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BBC’s Big Questions or Big Contradictions?


By Garibaldi

There have been several debates on threads here regarding whether or not Jews are a race or religion or both. It’s a complicated question, further complicated by the fact that differences exist among Jews in how they answer that question, though a great many see being Jewish as both race/ethnicity and religion.

I’m not interested in rehashing that debate here but wanted to highlight a blatant contradiction and tension between two shows from this year on the BBC program, “The Big Questions.”

BBC’s, “The Big Questions,” hosted by Nicky Campbell claims to delve into questions relating to “moral, ethical and religious debates.” However, quite often the show is simply an exercise in which guest can deliver the best soundbite and applause line.

Unresolved contradictions abound in the program, such as the one displayed in the video below. Self-styled “counter-extremism” guru, Maajid Nawaz implies that the difference between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is the issue of racism, though he doesn’t explain how this makes it a lesser form of bigotry and xenophobia.

Nawaz claims one can be racist against Jews but not Muslims because Jews are a “race.” This is contradicted on another show by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner who states explicitly that, “Jews are not a race” but a “religious civilization.”

The contradiction and lack of nuance remains, and goes to a point we (and others) have made quite often: racism against, and racialization of, religious groups whether in the guise of Islamophobia or Anti-Semitism is not only conceivable but a well documented fact.

When a Sikh or an Arab Christian is mistaken for Muslim because of their “look” this points to racism and racialization. When an Indian man is shoved off a train platform to his death or a Sikh man is repeatedly stabbed because of the perpetrator’s conflation of Brownness with Islam it points to racism and racialization.

Clearly then, at the heart of much of both Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is an undeniably virulent racism, which talking heads such as Maajid Nawaz and Douglas Murray unfortunately are all too happy to undermine with short soundbites.

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  • el turco



    The Hui are very similar to Jews in the way they have married their Chinese and Islamic identities. My closest Chinese friends in Beijing were all Hui, but with my olive skin, long beard, and accented Putonghua I was usually mistaken for a Uighur.

    Jewish culture is a lot like Chinese culture in the sense that they are both based around a diverse literary tradition spanning thousands of years and maintained by Scribes/Rabbis/Guan/Shi/Mandarins/Scholars/etc… These literary languages are the main link between ancient and actual Chinese/Jewish culture. Not surprisingly, the “modern” states of Israel and PRC are very similar in the way they rejected their classical literary cultures and re-imagined Chinese and Jewish identity along the lines of 19th century Marxist nation-states. Still this tension between old and new is built into both states and expressed in many different ways.

    As for reading material, I personally find that there is very little quality material written on modern Israel or Zionism (in general) because it requires understanding both classical Jewish and 19th century European literature. Classical Jewish identity is built around the land called Israel/Palestine as can be seen in Biblical books such as Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings and exilic books like Daniel, Esther, and Ezra. The theme of this Biblical literature is very similar to Confucian Dynastic historiography in how it reflects a back and forth moral struggle to maintain unity and proper governance in the only place on earth where Jews can fulfill the entire Biblical law. For classical Jewish thought, existence outside of the framework of a righteous Jewish government in Israel is akin to the chaotic inter-dynastic periods in Chinese history (like the San Guo) which is why we believe in a future Messiah who will restore this framework. However to understand the modern state of Israel it is necessary to see how this Biblical literature is channeled through the same German philosophers (Fichte, Kant and Hegel) who inspired the early Chinese nationalists. I wish I knew of good writers who simplified this varied literature and presented it more coherently but I don’t 🙁

  • Awesome

    Technically there are only three racial classification. Caucasian, Negro
    and Mongolian. Each of these racial identities have several
    ethnicities. Caucasians are Slavic, Germanic, Celtic etc., Negro have
    Huti, Aborigine, Sinhalese and the Mongolian are Chinese, Turkic and
    Native American.

    Some include “Australoid” as a 4th racial classification, but these classifications are only based on anthropometry. Some who try to define “race” based more on genetics come up with several more classifications. The whole concept seems very arbitrary, while the complexities of genetics and anthropometry have no intrinsic importance for human interaction. Thus, for all intents and purposes the concept of “race” is an arbitrary human construction, which is only meant to appease tribalism – a concept that is entirely a human construction and is far less ambiguous than the concept of “race”. At the end of the day, regardless of what “race” or “tribe” a man belongs to or a woman belongs to, they are only ever going to produce 1 type of offspring: human.

  • HerrSkolly

    Of course not – I was simply trying to confuse you. Actually, in the process, I seem to have confused myself.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    There’s a better compliment than “nerd”???

  • HerrSkolly

    Well, how’s about we go hang out at ISOGG for a bit? Nerd. 🙂

    [That was the best compliment I could muster today – a compliment nonetheless.]

  • el turco

    When I think of other movements I tend to think about older groups like Tzadokim and the Karaites with whom the Rabbis debated. I tend to view the Reform movement as inherently assimilationist in how it imitates the hierarchy and theology of Protestant Christianity, but history makes these decisions not me.

    I don’t mean to discount tribal heredity, but rather “race” as an element of this identity. Modern conceptions of “race” (as vague as they are) are almost always mixed up with pseudo-scientific ideas of genetic inheritance. The logic of patrilineal descent is that is makes no sense to privilege one half of a person’s chromosomal DNA over the other half. The orthodox position is tribal/matrilineal, i.e. not influenced by racial categories as defined by genetics. Similarly, classical scholarship put much more emphasis on observance and classed Jews who desecrated the Sabbath as equivalent to non-Jews for ritual purposes. I think the modern confusion between tribal identity (fluid) and ethnic/racial identity (static) has a lot to do with Jews speaking past each other on this topic.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    I’d say that the future of Reform and other movements is a matter of considerable debate, with scholars having differing views. What makes it different than many previous groups that disappeared is that newer movements are more structured in an attempt to be part of the Jewish community rather than pushing to be assimilationists. What effect that will have is up for debate.

    The idea of Jews as a tribe with a heredity as an element of identity, whether as B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), Jews (from the tribe of Judah), or in discussions of matrilineal descent in the Talmud, is one of the elements that comes from classical scholarship. In fact, it is the Orthodox who are much more rigid in many of these areas (e.g., matrilineal descent only) than the Reform movement.

  • el turco

    I can only speak for what (unfortunately in my view) is termed Jewish “orthodoxy” which is just the common denominator of belief in the divinity of revelation and adherence to classical scholarship. While many groups have appeared throughout history which rejected one or another of these elements, historically all have fallen by the wayside. After only 200 years, the Reform and associated movements (represented by Janner-Klausner in this video) are following this same path. Just_Stopping_By is welcome to correct me but this is my reading of history and current population studies.

    Within this context the concept of racialized Jewish identity is simply another sub-current destined to “disappear into the sands of time” or something like that. This is not to negate anybody’s feeling of “Jewishness”, only to say that feelings are usually not sufficient to organize one’s entire life around perpetuating Jewish heritage and traditions.

  • Mehdi

    So true, thanks for sharing this.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    We agree then. I found Aaron Bady’s meditation in this regard pretty insightful and raises interesting presumptions and questions:

    One of the reason why white people love talking about “racism” (rather than, say, “white supremacy,” “privilege,” or “anti-blackness”) is that it makes the problem something you can good-think your way out of, something you can separate yourself from, and cleanse yourself of the guilt for. To not be racist, you literally have to do nothing more than decide not to be racist, and then go forth and sin no more. Done!

    The value of “racism” as a concept for white people, in other words, is that it allows us to think we can escape it. We can’t. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. “Racism” is an emergent property of societies structured by dominance, societies that function to oppress and dehumanize certain classes of people using an arbitrary and historical biological concept to do so. Deciding not to be racist or participate in
    racism is like trying to avoid traffic. You can do your best, and you should, but your options are limited; the problem is a whole hell of a lot bigger than individual choice. Moreover, race exists because racism creates it, and trying to find racism inside a person’s soul is like trying to find the “kill” in a gun, so it can be removed. The machine works, and it does a certain thing, as does a society structured by racialized injustice. Try not to be the person pulling the trigger. Really: try as hard as you can. Don’t drive during rush hour. But the difference between a gun and white supremacy is that a gun doesn’t fire by itself; white privilege is letting the world favor you without needing to lift a finger. White privilege is benefitting from racism without needing to be racist. You might be able to stay home, but there are a lot of people who have to drive to work, and your staying out of traffic doesn’t help them all that much.

    To the extent the category has meaning, I am racist and so are you. With my conscious mind I struggle against it, but I always, immediately, and unconsciously react differently to different people, depending on how the world I live in has indoctrinated me to identify and view them. So do you. It’s the worst kind of intellectual cowardice to pretend you don’t “see” race, because you do see race, and—because there is no race without racism—seeing race makes you racist. Nobody gets out clean from this swamp of white supremacist shit. The question is what you do with it. Do you clean yourself off as best you can? Or do you pretend your shit doesn’t stink?

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Good to read your comments as well.

    Ha! It truly is a rare sight to see, Meir Kahan and idealized in the same sentence.

    I am around! A lot of personal issues have taken away from my time devoted to the site unfortunately.

  • Mehdi

    I understand but from my perspective it’s not about denying or acknowledging the concept of race itself, it’s about highlighting the consequences of the construct on the lives of blacks and others, and doing something to repair the injustice.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I hear you Mehdi, I am not denying the fact that it race is extremely problematic, however, being in the US and seeing the false discussion regarding “post-racial society” and a denial of the systematic discrimination against Blacks for instance, I think we must push back against those who deny its reality.

  • Just_Stopping_By


    Nice to hear from you again … it seemed as if you were away for a while. Still, I didn’t ever expect to see “Meir Kahane” and “idealized” in the same sentence!

  • Mehdi

    Mm, I really have issues with the concept of race, not sure whether I ever saw a positive usage of that concept, but maybe there is.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    A helpful strategy that works most of the time: when you see misattribution, generalization and reductionism quite often you are entering the field of bigotry. Of course there is more to this but a possibly helpful start in distinguishing.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Race is a social construction just like other identities, however it is a reality, that we would do well to acknowledge.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Some fundamentalist Jews like the deceased Meir Kahane have an idealized form of rule as well and that is the return of a Jewish Kingdom. Judaism at one time was also a missionizing faith, people can also convert into Judaism and renounce their Jewishness, hence why the issue is complicated and not so neat.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Moraka is an Iranian, how is he/she racist for not celebrating Nowruz? That’s ridiculous, almost as ridiculous as your usage of “Islamo-fascism.”

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I appreciate your comment. I find the spiritual ecosystems explanation intriguing, as well as the claim that the abandonment of religion leads inextricably to the disappearance of the national identity among Jews. I think for that reason it is helpful. I still think there are unresolved tensions here because identity formation and understanding is complex and not easily defined. Clearly Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s self-understanding is a bit different. As the saying goes, “2 Jews, 3 different answers” which I think can be true of many different groups.

    I also agree, the way in which the other is viewed is often filled with assumption and biases informed by one’s own particular civilizational lens. I find this happens among all groups, the way Christians/Jews talk about Muslims, vice versa, etc. etc.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Prejudice is bad! Treating people like garbage even if it is not on the basis of race is of course terrible. Point here, and we agree, is that talking heads (and opinions shapers) such as Maajid Nawaz and Douglas Murray will do their utmost to delegitimize through denial or reductionism the existence of Islamophobia, at the same time not cognizant of their own contradictions and hypocrisies.

  • el turco

    Mostly agree, I would only say that the haskalah and the rise of Reform/Conservative Judaism were unique to the Jewish communities of Western Europe and North America. Neither took hold among the Jews of the Middle East, even after mass immigration to Western Europe and North America, so there is a real question whether Muslims seeking analogies to Judaism should look to the Ashkenazi or Sefardic experience.

    The Sefardic experience is that a more cosmopolitan past is often a useful guidepost for the future, and considering the broader scope of Islamic history this type of rejuvenation may be a better model than any kind of “reform”. That said, I only brought up the Pipes article to show how shady the whole phenomena of non-believers telling believers that they need to “reform” their religion really is…

    Shabat Shalom uMoadim leSimcha!!

  • Just_Stopping_By

    I agree with you on the Hakhanim; I was just using Hillel as an example because I liked the “split both wood and time” phrasing. I don’t think that having a secular profession is associated with being a reformer — I think that the refusal to have a secular profession is a “reform” being implemented by certain Orthodox groups who seek to make a crown of their Torah study.

    I think that you may be putting too much emphasis on a view that “Reform Islam” would be a mirror of Reform Judaism. Obviously, if a new tradition in Islam is similar to a tradition in Judaism, it is at least somewhat likely to encounter many similar openings to success and obstacles to failure. In fact, that goes back to my original point several comments ago: rather than looking at the (Christian) Reformation to see what a “reform” might mean in Islam, Mehdi Hasan might have found more useful analogies in looking at the Haskalah and the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Of course, no analogies from one historic period or religion to another are exact, but I think that those would have been closer than the analogy he used.

    Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach

  • el turco

    I think the demographic projections, for the US at least, are pretty similar to what I say:

    “There is a trend afoot, and in the next big population survey like this, we will see the beginning of a switch, whereby Orthodox Jews will eventually likely be the majority of American Jews,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She, like Cohen, was a member of the Pew study’s advisory committee.

    Not just Hillel but almost ALL the Hakhamim had secular professions which they paired with Torah study, Shammai was an engineer, Rashi was a vintner, Rambam/Radak/Ibn Ezra were all doctors, etc… and most Rabbis in my community (both “modern” and black hat) have secular professions (opthalmologist, psychologist, IT engineer, personal fitness trainer, etc…). I’m curious why you think having a secular profession equates with being a “reformer”? I am personally studying towards both semicha and a DPT.

    The Sefaradim did not accept the Reform/Orthodox dichotomy and so our Rabbis never stopped using innovative approaches within the halakhic tradition to address the needs of the many different observance levels under our “big tent”. As the orthodox come to dominate Jewish life, they will be forced to return to the traditional approach maintained by the Sefaradim and reinvented by the Chabad movement.

    I think your point about “working within established traditions” is crucial to understanding why Reform Judaism, which permits foods and behaviors outside the normative tradition, is not accepted by traditional Jews and why a similar “Reform Islam” may be met with skepticism from Muslims.

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