Is Judaism an ethnicity? The fact that people even think this is remotely in question is hurtful and ignorant. But for the sake of clarity, let’s address the question formally.
First, let’s start with the accepted definition of ethnicity from the Oxford English Dictionary:
ethnicity; plural noun: ethnicities
the quality or fact of belonging to a population group or subgroup made up of people who share a common cultural background or descent.
Do Jews have a common cultural background and descent? It would be hard to argue that any people in the history of the world have more of a documented common culture and descent than the Jews. Jews have been practicing the same religion from places as far apart as Shanghai and Ethiopia for millennia, with the same key customs, prayers, and teachings.
There’s also a scientific core of evidence backing up the “common descent” aspect of Jewish ethnicity thanks to DNA tracking technology. Almost every Jew who has sent a sample to 23andMe or a similar service has the printouts showing their DNA is more than 90 percent Jewish. There has even been a specific genetic marker identified for Jews who are known in their communities as “Cohanim” or the descendants of the priests of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
What does this mean? It means Jews are a certified ethnic minority in every nation where they live other than Israel. If those nations have specific policies addressing their ethnic minorities that don’t include Jews, then that should either be changed to include them or be scrapped altogether. It means diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at colleges and corporate offices should include Jews as minorities who should be identified in their programs, or they should not exist at all. It means “Jewish” is a box that should exist for people to check when they apply for jobs online.
But most importantly, the overwhelming evidence of Jewish ethnicity means that efforts by mostly the political left to portray Jews as simply “white people with slightly different theological beliefs” should be ripped up and thrown in the trash like the disgusting canard it truly is. It would also be nice if the undeniable truth of Jewish ethnicity lays the groundwork for eliminating all DEI programs across the country that have the ugly tendency of doing more to demonize white people than to actually elevate or advance non-white minority people in any way.
But any discussion of Jewish ethnicity can’t simply end there, for Jewish ethnicity and tradition are different from other ethnicities in one important way: Judaism is an ethnicity, but it is not ethnocentric.
In other words, to be a Jew goes beyond just your DNA. While no Jew can ever stop being a Jew according to our tradition and Jewish law, there are some basic minimums each Jew must uphold to be considered a Jew who is still part of the community. Some of these bare minimums are religious in nature, some of them include breaking major laws that are also secular in nature, like being an unrepentant murderer or rapist, etc. On the positive side, non-Jews who go through a righteous and rigorous conversion process are not only accepted as Jews, but are officially designated as having “Jewish blood” by the religious community. That, too, flies in the face of Jewishness as merely a genetics-based ethnicity.
This is an outgrowth of the fact that Judaism takes a very proactive approach to almost everything, including the notion of human rights. It should be noted that the Torah doesn’t describe human rights as inherent rights, but as required responsibilities. For example, the Torah doesn’t say the “stranger has a right to kindness,” it puts it as, “You must be kind to the stranger,” etc. This is a far more workable way to ensure those rights are actually protected than just listing them as inherent facts, as they are listed in the U.S. Constitution.
The above examples show how Judaism is indeed more than just an ethnicity. However, the dangerous situation Jews are used to facing in America and all over the world is a nasty effort to insist Jews are not more than just an ethnicity, but that they’re less. Many Jews in America and other Western nations have remained silent about this effort over the decades for a number of reasons. They include some level of altruistic awareness that Jews have often enjoyed more success than other minorities, and thus some of us have a sheepish feeling about insisting that we identify as oppressed or disadvantaged as other groups.
But the proper response to those well-meaning feelings is not to join or aid an effort to erase our ethnicity, but to tap into that ethnicity and follow our religion’s well-laid out teachings about how to help others.
Because we Jews should know all too well what happens when we allow ourselves to be defined as less than anyone else.