The age old debate of Jewish identity jumped into the mainstream media when the president signed an executive order extending anti-discrimination protections to Jewish college students even though the law does not mention religion as a protected group. The implication many drew from this decision was that the administration was now considering Jews to be a race or a nationality since those groups are specifically protected. It turns out that the current order did not declare Jews a nationality, and it followed the policy of previous presidents from both parties, but it led to a vigorous discussion of an important question: what exactly are Jews? A religion? An ethnicity? A people?
In America Jews are certainly not a nationality, since our citizenship is American. We also are not a race because there are Jews of all colors and backgrounds in our community. Of course Judaism is a religion, but many people who strongly identify as Jews profess atheism or are completely secular. We often think of ourselves as an ethnic group because of the dominance of Ashkenazi culture in America, but how much is there in common between a Jew from Eastern Europe and one from Yemen?
Perhaps the best moniker for the Jewish community is a “people”, which provides enough definition to the group, but allows some wiggle room. The Jewish people contain one religion and share a language, but also include other subsidiary languages and cultures. We are a messy group with lots of division, but we are united in the principle that “all Jews are responsible for each other”.
Last week the New York Times published an op-ed by Brett Stephens on the “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” that included reference to a debunked study suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews have a genetic link to superior intelligence. One of the authors of the study professed white nationalist ideology, and the Times subsequently pulled the passage relating to the study from the op-ed.
Stephens stands by his argument, however, that there is a Jewish genius, because he believes it has nothing to do with genetics or even intelligence. Jewish genius, in his view, comes from culture, history and values. Jews have always been outsiders, and so they have been able to look at the world from a unique perspective and think outside the box. Our history of argumentation has enabled us to think creatively and not accept conventional wisdom.
I don’t know whether or not Stephens is correct in his assessment of a Jewish quality of genius, but it is vital that any such claim stay far away from genetics. Individually, Jews are just people like everyone else, but as a collective people we have a treasured history and culture that is open to anyone who wants to participate, regardless of DNA. Being Jewish is not a matter of genes; it’s a state of mind.