Western civilization was arguably born out of religious and cultural influences stemming from three distinct ancient centers—Rome, Greek Athens, and Jewish Jerusalem. The Jewish people laid the foundation for the highly influential Judeo-Christian ethics of Europe, America, and beyond. Yet there is plenty of contemporary confusion concerning the nature of Judaism.
In the increasingly post-national and post-Christian Western world, Jews are mainly viewed as a religious minority. Jews are usually placed in the same category as Christians and Muslims. However, Judaism transcends the boundaries of conventional religions and includes a strong ethnic and national component with strong bonds to the land of Israel. As the name itself indicates, Jews are individuals who historically hail from Judea.
How and why did the Jewish people, one of the world’s oldest ethnic groups, become reduced in Western consciousness to mainly a religious identity?
Judaism—faith, land, + people
Jewish history begins almost 4,000 years ago with Abraham, the founder of Judaism and the forefather of the Jewish people, who, according to the Hebrew Bible, left his native home in Mesopotamia and settled in the Land of Canaan that would later emerge as the Land of Israel. Around 1000 B.C.E., King David ascended the throne of the Israelite Kingdom.
In the ancient world, nations embraced many local gods for various utilitarian purposes. By contrast, the Israelites stood out for their unique belief in one invisible and universal God for all of humanity.
Furthermore, the Jewish faith is uniquely and intimately linked to the people and Land of Israel. In his book about the Jewish people and Judaism in the twenty-first century, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, the late universally respected Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently addressed the complexity of Jewish identity. “The Jewish people exists in all its bewildering complexity because it is both a religion and a nation, a faith and a fate. Remove either element and it will fall apart,” Sacks wrote (p. 47). In other words, there is no genuine Judaism without the national and ethnic component.
Jerusalem embodies the ethno-religious duality of Judaism
Jerusalem is frequently described as a sacred city for the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, this is an incomplete view of Jerusalem.
Firstly, Jerusalem’s religious importance to Christianity and Islam is only due to these faiths’ roots in Judaism, which preceded them. Without Judaism, there would be no Christianity or Islam and no Christian or Muslim religious attachment to Jerusalem.
Secondly, Christianity and Islam’s main centers of religious importance are largely elsewhere. Though many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians do revere Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to its Christian Quarter, for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—half the Christians on earth—the Vatican in faraway Rome is their holiest place. For Muslims, it is Mecca and Medina. All Muslims, including Muslims in Jerusalem, pray while facing their sacred city of Mecca. By contrast, all Jews worldwide pray while facing Jerusalem, the religious heart of the Jewish people.
However, it is often ignored that Jerusalem is also the national ethnic center of the Jewish people. Whereas Christianity and Islam’s attachments to Jerusalem are only religious, there is a dual Jewish religious and national-ethnic attachment to the city. Jerusalem has been the national capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years and continues to serve as the capital of the modern State of Israel. Jerusalem was not only the site of the Jewish Temples but also served as the national political capital during the monarchies of King David and King Solomon. While it is true that many nations fought religious wars over Jerusalem, the city has throughout time only been the national capital of the Jewish people. While the Vatican and Mecca mainly serve as religious centers for millions of visiting pilgrims, Jerusalem attracts many pilgrims while simultaneously serving as the beating national-ethnic heart of the Jewish people.
Judaism preserved Jewish ethnicity in the Diaspora
The Roman Empire’s occupation of Judea and destruction of Jerusalem led to the exile of the Jewish people, the Diaspora, 2,000 years ago. Homeless and dispersed across the globe, the Jewish people should, according to conventional wisdom, have vanished long ago. However, against all odds, the Jews succeeded in preserving their unique religious and ethnic identity while adapting to daily life in many different cultures around the world.
The secret behind Jewish survival has been the complex duality of Judaism. On the one hand, Judaism adapted to life in the Diaspora by shifting the focus from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem to the emergence of synagogues and communal Jewish life. At the same time, Judaism became the national respirator of the Jewish people in exile. Still, on the other hand, Judaism’s strong focus on the Land of Israel and Jerusalem played a crucial role in preserving Jewish ethnic identity throughout the Diaspora. Many generations of Diaspora Jews have concluded the ancient Jewish Passover tradition with the vow “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Jewish faith and Jewish ethnicity are two sides of the same coin. The Jewish people succeeded in surviving and thriving in exile through its unique blend of ethnic particularism and universalism. While Jews eventually spoke the languages of the lands where they resided, Jews continued to read their sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, and developed distinct Diaspora Jewish languages like Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Ladino.
The ethno-religious duality of Jewish identity was self-evident to most Jews throughout most of the Diaspora. Due to historic high levels of anti-Semitism in both Christian- and Muslim-majority societies, Jews in many lands lived in separate villages and neighborhoods that became known as ghettos. While discriminatory in its structure, it contributed to the continuation of a strong sense of a distinct Jewish peoplehood in exile, centuries after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and the Jews had lost their national independence in Israel.
Jewish people or Frenchmen and Germans of Jewish persuasion?
The French Revolution in 1789 was a watershed moment in European and global history. While the process was long and claimed many lives along the way, it abolished the hated French monarchy and eventually transformed France into a modern republic with civic rights for all its residents. The French Revolution also paved the path to a process of emancipation of French Jewry. For the first time in European history, Jews were offered civic and religious equality as citizens in a major European power. However, it came at a price: the French state demanded that the Jews give up their national identity and become Frenchmen of the Jewish persuasion just like the majority of the population were Frenchmen of the Catholic faith. Jews in neighboring Germany were also offered civic equality in exchange for embracing an identity as Germans of the Jewish or Mosaic faith. The emancipation of French Jewry eventually became the blueprint for Jewish life in most Western European democracies.
However, the emancipation and gradual assimilation of nineteenth-century Western Jewry did not affect the vast majority of the Jews who at the time lived in Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Muslim world. Jews from Poland to Morocco continued to be perceived by the surrounding majority as a separate people. More importantly, the Jews themselves in those lands continued to embrace a distinct Jewish religious and national-ethnic identity with continued attachment to the Land of Israel.
Jewish-German assimilationists: the architects of American Jewry
A small number of Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish origin) arrived on American soil in the early 1600s. However, American Jewry only became a large community in the late nineteenth century with the mass arrival of European Jewish immigrants. The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants in the United States hailed from Poland, Russia, and other Eastern European countries where Jewish religious and ethnic identity remained strong. The mass arrival of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States, however, was preceded by a smaller but influential arrival of German Jews.
The German Jewish immigrants created the blueprint for American Jewry by embracing socio-economic success with a nearly full assimilation into American society. Eager to become “true” Americans, many Eastern European Jewish immigrants quickly Americanized their Jewish names and severed their connection with traditional Judaism and its focus on Jewish peoplehood and ethnicity. German Jewish immigrants paved the path toward the formation of American Reform Judaism, which mainly views Jews as a religious minority rather than a people with a unique blend of religious and ethnic identity.
Most Jews have Middle Eastern ancestry
High intermarriage rates among Diaspora Jews are a fairly recent phenomenon. As late as the 1960s, most American Jews married other Jews. In 2014, Bennett Greenspan, founder and president of Family Tree DNA, assessed that most Jews in the world have Middle Eastern ancestry. “No less than 75 percent of Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews have ancestors from what we call the general Middle East,” Greenspan said. “We’re not interlopers who came here from Eastern Europe, and we’re not Serbs or Kazars. You can use whatever polemic you want to discredit the Jews or discredit the nation, but saying that we weren’t here is a lie,” he added.
In other words, Judaism is not merely a faith in the traditional sense of the word. It has a strong ethnic and ancestral component that historically connects Jews to Israel in a similar way as there is a connection between Irish Americans and Ireland or Italian Americans and Italy. Despite growing intermarriage rates among Diaspora Jews, most European and American Jews still feel some affinity with the Jewish state although their daily lives are in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, or London.
The emergence of Zionism
It is not a coincidence that Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement, emerged as a political force in the nineteenth century. It was a time of major political upheaval and the emergence of strong nation-states across Europe. While complex in its implementation due to Jewish dispersal and loss of political power, the idea behind Zionism was straightforward: just like the Germans, Italians, and Poles, the Jewish people also deserved national unity independence. Zionism was particularly strong among Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jewries that had retained their strong religious and ethnic bonds with the People and Land of Israel.
Anti-Semitism remained a potent force throughout much of Europe and the Middle East. While it is partly true that Zionism was a response to anti-Semitism, Zionism is ultimately linked to the ancient Jewish dream of eventually returning to the Land of Israel. The name Zionism refers to Zion, one of the famous hills in Jerusalem. In other words, Zionism meant “back to Jerusalem.”
Some Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl initially believed that anti-Semitism could be solved through a Jewish resettlement anywhere in the world with options ranging from Argentina to Uganda. Herzl, who hailed from an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family and felt at home in the Austro-Hungarian imperial capital Vienna, was an atypical Zionist due to his assimilated Western background. However, Herzl became a Zionist as a response to the rise of Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger and the virulently anti-Semitic Dreyfus trial in 1894, in which the French Jewish officer (and patriot) Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of spying for the Germans against France. These shocking incidents convinced Herzl that even highly assimilated Jews were not immune to anti-Semitism, and he believed the only solution was the establishment of a Jewish state. Herzl eventually organized his ideas in his book The Jewish State, which was published in 1896.
The vast majority of Zionist Jews refused to go anywhere except to their ancestral homeland of Israel. In 1906, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first president of the modern State of Israel, famously explained the ancient Jewish attachment to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to the British stateman Arthur Balfour.
“Mr. Balfour, suppose I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Weizmann asked.
“But Dr. Weizmann, we have London,” Balfour replied.
“True, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh,” Weizmann said.
“Are there many Jews who think like you?” asked the intrigued Balfour.
“I speak the mind of millions of Jews,” Weizmann answered, referring to the masses of Eastern European and Middle Eastern Jews who were strongly attached to Zionism and the sense of Jewish peoplehood.
To millions of Jews from Warsaw to Baghdad, “Next year in Jerusalem” literally meant returning home to their ethnic roots and ancient homeland, Israel. While some Western Jews eventually settled in modern Israel, it is not a coincidence that the vast majority of contemporary Israelis have a Middle Eastern, North African, or East European family background.
While places like Argentina and Uganda could potentially become shelters for Jews escaping persecution, Jewish national revival could only occur in the one and only place on earth where the Jewish people had ever exercised national independence—the Land of Israel.
Balfour later became known for the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when Great Britain formally announced its support for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in the Land of Israel or, as it was known at the time, “Palestine.”
Socio-economically successful and assimilated Western Jews in Europe and the United States initially regarded Zionism with derision. The reason was not because they denied the existence of an ethnic component to Jewish identity, but because they believed it was outdated and threatened their existence as emancipated and prosperous Jews in France, Germany, Great Britain, and America.
However, following the Holocaust’s extermination of six million Jews and the re-establishment of Israel in 1948, Jewish anti-Zionism was largely reduced to a fringe phenomenon. Today, most Jews worldwide recognize the importance of the existence of a Jewish state. While there are still vocal anti-Zionist Jewish voices in America and Europe, these radicalized individuals constitute a shrill but tiny minority of world Jewry.
Western liberalism + the Jews
The Nazis’ destruction of most European Jews made “ethnicity” and “nationalism” ugly sounding words in Western liberal vocabularies. Consequently, most post-1945 Western democracies emphasized instead that Jews were regular Frenchmen, Germans, and Englishmen who merely attended services in synagogue rather than in church. This eventually became the dominant perception of Jewish minorities in Western democratic societies. Many assimilated European and American Jews happily embraced this diluted Jewish identity by stressing that they were American or British first and only Jewish as a distant second.
Anti-Zionism: the new face of anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism has often been described as the world’s oldest bigotry. However, Jew-hatred has changed over time. In ancient times, Jews were hated because of their distinct religious traditions. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews were hated because of their “racial” and ethnic background. In the twenty-first century, the focus of anti-Semitism is on the Jewish state of Israel. Jew-haters of the previous century wanted a Judenrein world, a world free of Jews. Today’s Jew-haters seek a world without a Jewish state. In the name of “human rights” for Palestinians, they seek the destruction of the State of Israel. The Iranian Islamo-fascist regime and its terrorist proxy allies Hamas and Hezbollah lead this genocidal effort against Israel’s more than seven million Jews. However, anti-Israel-focused anti-Semitism—anti-Zionism—also has its supporters in Europe, the United States, and beyond.
A major ideological focus in anti-Zionism is to deny Judaism’s ethnic component and the existence of a Jewish people. The reason is obvious. If Jews are reduced to merely a religious group, then Jews have no right to a country of their own and Israel becomes “illegal.” While this concept may appeal to a vocal but small portion of highly assimilated anti-Zionist Jews, the majority of world Jewry continues in various degrees to embrace Judaism’s dualistic religious and ethnic nature.
Israel is the Jewish future
The re-establishment of Israel signals the closing of the circle for the Jewish people. While the vast majority of world Jewry lived outside of Israel during more than 2,000 years of Diaspora, the Jewish story is rapidly returning to the place where it started—in the ancestral Jewish homeland.
In 1948, a mere 5% of world Jewry resided in Israel. In 2023, almost 50% lives in the Jewish state, which is forecasted to become home to the majority of the Jewish people within the next decade. This demographic shift is mainly due to high levels of assimilation among Diaspora Jews and high fertility rates among Israeli Jews.
The return of the Jewish people to Israel also means a return to the core of Judaism—a unique identity that blends faith, peoplehood, and attachment to that people’s sacred place of emergence.