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Trump made us ask, again: Who are the Jews, anyway?

The president's executive order seeks to protect Jewish kids on campus. But we have to do our part as well.

Orthodox Jewish men carry Moshe Deutsch's casket outside a Brooklyn synagogue after his funeral Dec. 11, 2019, in New York. Deutsch was killed Dec. 10 in a shooting inside a Jersey City, New Jersey, kosher food market. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(RNS) — The default Jewish text message?

“Start worrying. Details to follow.”

That text message certainly defines the modern Jewish mindset – we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. “What now?” we ask ourselves.

Who could blame us? Consider what has happened in just the past week.

The lethal attack in Jersey City, that was aimed at the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community.

The vandalism at the Persian synagogue in Beverly Hills on Shabbat — which, while no blood was spilled, resulted in the desecration of a Torah scroll, which in Jewish sensibilities is almost as bad.

It has begun to feel as if there is an anti-Semitic incident every single day.

But some Jews use the “start worrying, details to follow” text not when they hear bad news — but when they hear what might be construed as good news.

I am referring to last week’s executive order from President Donald Trump on anti-Semitism.

Let’s talk tachlis.

  • The executive order did not, as was widely reported, refer to the Jews as a “nationality.”
  • The executive order affirmed the widely accepted international definition of anti-Semitism.
  • The executive order was a delayed fulfillment of an Obama administration policy.

To quote writer Yair Rosenberg from his newsletter:

Because Title VI does not mention discrimination based on religion, it could be interpreted to exclude protection for religious groups like Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and others. To close this loophole, the Obama administration’s assistant attorney general for civil rights Tom Perez— now the head of the Democratic National Committee — crafted a policy based on prior precedent that stated that these religious groups were nonetheless covered under Title VI’s provisions, despite the language of the act. Basically, the idea was that although these groups might not define themselves as a “nation” or “race,” because racists define them that way and attack them as such, they are protected.

Bottom line: The intent behind this order is to protect Jewish kids on the college campus.

Perhaps we should thank Trump for that gesture.

And perhaps we should thank Trump for allowing us to trot out, once again, all of those questions about Jewish identity.

I heard my colleagues and friends decrying the (as it turns out, incorrect) marking of the Jews as a nationality or as a nation. They pushed back, saying, “We are not a nation; we are a religion!”

I felt I had entered a time warp, shuttling back to Reform Judaism’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

No — the Jews have always been a nation (am, peoplehood; goy, nation) ever since God called Abraham. The state of Israel only reaffirmed that sense of nationhood.

But, if we are confused, there is a reason.

Jewish identity is a mess — and it has always been.

Who are the Jews?

  • A religion, as in Torah and Shabbat.
  • A people, as in the ties that bind Jews of all places and times. As in why I mourn with the victims in Jersey City. As in why Bernie Sanders or Noam Chomsky is as much my brother as Natan Sharansky.
  • A collection of languages, as in Hebrew and Yiddish and Ladino.
  • A collection of ethnicities, as in bagels and lox and hummus and malawach bread.
  • A collection of cultural expressions of Judaism and about Judaism and Jews — as in Matisyahu and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and klezmer and piyyut. (And, yes: Most of American Judaism is ashkenormative — privileging the Central and Eastern European experience over the Sephardic and Middle Eastern — not to mention African.)
  • A nation — as in Zionism. (Interesting to note: At least some of the early Reform opposition to Zionism was because the Zionists were too secular!)

We are all of these things — though perhaps not at the same time, and not for the same people. Some Jews “major” in one of these complex identities, “minor” in others and reject the rest.

But you cannot say that only one of these is Judaism.

And you cannot expunge one of these from the Jewish experience.

That will become (forgive me) Deformed Judaism.

Back to the college campus.

The words of Blake Flayton, a student at George Washington University, writing in The New York Times (full disclosure: Both of my sons are alumni):

The progressive activist crowd I encountered on campus … have made it abundantly clear to me and other Jews on campus that any form of Zionism — even my own liberal variant, which criticizes various policies of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and seeks a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a political nonstarter. For this group at my school, and similar groups on campuses and cities around the country, Zionism itself is, to parrot the Soviet propaganda of several decades ago, racist. And anybody who so dares to utter the words “right to exist” is undeniably a proponent of racism.

What will be the most useful way to fight anti-Semitism on campus?

Let’s take a look at Jewish education.

For most Jewish kids, formal Jewish education ends pretty much around puberty — or, shortly after the final hymn on the Shabbat morning of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.

American Jewish educators and parents, we have a choice.

  • We can view Judaism as preparation for an hour on the bima.
  • We can view Judaism as the mere ritualized repetition and parroting of prayers.
  • We can continue to teach to the test — the test being a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.


We can view Jewish education as preparation not for an hour — but for a life.

We can view Jewish education as the creation of resilient Jews.

Jews who know their own history, identity, customs and larger story.

Jews who can stand up to anti-Semitism by articulately defending your people and defending your story.

No executive order can achieve that. Let us neither desire nor expect the White House, or any government institution, to define and strengthen Jewish identity.

Only we can do that.

It is on us.

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