On December 11, 2019, President Donald Trump signed a historic executive order applying Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to Jewish Americans. I believe that this important decision should and will be considered as one of the president’s greatest moral legacies, with special application to the Jewish people.
Of course, the usual gaggle of naysayers, such as J Street and various BDS supporters, have denounced the president’s initiative. This newspaper published a spirited explication and defense of the president a few days later (December 20, 2019, page 168), while numerous liberal newspapers ironically pontificated about its negative impact upon Jewry and the fight against anti-Semitism.
I would like to respond to just one of these editorial attacks in the pages of Newsday (December 17, page A24). Signed by the Editorial Board of Newsday, the left-leaning Trump-hating authors alleged that “Trump is attempting to amend the law by an order that seems to label Judaism as a race or nationality.” The authors of the editorial claim that, in criticizing the president, they are protecting us from the “troubled history” where “in 1930s Germany Jews were seen as a different race or as a foreign threat.” Although Newsday did publish some letters that were critical of its editorial, both Newsday and its detractors miss the most important point of all. The president has touched here upon one of the most basic questions: Who and what is a Jew? Once we explore and answer this question, the merits of the president’s action will become quite clear.
In 1959, the prime minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, raised the issue of “Who is a Jew.” Oddly, he extended the query to a motley group of theologians, scientists, philosophers and academics, in addition to a number of bona fide gedolei Yisroel. In truth, the question was actually how to register the children of intermarriage where the mother was gentile, but many of the responders decided that they needed to first determine the definition of a Jew. As Avrohom Kerman (Yehudi, Mihu Mahu, page 120) pointed out, Ben Gurion had a personal interest in the question, since his son had married a gentile woman, making the prime minister’s grandchildren gentiles.
Furthermore, Kerman (page 99) proves that this question was born of the Haskalah and is as absurd as asking for the definition of a table or a chair. As many of the Torah-true responders – and even a number of the non-religious academics – wrote, this so-called philosophical question has been clear to every Jew and gentile in the world for centuries and millennia. In fact, a number of the “experts” surveyed declined to offer their own answers, but joined with one another to make clear that there was no controversy about this issue whatsoever: A Jew is the product of a Jewish mother or a proper conversion to Judaism.
Yet, to respond to Newsday’s concern about calling the Jewish people a “race,” our sages (Yevamos 79a) have declared that we have certain genetic traits that predispose us to decency: “We are rachmanim (compassionate), bayshanim (possess an innate modesty) and gomlei chassodim (perform acts of kindness). Even our most brutal critics have acknowledged and often benefitted from such uniquely Jewish organizations as Hatzolah, Misaskim, Zakah, etc. Teams of clearly Orthodox Jews have descended upon disaster-plagued countries, whose victims do not include even one Jew, to offer aid, solace and rescue. Only the Jewish people have had to legislate laws so that people will not donate too much to charity (Kesubos 49b). The Jewish people are so prone to generosity that, when in doubt, they tend to donate to almost any cause (Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1), a trait that is often visible in the philanthropy of such “Jewish organizations” as the federations and other secular Jewish altruistic foundations.
Regarding Jewish intellectual achievements, the Torah has already promised us that “it is your discernment in the eyes of the nations” (Devorim 4:6 and see Torah Sheleimah to Shemos 12:31, page 49). Although we are but a tiny minority of the world’s population, we have received approximately 13% of the Nobel prizes (when I last checked), often in areas contributing tremendously to world health and welfare.
No, we have nothing of which to fear or be ashamed by being called a race. The anti-Semitic tropes hurled at us are by far outweighed by the selfless Jews enacting the moral and ethical impulses of the DNA that courses through their Judaic veins.
As for being called a nation, we have never shied away from that appellation. Actually, we proudly recite at the Seder every year, “We became a nation there [in Egypt].” However, every Jew knows, at the very least in his heart, that our final birth as a nation was at Sinai, as the Gemara (Chulin 101b) states, “We were not called Bnei Yisroel until [we stood at] Sinai.” Indeed, just before receiving the Torah, we became cured and purified both physically and spiritually (see Tanchuma, Yisro 11; Shemos Rabbah 28:4). We started fresh like a nation of newborn babies (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:5) and were cleansed of the spiritual damage imposed upon mankind by the primordial serpent (Shabbos 146a).
Rav Yehudah Halevi (Kuzari 1:47, 95 and 103) demonstrates how Klal Yisroel is actually a new entity on the face of the earth, not just another nation. The Maharal (Netzach Yisroel 11) adds that just as there are certain physical realities in the world, so is Am Yisroel a different reality in and of itself. These distinctions themselves should suffice for us to conclude that Am Yisroel is indeed a race and a nation, but the two meld together in perfect consonance so that our nationality is comprised of certain traits and actual physical characteristics. These have nothing to do with color, height or other outward manifestations. They relate to the intellect, personality and drives that make up a Jew. Do they sometimes become distorted or lost in the vicissitudes and daily tests of life? Absolutely (see Megillah 16a). But those exceptions do not change our having been created as a separate and distinct nation with identifiable features. As my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, teaches (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach 96:12), we learn from Pirkei Avos (3:14) that there are two aspects to the uniqueness of Klal Yisroel. Firstly, it is the reality of who we are, Hashem’s children. Secondly, it is the fact that He wanted us to know who we are. It is crucial for us to periodically face our dual role as a race and a nation.
All in all, it is not only safe to treat us as a nation and a race. It is something for which we should be grateful to the president, since first of all it is true. Secondly and just as important, he codified this definition into law for our protection and safety, for which we should thank him, along with all the other wonderful things he has done for us, despite his detractors and enemies. May Hashem grant him the strength to withstand them and those who will make decisions about his future, to contemplate the horrific alternatives that could, G-d forbid, befall us. At this time of danger to Klal Yisroel, let us remember who we are and what is expected of us in the important months ahead.