Mark Oppenheimer, in his article for the New York Times entitled “Reclaiming ‘Jew,’” states that Jews should be proud to call themselves Jews, rather than only state that they are “Jewish,” when asked. For him, as for many others, the term “Jew” has an anti-Semitic connotation. Judaism seems to the only religion that is tied to ethnicity and peoplehood, whereas one can be a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist and be from any country or ethnic group. Especially in the American context, a Jew is someone who is most likely of Central or Eastern European ancestry, hence in the United States the term immediately brings to mind a person of such ancestry. In Israel, where the majority of the population is Jewish, and the people are of many different backgrounds from around the Jewish world, a descriptor might be added as to that person’s ancestry, such as Moroccan, French, Polish, etc. This has ramifications for interfaith issues, I think, as being proud of one’s identity in all its forms would help to deepen the connection between people who are equally proud of their religious traditions and heritage, to discuss how best to work together on issues that impact everyone involved. Maimonides’ idea of the importance of Christianity and Islam in world history was that their roles were to spread the moral and ethical ideas of Judaism to the wider world. This is an idea that has always stuck with me, although of course Christianity and Islam have their own senses of their roles in the world, it makes it easier to connect them all together in a family united in common purpose, I feel.
If I am asked by someone I do not know, I usually will tell them I am Jewish, rather than saying I am a Jew. It is usually in the context of a religious function or community event that I would say that I am proud to be a Jew, or if I am having a discussion with a friend about family history or someone like that. I agree with Oppenheimer that calling oneself a Jew should be an act of taking pride in one’s ethnicity and ancestry, whether or not one is actively practicing the religion. I also agree that the term “Jew” is usually used in a pejorative sense, as in “to Jew someone down” or even just to “Jew” someone means to be stingy or to try to get the cheapest deal, etc. The idea that “the Jews” do X or control Y makes Jews seem like a monolith, which is the standard tactic of racists and bigots in general, not just anti-Semites. To elide difference within the group and state that every member shares whatever the trait is, makes it easier to make claims about whichever group is being discussed.
That this article comes right during the time of Yom Ha-Shoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, shows that the need to reclaim the term is still important. The Nazis and their allies that tried to destroy the Jews in Europe, held the view that no matter what a Jew did, even if he or she converted out of the religion and became a Christian, as many did in various times in European history, he or she would always be a Jew. The idea that being a Jew is an intrinsic part of the person, regardless of whether they are actually practicing the religion or not seems to be unique. This of course, can be seen as a positive and a negative. One might say one is a non-practicing Muslim, but should he or she convert to a different religion, as far as I know this person would cease to call him or herself a Muslim, as it is only in relation to the religious identity. Likewise, one cannot be a Christian atheist, but one can be an agnostic or an atheist Jew. This is also borne out in terms of Jewish law, in that if a Jew converts to another religion, in some respects he or she is to be considered a Jew who just happens to be mistaken, rather than as being a member entirely of the new religion. The hope is, of course that this person would eventually return to the Jewish fold. The idea that other ethnic groups are reclaiming the terms that were/are considered derogatory, means that we Jews should do the same thing, is someone I agree with. If other groups can are applauded for being proud of their ethnicity and heritage, so should we Jews, as we have always been a small people in terms of numbers, but our contributions to the history of the world, both in religious and secular terms, has always been outsized.
As the famous quote from Pascal goes, King Louis XIV asked him to provide proof that God/the supernatural exists, and his reply was “the Jews, Your Majesty, the Jews.” I have always liked this quote, as it speaks to a specific understanding of history that we Jews are meant to be the example to the nations. Whether one believes in such an idea or not, the fact that we Jews have survived all the centuries of persecution and discrimination by various groups throughout history, should be a major point of pride in defining oneself as a Jew. I intend to do so much more in the future.
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