Reclaiming Jewish Identity: An Aboriginal People of the Middle East
Starting this September, after decades of lobbying efforts by Arab-American organizations, the United States Census Bureau will begin testing a new category for Americans of Middle Eastern and North African origin. In conjunction with this new listing, no less than 19 subcategories will be made available, including ‘Israel.’ So where does this leave Jewish Americans? Should diaspora Jews follow the example of their Israeli co-ethnics and mark “Middle Eastern/North African,” or should they take the easy way out and mark “Other” or even “White,” as most Middle Eastern and North African Americans have done up to this point? Should there be a separate “Jewish” category?
These questions are likely to confuse many readers, particularly those who are more inclined to perceive “Jewishness” as a religious identity rather than an ethnic one. Nevertheless, contrary to the widespread belief that we merely constitute a religious faith, the Jewish people are an ethnic group/tribe of Southwest Asian origin, and one of the oldest extant native peoples of the region.
The term “Jew” itself was a name given to us centuries ago by foreigners, denoting our country of origin (Judah/Judea, which is located in present day southern Israel). (1) A Jew can be an atheist, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or a follower of any other faith and they will still be recognized as members of the tribe. (2) And as far as genetics and race are concerned, contemporary ethnic Jews (including European/Ashkenazi Jews) share a stronger kinship with other Levantine populations than with the autochthonous European and North Africans they lived within diaspora. African, East Asian, and Indian Jews tend to be closer to their neighbors, although they too have ancient Jewish descent and cultural continuity with their Middle Eastern source population. Overall, much of the confusion surrounding Jewish identity is the result of our unique historical circumstances, and our status as a nation that had been displaced by colonizers centuries ago and remained in exile until relatively recently.
Of course, bringing these facts to light is guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers, not just for anti-Semites, but for a decent amount of Jews themselves. The majority of it can perhaps be attributed to post-Holocaust anxieties. Less than a century ago, Jews living in Europe were specifically earmarked for extermination on account of their non-white, non-European, Oriental origins. As a result, some Jews prefer to downplay the ancestral and genetic nature of Jewishness, out of fear of drawing too much attention to themselves or being “too different” from the surrounding society. There is, however, a nascent movement among Jewish Americans to shed these insecurities and reassert ourselves as a proud indigenous Middle Eastern nation. Doreinu and New Zionist Vision are just two fledgling groups at the forefront of this new campaign, in addition to the “We’re Not White, We’re Middle Eastern” Facebook page.
Especially in light of the increasingly aggressive attacks on Jewish identity from anti-Semites and denial of our indigenous roots, checking the Middle Eastern box on census forms is a fine example of symbolic resistance against critics who wish to deny us of our collective heritage and homeland.
In recent decades, anti-Israel activists have worked tirelessly to rewrite history, simultaneously denying Jewish origins in the Middle East and falsely portraying us as Khazars (a long debunked, but persistent myth) and converts with no connection to Israel at all.
But overall, our enemies do not get to decide who we are and where we belong. Only we get to make that choice. And since the majority of American-Jews today are pro-Israel, it seems natural to finally re-embrace the identity we’ve fought and died for, for so long.