Ask non-Jews what Jewishness is and most would probably reply a religion. Ask Jews themselves and many are less certain. A religion? A culture? An ethnicity? A people? A messy combination of all four? Very few – Jews or non-Jews – would say a race.
In my research on adoption in the American Jewish community, however, it became clear to me that Jews themselves often conceive of Jewish identity in ways that, if not explicitly racial, are at least “racialized.” Jewish adoptees are often told they don’t “look Jewish,” find their authenticity as Jews questioned because they were not “born Jewish,” or feel like outcasts or imposters because they are not “biologically Jewish.” “Jewish genes,” “Jewish blood,” “looking Jewish,” being “biologically Jewish” – none of these ideas on its own is exactly equivalent to race, but put them all together and how, really, do they differ from it?
I became interested in exploring the relationship between Jews and race and discovered a complex series of issues and a rich body of literature, which have formed the basis of my new class “Race, Religion, Ethnicity: The Example of Jewishness,” cross-listed between Jewish Studies and History . The idea of race is of surprisingly recent vintage: through the ancient and medieval periods, it simply did not exist. European thinking about Jews played a key role in the development of the concept of race in the early modern period. Indeed, some of the earliest examples of proto-racism include the “purity of blood” statutes that limited the activities of Spanish “New Christians” with Jewish ancestry.
By the 19th century, race had become deeply entrenched in Western thought. Many scientific and political leaders argued that Jews were a distinctive race, and many ordinary Jews and non-Jews of the time agreed. Some thought Jews were part of a broader “Caucasian family of races” but still racially distinct from others within that family. Such thinking was not necessarily anti-Semitic as many Europeans and Americans considered Jews to be good candidates for assimilation into white society. In an era of rapid social change, even Jews found the idea of a racial Jewish identity to be reassuring, allowing them to continue to feel attached to the Jewish community as they became less religiously observant. The danger, of course, was that racial thinking about Jews often was anti-Semitic, both within the United States, where it contributed to the passage of the 1924 law severely limiting immigration, and in Europe, where it culminated in the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews based on blood lines, not on observance or personal identification.
Since the Holocaust, it has been largely taboo to discuss Jewish identity in racial terms. And, we now know that race is scientifically meaningless; biologically speaking, it does not exist. That does not mean the idea of Jews and race is no longer relevant. It continues to have resonance, in the social-historical understanding of the term, as scholar Steven Kaplan has argued persuasively. A number of sociologists also have demonstrated that the emphasis on “blood logic” in defining and maintaining Jewish identity seems to be increasing recently, as many Jews cease to “do” much Jewishly and fall back on blood, genes, and race to explain their attachment to Jewish identity.
In my class, we begin with an initial unit on the history of thinking about race; the students are often shocked to learn that people have not always categorized others in racial terms, leading to intense and heartfelt discussions about the way race has operated past and present. We then focus more explicitly on the historical relationship between Judaism and race, from ancient times through the birth of modern anti-Semitism in the 19th century and the Holocaust in the 20th century. We pay particular attention to the American context, where Jews (along with other immigrant groups such as Italians, Irish, and Slavs) moved from being seen as racially “other” in the 19th century to being considered “white ethnics” in the 20th century. The course looks as well at the emergence in the 19th century of the idea that Judaism is primarily a religion and the reasons why many Jews find this concept insufficient to explain Jewishness. Finally, we explore issues of race, ethnicity, and identity in the contemporary Jewish world, including the experiences of Jews of Color and Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and the recent resurgence of biologically based ideas of Jewish identity. Throughout the semester, we use the concepts of race, ethnicity, and religion to better understand the meaning of Jewishness, and, conversely, use the example of Jewishness to interrogate those very concepts.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of this class was watching the students come to new understandings about race and the way it operates. In an era of charged debates about race and its meaning in society, it is extremely gratifying to open students’ minds to the historically contingent meanings of race and ethnicity. As one student commented, “This class will completely expand your outlook on race, religion and ethnicity.” What more could an instructor want?