What is a Jew: A Zionist perspective

"Who is a Jew?" raises the question of Jewish identity within the extended Jewish community, Israel and Diaspora; "What is a Jew" raises the question of Jewish identity determined by our persecutors. And while the Who seems compelling for those concerned with the survival of Judaism, the What determines the survival of "the Jews."

 Between the first and eighteenth century persecution of “the Jews” was based on their collective identification with gospel portrayals as Christ-killers responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (a belief held by more than thirty percent of Americans according to ADL’s 2011 survey of antisemitism). With the transition from religious to secular governance most evident in the eighteenth century criticism of religion also extended to reevaluating the place of Jews in the West. Christianity's "Who" became secularism's "What”: how fit a group with a "common" culture, history and language, all attributes of national groups identifying French and German” nationals but dispersed among other nations? This "nation apart" continued to vex scholars and politicians until late in the nineteenth century when the Jewish people were now seen as a "race." Within decades Germany's Third Reich would replace "race" by "bacillus," a pathogen demanding extermination.

Although antisemitic political parties already existed in Europe and the United States for about a century it was only with the rise to power of National Socialism in Germany that a "legal" definition for “Jewish” was enacted. Before the rise of Hitler German Jews were among the most assimilated and intermarried in the world. Germany’s democratic constitution for the Weimar Republic was drafted by Hugo Pruess, a Jew; and Walther Rathenau, also Jewish, held two ministerial positions in Wiemar, economics and foreign affairs.

The Nuremberg Laws (1935), The Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (to view the chart, click here), describe five levels of blood "purity" although, to my knowledge, the core concept of "blood" as applied to "völkisch" was not itself defined. Would a “pure” Aryan Christian convert to Judaism be considered "Jewish" or "völkisch"? As regards the five categories of blood, “pure Aryan” describes offspring from four grandparents; “pure Jewish” may consist of three Jewish grandparents. Between these extremes of purity are two Mischlinge, or “half-breed” populations:  A mischling second grade has a single Jewish grandparent; a mischling first grade has two Jewish grandparents.

What are the implications of Nuremberg for Jews today? For one thing they bear on Israel's role as refuge for the Jewish people. Shortly after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence he proposed a law confirming Israel's Zionist role as refuge for the Jewish people. Recognizing that Nuremberg provided a legal model upon which another government intent on completing Germany's failed "Final Solution" could refer he proposed a law providing refuge for the widest description of “Jewish” for potential victims under a next generation Nuremberg. Among the first laws constituting Israel's constitution is the 1950 Basic Law: The Law of Return. Following a series of challenges in the Supreme Court the 1950 Law was reaffirmed and clarified by a 1970 Amendment clearly providing refuge to anyone, regardless of adherence to Judaism as religion, even to non-Jews considered "mischling" under Nuremberg. Hence its popular description as the "grandchild amendment." 


The need for including "mischling" in Israel's Law of Return has been challenged by both religious and secular critics. Under Nuremberg it appears that only those classified “pure Jews” were targeted for extermination. And while this may have been true it is also fact that the goal of the Final Solution was not achieved due only to the Germany losing the Second World War. There should be little doubt that had Germany prevailed that very few Jews would likely have survived.


Nuremberg was clear in its definition of both “pure blood” categories. The fate of Germany’s Jews was sealed by those laws. Why Nuremberg left obscure the status of "half-breeds" was never explained but likely was based on Hitler’s gradual and cautious preparation of the ground before embarking on the actual Final Solution. What was never obscure was Hitler's description of "the Jews" as pathogen; his intention to eradicate the disease he described as threatening human survival. In his Mein Kampf (1925) and speeches and writings, his private “table talks” he repeatedly proclaimed his intention. Had Germany prevailed in the war, still considered possible by Roosevelt and Churchill as late as 1943, would the Holocaust have ended with Nurenberg’s “Jew-by-three-grandparents” definition? What likelihood the mischlinge half-breeds of two, or even a single Jewish grandparent? Would the pathogen be eliminated by murdering only those “pure” according to Nuremberg? According to Hitler,


". . . the discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world. The battle in which we are engaged today is of the same sort as the battle waged, during the last century, by Pasteur and Koch. How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! ... We shall regain our health only be eliminating the Jew.”


The Holocaust was unprecedented and unanticipated to Zionism before the event. Who could even consider the possibility that the Jewish Problem could take on such dimensions as to result in such an act? Such a thing was beyond experience and, before it happened, beyond even imagination. What was clear was, and continues with more urgency after the fact is that Jews are inassimilable, physically unsafe in the Diaspora. With the reality of Auschwitz so recent a reality; with a final solution no longer “unprecedented” or unimaginable: Had Hitler won the global war, is it credible to imagine that limiting the threat or its scope would have satisfied Hitler? Would such a future motivated leader in an as yet unknown state; would limiting the Jewish threat to Nuremberg’s “pure Jews” satisfy its elimination? Would it not be prudent to insure the threat not reemerge due to not completing the task and eliminating also those closely related such as the “child of a single Jewish grandparent”?   


Implications for the Future


How is this relevant for Jews today?  Hitler set out to murder each and every one of us, but failed. And according to most historians the Final Solution was something of an aberration, a "departure" from history, unique. So what have we to fear?


I suggest that while the slaughter of the Jews called the Holocaust was unique in scale, that persecution and even mass murder of entire communities of Jews is far from "unique," has been occurring with such a consistency that such terms as "aberration" and "unique" and "mysterious" so fail to apply as to suggest instead denial, or even more sinister, revisionism. Hitler referred to the extermination campaign as the “endlösung,” the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem. The term alone indicates a pre-history to the effort.


The “problem” referred to in "the Jewish Problem" was originally theological, an inability to square the fact of continuing Jewish survival in a post-Jewish, "new" Israel-Christian era. Secularism challenged the "mysticism " of theology only to replace it with the pseudo-science of eugenics, the rage of America's elite during the first half of the twentieth century. Eugenics would protect the national gene pool through selective human breeding and eliminate the “unfit” by closing its borders to the unwanted, and by use of involuntary sterilization and even “eugenicide,” the "humane" murder of those deemed "unfit."  With a zeal bordering on religious fervor American eugenicists financed by America’s most wealthy, exported their enthusiasm to Germany.


As a problem according to its origins in religion one possible solution to the Jewish Problem could be and was voluntary or involuntary conversion to Christianity. But in a secular world “conversion” has no meaning, provides no possibility of sanctuary.


For centuries the imagined “threat” represented by Jews resulted in millions murdered at the point of sword, clubbing and drowning; beginning in the tenth century whole communities of Jews were rounded up and burned in town squares, the first recorded incidents satisfying the definition, holos (completely) caustus (burned). With the arrival of the modern nation-state and the secularization of the Jewish Problem by the twentieth century technology had developed to a level that the means were finally available to achieve that which was previously not possible, a “final solution” to the West’s two-thousand year Jewish Problem. By the twenty-first century technology today makes that available to seem Auschwitz primitive by comparison.  


A single example suffices: Beginning at the earliest stages of Hitler's ambition IBM provided Germany its most advanced data processing technology along with its best technicians to program it for the ever-changing needs as the Holocaust progressed. Today IBM produces supercomputers which collect data from birth to death, track everything from library check-outs to credit card usage and internet sites visited. A complete biography of any person; to identify every member of any search category: “Jew,” for example.