Who, and what, is a Jew?

Beryl Ratzer

As the sun sets today, the fifth day of the month of Iyar according to the
Hebrew calendar, we here in Israeli shift our mood from the sadness of the
national day of mourning for all those who have fallen in the defence of
Israel to one of happiness and thankfulness as our tiny state, the Jewish
State of Israel, celebrates its sixty first birthday.

The equivalent date in the general calendar is 15th May and on that date the
Moslem population in Israel will commemorate  their Nakb’a, their disaster,
the day on which, in 1948, the Arab Palestinians failed to do what the
Jewish Palestinians did – to declare statehood in those areas of the defunct
Palestine which were under their control.

Contrary to the opinion held by those trying to de-legitimise the State of
Israel, Israel  does not owe its existence to the Holocaust. The League of
Nations, in 1917, recognised the right of the Jewish people to re-establish
their homeland in Palestine (historically known as Israel, Judah and Judea
until the name was changed by the Romans in the second century), where the
nation was born and from which it was twice exiled.

Many of the people I have guided over the years are puzzled by the fact that
the words “Israeli” and “Jewish” are not interchangeable. Every citizen of
Israel is an Israeli, whether Jewish, Moslem or Christian and twenty percent
of the population of Israel is not Jewish. Like most countries of the world
Israel too has its laws of naturalisation – only new immigrants who are
Jewish can become citizens of Israel.

“Who, and what, is a Jew?” is  much more difficult to define. According to
the Halacha (Talmudic law), for the last two thousand years at least, a Jew
is anyone born to a Jewish mother. By that simple definition, Jews
throughout the world are all part of the Jewish people. This people-hood has
nothing to do with race as we have Jews who are blond and light skinned,
brunette and olive-skinned, dark and black-skinned, some with large noses,
some with petite noses, none with horns. Contrary to a commonly-held,
usually anti-Semitic claim, it is not possible to “recognise a Jew from a
mile” by racial features.

Being Jewish is also being part of a religion, one of the oldest in the
world, if not the oldest, still following the laws and guidelines dictated
to Moses over three thousand years ago, faithfully and accurately preserved
in the Hebrew Scriptures also known as the Pentateuch, the Five Books of
Moses. Many Jews throughout the world who do not obey the biblical laws in
their daily life still feel a cultural, or otherwise indefinable, attachment
to the Jewish people and thus to Israel.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 Jews can therefore be
defined as all three together – a people, a religion and a nation. To the
best of my knowledge, this is unique and so it is difficult for non-Jews, in
particular, to understand. But there are many Jews today who do not
appreciate that it is due to this uniqueness, this combination of all three
components, that we have persevered and been preserved despite thousands of
years of dispersion and persecution.

In the modern western, democratic world of the past few decades, liberal
intellectualism is leading the move to eradicate differences, whether
religious or national. This can be most clearly seen in the European Union
where the member countries have blended into “oneness” and the number of
“practising” Christians is fast declining.

Jewish liberal intellectualists have followed suite. They too wish to
“blend”, to assimilate, and see no reason to practise an “archaic religion”,
to be part of a unique people or to support a state which does not want to
“blend” and lose its unique identity.

The situation in the Moslem world is very, very different. So different that
liberal intellectuals cannot understand it and therefore, instead of
studying it assiduously, tend to ignore it.

Unlike Christianity and Judaism, where the number of practising followers is
in decline, Islam is on the rise. Most Moslems have no desire to blend, to
assimilate, in the countries to which they have moved for a better life. On
the contrary, they desire to impose their beliefs and religious legal
system, the Shari’a, on the non-Moslem world they are  invading, if not  by
force then by sheer numbers.

I have received this link, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-3X5hIFXYU
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-3X5hIFXYU>  , from a number of my readers
and I pass it on to you without comment. If you are unable to connect
through this newsletter then paste the link as you browse.

 Beryl Ratzer is an Israeli Tour Guide, combines her knowledge of Israeli archaeology,geography and history with her great love of the Land of Israel to enrich the tourist and the historian alike in their Holy Land adventure.