What is a Jew?

A few days after the last U.S. Presidential election, I went to have dinner with some friends. When I rang the bell, the husband opened the door and greeted me, saying, “We will shelter you.” Not, “Hello!” Not, “Good to see you.” But “We will shelter you. We have already discussed it. If they come after the Jews, you have a place to hide.” That was the level of anxiety on the homes of our nation’s capital.

Since that day, I have had similar conversations with dismaying regularity. At dinners, at lunches, in the doctor’s office. Sometimes, it seems as if every person I know of Jewish descent is constantly taking the temperature of the U.S.: Is it safe to stay (here, in our homes, in the country of which we are citizens, the place we have worked hard to build, the only nation we have ever lived in) or do we need to flee? Where would we even go?

Nor have those fears proved unfounded. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting, which evoked compassion and support for people all over the nation and the world, including¬†the support of faithful Muslims who offered to guard synagogues the next Saturday morning so that the Jews could worship without fear, has only been the most visible incident in a spate of anti-Semitic crime. Attacks targeting Jews rose 13% last year, worldwide; one incident in four took place in the United States. (Business Insider). The President and his advisors routinely tweet or re-tweet material playing upon dangerous anti-Semitic tropes, and Trump himself called Jews “brutal killers, not nice people at all” in a speech to the Israeli American Council three days ago.¬† Even today, as I was writing this, a shooting in a kosher market in New Jersey has been identified as a targeted act of hate.

Today, we awoke to the news that Trump intends to sign an executive order stipulating that Jews are a race or nationality, not just a religion. The idea was apparently suggested by Jared Kushner, who is himself Jewish, and who intends this to strengthen the federal government’s ability to combat anti-semitism on college campuses. However, it has raised serious alarm, and even panic, among the American Jewish community, who are only too aware of how the false assertion that Jews were “foreigners” rather than Germans was used to foster the anti-Semitism which led them to the death camps.

Nor is this fear ungrounded. This administration has been only too willing to suggest  that black people, Hispanic-Americans, and immigrants who have become naturalized citizens are not “real” Americans, that their presence is  somehow dangerous to American identity  — and Trump’s admirers have frequently extended that narrative of dangerous identity to Jews (as have people who are not among his admirers). The issue of American identity is hotly disputed right now, and even well-intentioned efforts could have unforeseen negative consequences.


To grow up as a Jew is often an two-fold experience:  to be an ordinary person living an ordinary life, tending children, working hard, investing your gifts in the flourishing of your community; and also, always, to remember all the times that the gift of being ordinary has been taken away. To hear the stories of being made to be “foreign,” “dangerous,” “different.” To know how often your people have been made into scapegoats for systemic problems that had nothing to do with you. To see how frequently, when a person of your heritage takes a stand for something, the first response of someone on Twitter is to denigrate them as “a Jew” (as in the revolting tweet to the left

The Gospel of Luke tells us that a lawyer once approached Jesus and asked, “Rabbi, what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus replied by pointing him at the Ten Commandments, ending with “love your neighbor as your self,”  the lawyer pushed and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ’s answer has become one of the most-loved of all his stories: the Good Samaritan. It tells of a man (a Jewish man) who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and how the most likely people just walked on by, while a man who care from a despised minority chose to care for him. Jesus’ message is clear: that we are not called to have neighbors, but to be neighbors. To choose to claim one another even when that is difficult, even when caring for another person may impose burdens on us. 

What I’m saying is this: your neighbors, our neighbors, are frightened. What can you do to show them that they are valued, that they are integral to the fabric of your life and the life of your community? To help everyone understand that Jews are real Americans?