what do I do when someone tells me Jewish isn't a race
Ah yes. We know the type:
We don’t imagine the person who told you this will be intelligent enough to comprehend the following, but here’s the breakdown of how wrong they are:
1) There is no biological basis for race. There is no gene that is exclusive to members of any one “racial” category. The concept of “race” has been roundly rejected by geneticists and anthropologists as having zero scientific validity. As anthropologist John Shea points out, “Race is folk taxonomy, not science. The variables used to organize it, such as skin color and hair texture, are arbitrary choices.”
2) If race isn’t a scientifcally-valid construct to describe reality, then just what is it? It’s a social construct - something that doesn’t actually exist but that humans have taken a hold of as a way to organize their social world. As Brian Jones put it, race is real “…in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.”
3) Because race is a made-up social construct, we prefer the term “racialized” as a term, since race isn’t something people are, it’s something that’s done to them - an identity foisted upon them.
4) Racialization historically has been super-arbitrary and what people think of as “races” varies with geography and time. Since it’s not a scientifically-valid concept, country of origin, language spoken, and religious beliefs have all been used to determine what racial category one group or another has belonged to over the years - all in an attempt by the dominant “race” to keep “lesser races” subordinate to them. For example, in the late 1800s, neither Italians nor the Irish were considered to be white. There are parts of the word even today that would consider Catholics to be a separate racial category.
(above: anti-Irish racist propaganda from the late 1800s)
5) So because racialization is a social construct that changes with time and geography, Jews have previously been considered a separate “race” - certainly by the nazis in the most extreme and tragic example. Karen Brodkin has written about how Jews in America “became white” in the 1940s. Currently we are witnessing the racialization of Muslims in very much the same way that Jews were racialized.
So to sum up: race is a made-up concept that’s not substantively real or scientifically-valid. Because of this, people have historically used all manner or criteria to try to delineate racial boundaries, including religion, language, and geographic origin. Some of these, mixed with physical stereotyping, were combined to racialize Jews. There have been other examples of ethnic, linguistic, and/or religious groups being racialized and we’re currently seeing the same thing happen to Muslims.