Debunking myths about Jews: 5 things the Jewish community would like you to know…

There are over 14 million Jews worldwide. Outside of Israel, where 42% of the Jewish population live, the Jewish community are a minority. The second-largest community is in the USA at 39%, whilst a mere roughly 2% of the global Jewish community live here in the UK.

With a wide national and cultural diversity yet small population, some people may never socialise with many Jewish people or know much about this historic community. However, in a climate of rising antisemitism, it’s crucial to get to know one another, to dispel negative stereotypes and myths and understand the needs, wants and realities of the Jewish community.

With that in mind, I asked Jewish friends, colleagues and followers this question: “What’s the one thing you’d most like non-Jews to know?” I received some very insightful answers which are important to share. We can all learn a lot from these responses. So, here’s a summary!

1. Jews are not simply a religious group

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As an ethno-religious community, there are many agnostic and atheist Jews. From left to right (top to down): Rachel Riley (atheist) (Image: Ed Clifton, CC BY 3.0), Albert Einstein (agnostic), Gustav Maler (agnostic), David Baddiel (atheist) (Image: Brian Minkoff-London Pixels, CC BY 3.0)

When you hear the word “Jewish”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Judaism? Or “a group of people”? Well, whilst the religion of the Jewish people is Judaism (there are exceptions – I’ll explain in a minute), Jews are not merely followers of Judaism.

Jews are an ethno-religious group – a “tribe”, a “nation” (in the broadest sense) originating from the Israelites and Hebrews of ancient Israel and Judah. They have a shared history and culture, which has over time broadened in varied cultural and theological expressions and local varieties as Jews were left displaced/migrated across the globe. This is what makes Judaism different from say Christianity or Islam in traditional fashion.

For example, you could be orthodox, agnostic or even atheist and still equally Jewish. You may be born into a Jewish family and practice the faith or not but (still) identify culturally with Judaism/the Jewish community. Likewise, you may be a convert to Judaism from a traditionally non-Jewish background in terms of ethnic, cultural and religious tradition but have adopted the Jewish faith and strongly identify with the culture!

2. Judaism ≠ Christianity – Jesus

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Judaism is a religion in itself, with its own traditions and practices not replicated in Christian theology and tradition.

As Jesus was a Jew from Judea and is central to Christianity, it may be tempting for some to think of Judaism as Christianity “minus Jesus”. However, this could not be further from the truth and is a denial of the rich long theological tradition of Judaism.

Christianity does owe it roots to Jewish (Abrahamic) tradition – that is undeniable. In the Bible for example, we see the Torah – the first five books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament (with the New Testament forming the writings of the disciples, recalling the teachings of Jesus). Of course, there are obvious shared derivative origins, history and teachings including The Ten Commandments, the importance of the Holy Land and shared prophets. These similarities and shared histories should be celebrated in a time of division and rising hatred. However, ancient and modern Christian teachings, practices and traditions are quite far-removed from Jewish theology and culture.

Christians for example don’t celebrate Chanukah, follow kosher dietary laws or observe/recognise Shabbat (the Sabbath) (Seventh Day Adventists do however avoid pork and shellfish and revere the Sabbath as a holy day). What’s more, the role of Jesus in Christianity (as the Messiah and part of a Holy Trinity in Trinitarian denominations) is in sharp distinction to the role of God in Judaism (a single Creator). Furthermore, whilst the three faiths share the Torah, there is a long and continuous theological and philosophical study within Jewish tradition, including the Talmud – which is not shared by Christians or Muslims.

With this in mind, it’s critical to not oversimplify/exaggerate the relationship between the two faiths and to not look at Judaism through a Christian, Islamic (as another subsequent Abrahamic faith) or another faith-based lens. Let’s celebrate our shared heritage but not deny the traditions of each faith group!

3. The Jewish community is incredibly diverse

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There is rich theological and ethnic/cultural diversity within the Jewish community. From left to right (top to down): Indian Jews engaging in worship, Bukharan Jews (from central Asia) celebrating Hanukkah, a Kes (high priest) celebrating the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd (Image: האגודה הישראלית למען יהודי אתיופיה CC BY-SA 3.0), Abayudaya prayer in Putti village (Eastern Uganda), traditional Yemenite Jewish dress (“Gargush”) (Image: Tamar Aharon, CC BY-SA 4.0), Kaifeng (Chinese) Jews

So, we’ve established that the Jewish community is an ethno-religious community consisting of “born” and convert Jews. Now, consider the history of the Jewish people – across borders and the emergence of the Liberal, Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements – and… you have a lot of diversity!

Theologically, from within the orthodox movement itself with a range from Haredi (ultra-conservative) to Modern Orthodox, to all the way to atheist Jews, there is huge theological diversity. Now, if we consider the migration of Jews, there is also a LOT of cultural and ethnic diversity too! From Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Spanish, Portuguese, North African) heritage to Jews from a Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) background, as well as Ethiopians, we can see that there are a myriad of cultural traditions, cuisines, customary dress and histories – whilst all Jews, of course, share the same communal bond and heritage.

With a growing acceptance of queer identity too and feminist movements such as Women of The Wall, there really is a space for everyone! Of course, things can get complicated and Jews apparently love to argue but the key message here is: Jews are not all the same but each and every one is equally Jewish!

4. Israel-Palestine is a complicated issue!

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Nuance, empathy and understanding are required when engaging with others in discussions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Zionism is probably one of the most widely misunderstood beliefs, yet is central to the lives and beliefs of many, many Jews, with historical Israel embedded in Judaism. But what is Zionism? Well, put simply, it simply means the belief in the right for Israel to exist as a home for the Jewish people (as the ancestral homeland of Jews). As Anne Frank Trust explains:

Zionism is about the pursuit of an independent Jewish state. The word is derived from Zion, a hill near the city of Jerusalem. But nowhere near all Jews live in Israel and not all inhabitants of Israel are Jewish.

Here in the UK, most Jews would fit this definition and would be classed as Zionist. According to polls:

A 2015 survey found about 3 in 5 British Jews identify as Zionists, though the term isn’t clearly defined. 9 in 10 British Jews support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

Whilst there is some discrepancy between those who actively identify as Zionist or not, we can see that 90% of British Jews believe in Zionism in reference to the existence of the current State of Israel. Beyond the basic definition, there are of course (as with any belief system) a myriad of political beliefs from liberal Zionism to those with more conservative beliefs. However, it must be stressed that being a Zionist does not equate with being “anti-Palestinian”. Zionism is not opposed to the existence of a Palestinian State or self-determination for Palestinians. As the World Jewish Congress states:

A negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution is the only legitimate, just and viable way to provide for a lasting peace.

It’s critical that we all understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very complex issue and leadership on “both sides” has come under criticism. So, to summarise very quickly, let’s remember that it’s a complicated issue – we must not look at the conflict in binary of one side vs. the other, “good” vs. “bad” (from any angle). Instead, we must recognise that both peoples share a history in the Holy Land. In fact, the Jewish community have a rich history across the MENA region, with many having been displaced/forced to leave or never leaving the region. However, due to a lack of historical and cultural awareness outside of the Jewish community, this fact is often overlooked when it would instead help inform and understand current geo-political issues.

Furthermore, on a final note: no people (fully) represent their politicians. The Jewish people do not represent the Israeli government. Many disagree with current policies and in any case, each person is an individual with their own beliefs. Please get to know the person (first) for who they are, without pre-judgements. It’s crucial we listen to one another, to understand and empathise better with each other. Otherwise, peace can never be a reality.

5. Antisemitism is a real problem

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Antisemitism is on the rise globally, including spikes in antisemitic incidents in the UK, further across Europe and the USA.

All forms of hatred share one thing in common: a sense of fear and ignorance about the lives and beliefs of others. Whilst all forms of hatred are equally abhorrent, each manifest itself differently and has a different history. This is no less different in the case of antisemitism if we compare it to anti-Muslim hate or homophobia for example.

In the case of antisemitism, it’s a hatred that is older than many people think. The Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism – not a sporadic or unique incident. Antisemitism has several historic strands which have continued in the modern era. We can see this manifested through ancient (often Christian) anti-Judaism (usually based on the idea of “Jews killing Christ”), medieval tropes relating to blood libels (accusations of Jews killing for blood) and myths around money and control which go back centuries and are still ongoing, yet have merged with modern conspiracy theories of Jews “controlling” the media and banks.

We can clearly see from this how varied and vile antisemitism really is. Sadly, this is now ever truer now as, in addition to these myths and antisemitic stereotypes which have remained (albeit mutated over the years), there have now emerged new forms/mutations of antisemitism from new sources/ends of the political spectrum. For example, with politically-motivated rifts around Israel-Palestine often verging into antisemitism, (often colluding with) “anti-Capitalist” rhetoric now merging with conspiracy theories and older myths, we’re now witnessing antisemitism on the Far-Left too, in addition to older Far-Right narratives which perpetuate antisemitic ideas around ethnicity, race and “whiteness”.

Whilst the Holocaust may not have been the first example of antisemitism that led to murder, this tragic genocide is by far the worst example. With six million Jews having been brutally murdered by the Nazis, the Holocaust is obviously a painful scar in the collective memory and reality of the Jewish community. However, it’s important to go beyond the numbers. Each and every person that died was an individual whose (if any) surviving/subsequent loved ones continue to live with the loss today. Trauma passes down generations and is still affecting second-generation survivors today.

However, whilst we must mark the Holocaust to pay respect to those who died and ensure that we really mean “Never Again”, we must also celebrate life. Jews don’t want to be only remembered as a marker of grief and genocide. Instead, they want to be respected for the living, thriving community they are, whilst also being supported in their fight against the rising tide of antisemitism. This is where it’s important to follow their lead and listen to the Jewish community’s experiences, rather than dominating spaces around culture and definitions of antisemitism. Share your platforms, listen to their experiences and create inclusive spaces. Don’t try and define what antisemitism is – it’s up to the Jewish community to do that. Accept their experiences, feelings, beliefs and needs and be an ally – not a “Jewsplainer” or silencer.

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As you can see, there are some complex yet also very clear themes here at play and many things to take on board. So, in light of what our Jewish brothers and sisters have shared: let’s all commit to better understanding one another, creating inclusive spaces and fighting antisemitism!

You can hear more views and thoughts in the video below. Happy viewing!

Salam, shalom, peace ♡

Credits and acknowledgements

I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who contributed towards this research and assisted in the compilation of the video and blog. Thank you for sharing your beliefs, experience and views so openly and honestly!

Image credit: Caryl Gershom

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3 Replies to “Debunking myths about Jews: 5 things the Jewish community would like you to know…”

  1. Thank you very much for this important blog, important especially at this time of rising antisemitism and tensions in the Middle East. You might be interested that the Church of England’s ‘Faith and Order Commission’ (it sets out our doctrinal frameworks) has recently published a substantial text called “God’s Unfailing Word” which sets out for the first time the CofE’s theological understanding of its relationship with Judaism. One of the good things is that for the first time institutionally it acknowledges the Christian theological roots of the anti Judiasm which lead to antisemitism. It examines four ‘critical arenas for action: teaching and preaching, social action, the Land and evangelism. A copy of the document can be downloaded at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-11/godsunfailingwordweb.pdf I was a member of the writing group and would be glad to engage with any faith community that would be interseted in exploring the issues further

    Liked by 1 person

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