Judaism: Religion or Nation?

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What Happened?

Last Tuesday, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump planned to sign an executive order targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses, and that this order would effectively “interpret Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” News outlets, bloggers, and the twittersphere went wild with reactions and responses, with some lauding the president and his new policy, and others criticizing it. In many ways, these reactions proved to be premature, as the actual text of the order mostly echoes Obama-era doctrine and doesn’t truly define Jews in a new way. Liel Liebovitz of Tablet Magazine explained, “It is, in fact, nothing more than an extension of the Obama White House’s own legal guidance about the treatment of Jews and Sikhs under existing U.S. civil rights law.” 

Why Does This Matter? 

Is President Trump’s executive order good or bad for the Jews?

Soon after President Trump signed the executive order, American Jews were quick to share a range of responses. Many Jews on the left argued that President Trump was “redefining” Judaism as a nationality rather than a religion, which is blatantly anti-Semitic, as it infers that Jews are “un-American” and “belong” to a country other than the United States. If Not Now, a radical left-wing group of young Jews opposed to Israeli presence in the West Bank, tweeted: “This is not about keeping Jews safe. It’s just more antisemitism. The order defines Judaism as a ‘nationality,’ promoting the classically bigoted idea that American Jews are not, well, American.” 

Alternatively, the chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Norm Coleman, called Trump’s move “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans” and hailed President Trump as “the most pro-Jewish President” in American history. The Simon Wiesenthal Center tweeted that “the executive order sends a global message at a time of surging anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.” Meanwhile, Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser, needed to write an op-ed in the New York Times to clarify the implications of this order, noting that the document does not exclusively define Judaism as a nationality, but “to the extent that Jews are discriminated against for ethnic, racial or national characteristics, they are entitled to protection by the anti-discrimination law.” 

In Israel, there was mostly sweeping support of the executive order at the governmental level. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out in support of it, thanking Trump in a statement, saying “Free speech is not carte blanche for anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish People and the State of Israel,” and Yair Lapid of Kachol Lavan also applauded the president, saying, “The fight against anti-Semitism and BDS is existential and it is good that we have a friend in the White House.”

Some context: Reality on North American college campuses today

One of the main reasons President Trump gave for his executive order was to combat the alarming increase in anti-Semitic incidents taking place on college campuses that have often stemmed from anti-Israel sentiment. Read more about the rise in anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism on campuses here

Trump was clear in his press conference when he signed the executive order that, “This is our message to universities: If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism.”

Let’s Back up: Is Judaism a Religion or Nation?

So, why all the hoopla? Why are some Jews thrilled with this, and some Jews aghast? 

The debate that erupted soon after President Trump’s executive order of how to define Judaism – as a religion or a nation – is nothing new within the Jewish community. In fact, it is an age old debate that has appeared again and again throughout Jewish history.

No need to bury the lead. The truth is that we’re both, but there have been fascinating historical dilemmas about this. Let’s go in chronological order:

In Chapter 1 of the Book of Ruth, Ruth says “Your god is my god, your people are my people,” indicating the dual nature of Jewish identity. In Daniel Gordis’ book “We Stand Divided,” he speaks about the holiday of Hanukkah and how the Jewish tradition shares a conflicting description of its essence. Based on the Talmudic story, Gordis says “in the central dimension of the holiday is the miracle of the oil. Hanukkah is about a religious event.” The Jewish liturgy – Al Hanisim – however, talks about the military victory, which takes center stage. Gordis says, “the miracle of Chanukah is not the religious miracle of oil, but the Maccabees’ victory in their battle against the Greeks. This Chanukah as a national event.”

Skipping to modern times, France was the first country to grant full civil rights for its country’s Jews, in 1791, but these rights did not come without limits. A French member of the government famously stated, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to the Jew as an individual.” This statement made the point that Jews would have all of their rights protected as individuals, assuming they kept their collective identity and religious life private. When Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor of France in 1799, he summoned a group of Jewish leaders to investigate their loyalty to the state. The Jews who spoke to Napoleon made clear that their religious identity as Jews came second to their allegiance to France.

In 1885, the Reform Judaism movement in the United States published the controversial “Pittsburgh Platform” which proclaimed that Judaism was “no longer a nation, but a religious community” including that the movement saw no need to return to Palestine as a homeland. This newfound worldview was in stark contrast to the ideology of early political Zionism, which intentionally attempted to define Judaism as a nation, rather than a religion. These two ideologies were at odds then, and today manifest themselves in various ways amongst American Jews.

The famous Zionist writer Micah Joseph Berditchevski controversially argued for a national Jewish identity in 1903 when he wrote that “we must cease to be Jews by virtue of an abstract Judaism and become Jews in our own right, as a living and developing nationality. A great responsibility rests upon us, for everything lies in our hands! We are the last Jews; We are the first of a new nation.”

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated in 1915: “You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourself in groups. America does not consist of groups.” Understandably, American Jews were wary of embracing Zionism, which would potentially thwart their efforts of becoming full-fledged Americans. However, Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who served on the highest court from 1916 to 1939, argued that American Jews should support Zionism – that it would strengthen themselves as Americans and Jews and aid the Jews of Europe: “Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism… Every American Jew who aids in advancing Jewish settlement in Palestine… [will] be a better man and a better American for doing so.” 

Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes it abundantly clear how the reborn Jewish state views Jewish identity. The document begins with: “Eretz-Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish People.” Israeli professor Ze’ev Maghen encapsulated this national argument in his book John Lennon and the Jews when he says, “From the biblical book of exodus onward, Jewish sources have consistently designated our cooperative entity an ‘am’ – a Semitic word denoting “uncle” and connoting ‘a bunch of birth-related people.’ We have thus always been literally a nation in our own eyes – as in the famous, exuberant cry: ‘Am Yisrael chai!’ We Jews were nationalists, for good or ill, long before the notion’s modern European vogue.”

Finally, in 2013, a new Member of Knesset of the Yesh Atid party, Ruth Calderon, made a speech to the Knesset in which she connected Judaism as a religion, nation, and culture, stating: “Motivated by my own needs, and together with others, (1996) I founded Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, and Elul, Israel’s first joint Beit Midrash for men, women, religious and secular. Since then, over the course of several decades, there a Jewish renaissance movement has begun to flourish, in which tens and hundreds of thousands of Israelis study within frameworks that do not dictate to them the proper way to be a Jew or the manner in which their Torah is to become a living Torah. I am convinced that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel.”

Zionism and the State of Israel

The theme of how to define the Jewish people is at the core of the question of whether the Jewish people have the right to the State of Israel. The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel defines the country as the national home of the Jewish people, thus arguing that the Jewish people are a nation deserving of a state like any other nation around the world. 

This was a difficult concept to accept for many countries that opposed the State of Israel’s existence and who preferred to define Judaism solely as a religion. Opponents of the State of Israel often argue that the creation of Israel was an inherently racist endeavor, as it was a country made exclusively for a very specific group, so much so that in 1975, a UN Resolution was passed arguing that Zionism is Racism (it was repealed in 1991). Of course, this attempt at delegitimizing Israel ignores the fact that the vast majority of countries around the world are nation-states associated with a specific ethnic group. 

The iconic Israeli Law of Return gives any Jew the right to immigrate to the State of Israel. The concept of a law of return is not unprecedented, as many nation states have laws that give citizenship by descent including Germany, Ireland, Poland and Italy. Interestingly, the Law of Return defines Jews both religiously and nationally. The law states that people closely connected to the Jewish people can make aliyah (the child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew), but the law also defines a Jew as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” Watch our video on the Law of Return for more information.

What should I watch and read to understand all of this?

  1. We Stand Divided by Daniel Gordis
  2. Leora BatnitzkyIs Judaism a religion? 
  3. What is Zionism? Unpacked for Educators
  4. Yair Rosenberg’s article on the topic

Discussion Questions

  1. Which thinker mentioned above do you identify with (Brandeis, Herzl, Berditchevski, Calderon, etc.) and why? 
  2. If you believe that Jews are not a nation, how do you perceive your connection to the State of Israel? If you believe that Jews are a nation, how do you reconcile having multiple national identities? Does one nationality precede the other for you?
  3. Does defining Judaism as a religion or a nation matter? Why is this such a heated debate, and are there practical ramifications to it?
  4. Trump’s executive order also announced that the U.S. will define the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which is: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Do you agree with this definition? Is there anything you would add to or remove from it?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Give students 5-7 minutes to journal their thoughts on the topic of Judaism as a religion and/or a nation, using these guiding questions: What is the relationship between the Jewish religion and the Jewish people? Can one be committed to one and not the other? Do you identify more with Judaism as a religion or as a nation, or both? Ask a few students to share their reflections with the class.
  2. For students in high school or college, familiarize the class with the ADL’s Think. Plan. Act. program for dealing with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. Encourage them to share these tools with siblings and friends.
  3. Most of the debate on the topic of Judaism as a religion vs. as a nation centers on whether or not Jews are a nation; most people assume that Judaism is certainly a religion. But what if it isn’t? Watch this video from Rudy Rochman, a popular pro-Israel advocate, to gain a different perspective on Judaism as a religion, and debate the issue with your students. What are three salient points from Rochman? What are two items you found lacking in his perspective? 
  4. Watch our video on Israel’s Law of Return and use the accompanying resources to engage in further discussion about Jewish identity. 
  5. Bring your students together for “four corners” activity: label each corner of the classroom as “religion,” “nation,” “culture,” and “community” and ask students to walk to the corner of the room they think best represents their Jewish identity. When there, students should discuss why they chose that corner with the other students in that corner, and then open the conversation to the whole group to explain their stances. Students may change corners based on the conversation.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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