That statement may seem self-evident, but it is not. In the Diaspora, it is important to recognize that Jews are not part of the wider majority. It is equally important that we feel comfortable recognizing that.
Despite continued efforts by Jews in certain places and times to deny our difference, we must recognize that we are a distinct group of people. We possess inherent differences from the surrounding majorities. This fact is not a positive or a negative, it simply is.
Just as the Maoris or Arabs or Hutus are distinct in their origins and their cultures, so are we. Tragically though, Jewish identity has often been so warped through coercion by the wider world that we often lose sight of who we really are. Many would describe themselves as just a religion or a culture, but one often devoid of any real practice. Both of these descriptions fail to fully capture the richness and depth of Jewish identity, thereby doing a disservice to the Jewish people.
Capturing the richness and depth of Jewish identity
Jews constitute an indigenous civilization – a distinct entity that encompasses shared ancestry, a particular way of life, a legal code, a belief system, a rich history, and a set of customs and practices – all of which emerged in a specific geographical location.
Our ancestors constructed temples and ritual baths, and authored laws and commentaries on those laws in an indigenous language, Hebrew. We adhere to a particular calendar and observe unique holidays that are exclusive to our community. These collective aspects reflect the essence of Jewish identity and contribute to the formation of a vibrant and enduring civilization.
We preserve the usage of names that trace back to our ancestors, such as Benjamin, Rachel, Simon, Joshua, Sarah, Rebecca, and many others. We partake in food like matzah, consumed by our predecessors throughout history. These traditions serve as a vital link between Jews today and our forebears.
Through praxis, each of us embodies a unique thread woven into the tapestry of Jewish tradition, reaching back thousands of years. The continuity of the Jewish people is sustained by these cultural practices and traditions, which have not only preserved our identity in exile, but also define who we are. They are distinctive to our heritage and contribute to our collective sense of belonging.
Even as we were scattered to the four corners of the globe, we perpetuated our ancestral traditions and replicated elements of our homeland wherever we settled. We steadfastly adhered to Jewish laws and customs, including the practice of circumcising our sons – a tradition originating thousands of years ago in the Levant. Despite our dispersion, we maintained our distinctive identity through the preservation of these practices, reinforcing the unique bond that connects us to our ancient roots.
The diverse Jewish cultures that developed over time are truly remarkable and should be cherished. However, it is crucial to recognize them as geographically specific iterations of our indigenous culture. Jews of different sub-ethnic groupings, like Ashkenazi, Beta Yisrael, Mizrachi, and Sephardi never stopped yearning to “return home” This collective desire to reconnect with our indigenous land serves as a unifying force, transcending the geographical variations within Jewish communities.
What does this mean? It means that as members of the Diaspora, we represent a Middle Eastern diasporic community. We have the ability to maintain dual identities, integrating into our respective non-Jewish societies. We can nurture and develop our collective culture as well as express our personal cultural affiliations. Of course, British Jews can enjoy watching Wimbledon, and American Jews can watch the Super Bowl, without compromising our Jewish identity.
Nevertheless, a persistent problem faced by Jews in the Diaspora is the pressure from the non-Jewish world to choose between our Jewish/other identities, which often leads to conflict. In my latest book, Reclaiming our Story, I introduce the concept of the “broken mirror” of Jewish Identity. This describes how we are presented with palatable (and unpalatable) versions of Jewish identity and expression by non-Jewish society.
These versions require us to conform to non-Jewish perceptions, viewing Jews solely as a religious community,or distorting our identity in order to be accepted. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many Jews diminishing their own uniqueness to the point where they see themselves as an extension of the majority – typically the white majority.
This phenomenon is particularly endemic to Hollywood, where characters are portrayed as white but subtly coded as Jewish, without explicitly acknowledging their Jewishness. Or when non-Jews, such as Cillian Murphy, are cast to play Jewish characters, like J. R. Oppenheimer. This implies that Jews are merely a subset of the white majority, overlooking our origins, roots, and distinct cultural practices.
Jews are a distinct group of people with a rich culture that originated from a specific land. Unfortunately, the way we are often presented fails to reflect this reality. Jewish identity is consistently diminished by the world around us. We are treated with double standards and face erasive antisemitism.
That is precisely why it is crucial for Jews to reclaim our story. We must not look to the wider world to understand who we are. We must dedicate our efforts to educate ourselves about our heritage, exploring who we are and what defines us. While it may be challenging, we should strive to reach a consensus based on archaeological and epigraphic evidence. It is natural for disagreements to arise on various topics, but the fundamental specificity of the Jewish identity should not be a subject of debate.
Ultimately, in addition to education, pride becomes an element for Jews to embrace and celebrate our unique identity. We need the confidence to understand ourselves on our own terms, free from the influence of non-Jewish expectations.
As a people, we have preserved and developed our culture for thousands of years while enduring exile and intense hatred.
It is essential for us to wear our Jewishness with pride, and to acknowledge our identity, and to proclaim to the world with unwavering conviction, “This is our story.”
The writer is the founder of the modern Jewish Pride movement, an educator, and the author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People.