Jews are not a race; but then again, no one else is either, race is a social construct

By Tony Kushner, July 2, 2009

Since the 1930s, Jews in Britain have sought some protection from the state against discrimination and libel.

Such moves reflected the rise of political antisemitism and wider social prejudice.

In the 1950s, with the growth of new Commonwealth immigration, there was a revival in support for anti-racist measures, but politicians and the state rejected them as being against the laissez-faire approach then adopted to “race relations”.

But as a sop to the blatantly discriminatory immigration control legislation of the 1960s, the first race relations acts were passed, starting in 1965 and developing more thoroughly with the 1976 Act and the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality.

So why were Jews and Sikhs included in the 1976 Act, when other minority faith groups such as Muslims were excluded?

Both these groups were now protected as “ethnic” groups. It was argued that they had a shared history and culture that defined them as beyond purely the religious sphere — grounds that could not be extended to Muslims or other faith groups.

In the context of 1976, and the rise again of political racism in the form of the National Front, most Jewish groups in Britain were happy to gain extra protection through the new legislation.

But last week’s Court of Appeal ruling was not what was intended when Jews were included in the 1976 Act.

So was it a mistake for this well-meaning inclusion to have taken place?

What the JFS ruling highlights is the impossible task of defining who is a Jew, which has always involved complex and evolving issues, including non-religious factors.

Jews are not a race; but then again, no one else is either — race is a social construct and not a biological reality.

In practise, however, Jews have, especially since the 19th century, been regarded as a race, and such thinking is not over yet.

The protection under the 1976 Race Relations Act can still be valuable. How to define Jewishness is another matter.

Tony Kushner is Marcus Sieff Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton and author of Anglo-Jewry Since 1066.

Last updated: 4:04pm, July 2 2009