Last week’s announcement that President Trump was signing an executive order extending Title VI protections to cover anti-Semitic discrimination set off a brief firestorm among American Jews.
The initial reporting — which turned out to be incorrect — was that Trump’s executive order would define Judaism as a nationality, and this kicked off a debate about whether or not this was a good idea, whether or not it would pave the road to more discrimination against Jews rather than less and whether or not the executive order itself was anti-Semitic.
In fact, the order extends Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which bars discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin” — by saying Jews will henceforth be protected from discrimination by those who perceive being a Jew as a race or nationality.
That important distinction was lost in a furious back and forth, which was driven by the central premise, offensive to some, that Jews constitute a nation rather than a religion. Part of the reason this idea is such a thorny one is that both those who support and those who oppose it have strong arguments in their favor. In fact, the idea of Jews as a nation is both one of Judaism’s greatest strengths and one of its greatest weaknesses.
Jews have throughout history considered themselves to be a people or a nation. It is part of God’s covenant with Abraham, the reason that Jews feel such strong bonds to other Jews around the world irrespective of their country of origin or level of religious commitment, and why one does not have to subscribe to any tangible religious beliefs or exhibit any measure of religious observance to be considered Jewish. Without a sense of distinct peoplehood or nationality, it would be difficult — if not nonsensical — to worry about things like Jewish continuity, and the stubborn persistence of Jewish survival is precisely because Jews have ties, commitments, and national pride that go well beyond mere religion.
Zionism as well is wrapped up in this notion of Jewish nationhood. The founders of the state were almost uniformly non-religious and non-observant, and when they spoke of building a Jewish homeland, it was about establishing political sovereignty for a distinct people rather than members of a religious group. It is hard to explain American Jewish support for and attachment to the state of Israel without a sense that Judaism creates bonds between members of the group that go beyond mere religion.
The flip side of this is that the idea of Jews as a nation or a people has persistently contributed to anti-Semitism, particularly in the recent history of the 20th century. The trope of Jews as a “nation apart,” who have no attachments to their countries of citizenship and live as a perpetual fifth column, is one of the most pernicious anti-Semitic canards that exists. Nazi Germany’s discrimination and then extermination of Jews was based on viewing Judaism as a distinct subhuman ethnicity that had to be snuffed out. The uncompromisingly secular Soviet Union designated Jews as a separate nation, paving the way for anti-Semitic ostracization and othering. Judaism’s status as existing above and beyond the realm of religion has made it easy for Jews to be hounded and vilified across time and space.
The ambiguity surrounding all of this contributes to making the issue even more fraught. Many American Jews insist that Judaism is a religion and nothing else, a position famously articulated by the Reform movement in the 19th century as a way of asserting the fundamental Americanness of American Jews. Even if you do view Judaism as a nationality or believe in the concept of Jewish peoplehood, Judaism is many other things as well, from a religion to a culture to a set of values. And if Judaism is indeed a nationality, it is also hard to conceptualize that someone can become a Jew by learning with a rabbi and taking a dunk in a pool of water.
The debate over Judaism as a nationality suffers from the impulse to embrace a black-and-white view, rather than lean into the ambiguity inherent in this debate. I believe that Judaism is a nationality, but I understand why others don’t. I think that anti-Semites who want to discriminate against or target Jews are not going to get hung up on Judaism being a nationality or a religion; they will find a reason to hate Jews without getting encouraged or deterred by a category error.
I am uncomfortable with any outsider potentially defining Jews in any way, and particularly uncomfortable with the way Trump relates to Jews given his history of employing classical anti-Semitic views about Jews’ purported obsession with money — something he did mere days before unveiling the executive order.
However, it absurd to worry that extending Title VI protections to Jews as a class is a backdoor to laying the railroad tracks to the ovens. Rather than tear ourselves apart about what Judaism is or is not, let’s embrace the fact that Judaism’s diversity is strong enough to account for a wide range of opinions, and that Jewish nationhood is not and never has been a zero-sum proposition.
Michael Koplow is policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. His column appears monthly.