Nov 2007 Journal

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What is a Jew? (Point of View)

A number of articles have recently appeared in the Journal in which people agonise about their Jewish identity. There were also letters whose writers proclaimed that they ‘only wished to belong to the human race’ – as distinct, presumably, from the Jewish race.

For me, the answer to the question ‘What is a Jew?’ is simple. A Jew is a person who belongs to the Jewish people, usually as a result of being born to Jewish parents. The Hebrew word Yehudi clearly indicates that the person concerned is a member of the tribe of Judah and this is the original meaning of the word.

Of course, not every Jew can relate his ancestry back to the tribe of Judah. He or she may have originally belonged to one of the other tribes or may have become a Jew as a result of marriage or conversion. Nevertheless, the term Jew is used to embrace all who belong to the Jewish people, from whichever tribe they originated, and including those who have converted.

It is almost certainly true that the religion practised by the Jews, based on the Hebrew Bible, has kept them together as a people in exile, or they would probably have lost their identity as a people and as a community. I seriously doubt whether there is a distinct ‘Jewish culture’ other than that linked to the religion, biblical literature, the liturgy, and traditional Jewish family and community life.

So why do some Jews agonise so much over their identity? Some say that being Jewish is an accident of birth, but does this not apply to everybody? Surely being Anglo-Saxon, Russian, Chinese etc is also an accident of birth, but I doubt whether these people indulge in such dreary agonising about their identity as some Jews do.

As for those who solemnly declare ‘I only want to belong to the human race’, this hardly makes any sense to me. First, all human beings belong to the human race. Second, you can’t ‘want’ what you already have - you are already part of the human race.

I believe the operative word here is ‘only’ and I suspect they are implying ‘I don’t want to be a Jew or to belong to the Jewish people.’ They make a high-minded declaration which is intended to sound idealistic but, to my mind, is phoney.

The reasons why some people are uncomfortable about being Jewish vary. It may be self-consciousness, embarrassment, dislike of the religion, or perhaps they have been brainwashed into believing the bad things said about the Jews throughout the ages and wish to dissociate themselves from them and become part of the host nation.

There are some Jews – perhaps quite a few – who have given up their identity, become completely assimilated, hide the fact that they are Jews, and do not wish to be recognised as such. They keep their identity secret, but the people who write to your Journal wish to have it both ways.

On the one hand, they acknowledge that they are Jews; on the other, they imply that they do not wish to be Jewish. If they feel like that, why don’t they keep quiet about it and not disturb those who do not share their outlook? Unless, as I suspect, they want to influence others to think like they do, and ultimately to cause the Jewish people to lose, or give up, their identity.

May I declare that I am a Jew? I belong to the Jewish community, will always want to belong to the Jewish community, in this life as well as in any future life, and I love the Hebrew language and enjoy the Jewish traditions.

I hope I have not caused too much shock by expressing these sentiments. They must seem outrageous to some of your contributors, who seem determined to undermine the identity of their fellow readers.
M. Storz

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