Today I’d like to share a few thoughts about the Jewish People: who we are, and why folks can expect to keep seeing us for as long as the earth remains habitable.
The questions and answers I present here spring from my own experience and point of view. There’s not a Jew I know among us who would presume to speak for the rest of us.
Further, these thoughts are geared in largest part towards people who are not yet anti-Semitic; to folks who’re curious to learn more about the Jewish People. I know they’re out there — because I am asked about this subject all the time…
- What’s it like being Jewish?
- What makes someone Jewish? What does it mean?
- Are all Jews religious?
- Why is it that so many people still hate Jews?
- How does it feel to watch what’s going on in Israel right now?
To be clear, I’m happy to have Jew-haters read this too. But human beings who already hate so deeply are rarely open to new ideas or information. So I write to the undecideds, of every age and background.
While it’s not possible for me to give my non-Jewish brothers and sisters an authentic feeling of what it’s like to walk a mile in our shoes, I do think that for a moment I can put you inside our minds. On that score, we’re going to begin with three basic questions. And then we’ll go over the rest…
1) Do you want to live? In the literal sense. The desire to stay alive — do you have it?
2) Who, specifically, are the people that you want to live for? To live with? To laugh with and to love?
3) Who are the people that you would do anything for in order to keep them alive? Here. In this life. With you.
It’s highly likely that your first answer was yes. It’s nearly as likely that your answers to 2) and 3) can be summed up in one word: family. Few things, if any, command more love and loyalty than the blood that flows through our veins. Our families comes first — because they are our people. Without our parents, grandparents, great grandparents — we simply would not exist. And then there is the love we have for our children…
Because we know that families are the furthest thing from perfect, we also know what it’s like to become frustrated or even angry with a member of our own. But if that very same loved one is attacked or even threatened, the entire clan instantaneously closes ranks. You will fight for them, because more than anything else — you want your people to be alive and well.
That’s what it’s like to be a Jew. While we may number a few more than the lineage in anyone’s 23AndMe — it doesn’t feel that way to us. It feels smaller. Tighter. A family. And that’s mostly due to the fact that for millennia, even centuries prior to the infamously false accusations over the death of Jesus Christ, the Jewish People have suffered through an unremitting faucet of genocidal attempts to vaporize our family.
What makes someone Jewish?
The Torah tells us that a person is Jewish if they were born to a Jewish mother or have converted to Judaism. This is helpful as a technical definition, but it’s not the whole story.
Jews who are not religiously observant but take pride in being Jewish are known as “secular.” I am one of them, and we are not rare. In fact, among the different streams of observance in Israel today, a plurality self-identify as secular.
So why would a Jew even care about being Jewish if they don’t rigorously adhere to their ancestors’ faith? Isn’t that the whole point?
Well, no. Because we are more than a religion. We are just as much a nation and a culture.
The history of the Jewish People goes all the way back to the 12 Hebrew tribes of Jacob who escaped Egypt and formed the nation of Israel. Now, three thousand years after those Israelites walked the earth, their descendants are still fighting for their right to remain in it. That’s us; the Jews you see in 2023.
Beyond the sheer gratitude we feel towards past generations who somehow defeated every organized effort to rid the world of us — we also feel a loyalty to that legacy of survival. Simply put — we are here because of them. And now it is our turn.
That’s what you’re seeing right now in Israel. Once again, in real-time, Jews have been given no other choice but to battle for their existence. Since the Oct. 7 massacre, brave IDF reservists of every age have sprinted to the front of the line in record numbers to defend their state. To defend their people. And the rest of us are doing the small things we can to support that effort.
Why does this keep happening? Why do so many in the world continue to hate the Jew? And why does Israel get treated differently than other nations?
The comprehensive answer to this question would take awhile to communicate. Toward that end, our own Amy Stoken will be sharing an absorbing feature on Jewish/Israeli history later this week.
But what we do know very simply is that the old cliche is true: people are not born hating. Hatred is taught. It is learned. We also know that many people don’t have a deep (or even cursory) grasp of history. This makes it easier to jump on a bandwagon when just a bit of research would send one charging in the other direction (it took just days for Harvard student groups and individual students to retract their signatures from a statement blaming all violence on Israel).
Ignorance can be infectious. And then it can become very dangerous.
To be sure, Jews are far from the only minority who have had to bear this burden over time. Ours is just older. More brutal. More universal. And it feels positively interminable.
Contrary to ridiculous and provably false claims, Israel and the Jewish People do not want to conquer any other countries or control the world — Israelis just want to live on their small strip of ancestral homeland. The State of Israel spans just 8,550 square miles, one-fifth the size of Kentucky, and is surrounded by Arab countries. It is tiny. Isolated. Yet being left alone never gets any easier.
The most perverse irony in recent Jewish history is the inverted relationship between the incredible contributions Jews have made to humanity and the continual resurgence — now record increase — in anti-Semitism. Jews represent .02 percent of the world’s population, yet have been awarded 22 percent of all Nobel Prizes. The disproportion is almost comical, and it segues directly to a question I was asked by both a Jew and a non-Jew last week:
Do you think that Jews and Israelis becoming stronger over recent years makes the hatred of them worse?
It’s such a great question. And while you’d have to survey a relevant sample size of anti-Semites to arrive at a statistically significant answer — my opinion is: of course. Just following basic logic, how could it be any different. When you have a large contingent of people across many countries who already hate Jews — and terrorist groups in the Middle East that have sworn an intention time and time again to “obliterate” the Jewish People — would not Jews’ constant victories and outsize success in society exacerbate this bigotry? No one likes to lose, but angry losers pedal full-speed on the vicious cycles of envy they’ve created.
When you stop and think about the full Jewish journey, it’s really quite extraordinary. Throughout human history — right up until the establishment of Israel 75 years ago — Jews were the most persecuted, underdog, long-shot people to ever live. There is no exaggeration in this description.
Imagine the amount of courage, sacrifice and ingenuity it took prior generations of Jews to revive the dream of returning to their homeland, winning a War of Independence (and several succeeding wars), and then converting an arid desert into a vibrant, strong nation that is finally able to defend itself. Ordinarily, the world would describe this caliber feat as the comeback of the millennium. Because that’s what it was. Israel is a “modern miracle” — a prophecy that Jews prayed for, worked for — and never gave up on.
Instead, Israel gets painted as a monstrous military aggressor. It gets held to a different standard when attacked than any other democratic nation on earth. Israel’s hard-won, hard-earned national strength becomes an excuse for Jew-haters who have always sought our elimination — state or no state.
When Israel gets unwillingly drawn into new wars like the one Hamas just triggered, Jews the world over are sickened to see any innocent lives lost. This is what differentiates us from our mortal foes that gleefully celebrate killing. You may listen to a Hamas’ terrorist announcing the thrill of his kills here, or watch Hamas killers’ exhilaration during the actual massacre here. If your stomach is strong enough, you can listen to an IDF paramedic describing the horrifying aftermath he witnessed at Kibbutz Be’eri:
“There were two teenage girls, 13 or 14 years old. The one on the floor, she’s lying on her stomach. Her pants are pulled down towards her knees, and there’s a bullet wound on the backside of her neck, near her head. And a pile of blood around her head. And there’s remains of semen on the lower part of her back… They were both killed, executed, also raped, in their own bedroom.”
And that is the predicate of my answer to the question of how I “feel” about what’s going on in Israel. As I watch and listen to criticism of the IDF, I want to yell at the top of my lungs to every person who is opposed to Israel’s existence or to its fulsome military response to Hamas’ mass murder and kidnappings:
Don’t you get it? Those 1,200+ human beings that you killed are OUR FAMILY MEMBERS. The HISTORY of our FAMILY is one of the world trying to exterminate us. ALL OF US. Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and children. The 237 Jews who remain hostages under the control of Hamas in Gaza — at this moment — THEY are US. WE have survived for thousands of years in the face of unrelenting attempts to END our FAMILY. In moments like these, our solidarity is airtight…
With that in mind, now ask yourself the following question: If the most beloved member of YOUR OWN FAMILY was MURDERED, RAPED, and/or sitting HOSTAGE with their LIFE on the line — what would you do? To what lengths would you go in order to protect YOUR FAMILY? To save YOUR PEOPLE?
Would I like to see a two-state solution?
Yes. And so would a ton of other Jewish people both in Israel and the Diaspora — though support has waned recently.
But in the absence of an agreement — and Israelis have repeatedly been willing to sacrifice much in order to move an accord forward — Israel is still left with no choice but to fend off animalistic assaults. This is especially the case when the attacker announces publicly and repeatedly that no form of peace is part of their goal. Only more murder.
It is axiomatic to say that the world does not have to be this way: one of ancient, tired persecutions. But it is this way. Life — and survival itself — are just plain harder for the hated. It has always been thus.
Yet Jews remain the same as any individual human being who reflexively fights to protect his or her parents or progeny; the only difference is that we’re a plural.
On Nov. 2, I had a conversation with former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who has dedicated more than 50 years of his life to the fight for Jewish survival. While it is maddening that the necessity to wage these battles never ceases, in his final answer Oren proudly highlighted the other thing that never seems to change:
“I thought I couldn’t be astonished anymore. I am awestruck by these people, awestruck by the volunteerism, by the 150% rate of reporting for reserve duty. Everybody is doing something. What a people. And it’s moments like these where you realize why we have been around for 4,000 years. It’s not by accident.”
Indeed. And while it remains our dream to live alongside the rest of the world in peace — we cannot make that choice for it. Free will.
But either way, this family isn’t going anywhere. Our people are here to stay. Always have been. Settle in.