What’s wrong with the Jews?
(February 16, 2022 / Jewish newspaper) Since the European Enlightenment, when Jews gained the rights of other citizens and eventually advanced through society in finance, professions, and the arts, assimilation has been rampant. And this situation applies in America today.
When Jews lived in ghettos in Eastern Europe, with little chance of mixing with their Christian neighbors, there could of course be little assimilation. And even without physical barriers, the invisible line of prejudice and discrimination between Jews and their neighbors separated them.
Once the world of European culture opened up to Jews, we understand what attracted them; it was a treasure trove of music, art, literature and history that had been denied them for generations. Finally, opportunities abounded in the professions and in business, and Jews soon made notable contributions.
In modern times, prominent non-Jews have publicly praised Jews and seen in them what Jews themselves too often ignore. Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian, wrote that “no people has been more fertile in enriching poverty or humanizing wealth, or turning misfortune into creative account. This ability stems from a strong yet subtle moral philosophy, which has changed remarkably little over the millennia because it has been seen to serve the purpose of those who share it.
The great Russian novelist Tolstoy said: “A Jew is that sacred being who has brought down eternal fire from heaven and who has illuminated the whole world with it. He is the religious source, the source and the fountain from which all other nations have drawn their beliefs and their religions. For Winston Churchill, “no thinking man can doubt the fact that they are without doubt the most formidable and remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world”. Mark Twain wrote enthusiastically about Jewish resilience, noting that all nations from the Babylonians, Romans and beyond are gone, but the Jew remains: “What is the secret of his immortality?”
While others have recognized the rich heritage and amazing contribution of Jews to the Western world, too many Jews in America seem to ignore or forget the accomplishments and legacy of their own people.
Only a third of American Jews consider belonging to a Jewish community to be essential. Among Jewish young adults ages 18-29, 35% have few or no Jewish friends according to a 2020 Pew Research report. Donations to Jewish causes, synagogue attendance and attachment to the Jewish state Israel are all down from previous years. In the words of Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary: “Taken together, these numbers suggest a decline in commitment to specifically Jewish causes, a distancing from the Jewish state and its people, and the erosion of networks Jewish social services so necessary to anchor the Jews to their people.
There is a great irony at the heart of the current situation. There have never been more opportunities for Jews of all backgrounds, religious or otherwise, to learn about Jewish history, source texts, culture and wisdom literature. Moreover, despite the rise of anti-Semitism, there is no ghetto, there are no restrictions, no obstacles to reaching the highest levels of society, even for religious practitioners, and yet now is the time when the majority of American Jews are turning their backs on everything.
Through the ages, persecution, discrimination, pogroms, exiles and forced conversions have drastically reduced our numbers and turned the Jews into a reviled people. Yet we persisted, and when the opportunity for peace and stability presented itself, we contributed to the common good of every country that gave rest to a weary and battered people.
We now have the opportunity to be both full players in our society and faithful to our history and our heritage. So why make it a choice between Judaism and the world when you can have both?
Whatever the cause of today’s apathy, those who have faded from Jewish history represent a massive and tragic loss for the Jewish people. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that we have lost the script of Jewish history, the story of a people who “though scarred and traumatized, never lost their humor or their faith, their ability to laugh at the troubles present and still believe in ultimate redemption; who saw human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling and searching.
We can only hope that the script of Jewish history will be found, that the search will be renewed.
Dr. Paul Socken is Emeritus Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.