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Who and What Are the Jews?

Marjorie Arsht
Winter 2005

(This talk was presented to a Houston, Texas Republican organization on December 13, 1994)  

At the outset, I would like to make it clear that any comments I make represent my own opinion. Although I consider my logic irrefutable, the inside Jewish consensus is that where there are two Jews there are three opinions.  

Who and what is a Jew is an age-old question. The famous historian Oscar Handlin said: A Jew is anyone who thinks he’s a Jew. A broader definition — popular in Nazi Germany — was that a Jew is anyone whom anyone thinks is a Jew. Many Christians (and I might add many Jews, too) are uncomfortable with the word, Jew, because for so many centuries it had a pejorative connotation — in fact, in some quarters it still is an epithet. So, trying to be polite, Christians often try to avoid the word altogether. They take refuge in addressing Jews as “people of your race,” or people “of your nationality,” or even “you people.” Please believe me, if any of you use any of the above strategies in addressing a Jew, you have gratuitously insulted that person, however well-meaning you might be. Sometimes the sentence is transposed in order to use the adjective “Jewish” which, for some reason, is softer — it sounds nicer.  

General Confusion  

There is, certainly, general confusion about questions of race, nationality and religion. The true definition of nationality has nothing to do with race or religion. Nationality is synonymous with citizenship, homeland, national culture and character, The misuse of the word “race” is endemic in all societies. The racial problems of the State of Israel in integrating the black and brown Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen and India, not to mention the black Jews from Chicago and New ~ York, should put to rest for all time the belief that Jews are a race.  

In 1968, my husband and I visited our son during his Vietnam stint and found ourselves in Bangkok on Yom Kippur. I saw in the English-language newspaper that there was to be a service and Ray and I went. It was a small Jewish community, which obviously couldn’t support a full-time rabbi. It was wartime, so they had an English-speaking Army chaplain. But the congregation, to our amazement, was almost entirely Asian. I might add that it was an extremely Orthodox service — almost entirely in Hebrew so the service itself was largely incomprehensible to us. Although the prayer book was in English, it wasn’t our prayer book. It was an incredible experience seeing little Thai and Chinese boys running around with yarmulkes on their heads and if we had any doubts about Jews being a separate and distinct race (which we really didn’t), they were settled then and there for all time.  

There are many intellectuals, who, reviewing this kind of logic say — Well the Jews may not be a race or a nationality but they are a people. I think that concept is fallacious, too. We speak of the American people (common territory, and for the most part, language), or the German people or the Russian people — an identification with nationality.  

Historical Terms  

In broader, historical, collective terms we speak of the Anglo-Saxon people, which includes, among others, the English, the Canadians and the Australians. In that context, one would have to say the Jews are a Semitic people, which, of course, ironically enough, would include the Arabs.  
So I believe that the only defensible definition of a Jew is: one who consciously or unconsciously associates himself or herself with some body of Judaism — of religious thought or practice.  

A Jew’s nationality is that of the country of his culture and citizenship, and his race can run the gamut of ethnology.  

While we’re on the subject of definitions, I want to read you my dictionary’s definition of the word “Gentile.” First definition, “As used by the Jews, one of non-Jewish faith. As used by the Christians, one not a Jew, especially a Christian as distinguished from a Jew. Formerly used by Christians, a Heathen.” Second definition, “As used by the Mormons, a non-Mormon.” So you see, it can mean anyone who isn’t you — or one of your co-religionists. However, a significant part of that definition is that the synonyms for Gentile are: “Heathen and pagan.” And when used as an adjective, “Pertaining to a nation, tribe or clan.”  

Multiple Definition  

Certainly, like the Bible, you can find something in any dictionary to prove your preconceived belief. However, in my opinion, that multiple definition is pretty true. In the days of Abraham, people did belong to clans and tribes. And the distinguishing factor between Abraham with his Hebrew tribe and the Gentiles was the development of monotheism. Therefore, I believe it would be correct to juxtapose Gentiles with Hebrews and Jews with Christians. The Jews are adherents of Judaism and the Christians are followers of Christianity and the Gentiles were Heathens who believed in false idols. Should I say were or are? Up to you.  

I acknowledge that there are both myths and paradoxes about Jews. One myth is that all Jews are rich. My father used to say that if all Jews were rich, they wouldn’t have so many fund-raisers to take care of their poor. Another myth is that the Jews are all smart. But my father also said, that if they were, they would have made a better deal with Paul.  

Another perception, which I really can’t explain, is that even though Jews represent the tiniest minority of all minorities — for some reason they are always a focal point of interest, both politically and socially. During my 1962 campaign for the legislature, I was, of course, a much-in-demand curiosity — I was a Jewish, Republican, Conservative (when everyone knew that all Jews were liberals). I was from Yoakum, Texas and a woman at that.  

The Jewish Question  

Invariably, someone would pose a question — beginning, “I don’t want to embarrass you, Mrs. Arsht, but” — and then there would be the Jewish question. Finally, one night I decided to play a parlor game. I asked the people in the audience to guess how many Jews there were in Harris County. I got figures all over the place — 100,000, 250,000, 500,000. Finally, I said (this was 1962) there are 25,000 men, women and children in greater Harris County. After a dead silence, a man in the back called out, “Mrs. Arsht, are you sure?” I assured him and his bewildered response was, “Well, they must all live around me.” I suppose that is the basis for the very unflattering dictums where there are two Jews, there’s a crowd.  

I acknowledge, too, that the Jews present conflicting images and many paradoxes. There is the image of Shylock, the greedy merchant of Venice, alongside the benign, charitable, outstanding member of a community. The Jew who is rich as a Rothschild, but poor as a peddler. The Jew who is conservative in business and family life, but votes for liberals. The Jew who is clannish and self-segregating, and yet in the forefront of all civil rights movements. The Jew who is a grabbing materialist, but also a communist. The Jew who is a patriotic, civic-minded citizen, but one whose first allegiance is to the State of Israel. And so on and on. Great contradictions.  
The truth is that Jews are pretty much like everyone else. They are rich and poor. They are good and bad. They are handsome and ugly. And some are also smart and I assure you many are very, very dumb. Most important, Jews are not all alike. They differ from each other just as you differ from those around you.  

Defy Conventions  

Most political analysts who deal in groups allege that the Jews defy the usual conventions for a largely white, often high-income group — because they are the only minority that doesn’t vote its own self-interest. I couldn’t disagree more. It isn’t pocket-book self-interest that influences a Jewish vote — but it is self-interest nevertheless. A different kind of self-interest.  

I do believe there is one thread of connective tissue which does bind all Jews — and that is fear, and an historical memory. The early Jewish immigrants to this country were in the East, particularly New York. As a minority, it was “safe” to be with the majority — and so they were Republicans. Most people think there was a major shift to the Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt. But that is not true. The shift came one election earlier with Al Smith, who railed against the Ku Klux Klan, while Hoover equivocated. Then Roosevelt came along with his watchwords freedom from fear — and that did it. That solidified the conversion.  

The average, run-of-the-mill, middle class Jewish citizen is just as abysmally ignorant of the political system as any other run-of-the-mill citizen. The average Jew, like most Christians, avoids any contact with “politics” per se. Unlike the black community, which feels reassured when a black is in office, Jews generally are very fearful of a Jew in an elective position. If there should be ridicule, all would be scorned. If he did something wrong, all would be guilty. When I ran for office, most of my co-religionists walked on the other side of the street — until I was endorsed by every newspaper, and the reception was favorable. Then there was a kind of collective sigh of relief. Naturally, every single one of them voted for me — which I doubted then and do now.  

Changing Times  

Times are changing, however. There are more and more public Jewish Republicans, since Texas is becoming more and more a two-party state. There always were a lot of “closet” ones — but it should be remembered that there is that underlying watchfulness for any signs of religious extremism, or God forbid, a depression. Historically, the Jews always suffered as first-chosen victims in any kind of turmoil, which of course is the basis for the age-old Jewish plea, “Please God, choose someone else.”  

At the risk of making the kind of generalizations I normally condemn, I would say that the Jews — almost everywhere — are psychologically attuned to apprehension. Jews are extremely susceptible to rumor, founded or unfounded. Generally, Jews gravitate to the party or the in candidate which promises or is associated with good times — not for economic reasons, but for the benefits which accrue to minorities in a stable economy. And they are attracted to that candidate whose personality and mien exude kindness or paternalistic protection — a protector of religious freedom. Generally, Jews are unaware of these influences on their voting patterns. Most Jews think they are independents. Except for a small cadre of political activists, who are wedded to the Democratic Party, and those few who are wedded to the Republican Party, most Jews I know will move from party to party depending on the platform and the candidate.  

Public Prayer  

There is just one more matter I would like to address. Many Christians do not understand the discomfort prayers in the name of Jesus bring to an audience which includes Jews. If they do, they think it is because Jews have not accepted Jesus as the messiah, and do not pray to him. But that is not really the reason. Throughout the centuries, the pogroms — that is, the organized persecution of the Jews, were done in the name of Jesus. That was the battle cry of the Inquisition and of the Crusades, and an underlying tenet of Nazism. But you could say — Jesus represents love and compassion — that was so very long ago, However, that memory persists just as the age-old denunciation by Christians, “The Jews Killed Christ,” persists, even though you and I know that the Roman soldiers did. I suppose it comes down to a matter of education and respect. Barbara Bush once told me that she questioned her minister, how could she pray without her usual ending. His answer was — think your usual ending, you just don’t say it out loud in public.  

Long ago, when my sister was about seven years old, we lived next door to a Catholic family. My sister’s playmate went to a convent, and each afternoon, he would call over the fence, “Can you come over and play?” One afternoon, he called at the top of his voice (no air conditioning in those days), “Hey, did you know the Jews killed Christ?” Without hesitation, her answer came back, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t do it.”  

American Uniqueness  

And so it is incumbent on all of us to understand the unique strength of the United States in its historic respect for diversity of faith. And to guard jealously the protection of the free expressions of differing religions. It is important to remember, and to appreciate that it’s proper to speak of Christian churches and Christian schools and Christian fraternal organizations. But when you attach the word Christian to a political enterprise you are crossing the line — alarm bells sound and minority religions shudder.  

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court justice who, when asked to describe pornography, said, “I know it when I see it.” When a delegate to a political convention rises to nominate someone for a political office in the name of Jesus Christ, that’s crossing the line. When political groups modify their name with the word Christian, it gives their constituency a certain exclusivity — whether they mean to exclude Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or not. Sometimes the word Christian is also misused as in a newspaper ad describing an opening in a “good Christian home.” I suspect that term means that the husband doesn’t beat his wife. But others who read that ad read something else.  

Comparative Religion  

I urge all of you to pursue a study of comparative religions. It is fascinating to discover how the practices of primitive peoples who were in such awe of the changing of the seasons have influenced our own festivals and holy days. Through the ages, very different religions developed different rituals and celebrations, But if you search deeply enough, they have a strangely comparable basic meaning. Christmas and Hanukkah are both festivals of light and hope, and are occasions for the exchange of gifts. Easter and Passover represent rebirth and new beginnings. My father used to say that in order to truly understand and appreciate one’s own religion, it was necessary to understand all others.  

Certainly, we should bring to our modern, sophisticated society an understanding and respect for different methods of the expression of faith and of worship of the supreme being who is the creator of us all.  

Marjorie Arsht  


Marjorie Arsht at 90: Still Championing the Causes She Holds Dear  

On November 1, 2004, Marjorie Arsht, a long time member and for many years a leader in the American Council for Judaism, celebrated her 90th birthday. A party in her honor was held at the Petroleum Club in Houston. Among those speaking about Marjorie was Issues editor Allan C. Brownfeld, who has known and worked with her since the early 1960s.  

Marjorie, a native of Yoakum, Texas, was educated at Rice University, Columbia University and the Sorbonne. She is committed to the Reform Jewish tradition which held that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality. She is a patriotic American and Texan. At her birthday party, messages of congratulations were read from both her long-time friend President George Bush, as well as from his son, the current president.  

An early Republican in once Democratic Texas, she was a candidate for the Texas state Senate. Discussing her political role, Maureen Dowd, writing in The New York Times (Nov. 10, 1988), pointed out that, “Mrs. Arsht first introduced George and Barbara Bush to local political leaders in her living room 25 years ago, when Mr. Bush sold his interest in an oil-drilling business in Midland, Texas and moved his family to Houston. ‘He was naive in the beginning,’ she said, recalling that there was some skepticism that the ‘Yankee Yalie’ could handle barbed-wire style Texas politics. ‘We had to convince him there were going to be some bad people, some Democrats, who weren’t going to like him and who might say terrible things about him. But,’ she said with satisfaction, ‘he learned to be a fighter.’”  

According to Dowd, “Marjorie Arsht talked approvingly of the next Secretary of State ... ‘Jimmy Baker grew up here ... I knew him when he was in short pants.’”  

At 90, Marjorie remains committed to the many causes she holds dear and is in the process of completing her memoirs, which will be published by the Texas A & M Press.  

We wish Marjorie a Happy Birthday — and many more years of active participation in public life. The talk which is published here was given to a Houston Republican organization on December 13, 1994.  

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