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Are Jews a Race or a Religion?

In 1982, the Shaare Tefila synagogue in White Oak, Maryland was vandalized by a group of neo-Nazis. The congregants filed a civil lawsuit which argued that, while the plaintiffs themselves were not claiming the status of “race,” they had clearly been discriminated by the vandalizers as a racial group and were therefore entitled to federal protection as such. They made this claim based on post-Civil War laws guaranteeing “all persons” [i.e. blacks] the same legal protections as “white persons.”

In other words, without explicitly saying so, the Jews, as historian Naomi W. Cohen put it, “were now claiming rights as an ethnic group,” not just as a religion.

That position should come as no surprise, for the concept of Jewish ethnic identity lies at the very heart of modern Zionism. But it is a concept fraught with peril—most of Israel’s founders were Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, but Ashkenazis are far from the only ethnic branch of Judaism.  Sephardic Jews originate from Spain and North Africa; old, even ancient, Jewish groups live or have lived in Georgia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa (yes, there are black Jews), and even China. The face of Judaism is becoming ever more diverse in the United States—a recent New York Times article profiled a summer camp for Jews of color; up to 10 percent of America’s six million Jews are nonwhite.

So perhaps the question should not be “Are the Jews a race or religion?”, but rather “who is a Jew?”

Under Jewish religious law (halakhah), a person is Jewish if they are born to a Jewish mother, even if they themselves are not religious, or if they convert to another religion.  One can also convert to Judaism, although the religion itself does not proselytize.  Of course, some branches of Judaism are less strict in their definition—Reform Jews in the United States, for instance, can claim Jewish identity if either the mother or the father is Jewish. Israel follows this definition in its Law of Return—the children and grandchildren of Jews, regardless of the parent or grandparent, are entitled to Israeli citizenship.

Are the Jews a race or religion? It would appear that, as a matter of law and custom in the United States and Israel, they are both.