In a night of majestic surprises, The President’s announcement in the state dining room of the White House took the cake. A few hundred Jews stood around celebrating Hanukkah with the special feeling of privilege a White House invitation brings to an American. The President entered, welcomed his guests, and announced he was signing an executive order making antisemitism punishable under the Civil Rights Act. His executive order was meant to protect college students facing antisemitism. The Civil Rights Act doesn’t protect religions, only nations, races, and ethnicities. As someone who was in the room at the time, I can say that we didn’t recognize the significance of President Trump’s order at the moment. It was only later we’d realize the President of the United States had signed an executive order defining Jews as something more than “just a religion.”
Zionism’s ideology isn’t simple. Zionism is a compound of multiple elements, all joined together to create an ideology focused on improving the condition of the Jewish people. One of the most fundamental elements of Zionism is the Jewish people. Zionism is an ideology started by Jews for Jews by working hard to create a Jewish state for the Jewish people. Having a Jewish state for the Jewish people opened the question of who is a Jew? While the debate raged over who qualifies as a Jew; the larger and more important question of “what is a Jew?” wasn’t given enough attention.
Answering the question, “what is a Jew?” would seem to be straightforward. A Jew is an adherent of Judaism. While that seems like an easy answer, it’s completely incorrect. A Jew doesn’t have to adhere to Judaism at all to be a Jew. Even if they refuse to follow Judaism, they are still considered a Jew. “What is a Jew?” is anything but a simple question. What are the qualifications that make Jews a Jew?
Traditionally, the qualifications to be a Jew were twofold; If one was born to a Jewish mother or if they converted according to halacha, they were Jewish. While a person was considered Jewish by those two standards, if they maintained certain heretical beliefs, they were expelled from the Jewish community and not considered part of the nation. Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jewry changed many of these guidelines, lowering the high standards of Orthodox Jewry.
The world defines religion as a social construct. The world sees religion as a group of people agreeing to believe the same axioms, maintain the same values, and follow the same laws. They see Judaism, Christianity and Islam as fitting these social constructs. Judaism isn’t just a social construct; Jews believe it to be a system that follows the truth – G-d’s word.
A nation or a people is a group of people that share certain qualities, chief among them a geographical location. A nation is more than just a social construct, it goes to the very identity of the people. The designation of a “people” or a “nation” entitles the people to unique national rights, like self-determination on their own land.
From the very founding of Judaism, the Jews were meant to be a people, and not “just” a religion. When the Jews were slaves in Egypt, when they gathered at Mount Sinai, when they traveled through the desert and entered the land of Israel, they were called “The nation of Israel,” and the “Israelites.” They had a king, a legislative body, a unique set of laws and culture. Whether an individual Jew decided to accept the axioms of the Jewish religion or not, whether they believed in G-d or were an atheist, if they were born into or converted into Judaism, they were considered a member of the Jewish people.
Why are so many motivated to limit Judaism to a religion and refuse to recognize the national element of the Jewish people? As a people and a unique nation, the Jewish people are entitled to self-determination on their historic homeland, the land of Israel. Antisemites, whether they are or aren’t aware of their bias against Jews, aim to restrict the rights of Jews. In characterizing Jews as just a religion it becomes easy to justify denying Jews the rights to self-determination and their homeland.
Modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl’s movement to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel, was built on the principle that Judaism wasn’t just a religion, but the Jews were a nation as well. As a nation, in fact one of the oldest nations on Earth, the Jews deserved to establish their own state in their historic homeland. Anti-Zionists stood against Jewish rights and tried to stop the establishment of Israel. Even today, Israel’s enemies still deny the Jewish people’s rights. Zionism was a movement to free the Jewish people and gain them the rights they deserve. The modern state of Israel and its advocates still stand for those same rights today.