July 16, 2024
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Are the Jews a People?

As soon as President Trump signed an executive order on December 11 designed to combat the increase of anti-Semitism on American college campuses, a dispute ensued on social media as to whether Jews are a people or just a religion.

This debate should not have come as a surprise. The charge that Jews are not a people or a religious community because they do not have a common language, history or ancestry is an attempt to deny them the right to self-determination and their own state.

Professor George Scelle, an international jurist and member of the U.N. International Commission, defined what constitutes a people in his lectures at the Hague Academy of International Law: “It is commonly accepted today that every collective, united by links of conscious solidarity—of which the members thereof, themselves, are the judges—should be regarded as a ‘people.’” A number of years earlier, he said that there “can be no doubt that the whole body of Jewish communities together can be considered one nation or one people.”

The situation of the Jews was “exceptional,” he noted, due to their dispersion. Although “they lack some of the elements of solidarity” found in other groups living closer together, “their traditions, customs, the persecutions they have endured, their religious practices and mystic aspirations are so firmly integrated—certainly far more so than in the case of other people—for the very reason that they have not assimilated with the political groups in whose midst they have lived or settled.”

The French jurist, Paul Fauchille, regarded Jews in the same way. When discussing the Balfour Declaration and other Allied and Associated Powers declarations about Zionism, he said: “The Great War of 1914-1919 brought with it official recognition of the nationhood of yet another persecuted people: namely the Jewish people.”

The Council of the League of Nations recognized the existence of the Jewish people and its historical connection to Palestine on July 24, 1922, when it defined the Palestine Mandate. The Mandate also recognized the Zionist Organization as the representative of the Jewish people in dealing with the establishment of the national home.

The judges at the International Tribunal in Nuremberg found that “atrocities against the Jewish people were committed.” On practically every subsequent page of their ruling, mention is made of the murder of “the Jews” in countries throughout Europe, which means members of the Jewish people. Nathan Feinberg, a professor at The Hebrew University, notes that the judges meant in the “ethnic, not the religious sense” because during the Holocaust even Jews who had converted to other faiths were murdered.

Jewish Nationalism

The Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine from 1517 until WWI, relinquishing the sovereignty of the territory to the Allies in the Treaty of Sevres. This enabled the Jews to pursue their historic claim to Palestine. The British did not give Palestine to the Jews; “it was a de jure recognition of a situation that existed de facto.” They assumed that the Arabs and Jews would be able to live together in harmony and that the Arabs would profit from this arrangement. But the British acknowledged an overriding issue: The Jews had the more compelling and credible case, and that this was sui generis.

The Jews are the only people in the world who insisted they could not live without their land, even though they had not lived there for 2,000 years, noted former Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Herzog. In a debate with British historian Arnold Toynbee, Herzog asserted that the normal laws of history do not apply in this case, “so long as the world agrees that there is something unique about the Jews in the history of mankind, it cannot deny the right of the Jews to this land.”

In describing the Children of Israel 3,000 years ago, Balaam the Prophet referred to them as “a people that dwells alone.” This is how the Jews are perceived today. Whether this concept suggests privilege with a unique responsibility or an anomaly, which must be refuted and rejected, is “the question of Jewish history.”

One Final Note

Attacks on Israel’s distinctive Jewish character also fail to take into account the many new states established in the second half of the 20th century that do not have deeply rooted identities, such as Syria, Iraq and many Eastern European states. Jewish nationhood, on the other hand, existed thousands of years before the creation of most modern nation states.


Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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