In December, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order combatting anti-Semitism. It made explicit that Jews are entitled to the protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities that receive federal funding.
You would have thought that the Jewish community would have unanimously supported this order, especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, but that is not the case.
There are two reasons that the order makes some Jews uneasy.
The first is about free speech. The order adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which labels as anti-Semitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” In other words, someone can criticize Israel’s policies but not the state itself, or its existence. For some people, this is an unacceptable abridgement of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Note, however, that the order does not say that this kind of speech is unlawful, only that it is discriminatory and now disqualifies the person who articulates that position from receiving federal funding.
The second reservation about the order is that it implicitly defines Jews as a race or nationality or ethnicity, rather than as a religion. In fact, for decades the government has understood “national origin” in very broad terms to include ethnic and religious groups. So fears that Jews were being reclassified wrongly are overblown.
Nevertheless, the order has revived an old debate — are Jews a nationality, an ethnicity, or a religion? The issue is apparent in whether we should properly be called American Jews or Jewish Americans. When one prominent rabbi wrote a piece about the order using the term American Jews, another rabbi wrote to object, saying that the first rabbi “has already defined me as a nationality by calling me an American Jew, American being the adjective to the noun Jew. If it is Italian American, Irish American, African American, Hispanic American, why is it American Jew? I am a 5th generation American; my religion is Jewish. I am a Jewish American… It’s time our nomenclature reflects our nationality.”
So are you an American Jew or a Jewish American? Which word or identity is primary, your religion or your nationality? I’ve asked the question of my students for years, and the answers truly vary.
I’ve also posed the question about Jewish identity itself: is it primarily ethnic or religious?
Here too the answers vary, and the question has perturbed both Jews and non-Jews for a long time. Today most people would answer that it is a combination of both. After all, there are two ways to be part of the Jewish people. The first is to be born of a Jewish mother, or a Jewish father, depending on whether you accept the halachic standard of matrilineal descent or the Reform Jewish standard of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. Either way, being born into a group suggests an ethnic identity.
The second way of entrance is through conversion, which suggests a religious identity.
Yet acceptance of Jewish identity as both ethnic and religious was not always the case. A fierce debate between two giants of modern Jewish history erupted over this question in the late 19th century. Theodor Herzl viewed the Jewish people as an ethnic group, who had to reclaim their ancestral homeland. He pointed out that we are so whether we like it or not, because, as he confides in his diary, “our enemies have made us one without our consent.” He goes on to say that “We are one people. One People! Distress binds us together and, thus united, we suddenly discover our strength. Yes, we are strong enough to form a State, and indeed, a model State.”
Rabbi Isaac M. Wise was a prominent Reform leader, one of the preeminent rabbis of the American Jewish community at that time. He and his followers viewed the Jewish people not as an ethnic group but as a faith community. In 1885 they wrote an important declaration known as the Pittsburgh Platform, which stated explicitly: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community…” As a result, they did not support Herzl’s Zionism, declaring “[we] therefore expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restorations of any of the laws concerning the Jewish State.”
During the 2016 Democratic primary, candidate Bernie Sanders was asked about his ethnic background. He responded “Polish-American,” and it is true that his father emigrated from Poland. But the response from much of the Jewish community was “Really?” Sanders hastened to clarify that he was proud to be Jewish. As a secular Jew, he likely holds to an ethnic definition of Judaism, yet his reply and the backlash it elicited shows how complicated and sensitive the issue of Jewish identity remains.
I personally prefer “American Jew” to “Jewish American.” As proud as I am to be an American, I put faith above nationality. Yet I understand those who prefer the latter, prizing their citizenship above all. It’s not either-or; both words really matter.
Barry L. Schwartz is the editor in chief and CEO of the Jewish Publication Society and the rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia.