There’s an old joke that less-affiliated Jews tell a lot.
“I’m Jewish. Well, I’m Jewish.”
This joke is supposed to be funny because, as the suffix ish denotes, they only share some characteristics of a Jew. But what exactly are those characteristics? What is a Jew?
The English word “Jewish” carries no information. It identifies our group without implying anything at all about that group. Because of that, most English-speakers, “Jewish” or otherwise, have only a hazy idea of what a Jew is.
An English word that better reflects our name for ourselves in Hebrew — our own language — would instead be “Judean.” Such a name would affirm our status as a Middle Eastern tribe indigenous to the land of Israel. By instead tolerating a meaningless name for our people-group, we have allowed misconceptions about the nature of our people to abound.
Until about 1800, Judeans were identified in Europe as a Semitic people who happened to be living in the West. After that point, however, a shift took place. Europeans, along with Judeans desperate to end two thousand years of persecution, decided that to be “Jewish” was nothing more than to follow the Jewish religion. As such, “Jews” in Germany or France were seen as Germans or Frenchmen who happened to be “Jewish” rather than Christian.
While the Jewish religion is an important part of Judean culture, it is by no means the defining feature of our people. In Hebrew, we are defined by our descent from those Judeans who lived in Israel before they were expelled by the Roman Empire, or from those who joined our tribe and accepted our collective history as their own. However, Westerners primarily see us as a Western religion rather than as a Middle Eastern ethnic group.
As a result, only the American Right, dedicated to what it sees as shared values between the Jewish and Christian religions, has committed to supporting Israel, and it has done so for all the wrong reasons. We are not a bastion of Western values protecting America from the Middle East. We should be offended by such statements, even if they come from some of Israel’s staunchest supporters. We are a Middle Eastern people, not a Western religion.
It should be the Western Left that is clamoring to support Israel, the most successful indigenous people’s project in history. It has failed to do so at least partly because it sees us not as an indigenous people returning to our homeland, but as a outpost of Western colonialism in the Middle East.
By calling ourselves Yehudim or “Judeans” rather than “Jews,” we will reaffirm our indigeneity to our ancestral homeland in a highly visible way. Also, by thinking of ourselves as an indigenous Middle Eastern people rather than as a European religion, we will make true peace between our people and the Palestinians possible. One barrier to peace on the Palestinian side is their perception of us as European settler-colonialists, a misconception that we have not done enough to disprove.
I hope we begin taking steps in the direction of recognition of our authentic identity, and in pursuit of integration into the Middle East and peace. I suggest we start close to home. Ha’Am should change its tagline from “UCLA’s Jewish Newsmagazine” to “UCLA’s Judean Newsmagazine.” Hillel should be “The Foundation for Judean Campus Life.” JAM should stand for “Judean Awareness Movement.
I am proud to call myself a Yehudi, or a Judean. Don’t call me a “Jew.”