Andrew Marantz ‘06.5: Five thousand, seven hundred sixty-seven years of inbreeding

Judaism is an ethno-racial identity, not a political agenda

By
Friday, September 22, 2006

I once heard a stand-up comedian say, “I’m not a Jew; I’m just Jew…ish.”

Unlike her, I am a Jew. But when I tell people, unequivocally, that I am a Jew, I mean it as a statement about my genome. Both of my biological parents are Jewish; so I was a Jew, inevitably, even before I was circumcised.

Judaism can mean many things. For the Orthodox, Judaism is a system of religious laws. For Jewish literary hero Tevye, it is a set of traditions, a unifying historical narrative. For Madonna, it seems to be some sort of publicity stunt.

For my grandparents, American Jewry is a cultural group; thus it makes sense to talk of Jewish guilt, Jewish dourness or a Jewish sense of humor. I like this concept – it helps explain why my formative Jewish experiences had nothing to do with the Talmud, and everything to do with Barry Levinson movies and skiing on Christmas.

Surely, Judaism is a culture, a religion and a history. But none of these descriptions is complete because they are all nurture and no nature. Jewish culture may be responsible for my argumentativeness and my love of a nice brisket; but only genetics can account for my protuberant nose, my kinky hair and my innate discomfort around power tools.

I prefer to think of my Jewishness, then, as an ethno-racial identity – something I have in common not only with kids from Great Neck named Fishbein, but also with Derrida and Freud and St. Paul.

It is politically incorrect to talk about Judaism and race in the same breath. The Jews are a people scarred by the memory of the Holocaust, and, to put it simplistically, without race there could be no genocide. Indeed, the very concept of race is so fraught with complication and pain that many people would rather dispense with it altogether.

In the long run, I agree. I think our present racial categories are socially constructed and I hope the day comes when they will be unnecessary and unintelligible.

However, that day is a long way off. It would be premature to disband the NAACP, or to condemn observations like, “Hispanics are underrepresented in college,” simply because ethnic categories rest on shaky theory.

There is a messy historical precedent (to put it mildly) for conceiving of Judaism as a race. But the concept itself is harmless. Like the toothbrush moustache, it has simply been tarnished by bad associations.

I submit that conceiving of Jewishness as an ethno-racial identity can actually help us get clear about what being Jewish is-and, just as importantly, what it is not.

For instance, Judaism is emphatically not a political platform. More and more, I see Jewish leaders approaching the youth with urgent appeals: “Support your homeland; Israel needs us now!”

Sure, it makes sense to talk about Jews as “us,” but we are a people, not a political action committee. I consider my views on the Arab-Israeli conflict fairly moderate, but every time I take a step away from the party line (and toward free thought), my Jewish elders treat me as an apostate.

It goes without saying that the Arab-Israeli conflict is an endlessly complicated problem. One’s views on it should be the result of intellectual labor, not contingency. I am not required to support Ariel Sharon any more than an ethnic Arab is committed, by birth, to supporting Hamas.

I would be similarly offended if a stranger came up to me on the street and asked, “Are you white? OK, great – wait here and dance awkwardly, while snapping, and I’ll go fetch you a copy of The Bell Curve.”

Judaism and Zionism are two separate things. Skepticism is not apostasy, and an anti-Israel stance is not necessarily an anti-Semitic one.

When we conflate Jewish religion, Jewish culture and Jewish genetics, thorny geopolitical decisions (such as what to do about settlements) get treated as cursorily as arbitrary, cultural ones (whether or not you like whitefish). The more we persist in seeing Judaism as a set of beliefs or behaviors, the more it makes sense that our elders should tell us what to think. If, instead, we treat Jewishness as a property of our genes, then we become free to make up our own minds.

Andrew Marantz ‘06.5 plans to break his Yom Kippur fast with a juicy cheeseburger.

One Comment

  1. > “Hispanics are underrepresented in college”

    would you accept that Blacks are over-represented at Brown University, and mostly on the backs of Asian-Americans?

    > without race there could be no genocide

    i’ll mention that to all those people who now sleep in mass graves in Rwanda

    > my innate discomfort around power tools

    it’s NOT your grandparents fault that you’re too soyboy to make it into the Israel Paratroopers

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