage (slavery) where bond (affinity) applies better, I agree totally with your answer. Whether @SmashTheState will attempt to understand that or not does not matter.

Marva's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence and @SmashTheState Well I did mean bond, excuse me, english is only my second language

lloydbird's avatar

@SmashTheState My sympathies for your loss, great man.

Tomfafa's avatar

@jerv ???? You think a person of any religion (or lack there-of) should be allowed to call himself jewish? I might buy that…
If you say jewish… I think… intelligence, mercy, benevolence, bravery, great moviemakers, great comics, learned, acceptance…

Jabe73's avatar

The term “jew” seems to have two meanings to me. It can refer to an ethnicity or religion. I’m sure there are non-jewish people who practice Judaism and I know there are Jewish atheists. Ah, what do I know.

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