Is Jewishness an ethnicity?

JVL Introduction

Nira Yuval-Davis is an emeritus professor of sociology and honorary director of the University of East London’s Centre for Research on Migration Refugees and Belonging.

In this essay epecially written for Jewish Voice for Labour she looks at the vexed question as to “Who is a Jew” and particularly at the complicated  issue of Jews and ethnicity.

Ethnicity is about identity: for ethnic collectivities what is important are the boundaries which separate people between ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than the specific contents of these groupings. So our definition as “Jews” defines a difference but not at the expense of others.

It is only by embracing such a notion, she argues, that we can prevent our Jewishness being coopted by others and used to construct us as what we are not (e.g. as religious or as pro-Israel because we are “Jewish”).

Nira Yuval-Davis writes

The question of whether the Jews in the UK should be considered as belonging to a common ethnicity arose recently when Angela Rayner congratulated the newly elected leader of the Scottish Labour party Anas Sarwar as the first leader of a British political party who is a minority ethnic. When people objected, identifying leaders like Ed Miliband, Michael Howard and Disraeli as such previous leaders, as they are Jews, a BBC panel composed entirely of non-Jews discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that Jewishness constitutes a religious category rather than an ethnic one and therefore Rayner was right.

Indeed, the 2021 British census, like previous ones, does not recognise Jewishness as an ethnicity but only as a religion, forcing non-religious Jews – a significant part, if not the majority of British Jews – to choose between defining themselves as religious Jews or, if choosing to reply that they have no religion, to disappear as Jews from the census altogether. (Unless, like me, they fill in that they belong to the ethnic category of ‘other’ – at least this time it was not ‘Chinese and Other’ as in the previous census.)

Interestingly, when one looks at the ethnic categories used in the census, most of them are racial categorisations and above all, mark the categories in the population the state would like to keep under surveillance.[1] Even more interestingly, Jews are recognised in Britain as a racial minority who are protected from racial discrimination – notwithstanding the fact that post-WW2 UNESCO declared that there are no such thing as human races.[2] This is part of the fallacy discussed below that racism can be directed only against racial minorities. On the contrary: the process of racialisation can be directed against virtually any intergenerational grouping or collectivity.

It seems to me that there is a need to ‘go back to basics’: to ask what the relationship is between ethnicity, ‘race’, religion, nation and – as importantly – community. We need to avoid homogenisation, if not essentialisation, of these categories which can only lead to counterintuitive notions of self and others. It worries me that some of my friends from the Israeli and Jewish Left have fallen into these traps and as a result find it more and more difficult to self identify as Jews. As has been emphasised in the discussion about the emancipation of Jews under Napoleon,[3] the separation of religion and nationality is basically Christian (or we can say these days Euro- or Westo-centric) – the notion of ethnicity or ethnic community (or the similar notions in the Ottoman empire case the Millet system and in South Asia Communalism) is important because it is able to avoid these dichotomies and be elastically adaptive to local/temporal specificities.

When I left Israel almost  fifty years ago I celebrated the fact the being Jewish in the diaspora meant having more options of self-definition as a Jews than those available in Israel when I grew up there. Only two versions of Jewishness were then available: either the Zionist one which defines Jewishness as being a part of what I came to understand to be a settler-colonial nation; or the orthodox religious one which included racist and sexist elements (as other more liberal and reform versions of Jewish religiousness were not acknowledged there). I actually grew so fascinated with this richness and variety of ways of being Jewish among those I met in the USA in the early 1970s that I wrote my doctorate on that very subject.[4] Different politics, ways of life, attitudes to spirituality and to mainstream Jewish religious and secular diasporic institutions and to Israel, as well as feeling or not being part of specific Jewish communities (which had different histories, traditions and countries of origin) – all varied among the people I interviewed or discussed the question of Jewishness with.

However, they all had one thing in common – they all told me they were Jewish, even when they didn’t know what it meant except for feeling an ‘other’. Also, many felt, like Isaac Deutscher in his classic ‘The Non-Jewish Jew’ essay,[5] that their notion of being Jewish was based on identification with a history of collective persecution. For a large number of mainstream Jews, Israel has come to mean an embodiment of their collective identity. For a growing number of others, especially in recent years, their Jewishness has come to mean protesting against Israeli occupation and violations of human rights which were supposedly carried out ‘in their name’ – as Jews.

While the Jewish case might be one of the most complex and heterogenous ones, contestations regarding who belongs and who does not are very common to a variety of national, racial and ethnic collectivities – whether the question is who is ‘Mizrachi’ in Israel or who is Black in the UK.

When I talk about ethnicity, or, rather, ethnic groupings or collectivities (not ‘community’ which I take to be a much tighter form of social organisation and using it can be misleading), I am following, like many other anthropologists and sociologists, the definition used in Fredrik Barth’s 1969 book.[6] This claims that for ethnic collectivities what is important are the boundaries which separate people between ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than the specific contents of these groupings. As Benedict Anderson claimed regarding nations[7] all these collectivities constitute ‘imagined communities’ with varying degrees of solidarity and perceptions of commonality of origin and/or fate among the members. Ethnic collectivities, like national and racialised collectivities, include past and future as well as present generations. Also, like national collectivities, but unlike racialised ones, these boundaries are permeable. They usually share some common (but not homogenous) cultural resources which may include religion, language, folklore, cooking and some notion of collective memories. Unlike national collectivities, however, they do not have a political project of self-determination and unlike racialised collectivities their boundaries are used for ‘self’ and ‘other’ identification rather than for excluding/exploiting the ‘others’. In other words, the most important ethnic project relates to identity narratives – how people and/or others define who they are.

I agree with Shlomo Sand[8] about the heterogenous origins of Jews from different parts of the world, and this is true also for Jews living in Britain. While this definitely prevents them from being racially Jewish or religiously Jewish (as British laws define them) it does not prevent them from being ethnically Jewish.

When Ed Miliband was elected as the leader of the Labour party he was not described as a religious leader (unlike Tony Blair, for instance) or as coming from a religious home (Ralph Miliband would have turned in his grave) but as Jewish. Nor, once he started to criticise the Israeli occupation, did it prevent accusations being levelled against him personally, and against the Labour party under his leadership, of being antisemitic.

This is because these days, as important as is the religious heritage (which is used among the non-religious Jews as a cluster of cultural traditions rather than as a form of religion) even more so is the hegemony today of what Jamie Hakim calls ‘popular Zionism’.[9] This assumes Israel as the collective identity of all Jews – an assumption that has motivated many leftist Jews to refuse it and argue, as Jews, that what Israel is doing is not done ‘in our name’, thus reaffirming their Jewish identity in a non- (often anti-) Zionist way and most of the time also in a non-religious way. But in an ethnic way.

The debate as to ‘who is a Jew’ has caused major political crises throughout Israel’s history. However, in a very different way, this is a question which British Jews have to debate among themselves as well. Only the construction of the Jews as an ethnicity can free contemporary British Jews, especially secular non-Zionist one from being constructed into what they feel they are not, whether by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the British state or a BBC panel populated by non-Jews.


[1] Anthias, F. and Yuval-Davis, N., 2005, Racialized boundaries: Race, nation, gender, colour and class and the anti-racist struggle, Routledge

[2] UNESCO. 1952, The Race Concept; Results of an Inquiry., Paris: UNESCO

[3] Katz, J., 2013, The Term” Jewish Emancipation”: Its Origin and Historical Impact (pp. 1-26), Harvard University Press

[4] Yuval-Davis, N., 1983, New Jewish Movements in the USA 1967-1973, PhD Dissertation, the University of Sussex

[5] In Isaac Deutscher, 2017 (1st pub 1968), The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays, edited by Tamara Deutscher, Verso

[6] Barth, F., 1998, Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, Waveland Press

[7] Anderson, Benedict, 1983 Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso

[8] Sand, S., 2009. The invention of the Jewish people, Verso

[9] Hakim J., Affect and Popular Zionism in the British Jewish community after 1967, European Journal of Cultural Studies. 2015;18(6):672-689

Comments (16)

  • Terence James McGinity says:

    Yes. I concur with this very important article. I have always thought, for instance, despite my Irish connection, because of my Jewish grandparents on both sides I would have fallen foul of the Nazis had they succeeded in their invasion of these countries. I identify with my ancestors from Eastern Europe who were driven out by Pogroms. I insist that my ‘jewishness’ is integral to the society I have lived in and I will defend mine and others rights to identify with the oppressed everywhere and not to be ‘othered’ in the process.

  • Moshé Machover says:

    I beg to differ with my friend Nira. In Britain, “ethnicity” is a polite and acceptable substitute for the discredited category “race”. Just look at the various options listed under the rubric Ethnicity in the latest census.

    Nira states that the boundary surrounding an ethnicity is permeable. This may be so. But the boundary surrounding Jewishness is anything but. A good way of examining the nature of a boundary is finding out what it takes to cross it. In the case of Jewishness the necessary and sufficient condition for crossing its boundary in either direction is religious conversion. The boundary of Jewishness is guarded and patrolled by rabbis. A non-Jew may become Jewish if and only if s/he undergoes giyyur by a rabbi. Conversely (no pun intended), a Jew who converts to another religion, say Islam or Catholicism, is no longer a Jew; s/he is only regarded as Jewish by those for whom the Jews are a race.

    The boundaries surrounding the various ‘ethnic groups’ in Britain (see the Census) have nothing to do with religion and cannot be crossed by religious conversion. Categorising Jewishness as an ethnicity is a category mistake.

  • Frank Land says:

    I am a Jew because my mother and father were Jews and they in turn came from a long line of Jews. That heritage does not define my beliefs, social or political or faith. I feel ‘other’ only to the extent that my peers think of me as other. I value my heritage and find its history fascinating and to some extent it makes me who I am. But it does not define me.

  • Mike Scott says:

    I don’t think this is an argument anyone can win! The Nazis decided that anyone who had one Jewish grandparent was Jewish and weren’t bothered whether or not they regarded themselves as Jewish or were at all religious.

    I regard myself as secular Jewish and in general, take the view that there are three aspects to being Jewish: any two out of three and you’re in! These are: ethnicity, religion and culture.

    We all know the saying: two Jews, three opinions, so I’m sure others will disagree and that’s fine with me. Maybe all of us need to decide for ourselves and everyone has to accept that decision?

  • I agree with Moshe that it is a fundamental error to describe Jews in Britain as an ethnicity. It is a polite term for race. Jews in Britain have certain things in common, religion or religious origin and a heritage of oppression in most cases in Eastern Europe, but that is certainly not sufficient to call them an ethnicity.

    For all intents and purposes British Jews are a minority segment of White people. There is no different socio-economic role or although ON AVERAGE British Jews are more prosperous than non-Jews and have a higher % of social classes A&B.

    I don’t understand Nira’s statement that ‘the separation of religion and nationality is basically Christian’. Apart from contravening her own admonition against essentialism it is wrong. Emancipation and the separation of religion and nationality in France was undertaken AGAINST the wishes of the Catholic Church.

    Nira says that ‘what is important are the boundaries which separate people between ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than the specific contents of these groupings.’ I’m sorry but this is just another way of looking at the same problem. What do these boundaries consist of if not a different in content?

    So what are Jews today? I would argue primarily they are a political grouping or community. The majority are Zionist, a minority are anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. There is in many cases a shared history of oppression (whether real or imagined). But what is clear is that the long term future of British Jews is assimilation to the majority.

  • Dave says:

    I agree with Moshé. I find this article rather disturbing as it invents an ethnic label that simply does not exist for many people who happen to have family members who may practise Jewish religious and cultural norms but do not do so themselves.

    Nira writes: “It worries me that some of my friends from the Israeli and Jewish Left have fallen into these traps and as a result find it more and more difficult to self identify as Jews.” Well this worries me: why should anyone self-identify as a Jew unless they wanted to?

    The real trap it seems to me is one that Nira falls into, which is that other people identify you as Jewish when you yourself don’t. A secular non-Zionist has no need for any Jewish trappings – but should they want them the trappings are not those of ethnicity.

    And there is the notion of heritage – that there is a proud inheritance of Jewish humanism and socialism. But this is not unique to Jews and to my mind a collectivity of peoples is the true heritage.

  • bob cannell says:

    Not sure I understand the argument. Does it mean that because there were some Jews in my past family and my father looked Jewish as did his father that if I say I am Jewish, I am. Even if the evidence is very unclear and I can’t provide any geneology? I could also claim to be Irish on the same basis. I dont want to do either ( well being ‘Irish’ gives me an EU passport so…)

  • Hazel Davies says:

    Interesting to compare with the concept of being English, which is occasionally confused with British. There are those on the far right who see it as a racial category, refusing to accept even third generations of Asian or African descent as ‘English’. But the people living in England and in the diaspora are of very heterogeneous origins. In common there is only a language and a myth, kept alive by antiquated traditions.

  • Philip Ward says:

    I can see Moshé Machover’s point about ethnicity being a polite term for “race” in Britain, especially as it is used for people of colour (“BAME”). But I don’t understand his claim that to be Jewish you have to be religious. That would exclude an awful lot of left-wing anti-zionists, presumably himself too. I prefer the points made by Frank Land about ancestry and the first paragraph of Mike Scott’s comment about how the Nazis would view us.

    I would add, though, that Israeli (zionist) law is significant too. My first acknowledgement of my Jewishness was when I found out about the “Return” petition in about 1987 (I was 34). I signed it because I realised I would technically have been allowed to live in Israel, despite having just (secular) Jewish ancestry and not even any particular knowledge of “Jewish culture”. I think that those of us who are in that category have an obligation (as Jews) to express our opposition to Israel’s crimes, as well as to fight anitsemitism.

  • Moshé Machover says:

    People are at liberty to use, misuse or abuse terminology as they find useful or convenient. But what I was at pains to point out is how the term “ethnicity” is normally and canonically used in this country, especially for official purposes. Well, look at the census. Clearly, “ethnicity” and “religion” are two independent categories. Persons of the same ethnicity may be of diverse religions (or none); and persons of the same religion can belong to diverse ethnic groups.

    According to this criterion, Jewishness cannot be an ethnicity. A Jew cannot be Muslim, Hindu or Catholic. There are of course “secular” – ie non-practising – Jews, just as there are lapsed Catholics and non-practising Muslims. Whatever Jewishness is, it is not independent of religion.
    Of course, the meaning and usage of terms vary in time and place. In Nazi Germany Jewishness was regarded as a racial category, not merely or essentially a religion. On this both the regime and the Zionists agreed – for their own different reasons.

    Why would we want to insist on reinventing Jewishness here and now as a race lite, or so-called “ethnicity”? What purpose would this serve?

  • Mike Scott says:

    Well, I was certainly right about two Jews, three opinions! A couple more points to add to the mix: I believe the Israelis do/did use the same definition of Jewishness as the Nazis for their “Law of Return” and the extreme right in the USA regard Jews as black, for some reason I can’t fathom.

    I do believe that sometimes you have to defend yourself in the terms you are attacked, so if some racist is having a go at you for being Jewish, there’s no point getting involved in an academic debate as to whether or not that’s actually true – you just have to fight back!

  • Jaye says:

    Mike (Scott): I am sure that, unlike Ken Livingstone, you are not deliberately trying to get Nazis & Jews/Zionists into the same sentence, on the same side of the verb. Just to clarify, the State of Israel does not determine the Jewishness or otherwise of immigrants. However because the Nazis sent to the death camps those with a Jewish grandparent, Israel decided that they should allow non-Jews who the Nazis targeted for this passive “crime”, to seek sanctity in a Jewish State. It was/is a compassionate and positive act, not negative or Nazi-associated.

    As for the article itself which deals with the old chestnut “Who is a Jew”, I am in agreement with your first comment, namely that it’s an argument that no-one can win.

  • Mike Scott says:

    Just to be quite clear, Jaye, I was simply saying that the policy adopted by the Israelis followed on from the policy adopted by the Nazis, which you’ve confirmed. I wasn’t making any observations about it or suggesting anything else!

  • Moshé Machover says:

    I was not addressing the question “who is a Jew”. If you want an answer to this question, you may ask a rabbi … but this begs the question “who is a rabbi?”.

    The question I addressed was whether the Jews (however defined) in this country are an ethnic group according to the prevalent and official usage of this term. This question does have a definite answer.

  • If we discuss these matters at an abstract level, the permutations become endless. Firstly, if we say ‘ethnicity’ exists, we have to give it some ingredients. We have to decide if these ingredients have to be exclusive to that ethnicity or whether we can draw Venn diagrams over the ingredients and the respective ethnicities.

    What are the ingredients? Any or some of these: language, food, dress, dance, music(s), and religious practice (rather than the theory of the sacred texts). People might want to add others. It’s often the combination of these that give the ‘group’ its sense of belonging and its sense of otherness and its these characteristics that gives those hostile to that group a reason to attack it (though of course we would always say that that originates in ideas of supremacy etc).

    So if we apply this matrix or checklist to ‘Jews in Britain’, it doesn’t take long to find that there are of course a good few different groups within that category. Just try it for fun! Do yourself, and then do, let’s say, three other Jews you know. Now comes the difficulty: what are we left with? The words, ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’? Is this whole thing a matter that we are reducible to a word that is either a) religious or b)a word useful (or worse) to those who need to categorise, segregate or persecute? This of course raises the matter of whose interests is all this talk of ethnicity anyway? After all, surely if ethnicity exists or has a point then it’s the fact that it’s lived experience not simply a name that the state hands out. And yet people have the right to have a sense of tradition combined with a sense of commonality. Our political problem is that again and again these feelings are harnessed so that those in power can separate and segregate and persecute.

    People may well have spotted that I missed out ‘thought’ from the list. Is there such a thing as the ‘thought’ of an ethnic group? AT first glance, that looks reductive – fascistic even. And yet I read and hear people saying as a reply to the religious claims that there are Jewish traditions of thought – humanistic, merciful etc. Are they Jewish? Really? Take out the Venn diagram again and see if they are particular to Jews or ‘some Jews’ or what?

    For myself, my view is that if we are in the ball game of ethnicity, if that’s the game in town, then I want to say ‘me too’. I’ll have one, please. I can identify activities, ways of being about myself that are part of my background (using the checklist) and what I do and say now too. The additional factor though is that most Jews say they are Jewish because one or two of their parents told them that they were Jewish. In other words there is a ‘descendancy’ factor involved. For secularists, humanist, leftists, marxists this is a bit uncomfortable as it overlaps with both the religious and the Nazi definitions. But there’s no point in running away from it. My parents were both Jews (their parents were too) Communists, atheists and decided very consciously not to take part in any of the Jewish festivals or holidays. We had no Purim, no Hannukah, no Seder, no Friday nights. And yet they both put quite a bit of Yiddish into their conversations and my father was endlessly fascinated by what other Jews were up to! They both identified and stood up against antisemitism (Cable Street), verbal AS at work etc. So I’m Jewish because of that heritage. That’s the root of my ethnicity…and I could then add to my checklist the scores of Jewish jokes my father collected and told, and indeed both of my parents’ ways of telling stories as a way of life and as way of understanding and interpreting the world. I don’t see anyone policing that , so this seems to me a bit of fairly legitimate positive self-identification – self-determination of sorts. So long as it doesn’t exclude or oppress others, or even that others (non-Jews) can cooperatively share their self-perceived ethnicities then we have a positive way of progressing.

  • Apologies for the postscript:
    The other can of worms neither I or anyone else has opened is ‘Jewish art’ [sic]. Both the Nazis and some cultural enthusiasts (!) have said that this exists. Clearly, some Jews make art and some Jews who make art, make Judaic and cultural references when they (we!) do. Consider let’s say Adrienne Rich, Marc Chagall, Philip Roth. But are writers who are Jewish but who don’t mention anything Judaic or culturally Jewish, also producing Jewish art? From memory, I don’t think Joseph Heller mentions anythink Jewish in ‘Catch-22’, nor Salinger in ‘Catcher in the Rye’. But is the ‘angst’ and or the ‘absurdity’ or the ‘laughing at death’ specifically or culturally identifiably Jewish? On the other hand, you have people like Heinrich Heine or Gustav Mahler who came from German Jewish communities. Is their poetry or music Jewish?

    Final conundrum: the Jewish Culture League or Jüdische Kulturbund. This is well worth a look. In the 30s in Nazi Germany, the Nazis came to an agreement with a group of Jewish musicians and actors that they could put on shows of ‘Jewish music’ and ‘Jewish plays’ for Jewish audiences. This lasted right up until the outbreak of WW2. Its leading light, Kurt Singer, tried to make a virtue out of it and made ‘theoretical’ claims that he and this ‘Bund’ were creating and fostering ‘Jewish music’. They even composed new pieces of ‘Jewish music’ as paid for by the Nazis. People who defended their actions and beliefs after the way said that it was partly a matter of keeping their livelihood going – see Anneliese Landauer (whose niece I know). People interested in this story, please read the book about them by Lily Hirsch and I’ll leave you to solve that conundrum!

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