"Jewish" should it be considered a nationality?

This is in reference to this staff article:

I was hoping the above article would address my question. Typically when I meet someone, in order to get to know more about them I ask them what nationalities are they and they typically respond with such answer as, “French, Italian, English, Irish” Well I asked this one gentleman and he said he was Jewish. I tried to explain to him I thought that was more of a religion and not a nationality since there is no land called Jewland. If he had relatives from israel then he should call himself Israeli.

Who’s right?

Not sure if this helps at all either:

Well, according to your definition a person from the United States would have to be called a “US-er” (hi Aldebaran!) :wink:

Also, there are plenty of people who will identify themselves, sometimes quite strongly, with some “old country” - such as Irish-Americans, or Italian-Americans.

And Judaism is far more than merely a religion. I am a hard atheist, yet I consider myself Jewish and Israeli - and these are not the same thing. Jewishness, to me, is my identification with other people from the same cultural (and some may argue ethnic) background. Being Israeli is, well, being a citizen of a country called Israel (which has about 15-20% non-Jewish population).

If it helps, think of all those with an emotional connection to ancient Judea as Jewish. It’s a good way to think about it, because it actually happens to be correct…

Hope this helps


Ethnicity - yes, based on a shared set of traditions and heritage

Nationality - No. I define this as current nations only. Otherwise I may be considered Roman. Anyway, there are Jews all over the world. One nation does not lay claim to them all. Similarly, Israel is not solely composed of Jewish peoples. Therefore someone from Israel is Israeli by naitonality (not getting into displaced Palestineans here) and may be Jewish by religion / ethnicity.

Most of my Jewish friends are not overtly religious. They may or may not even celebrate any of the major holidays although I do believe they would pass on some of the traditions to their children. Therefore I can conclude that Judaism is an ethnicity and not a nationality.

For that matter, there are Irish all over the world, too. I consider myself Irish, even though I haven’t had an ancestor who lived in Ireland since the Potato Famine. So is Irish a nationality or an ethnicity?

I think your definition of nationality is too narrow - the way you’re defining it, it’s basicly a synonym for “citizenship”. Nation and State are not necessarily exactly the same thing - that’s why we have the term Nation-State. Judaism is, IMO, a nation without a state (and I’m ignoring the religion that happens to have the same name here) - just as quite a few states are States without Nation (like Israel. And Russia. And Britain. And to some extent even the USA… Not to mention all those artifical-line-in-the-sand countries in Africa). Another example might be Kurds - they certainly have no country, and I would say that their unity goes beyond culture or ethnicity. They are a nation, too.

Also, like I said, “Israeli” is not really a nationality - at least certainly not yet.


Just a comment. If you are trying “to get to know more about them” when meeting a person, it’s probably best not to argue with them about their answers. Or try to “explain” to them that they don’t know as much as you do about their nationality.

Especially on an issue as personal & emotional as this – you might just end up knowing how well they can throw a punch! :slight_smile:

But there was a nation called Judah from roughly 928 to 587, and there was a Roman province of Judea.

I think FBG_Alias is right, but you’ll never get people to agree on this one.

I think the vast majority would say that “Jewish” is both a religion and a people. The word “people” here is used in the tribal sense, to mean genealogically connected; the word “ethnicity” might be pretty similar. As the Staff Report says, there are Jews who are members of the people, but do not follow the religion.

Technically, one could have people who follow the religion but are not part of the people. A religious conversion does make a person one of the people, but someone who adopted the religion on their own might be viewed as a member of the religion who is not a member of the people, I suppose.

Israel is a country, and Israeli is the word for a citizen of that country, hence a nationality.

OK, that’s the answer that most knowledgable people would give. And “most” means maybe 90%. If someone chooses to give a different answer, then they may have a very interesting reason for it, and there could be an interesting story.
For instance, if someone’s family fled some country (let’s say, Czarist Russia) and emigrated to the U.S., they might have horrible memories of mistreatment and persecution, and so not want to call themselves “Russian.”

So, rather than tell them that they are wrong, my suggestion would be to say, all friendly and inerested, “That’s an interesting comment. I handn’t thought being Jewish was a nationality, would you mind explaining?”

Just a little caveat – if “nation” meant “state”, historians wouldn’t need to use the term “nation-state”.

Nope. One can’t convert to Judaism without becoming a member of the people. God made the covenant with the Jewish people. Someone who converts is taking on the responsibilities of that covenant.

Besides, someone converting on their own would have to perform their own circumcision, and I imagine that would be very awkward.

OK, here’s what I know about Judaism and my own story, which maybe will help explain it all to you. Every so often, people ask me, an American Jew, what “nationality” I am, and I say I’m Jewish, and they ask me what that’s all about. You have to remember that as a “nation” without a country (until 1948 and Israel), Jews were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and then later other continents. While they did have different local traditions due to the local diet, climate, etc., much of what makes a Jew a Jew is consistent regardless of where you live. Obviously, the level of freedom that the majority culture allowed influenced the amount of interaction Jews had with the majority cultures in the country of residence, and that influenced things too. The Kurds are a good analogy of a dispossessed people like the Jews spread around different “nations”, though they are still of the same primary religion as the majorities in Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan.

There is only one major cultural divide within the Jewish peoples, and that is that there are two branches of Judaism, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. (The Ethiopians mentioned previously are a unique tiny group that, if culturally related to the others, broke away hundreds or thousands of years ago). The Ashkenazic Jews lived primarily in Northern and Eastern Europe, and comprise most of the Jews that are in the United States today. They had fairer skin and spoke “Yiddish” (a hybrid polyglot of Hebrew, German, Russian and eastern tongues). Jews from France, Romania, Russia, Germany, Poland and other widespread portions of that range were all Ashkenazic and had many cultural similarities. (Remember that these were people that over history were often cast out of one country and ended up elsewhere.)

Sephardic Jews came primarily from the Meditteranean, North Africa/Spain, and portions of Asia we now call the Middle East, including, of course, what is today Israel. They have a similar hybrid language called “Ladino”, which included elements of Spanish and Hebrew. Interestingly, there are two spoken forms of Hebrew, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, and the primary difference is that Sephardic hebrew slurs the “S” sound into “T”, much as Castilian spanish (I believe) has a similar dialect compared to other forms of Spanish. (Someone correct me if I don’t have that right about Castilian). These Jews were the ones dealing with the Spanish inquisition, and many ended up in Holland. The philosopher Spinoza was one of them.

OK-- my family-- my maternal Grandfather (who’s still alive by the way, he’s 93) actually came through Ellis Island. He was a Jew from Russia, and his whole family emigrated to the US over a period of about 10 years to escape persecution. He would never say he was a “Russian”, because the Jews in his community were a distinct minority, with a totally different culture, different religion, different diet, etc. than the Russians surrounding them (and persecuting them). My maternal Grandmother’s family emigrated from Romania, but again, were not Romanians. Despite the different countries of origin, their families would settle together in New York and intermingle, as one cultural entity. Similarly, I always tell people that my father’s father and mother were both Austrian Jews (not Austrians). While some groups of more assimilated American Jews (the ones that got here earlier in the 19th century, like German Jews) looked down on the unwashed masses like my grandparents, after a few generations, all Jews in the United States pretty much think of themselves as one cultural entity and don’t even pay much heed to what country their grandparents or great grandparents escaped from.

I am not a regularly-practicing Jew, but I absolutely think of myself as a Jewish-American, much as an Irish-American or Mexican-American thinks of themselves as having the identity of their ancestors.


Yes, but I was deliberately distinguishing between someone who converted and someone who “adopted the religion on their own” – that is to say, not a recognized conversion. I was trying to make the distinction between the religion and the people, and so engaging in Talmudic hair-splitting. Is it possible to practice the religion but not be one of the people? And, I think, the answer could be yes. Admittedly, it’s a far-fetched construct.

Just wanted to add that I’ve had situations where someone asked me ‘where did your ancestors come from?’ and I said ‘Russia’, and they said ‘you don’t look Russian’, so I said ‘I’m Jewish’, and they said ‘Ah’ like I just explained it perfectly. Maybe I did. :slight_smile: ;j

What the hell does “Looking Russian” even mean? Russians are a mixture of many different tribes and ethnicities. There are blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian Russians, there are dark brown-haired Slavics, there are the native peoples of Siberia and the Asian part of Russia, and there are all the people who are mixtures of these groups. Looking Russian to me is like looking American.

I’ve known a lot of Russians, some of them Jewish, some of them partly Jewish and some of them Orthodox and none of them can be pinpointed just by appearance.

…who are, in fact, the original ethnic Russ.

OK, look, I try to allow lots of latitude in dealing with comments on Staff Reports, and I’ve let this wander a bit… but we’re now in the realm of what constitutes a Russian ethnic physical appearance? That’s way beyond the definitions of Jewishness.

So, either back on topic or start a similar thread in Great Debates, OK?

I don’t know why this is so confusing for so many people. Cecil and Doogie explained very well. Jewish is both an “ethnicity” and a religion.

The Romans dispersed the Jews from Palestine in the second century AD, forcing them to migrate (and thus integrate) all over Europe. Thus, over time, they intermingled into the cultures in which they settled. That is why you have German Jews, Polish Jews, Hungarian Jews, Italian Jews, Russian Jews, etc. I have met Russian Jews that look Russian, and Italian Jews that look Italian, etc. The few Jews that remained indigenous to the Middle East tend to have darker skin. It’s a very simple concept.

There is a movement going around today stating that “Jewish is just a religion”. This is not true. I think this misinformation was started out of fear of Jews being persecuted because they are actually, in part, an “ethnicity”. Many state that this labeling is what helped fuel the Jewish Holocaust in WWII.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the term “Jewish” refers to both an “ethnicity” and a religion.

The core of the problem is that, at least in the USA, the term “nation” is commonly misunderstood to mean “geographical area comprising a single political entity.” ie people think that the USA, Germany, Russia and Japan are examples of nations.

And that’s flat wrong. But as long as a majority of folks persist in that confusioon, the rest of who know better can’t use these terms in their correct sense in everyday conversation/writting without misunderstanding.

Like any other word, “nation” means exactly what the person you’re talking to thinks it means. You just have to read their mind first to know what that meaining is.

Judaism is more than ethnicity or a religion. It is a way of life. However, even if you don’t follow that way of life, you still are a Jew. Even if you are an atheist, if you were born a Jew, you remain a Jew.