What does it mean to be a Jew?

We are not a race and we are not a religion. What we are is a family.

 WHOOPI GOLDBERG arriving at the 90th Academy Awards in 2018. (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
WHOOPI GOLDBERG arriving at the 90th Academy Awards in 2018.
(photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

We are Jews. Or, “the Jews.” It is not an epithet to call someone a Jew.

I remember once listening to a podcast in which one of the gentile guests refused to use the term “Jew” and insisted on using the term “Jewish person,” as she saw the term “Jew” as offensive. The host, who was herself a Jew, tried to convince her that she can say “Jew,” but the gentile refused. The gentile guest was not being antisemitic, but was trying to be politically correct.

Whoopi Goldberg’s comment about the Holocaust not being about race was unfortunate, ill-informed and well-meaning. She doesn’t deserve the vitriol she has now faced. She gave a proper apology that took ownership of her mistake, and we should move on.

There is no room in our cancel culture for any nuanced discussion of any topic. We move too quickly to our respective camps and attack any perceived threat without any evaluation.

Goldberg, an African-American, sees Jews as white. In her mind, the Nazi attack on the Jews was one group of whites attacking another, which led to her comment that the Holocaust “is not about race, but about man’s inhumanity to man.”

 WHOOPI GOLDBERG speaks during the WorldPride 2019 Opening Ceremony, a combined celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots and WorldPride 2019 in New York. (credit: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS) WHOOPI GOLDBERG speaks during the WorldPride 2019 Opening Ceremony, a combined celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots and WorldPride 2019 in New York. (credit: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

I actually see a lot of truth in her statement. The hardest part I have in teaching the Holocaust is trying to understand how any human being could treat another human as the Jews were treated. I couldn’t do to a dog what Nazis did to babies. Nor can I wrap my head around the way blacks were treated as slaves, or in the Jim Crow South, or the way they are still treated just about anywhere in America today. So yes, it was about “man’s inhumanity to man,” but it was the Jews who were specifically targeted because of their race.

The crime against the Jews was so vast and unprecedented that the Polish-Jewish jurist Rafael Lemkin had to invent the word “genocide” to describe it. The word comes from the Greek term “genos” for race and the Latin word “cide,” which means killing. The Nazis saw the Jews as a race that needed to be wiped out from existence.

Back to Goldberg, I can see how, as a black woman in America, she sees Jews as white. The problem is that while Jews may pass as white, whites don’t really see them as white.

Growing up in a predominately Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, New York, I thought I was white as well – meaning, I knew very well that I was a Jew, but in race-obsessed America I thought I was on the white side of things.

Only later in life did I realize that Jews were not considered white. And only later, after that, did I realize that there were some people who didn’t see Italians as white either (which was really surprising to me).

That’s the funny thing about race. We obsess over it, but really there is no such thing as race. It is a social construct. There is but one race, the human race, in which we are all brothers and sisters. The Bible tries to make that point. The depiction of Adam being created as a single man is meant to illustrate that we are all part of the same race.

AS FOR me, I don’t care about these socially constructed racial designations. I care about my own identity, which raises the question of what it means to be a Jew.

Well, we know that while Jews were targeted as a race in the Holocaust, we are not a race. There are black Jews and white Jews. There are Asian Jews and Jews of every color and flavor. If we were in fact a race, one would not be able to convert to Judaism, just as you cannot convert to be Asian.

We are also not a religion. If we were a religion, then nonbelievers would not be Jewish. What we are is a family. Like any family, there is a core biological component, but outsiders can marry in and become part of the family. And like any family, once a member, you can never really leave.

It is this notion of a family with a core biological component but open to others that reinforces the ties and special feelings we have toward one another. This is why we all share the pain when Jews are in trouble anywhere in the world, and we all feel just a spark of excitement when we see another Jew on the subway (even if we pretend not to notice).

Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not a platonic religion whose truth is equally available to all. Ours is a story played out in history. It’s the history of a specific family tasked by God to be His ambassadors on earth. God placed this family at the epicenter of world history in order for it to play its role on the stage.

Perhaps, one of the lessons we can teach the world as Jews is to appreciate that we are all the sons and daughters of one God, and that every human being is created in the divine image. By internalizing these lessons, maybe we can lessen racial tension and increase our respect for one another. ■

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.