Who Is a Jew?

Paul Kurtz

The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, by Alan M. Dershowitz (Boston, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997) 395 pp., $24.95 cloth.

The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, by Paul Wexler (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1993) 306 pp., $19.95 paper.

In Defense of Assimilation

How is “Jewish identity” to be defined? What does it mean to be Jewish? These have been burning issues for Jews, especially in the twentieth century, when the Nazis attempted to answer these questions and to eradicate both Jews and Judaism. And they are questions faced anew today, given the daily challenges to the State of Israel.

Jews everywhere in North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, continue to raise these and other troubling questions. Should people of Jewish background strive to persist as a separable and identifiable Jewish minority, or should they seek to assimilate into the mainstream of the culture in which they live?

According to Alan Dershowitz, in his new book, The Vanishing American Jew, the Jews in America are facing the greatest crisis in their history. For, if present demographic trends continue, they will most likely disappear as an identifiable ethnic group by the year 2076—the 300th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. Or at the very least, he warns, they are apt to be a less vibrant part of American life. This development, he believes, is due to the decline of anti-Semitism in the United States in recent decades (except among fringe groups) and to the widespread acceptance of Jews in public life. Indeed, he affirms that the Jewish minority has prospered and succeeded in America in many fields of endeavor as in no other time or place in history. A central concern in this book is the fact that Jews have become so secularized and secure that a majority have abandoned Judaism and are marrying non-Jews. Dershowitz is concerned that assimilation rates are increasing. Secular Jews have the “lowest birthrate” of any religious or ethnic group in the United States (1.5 to 1.6%—below the 2.19% necessary for replacement).

Alan Dershowitz is perhaps the best-known lawyer in America, especially since serving on the O. J. Simpson defense team. His views are sought out on a variety of topics. When he speaks, many listen. But is his position in opposition to assimilation defensible? Dershowitz says that he is himself a thoroughly secularized Jew and a humanist, and he is agnostic about the existence of God. Yet he believes that it would be a tragedy if the American Jews were to decline or disappear. If present trends continue, the only identifiable group of Jews who are likely to survive, he says, are the most Orthodox Hasidic Jews who have a soaring birthrate (6.4%) and are intolerant of secular values. If so, the remaining Jews will, he believes, become marginalized. He thinks that what is at stake is not simply the religion of Judaism, but its culture, which he says is 3,500 years old, and the considerable creative, intellectual, scientific, artistic, and entrepreneurial talents that he thinks Jewish life has contributed to civilization.

Dershowitz’s account of his own religious upbringing is instructive. Born into an Orthodox family in Brooklyn, he studied at a Yeshiva school and kept kosher eating habits until age 25. He later went on to become a Harvard professor and a public spokesperson for all sorts of controversial causes. He still continues to attend synagogue, to observe Jewish holidays, and to appreciate their Jewish “religious” and “spiritual values,” though he remains somewhat skeptical about their supernatural claims. The most interesting paradox of his autobiographical account was the fact that, as a father, he became concerned when his son James decided to marry an Irish Catholic girl, Barbara. He feared that his grandchildren would no longer be brought up as Jews. Dershowitz has had to face the fact that the chain linking his grandchildren to historic Jewish culture will be weakened and that their “Jewishness” might disappear. Dershowitz comes to accept the marriage with affection, but not without some guilt. Both James and Barbara are skeptics, and they have exposed their children to their own varied backgrounds in their interfaithless marriage, without partiality to one.

Dershowitz’s concern about the loss of Jewish identity is shared by many other members of the Jewish community today, particularly Orthodox and Conservative Jews, who blame secularism for the decline. Dershowitz asks, What can or should be done to stem this tide? He states and rejects three options: First, Jews can return to the strictest Orthodox faith, attempting to blend their “Jewishness” with the demands of modern secular culture. This is not possible for a secular Jew, says Dershowitz, and most Jews in America are secular. Second, they can depart for Israel, where they can assume an Israeli nationality. Most American Jews are loyal to America and would not think of renouncing their American nationality or their devotion to the United States. Or third, they can accept assimilation as an inevitable fact and acquiesce to the disappearance of Judaism and Jewish cultural life. This Dershowitz likewise deplores.

He offers a fourth alternative, the development of a new form of “secular Judaism” that is not supernatural but humanistic, that allows for agnostic dissent, and yet provides for full participation in Jewish culture and Jewish identity.’ But if this is to be achieved, he believes there must be a redirection in American Jewish life and a new emphasis on Jewish education. He believes that young Jews need to appreciate their “history and heritage” and the values of Jewish culture, which, he says, include an emphasis on learning and questioning, independence of judgment, a humanitarian concern with social justice and ethics, and an appreciation for the arts and sciences. He calls for a “new Jewish state of mind” able to challenge the view that Jews can survive only where they are discriminated against and persecuted. Judaism, he says, can persist “in an open, free, and welcoming society, such as America.”

Dershowitz’s plea for a secularized Judaism no doubt will find a receptive audience among many American Jews, who have difficulty with traditional theological Judaism. Indeed, some 80% of American Jews who are secular believe that to be a Jew in America means being a member of a “cultural group,” and only 35% think that it also means being a member of a “religion.” Even for religious Jews, 70% believe that being Jewish means being a member of a cultural group, and only 49% a religious group. But if Judaism is the core of Jewish culture—and therefore “Jewish identity”—can a Judaism stripped entirely of religion retain that identity? Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Reform movement, a supposedly liberal branch, recently defended a decision of his group to exclude a secular humanist Jewish congregation applying for membership, maintaining that “the concept of God” is the very foundation of Judaism. One might ask, Would Judaism without these supernatural foundations still have a viable message for freethinking and skeptical Jews? What would happen if the myth of the “Chosen People” and the belief that Moses received the Ten Commandments from On High were finally abandoned? Dershowitz thinks that secular Jews should read the Jewish historical literature and study the Talmud and Torah. But could a secular approach to the historic Jewish cultural tradition provide enough sustenance for its continuity?

Why not consider a naturalized and humanized Judaism to be only one among many pluralistic contributions to human civilization that all educated persons should know about and perhaps appreciate. And why not have this take its place alongside of Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Buddhist, French, Anglo-Saxon, Indian, Chinese, and other cultural traditions? As a member of the human family, should not one learn to appreciate all cultural traditions without chauvinistic preference for one’s own? Why should the faith of one’s forefathers command the devotion of individuals, especially since one’s religious and ethnic background is usually an accident of birth or indoctrination and not one of voluntary choice?

In reading Dershowitz I am struck by how deep-seated his own ethnic and tribal chauvinism is—and by his failure to appreciate the virtues of assimilation, the appeal of interreligious and/or interracial marriages. The United States (and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Western Europe to a lesser extent) are becoming truly universal societies, for they have taken steps beyond ancient ethnic, national, and racial chauvinisms. Should we not applaud those couples (including Dershowitz’s son and daughter-in-law) who are willing to transcend their ethnic backgrounds and transfer their affection to the broader human community, able to reach out and love “the aliens” in their midst? Rather than bemoan the loss of his grandchildren to Jewish identity, why not applaud the quest for a broader human identity?

Surely Dershowitz is not alone in his partiality to his ethnic background, yet what if his tribal sentiments were generalized? What if Barbara’s Irish Catholic parents were to deplore her marriage to James as being outside of their culture and faith? Following Dershowitz’s argument, one might assert that Irish Roman Catholic culture has historic roots and values, and an Irish Catholic should resist the loss of grandchildren to this cultural heritage. Similarly for the Southern Baptist, the Muslim, the Hindu Indian, and so on. Isn’t this a form of bigotry? Is it not time to rise to a new plane of moral commitment? Indeed, one can argue that the assimilation of past cultures to a more universal world culture has higher ethical merit. By so arguing, I do not suggest that we suppress the multiplicities of culture or pluralistic life-stances–only that we encourage those who wish to transcend the exclusive loyalties of the past and to achieve a more inclusive devotion to the broader moral community of humankind. Jews in America who marry outside of the fold are much like other ethnic minorities who recognize their cosmopolitan backgrounds—many people today affirm that they are part German, or part English, or part Hopi, or part African-American, or part Asian. Dershowitz quotes former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who heralds the fact that he is of mixed Lebanese, Greek, and El Salvadoran ancestry: “It is a varied heritage and I am proud of it.” Golf champion Tiger Woods, an Asian-African-American, represents the blending of many ethnic and racial backgrounds—what a wonder to behold! Racists may consider this a “mongrelization,” but in saying this they only mask their ignorance of their own distant past and the variety of bloodlines that all humans represent.

The fact that most secular Jews, like others in America, have decided to move in this direction is, I submit, an affirmative decision on their part. The search for a “new identity” beyond parochial loyalties should primarily be a question of personal choice, without the constraints of religious traditions or ethnic prejudice. Most of the modern Jews, whom Dershowitz approves of, from Spinoza to Freud and Einstein, were secular Jews who broke from Judaism and were able to contribute to more universalistic values. Dershowitz is convinced that anti-Semitism is passé in America, but who can be assured that Jewish achievement will not stoke new fires of resentment? All the more reason why so many secular

Jews have concluded that assimilation is a meaningful option for them, as they seek a more integrated life.

A Redefinition of Jewish Identity

This leads to a second question about historic Jewish identity. It is the prevailing assumption that the Jewish people represent a continuous line of descent of 3,500 years, traceable back to the original Jews or Hebrews who lived in Palestine. I would assume that post-Holocaust Jews find abhorrent the claim of the Nazis that there is such a thing as a distinct “Jewish race.” Yet, in defense of Jewish identity, oddly enough, there are those Jews, particularly Orthodox, who are defending a similar argument. The belief that Jewish culture represents a sacred chain of descent suggests at least that there is a kind of “ethnic purity.”‘ The Jewish people are said to be unique in that they have maintained their group identity for more than two millennia, in spite of the fact that they had no common territorial base and that they have preserved their ancestral religion, culture, and ethnicity intact. According to the Old Testament story, the Hebrews fled the repressive pharaoh in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land, Palestine. Occupied by Roman legions, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E., and the Jews dispersed to many lands. Ever since the Diaspora, according to the traditional account, the Jews have attempted to return to their homeland. Interestingly, this view is shared by both secular and Orthodox Jews, and even by the most rabid anti-Semites. A century ago, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, thought that the only solution to anti-Semitism was for the Jews to have a state of their own in Palestine—which he said should be secular and not religious.

Orthodox Jews in Israel, in defending the law of return, tie the question of who is a Jew to maternal descent. Orthodox rabbis insist that they alone can determine who is a Jew—exclud-ing Reform and Conservative rabbis. But do the Jews have a continuous religious and/or genetic identity (as even Dershowitz, for example, assumes), or are there discontinuities? And do the modern-day Jews draw upon disparate peoples of the past? Surely neither Christianity nor Islam are identified with a specific racial type, for they have appealed in their long history to a wide range of ethnicities. Secular Jews have argued that the Jews do not represent a separate ethnicity or racial type, but represent a “cultural tradition.” Clearly the Jews who lived in India, China, Yemen, Turkey, Africa, and North and South America reflect a variety of cultural values, but also diverse ethnic genotypes, based on intermarriage with the indigenous stock.

In a provocative book, The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, Paul Wexler, who teaches linguistics at Tel-Aviv University, maintains that in the first millennia most Jews lived outside of Palestine and throughout the Medi-terranean world (for example, one million lived in Alexandria, Egypt, at one time), and they attracted converts of different ethnic backgrounds to the fold. The first Christians were Jews, who converted others to Christianity, which was originally considered a branch of Judaism. Similarly, for the non-Christian Jews—Wexler maintains that Judaism at first grew by conversion of non-Jews, mainly pagans, to Judaism. The Sephardic Jews, he maintains, were originally of Arabic and Berber stock. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, they settled in many lands throughout the world.

Wexler focuses his study, however, on the Ashkenazic Jews. The traditional view is that the Jews in Eastern Europe and Poland immigrated there from France and Germany; and that they trace their lineage to the original Palestinian Hebrews. Wexler maintains, on the contrary, that the Ashkenazic Jewish origin was due to the conversion of large numbers of Serbo-Turkic peoples in the Balkans to Judaism, and that they are largely ethnic Slays. In so arguing, Wexler is recasting the argument proposed by Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe.’ Koestler held that the Ashkenazi Jews, who make up 80% of the world’s Jews today (in spite of the Holocaust), largely resulted from the conversion of the Turkic Khazars in the Caucasus of the eighth century. Koestler’s thesis was criticized because of its lack of corroborating evidence. Wexler maintains that the cradle for the Ashkenazi Jews was the Balkans and the mixed Germanic-Slavic areas of Europe in the Middle Ages. His evidence for this is primarily linguistic: he traces Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews, to a Slavic (not Germanic) origin. There were undoubtedly later heavy borrowings from German, but Yiddish, he maintains, is originally a Slavic language. Thus, a Judaization process was introduced to a pagan people; they were responsible for transforming and developing medieval and modern Jewish culture. According to Wexler, even modern Hebrew is a development and an accretion, and it is not a return to the original language per se (the Palestinian Jews spoke Aramaic primarily) but is a result of a similar process of Judaization. Wexler grants that the historical record of the Jews between the sixth and eleventh centuries is very fragmentary, but he holds that coterminous with the conversion of the pagans to Christianity and Islam during this period, there were widespread conversions of pagans to Judaism.

Thus the Ashkenazis are a result of conversions by proselytes and wide-spread intermarriage and assimilation. He grants that in time the Ashkenazi Jews became a distinct interbreeding ethnic stock and that, like the Muslims and Christians, they eventually attempted to enforce (not always with success) prohibitions against intermarriage or assimilation out of the group. This means that Jews today are the product of a long period of assimilation (both ways) and that this is an ongoing process. Over the millennia the Jews have not only assimilated other peoples into the fold, but tens of millions have left the fold and their gene pools have been dispersed throughout many nations. Anti-Semites no doubt played a role in this process, but it was a two-way street. During certain periods, the Jews were confined to the shtetl and the ghetto, but many Jews also sought to assimilate into the mainstream as a protection against prejudice.

The implications of Wexler’s research for the State of Israel are profound. Jewish nationalism and Zionist ideology are wedded to “the sacred chain” thesis. Wexler observes that, given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, the belief in an uninterrupted identity of the Jewish people and/or religion from the Palestinian period to the present impedes the systematic study of this historic Judaization process. If he is correct, this thesis need not justify the frenzied effort by Palestinian nationalists to throw the Jews into the sea, no more than that Native Americans need insist that the settlers in America and Canada return to Europe and Africa, or that the Australians give back Australia to the Aborigines. The world is rapidly changing, and immigration and emigration is a pervasive fact of postmodern existence. We should encourage inter-marriage, miscegenation, and other such processes, but especially the creation of secular societies, which encourage people of diverse ethnicities to settle and live together and to transcend the ancient loyalties of the past. This, of course, should apply not only to Jewish chauvinists but to chauvinists of all stripes. Islamic countries, in particular, need to respect the separation of church and state, develop an appreciation for secularism, and mitigate hostility to non-Muslims in their midst.

From the secular humanist perspective, assimilation is a positive good and is not to be feared. The moral agenda for humanists is to persuade people that we need to go beyond the ancient divisive loyalties of the past and to attain a new ethical level in which all persons become a part of the community of humankind. This may be difficult. But if it is happening in America, why not elsewhere?


  1. The most forceful proponent of this view is Rabbi Sherwin Wine of Birmingham, Michigan, who has founded a movement known as “Secular Humanist Judaism.” It has developed 20 congregations in North America, and also internationally. But thus far it has not become a mass movement.
  2.  See Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995).
  3. London: Random House, 1976.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, by Alan M. Dershowitz (Boston, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997) 395 pp., $24.95 cloth. The Ashkenazic Jews: A Slavo-Turkic People in Search of a Jewish Identity, by Paul Wexler (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1993) 306 pp., $19.95 paper. In Defense …

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