Are the Jews a race or religion, define Jew, Hebrew & Israelites?

Q. Are the Jews a race or a religion or both and what is the difference in the meaning of the words  “Hebrew,” “Jew,” and “Israelite.” 

The answer may surprise some of our viewers.  Let’s first define the terms we are using:


The word “Hebrew” was first applied to Abraham and his family when they came to Canaan.

Genesis 14:13

13 ¶ Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram.

The dictionary gives us this definition:


1.  A member or descendant of a Semitic people claiming descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; an Israelite; a Jew.

                       (from – )

There is considerable debate as to the origin of the word “Hebrew.”  Most Biblical scholars believe it is from the Hebrew word abar, “to pass over,” thus from beyond the river,  which would be a reference to Abraham and his family coming from “beyond the Jordan” to settle in the land of Canaan.


The term “Jew” means a descendent from Judah, one of the sons of Jacob.

Again the dictionary gives us this definition:

J e w

1..An adherent of Judaism as a religion or culture.

2.A member of the widely dispersed people originally descended from the ancient Hebrews and sharing an ethnic heritage based on Judaism.

3.A native or inhabitant of the ancient kingdom of Judah.

                         (from – )

Originally the term “Jew” was applied only to a decedent from Judah, later in Bible history it came to signify a member of the tribe of Judah, and still later following the division of the kingdom of Israel, when Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes of Israel which remained faithful to God, it designated one from either of these tribes.


The term “Israelite” derives from Israel, the name given to Jacob in Genesis 32:28.  It means literally “having power with God”  Jacob and all of his descendants are Israelites.  It is the usual name given to the twelve tribes, and after the division of the kingdom the name that was applied to the ten northern tribes.

As you can see these terms, though related, differ in scope.  Hebrew is the most comprehensive of the three and includes all who are described by the words Israelite  and Jew, the word Israelite designates one descended from Jacob, and the word Jew designates a descendent of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

All Israelites  were HEBREWS because all of them were descended fom Abraham, but, not all Hebrews wee Israelites.  Only those Hebrews which descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob are Israelites.  Abraham has many other descendants.  The Arab world, for example, is descended from Abraham, through Ishmauel, therefore the Arabs are Hebrews, but they are not Israelites.  Ketyurah was another son of Abraham, and from him descended “many nations.”  These were also Hebrews, though not Israelites, because they were not the progeny of Jacob.

All Jews are Israelites because all Jews have their ancestry from Jacob (Israel), but not all Israelites are Jews because not all Israelites descended from Judah and Benjamine.

After Babylonian captivity those who returned to Cannan reclaimed the name “Israel” for their nation even though most were from the tribe of Judah.  Today, in common usage, the term “Jew” is used to refer to Hebrews and Israelites with no distinction being made whatsoever to the original difference in these terms.

The original term “Hebrew” was first applied to Abraham in Genesis 14:13.   Abraham was the son of Terah, who lived Ur of the Chaldeans.  The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia says:

“Through Terah Abraham’s ancestry is traced back to Shem, and he is thus related to Mesopotamian and Arabian families that belonged to the “Semitic” race.  He is further connected with this race geographically by his birthplace which is given as ‘ur-kasdim (see Ur), and by the place of his pre-Canaanitish residence, Haran in the Aramaean region.” (I.S.B.E. – 1915 edition, p.18).


All Hebrews, Israelites and Jews are descendants of Abraham who is was born, according to the Scriptures, in Ur, which would make all Hebrews, Jews and Israelites descendants of the “Semitic” race.

It is not uncommon for people to refer the “Jewish Race.”  The question is, “Is there such a thing as the “Jewish Race?”

Let’s turn to :

The Encyclopedia Brittanica (1973)

‘The Jews As A Race: The findings of physical anthropology show that, contrary to the popular view,there is no Jewish race. Anthropornetric measurements of Jewish groups in many parts of the world indicate that they differ greatly from one another with respect to all the important physical characteristics.” (vol. 12, 1054)

Encyclopedia Judaica Jerusalem (1971)

“It is a common assumption, and one that sometimes seems ineradicable even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the Jews of today constitute a race, a homogeneous entity easily recognizable. From the preceding discussion of the origin and early history of the Jews, it should be clear that in the course of their formation as a people and a nation they had already assimilated a variety of racial strains from people moving into the general area they occupied. This had taken place by interbreeding and then by conversion to Judaism of a considerable number of communities. . . .

“Thus, the diversity of the racial and genetic attributes of various Jewish colonies of today renders any unified racial classification of them a contradiction in terms. Despite this, many people readily accept the notion that they are a distinct race. This is probably by the fact that some Jews are recognizably different in appearance from the surrounding population. That many cannot be easily identified is overlooked and the stereotype for some is extended to all – a not uncommon phenomenon” (Encyclopedia Judaica Jerusalem, 1971, vol. 3, p. 50).

Encyclopedia Americana (1986)

“Racial and Ethnic Considerations. Some theorists have considered the Jews a distinct race, although this has no factual basis. In every country in which the Jews lived for a considerable time, their physical traits came to approximate those of the indigenous people. Hence the Jews belong to several distinct racial types, ranging, for example, from fair to dark. Among the reasons for this phenomenon are voluntary or involuntary miscegenation and the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism” (Encyclopedia Americana, 1986, vol. 16, p. 71).

Collier’s Encyclopedia (1977)

“A common error and persistent modern myth is the designation of the Jews as a ‘race! This is scientifically fallacious, from the standpoint of both physical and historical tradition. Investigations by anthropologists have shown that Jews are by no means uniform in physical character and that they nearly always reflect the physical and mental characteristics of the people among whom they five” (Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1977, vol. 13, p. 573).

Today, being a Jew simply means that one is of the Judaistic religion or a convert to it, or else in a “brotherhood” of those who are. Therefore,being a Jew has nothing to do with race. We are familiar with a number of notable figures, such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, and Tom Arnold, in fact, who became Jews by conversion to the religion of Judaism. In fact, one is defined a Jew by legal dispensation or coercion, with race playing no part at all:

Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia (1970)

“In 1970 the Israeli Knesset adopted legislation defining a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother or a convert.” (vol. 14, p. 214)

H.G. Wells

“There can be little doubt that the scattered Phoenicians in Spain and Africa and throughout the Mediterranean, speaking as they did a language closely akin to Hebrew and being deprived of their authentic political rights, became proselytes to Judaism. For phases of vigorous proselytism alternated with phases of exclusive jealousy in Jewish history. On one occasion the Idumeans, being conquered, were all forcibly made Jews. There were Arab tribes who were Jews in the time of Muhammad, and a Thrkish people who were mainly Jews in South Russia in the ninth century. Judaism is indeed the reconstructed political ideal of many shattered peoples – mainly Semitic…. The mainpart of Jewry never was in Judea and had never come out of Judea”  (The Outline of History, p. 505).

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