In honor of this week’s 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, I’d like to propose a new definition of the term: Anti-Semitism is when Jews, alone of all the world’s religions, are denied the right to decide for themselves what their religion’s core tenets actually are. Nobody would dream of telling Christians that, for instance, their religion really has nothing to do with Jesus. Nobody would dream of telling Muslims that their religion really has nothing to do with the Koran. Yet a growing number of people seem to feel they have a perfect right to tell Jews that their religion really has nothing to do with being part of a nation.
Thus you get people like Jannine Salman, a member of the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, blithely telling the New York Times last week that Jews have no call to feel their religion is under attack by strident anti-Zionists, because “There is a bifurcation: Zionism is a political identity, Judaism is a religious identity, and it does a disservice to both to blur the line.” And never mind that neither the Bible nor 4,000 years of Jewish tradition recognize any such bifurcation.
Indeed, the concept of Judaism as a religious identity devoid of any national component is so foreign to the Bible that nowhere in it are Jews ever referred to as adherents of a “religion.” Rather, the most common Biblical terms for the Jews are bnei yisrael, the children of Israel, and am yisrael, the nation of Israel. The rough modern equivalents would be kin-group and kin-state, though neither captures the Biblical imperative that this particular kin-group and kin-state be committed to a particular set of laws and ideals.
That’s also why the modern Hebrew word for religion, dat, is a Persian import originally meaning “law” that is found in the Bible only in books such as Esther and Daniel, which take place when the Jews were under Persian rule. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who revived Hebrew as a modern language, tried hard to base his modern lexicon on ancient Hebrew roots. But there simply isn’t any ancient Hebrew term remotely equivalent to the modern conception of religion.
And that’s also why the model for conversion to Judaism, unlike in most other religions, explicitly includes embracing a nationality as well as a creed. The rabbinic Jewish commentators don’t agree on much, but they do agree that the original source for conversion is the book of Ruth, and specifically one verse in it: Ruth’s promise to Naomi that “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” In other words, simply adopting the Jewish God wasn’t enough. Ruth also had to adopt the Jewish nation.
Clearly, individual Jews are free to reject the national component of their identity, just as individual Christians and Muslims are free to reject various tenets of their religion. It might leave them with a very diluted religious identity (see, for instance, the 2013 Pew poll, where the number-one response to the question of what American Jews consider “essential” about being Jewish was remembering the Holocaust). But in the modern democratic West, nobody would deny their right to do so.
That position is, however, a very different matter from non-Jews telling Jews that they must reject the national component of their identity. When non-Jews start trying to dictate what Judaism does and doesn’t consist of, that’s anti-Semitism. When non-Jews insist they know better than Jews do what being Jewish entails, that’s anti-Semitism. When non-Jews demand that Jews reject the religious identity prescribed by both the Bible and a 4,000-year-old tradition, that’s anti-Semitism. And it’s about time we started calling it by its rightful name.