While Jews have certainly been labeled by certain leaders and societies as belonging to a specific “race”, Jewish identity is rooted in concepts that are much deeper than blood and biology. While many Jews share genetic ancestry with the ancient Hebrew ancestors of the Jewish people, the heritage inherited from those ancestors defined Hebrew identity by tribal and spiritual continuity. In other words, the shared genetic ancestry between the majority of Jews living today is a mere byproduct of an ancient Semitic belief system and lifestyle that placed the highest value on family, national unity and continuity.
That being said, we are certainly an ethnic group. The primary difference between race and ethnicity is that the former emphasizes perceived physical and biological community, whereas ethnicity emphasizes a cultural community.
That is not to say that we aren’t comprised of micro Hebrew ethnicities (i.e. Mizrahi, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Beta Israel, Igbo, etc.) but as a nation/tribe (macro ethnicity) our root culture and national origins are in the Levant. As a result of the various exiles which produced core communities of sojourning Israelites and Judaeans throughout the world, influence and cultural diffusion (and genetic admixture) produced Diaspora Jews with identities distinct from one another. These identities are what I would define as a micro ethnicity. These Diaspora Jewish communities, when compared to their Gentile host population and each other, are more similar to their fellow Hebrews than different. It’s this stratum of cultural, ancestral, religious, and linguistic similarity that ties them to their origins. This what I define as the macro Jewish ethnicity.
Where ever Jews are in the Diaspora we are a Semitic people. And like other ancient Afro-Asiatic (Semitic) peoples our national religion/spiritual system is an inseparable part of our identity, and for us the most meaningful aspect. So being an indigenous Levantine people who defines its tribal membership on cultural/religious terms, the Jewish people can and DO look like any of the artificial “races” that define diversity in the Western World.
Ok so maybe “race” isn’t an appropriate term in that context, but what about xenophobia?
The assumption that Jewish people are racist or xenophobic, or more correctly, more xenophobic than other nations/ethnic groups is rooted some of the most ancient anti-Semitic tropes that have targeted the Hebrew nation since antiquity.
“For the Jews have long been in revolt […] against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share the pleasures of the table with the rest of mankind nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.”
[Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 5.33;]
The Jews, with their spiritual system, religion, philosophy, and way of life: Judaism, have long defined themselves as a nation apart. “Chosen” by the Creator of the Universe, and commanded by Him to be “different.” And while from our modern, Western perspective this may appear on the surface to be a xenophobic (or at least a separatist) notion, its the Hebraic conception of what it means to be “Chosen” and “different” that precludes racism/xenophobia from an authentic expression of Judaism and Jewishness.
Judaism is defined by its litany of laws and customs the Jewish people have preserved and observed for thousands of years. While legalistic on the surface, the Mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah (Divine Instruction) are moralistic in character. Israel’s prophetic tradition grant us insight into what purpose these commandments carry and the mission the Hebrew nation is tasked with by the performance of these cultural, spiritual, and moral imperatives. This created one of the most important maxims of Jewish civilization: that action defines who you are. Therefore Jewish “Choseness” and “difference” according to the wellsprings of Hebrew thought is predicated on Jewish action. The preservation of the Jewish nation is focused on creating an ideal society, defined by unity, love, and justice. As such, the Jewish people despite being a particularist Semitic nation of the Levant, have always maintained universalist aspirations. A particularist goal of national sovereignty and security in its indigenous homeland so that it can fulfill its universalist aspirations of creating a strong example for the rest of humanity.
For some that may strike them as an arrogant notion. However, ultimately any claim to true speech, ideas, and behavior is subject to being criticized as arrogant. That being said, what makes Israel’s “truth” unique in the history of national cultures and ideologies is the manner is which we “advocate” it.
A suitable metaphor is a gym. In every gym there are people who have dedicated significant time to fitness, naturally these people often stand out as extraordinarily fit. Often these individuals feel compelled to spread their knowledge to others, the less experienced gym-goers. In the most obnoxious case, this is expressed in a tyrannical manner whereas the fit feel entitled to compel others to train in what he/she sees as the “right” way.
Gym-goers are usually turned off by these individuals, and rightly so. However, there is another type of fitness expert that gym-goers tend to more readily learn from. This is the expert who leads by example. Confident in his/her path, his/her truth is clear for all who have eyes to see. If others want to adopt and integrate his/her lifestyle it’s their prerogative.