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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Race or Religion?

Listening to a discussion yesterday on the conflict and tensions between 'Palestinians' and 'Israelis' one of the debaters, an earnest young woman, clung to her theme that 'Jews' are simply members of a 'religious movement' and not a distinctive 'race'. Her argument is the familiar secular/humanist one that revolves around the diversity of Jewish genetics, and the relative comparison with 'Palestinian' Arabs. Both, it can be said, are 'Semitic' peoples, and therefore, it is argued, the only distinction is 'religion'. This argument misses a key element of 'Jewishness' - which is that the 'religion' does not, as Shakespeare would phrase it, 'a Jew make'.

Anyone can 'convert' to Judaism, but that does not make them a 'Jew'. To be a Jew, you have to have been born of a Jewish mother. In typically pragmatic fashion, the Jewish 'Law' of inheritance states that 'a man may have many fathers, but only one mother' and therefore inheritance is through ones mother, not your father. As the admirable programme for the BBC by Simon Sharma on the History of the Jews explains, they are a very diverse population. A true 'rainbow' nation, and Judaism (the religion) is just as diverse. It is a monumental mistake to claim they are 'just followers of a religion' and not a 'people' of distinct lineage, whatever the 'genes' indicate. Unless one is completely isolated from contact with other human tribes for, I suspect, at least a thousand years, the chances of retaining one particular 'pure' genetic lineage are pretty remote.

One has only to look at the modern human population of Europe to see this. What makes anyone English, German, French, Scottish or Swiss? Genetic samples of any population with produce matches across the entire spectrum. Does this make us all members of some Pan-European 'tribe? Are all Scots inflicted with red hair and blue eyes? Of course not, but those who argue that 'Jews' are not distinct as a racial group try to advance that argument. In fact, they are misled by their own propaganda, since whether a Jew has his most recent roots in Europe, the steppes of Russia, or the US, there are a number of particular 'markers' in their genes that link them. Once again, that simple statement of 'many fathers, only one mother' comes into play. It is something that should be far more carefully considered - especially in relation to the Jews, who, as Simon Sharma so ably points out, have been the world's 'whipping boys' since the beginning.

So, if their genes are as diverse as everyone elses' (barring the already mentioned unique markers) why is their religion such a unifying force? After all, there are probably as many Jews who do not believe or practice it, as there are those who do. Why, as Simon Sharma tells us, do even those who do not believe or regularly 'practice' the religion, still call themselves 'Jews' and why do they still mark the major festivals following the timeless rituals? That is what seems to confound the secularists, because the 'religion' is a product of the 'race'.

What we call the Old Testament is a remarkable document. Though much of it is allegoric narrative, particularly the first five books, parts are a historical narrative of folk memory, and later parts are the moral discourse on the abuse of power and wealth by the political classes that lead, eventually, to the dispersal, it is a remarkably cohesive story. It is the story of the creating, the welding together, of a people, 'The Jews', as a single unit even in a worldwide 'diaspora'. Few, if any, people on Earth have such a cohesive identity as the Jews. It is far more than their genes, and it transcends their religion, but it is a mistake to attempt to categorise the one without the other. The Bible underpins both the Jew as a race, and the 'Jew' in religion, but, once again, one has to realise that the 'religion' and the 'race' are not just intertwined, but are both badges of 'indentity'.

Yes, they are, by and large, a Semitic people, but that is simply a 'category', a 'label' for those who love to force large issues into small pigeonholes so they can ignore the more complex matters in dealing with them. That, I suspect, is why we have so many problems politically in the world today. By reducing everything to the 'lowest common denominator' those in power, and those on the peripheries who love to voice an opinion on such things, try to ignore and suppress the very real, and far more complex issues such actions are intended to hide. By denying the Jews a distinctive 'Racial Identity' the 'problem' of Israel/Palestine can be reduced to one of 'religion' and from there, the belief can be advanced, that 'religion is the cause of the conflict'.

Convenient, but far from accurate, and a major reason that no solution is likely to be found anytime soon. When those who bandy about the idea that 'being a Jew' is the same as 'being a Muslim' finally realise their assertion does not stand up to scrutiny, we may perhaps begin to find solutions to many more problems in this post 20th Century world.

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