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O.T. FORD

 

The historical Jewish nation (from Hebrew יהודי « Jəhūdī », “of Judah/Judea”) was aboriginal to Palestine (פלשת « Pəlešet »), the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in the western Levant. The Jews were a part of a dialect continuum within the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, primarily speaking classical Hebrew (עברית « Cibrīt ») or a closely-related dialect, but also, later, the regional lingua franca Aramaic (𐤀𐤓𐤌𐤉𐤀 « Ɔaramajā » / ארמית « Ɔaramīt »), a member of the same dialect continuum originating just to the north.

Traditionally — within the historical period — Jews believed in a unique monotheistic national religion now referred to as ‘Judaism’ (meaning, simply, “Jewish belief”). The religion is based on oral traditions, of course, but also a written scripture, the Tanakh (תנ״ך « TaNaK »), which is an acronym for its three parts, the Torah (תורה « Toŭrah »), the Prophets (נביאים « Nebīɔīm »), and the Hagiographa (כתובים « Kətūbīm », “writings”). As fits with a national religion, the scripture is also a purported history of the Jewish people, relating tales of their various officials, prophets, and heroes. The Tanakh teaches that there is a single god, variously known as Yahweh (יהוה « Jahŭeh », borrowed into Latin as IEHOVAH) or Elohim (אלהים « Ɔelohīm », “gods”), who created and governs the universe but nonetheless has a special relationship with the Jews. Judaism is a major foundation for Christianity; Jesus (ישוע « Ješūac ») is presented as a Jew of the early Roman period and was said by adherents to have become the designated savior figure of the Jews, the messiah (משיח « mešīah », “anointed”, glossed in Greek as ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ « k‛ristos », hence ‘Christ’), and the Tanakh is the predominant part of all versions of the Christian Old Testament. Judaism also served as a foundation for Islam. As such, Judaism is often included in the world’s “major” religions, despite its size (fewer than 20 million believers). While Judaism is not a significant source of proselytization, conversion to Judaism takes place on a limited scale.

For many centuries most Jews lived in a diaspora across the northwestern Old World. The three main groups were the Mizrahis (מזרחים « Mizrahīm », “Easterners”), the Ashkenazis (אשכנזים « Ɔaškenazīm », from אשכנז « Ɔaškenaz », “Germany”), and the Sephardis (ספרדים « Səpardīm », from ספרד « Səpard », “Spain”). The Mizrahis lived throughout the Middle East and North Africa; their native dialect was primarily Judeo-Arabic, but some lived in non-Arabic-speaking areas and spoke other vernaculars. The Ashkenazis lived throughout central and eastern Europe, especially in North Slavic areas; their native dialect was Yiddish (יידיש « Jīdīš », “Jewish”), a descendant of Middle High German. The Sephardis originally lived in Iberia, until driven out by Catholic persecution, settling thereafter mostly among the Mizrahis; their native dialect was Ladino (לדינו « Ladīnoŭ », “Latin”), a Romance dialect closely related to modern Spanish.

Hebrew died out as a vernacular in the early part of the Common Era, but was retained by Jews throughout the diaspora as a liturgical dialect. This allowed for its revival as a spoken vernacular in the nineteenth century, which then became the lingua franca of Zionists as they settled in Ottoman and British Palestine, and subsequently the primary vernacular of the modern state of Israel (ישראל « Jiśraɔel »).

Historiographically, it is convenient and reasonably safe to assume a high degree of cultural and biological homogeneity among ancient groups, including the Jews. But today, the term ‘Jew’ (along with its cognates and glosses) does not refer to a single group; rather, modern Jews are members of any of three distinct, but frequently overlapping, groups with lineal ties to the ancient Jews. Ethnic Jews are the children of other ethnic Jews, and thus the biological descendants of the historical Jewish nation. Religious Jews are believers in Judaism, including such converts as there may be. Cultural Jews are those raised by Jews in various aspects of the traditional culture of the Jewish nation, whether those aspects include Judaism or not, though generally the term ‘cultural Jews’ suggests those who do not follow Judaism. The term ‘secular Jews’, by contrast, refers explicitly to ethnic or cultural Jews who do not follow Judaism.

The ancient Jews were users of the Northwest Semitic script and its descendant, the Hebrew script, which has been used continuously for writing Hebrew, as well as other vernaculars of the Jewish diaspora, occasionally other vernaculars in Israel, and as a stand-in for Northwest Semitic itself, as in the representation of Phoenician (yet another member of the ancient Semitic continuum). Northwest Semitic, apparently a descendant of Egyptian hieroglyphics, was the source of our own Latin script (via Greek), as well as Cyrillic, Arabic, and possibly the Brahmi scripts of India.

Prejudice against Jews has been a significant historical fact in the Near East and in Europe, and has existed on a lesser scale among (primarily) Christians and Muslims elsewhere. As many individuals are both ethnic and religious Jews (and historically most Jews have been both), both the prejudice itself and the discussion of the prejudice have often not distinguished between racial and cultural motivations for this prejudice. The hatred of the Nazis, and the mass murder of the Holocaust (also Hebrew שואה « Šoŭɔah », “destruction”), seem to have been motivated more by racial animus; secular Jews were not spared. The most common modern term for prejudice against Jews is ‘anti-Semitism’. While Jews are Semites, they have only ever been a small minority of all Semites, making the term dubious in general. And there is also a great deal of prejudice against Jews among Arabs, who are also Semites, making the term nonsensical in this specific case.

Zionism (from ציון « Sīoŭn », “Jerusalem”) was originally an ideology and movement among diaspora Jews for an organized migration of Jews to Palestine; with the founding of the state of Israel, the term in a modern sense refers to various beliefs supportive of Israel or its existence. Zionism was motivated in part by longstanding prejudice against Jews, but long predated the Nazis and the Holocaust, and Zionist settlement in Palestine also predated the Nazis. Zionism was successful in promoting migration, but there remain more Jews in diaspora than in Israel, and the United States alone may have more Jews than Israel.

 

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