Jewish History and the Jewish Future

“Jewish History and the Jewish Future” from A Provocative People, (2012)

From the early Semites to the global economy is a stretch of eight thousand years. From the emergence of Israel and Judah to the present, at least three thousand years intervene. The Jewish reality has been around for a long time.

Along the way the Jewish nation has acquired or created the structure and pieces of a resilient and adaptive culture. There have been many languages, many social institutions, many family practices, many rituals and celebrations, many dominant ideologies, many strategies for group survival and many historical memories interwoven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Since the Jews have never been an imperial power, their national culture reflects the diversity that conquering civilizations have left.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced three powerful social and economic transformations. The Jews began as herdsmen and gradually entered the agricultural world of farmers and villages. They then moved from the farmer side of the agricultural world to the emerging urban and commercial side of the same world. And finally they were swept up in the many revolutions of the urban industrial upheaval, which radically changed the material and social conditions of their historic existence. Each of these transformations produced massive internal confrontations. The conservatives who resisted change fought the liberals who welcomed it. The Protest Movement of the nostalgic prophets, the anti-Hellenist fervor of the Rabbis and the present dramatic dichotomy between the ultra-Orthodox and the secularized masses testify to the power of these changes.

Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced a dramatic shift in management and leadership. Tribal warrior chiefs were replaced by warrior kings. And, more importantly, warrior kings were replaced by the clergy. Theocracies, government by the clergy, became the norm for most of Jewish history. The replacement of the Zadokite priests by the rabbis was a significant change, but it did not alter the reality of clerical domination. Not until the nineteenth century were the rabbis deposed and turned into employees of the new secular professionals, whofollowed in the wake of the urban industrial revolution. The success of Zionism has now placed the secular leaders of the Jewish State in the role of informal spokespeople for the Jews.

Along the way the Jewish nation has hosted many powerful ideologies. There was the cultic mythology of the El, Asherah and Baal religion. There was the theology of the protest prophets and their monotheistic devotion to Yahweh. There was the ideology of the Zadokite priests that celebrated the Jews as the chosen people of God, the Jerusalem Temple as his residence on earth and the Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom. There was the belief system of the Rabbis, which expanded divine revelation to the Tal-mud and offered the prospect of a happy individual immortality. There was the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, shared with Eastern philosophy, which promised the ecstasy of a personal union with the Deity. There was the “rational theology” of the Hellenized philosophers like Maimonides, who exalted reason as the path to truth and an “Aristotelian God” to guarantee the order of the universe. There was the Enlightenment enthusiasm of the radical Haskalah, which championed science, humanism and a utilitarian ethics. There was the Marxist ideology of the radical socialists, which replaced religious devotion with revolutionary fervor. There was the liberal philosophy of bourgeois capitalism, which championed individual rights and consigned God to the role of ethics endorser. There was the self-affirmation of New Age religion, which rendered every introspective individual an authentic voice of spirituality. None of these ideologies was compatible with any of the others. All of them had counterparts in other cultures. All of them were Jewish—because they were embraced in time by large numbers of Jews. An ethnic culture—filled with diversity—embraced them all.

Along the way, the Jewish nation also became intensely provocative. Being Jewish was not like being Swedish. For millions of people, the Jews aroused emotions of intense fear, hatred and genocidal rage. The hostility was not only racial contempt directed toward those considered social inferiors. It was not only the exclusionary fear that was directed by most nations toward strangers. The hostility almost always acknowledged the cleverness and power of the Jews. This demonization of the Jew as the source of evil power lay in two places—the historic hostility of the Christian clergy to Rabbinic Judaism and the assumption by enterprising Jews of an economic role that was provocative. Of the two sources, the role of the Jew in the world of commerce and money was the more provocative.

Along the way, the Jews split into two main branches—an Eastern and a Western. For most of Jewish history, the Eastern Diaspora was dominant. In recent centuries, the Western Diaspora took first place. The center of the Jewish world shifted from territory to territory. Judea, Chaldea, Spain, Turkey, Poland, America and Israel have all featured major expressions of Jewish cultural vitality.

Along the way, the Jews became a small nation with extraordinary influence. The sacred scriptures of Zadokite and Rabbinic Judaism were appropriated by the imperial Christian civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Jewish merchants and bankers helped to lay the foundation of the urban industrial world. Secular Jewish intellectuals became major figures in the scientific revolution. The number of Jews who today function prominently at the top financial, cultural and intellectual institutions of the emerging international culture is out of proportion to their numbers in the world population. The Jews, in modern times, have become an ethnic and cultural phenomenon.

JEWISH SUCCESS

The traditional rabbinic view of Jewish history identified the greatest era of Jewish existence with the distant past. Since the rabbis deemed religion to be the most important achievement of the Jewish people, the age of the greatest religious teachers was the “Golden Age” of the Jews. Some-where between 1800 BCE and 500 CE, there supposedly appeared the noble prophets, the devoted priests and the wise rabbis. Inspired by God, they produced the incomparable Bible and Talmud and revealed the path to personal and national salvation. After the Enlightenment, most of the new secular and secularized scholars of the Jewish world ironically preserved this evaluation. Having transferred the Jewish genius from God to Jewish thinkers, they still persisted in maintaining that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was monotheism and the Bible. The success of Jews, and Christianity, became proof of Jewish success, even though the old Christianity was rapidly fading away in the new secular world. For the old rabbis, Jewish life and Jewish wisdom had gone downhill after the completion of the Talmud. Modern times exemplified Jewish decadence. For the new scholars, the genius of the Jewish present was only derived from the special genius of the Jewish past.

But the opposite is actually true. The greatest era of Jewish life is the present. Despite the Holocaust, never before have the Jews, both individually and collectively, possessed more wealth, more power and more influence. The global economy, which the Jews helped to pioneer, now embraces the planet, including regional cultures that lie beyond the domains of Judaism and Christianity. The realm of science, in which Jews have ex-celled far beyond their numbers, has now replaced religious faith as the dominant source of intellectual power in the countries that possess military and economic strength. The legacy of Jewish Nobel Prize winners out-shines the prophets and sages of the religious past; it is science that now has the power to transform human existence. None of the insights of the biblical past have cured disease, lengthened life, triggered a dynamic economy or forged the technology to unite humanity. In fact, the hard core of religious fundamentalists who hate the modern world and the world of science derive their inspiration from the “wisdom” of that era. The emerging global culture, which rests on the achievements of science, has dramatically raised the standard of living for over one-half of the people on our plan-et. Most of the readers of this book would not be alive to read any book without the successes and special contributions of Jewish medical scientists.

The greatest era of Jewish history is now. Neither antisemitism nor the Holocaust can diminish the glory of the Jewish present. In fact, their virulence, including the virulence of religious fundamentalism, pays tribute to the provocative power and influence of the Jew and to the success of the Jew in a new and unsettling environment. Modern antisemites do not hate Jews because of their intense religious faith. They accuse the Jews of being the fomenters of atheism and radical change. They define them as devilish inventors of the global culture. Not even Zionism and the state of Israel have been able to undermine the image of the “International Jew” who conspires to undermine traditional values and structures of the old society. Jews are associated, in the public mind, with the destabilizing effects of money, urbanization, international trade and racial mixing. Everybody agrees that the Jews are smart. But not everybody agrees that they are good for the world.

Antisemitism and the Holocaust have made Jews uncomfortable with Jewish success. In America, the fact that it is known that Jews wield enormous power in both the Democratic and Republican parties does not stimulate Jewish pride; it stimulates Jewish fear. Jews are perfectly comfortable discussing Jewish power in private. But they are hostile to anybody who dares to discuss Jewish power in public. Jews are reluctant to display their power and their wealth, even though they have achieved the distinction of being one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic groups in the world. Jews prefer—and given their history, justifiably—to present them-selves as victims. The popularity of Holocaust centers and Holocaust studies in Jewish life is not only a protest against ruthless genocide. It is also a function of Jewish anxiety. Victimhood is a safer image than power. Jews are uncomfortable being seen at the top of the world in money and intelligence. They prefer to present themselves as the inventors and role models of humane ethics, even though the non-Jewish world does not perceive them that way.

When socialism came to Jewish life in the aftermath of the rise of the new antisemitism, Jewish socialists were uncomfortable with the existing Jewish profile. Neither the image of the affluent Jew as a successful entrepreneur nor the image of the poor Jew as an unsuccessful entrepreneur were perceptions that Jewish socialists were comfortable with. The Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer were more desirable paradigms. With the rise of the textile industry in both Eastern Europe and North America, a Jewish working class “fortunately” emerged for a short while. Labor un-ions and strikes now placed Jews on the “right” side of the struggle. Zion-ism created the image of the Jewish farmer, strong lover of the land and manual labor. But within two generations the children of the working class and the kibbutzim abandoned their work profile and their socialism. All that remains are stories about the Jewish working class that Jews on the Left cultivate as a new nostalgia. Bobes (Grandmas) and Zeides (Grandpas) are now turned into worker heroes, while the achievements of their bourgeois grandchildren are overlooked, certainly not praised or idealized. Even the prophets of the past are turned into precursors of a radical socialism. The truly radical transformation of the Jews into a people of power and influence conveniently goes unnoticed. Individual heroes like Einstein and Freud can be honored for their success, but never the modern Jews collectively.

In the religious centers of Jewish capitalist success, the synagogues and temples of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the public presentation of contemporary Jews always hovers at the level of the interfaith banquet. Jews are either presented as the victims of antisemitism or as the inventors of utopian and Messianic visions of social reform. The intellectual contribution of the Jew to the modern world is praised, but it is always subordinated to the Jewish genius for religion. Jews are touted as the people of the Book, rather than the people of the books. What most Jews really read and value is never admitted publicly. Jews are reduced to a distortion in order to counter antisemitism. What really needs to be said—that the Jews have become the vanguard for the radical transformation of society through the power of science and its global vision—is just too provocative for Jews to handle.2

JEWISH FUTURE

The future of the Jewish ethnic nation, like that of all nations, is problematic. The urban industrial world, with its emerging international culture, is not friendly to exclusive national identities. There is too much merging, mobility and intermarriage to allow for rigid boundaries between ethnic groups and cultures. Only a deliberate effort of separation, a repudiation of the major rewards of the new system—from money to personal freedom— can enable old cultures to survive with some purity. The price of this disciplined separation is militancy, a perpetual state of war with the dominant culture.

In the new world of continuous and rapid change, with its counterpart of continuous and rapid technological innovation and obsolescence, the future becomes almost impossible to predict. But certain lasting or emerging features of Jewish life have a good chance of defining the Jewish future.

The expanding secularization of Jewish life will continue. Most Jews complain about urban and suburban life, the materialism of the consumer culture and the stress of competition. But they do not want to give up the rewards of the new world; nor does effective separation seem either attractive or feasible. The new global economic system is very powerful and seductive. Only a few “wounded” people will have the desire and will-power to separate from it. Israel is now as much a part of this system as the Diaspora.

On the whole, Jews will remain near the top of the economic hierarchy. Education is the key to success in the information age. Jews have a surfeit of it. Of course, they will not be alone. There will be the remaining European elites in Europe and North America, as well as the rising presence of East and South Asians. Jews may cease to be extraordinary. But they will still be rich in comparison to other peoples of the world. Only the unfortunate Eastern Jews of Israel—lost in the corruption and failure of Orthodoxy and the state school system—will remain on the other side of the prosperity line.

The world Jewish population will shrink. Prosperity in an urban world lowers the birthrate and ages the nation. Neither the substantial reproduction rates of both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews will be able to compensate for the dramatic shrinkage in North America and Europe. Jewish youth will become a scarcer commodity. Programs and facilities for older Jews will achieve a greater presence. None of this means extinction, just a different balance of young and old.

The distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews will gradually fade away. Both groups have now been appropriated by the new economy and the new international culture. Intermarriage in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim will accelerate. The mix will not change the direction of things. Mizrahim may be two centuries behind the Ashkenazim in their recruitment for urban culture. But they are heading in the same direction. The rift between secularized and ultra-Orthodox Jews will widen into a major dichotomy. Not only radically different lifestyles will promote this split. Intermarriage especially will make the divide unbridgeable. The ultra-Orthodox will remain about ten percent of the Jewish population, their fabulous birthrate balanced by inevitable defections. But they will be well-organized, aggressive and demanding—and never open to compromise. They will continue to infiltrate establishment institutions with the young “cheap labor” of teachers and communal workers they will be able to pro-duce. Confrontation will be frequent. Just as the Orthodox and the Hasidim united to battle the new secularism, so will Conservative, Reform and secular Jews band together to oppose the “enemy.” Modern Orthodox Jews will be sucked into the militancy of ultra-Orthodoxy. Increasingly, in the Diaspora, the face of Judaism for non-Jews will look more and more Orthodox. However, the check on Orthodox power will be their inability to go beyond the ten percent mark. Militant segregation—the only way Orthodoxy can work in the modern world—is too high a price for most Jews to pay for Jewish survival. The Orthodox will be conspicuous, but not triumphant. Like all fundamentalism, they will be a chronic condition in Jewish general life, an annoying anachronism in the rapidly changing global civilization.

Reform and Conservative Judaism will change places in the Diaspora. Once the dominant movement of North American Jewish life, Conservatism will shrink. Jews interested in returning to tradition will be attracted to the new dynamism of militant Orthodoxy. Those interested in a conservative Reform can now find it in Reform—with less of the scolding that the ambivalent Conservative movement still provides. Reform Jews will re-main heavily secularized, with periodic indulgences in traditional behavior as a way to reinforce family connection.

Most Jews in the Diaspora will pursue the individualist agenda of the global culture. Marriage will continue to evolve into partnerships of love and personal fulfillment, with all the attendant pleasure and instability that such partnerships bring. Children will be stressful and divorce will be frequent. Family loyalty will be less significant than individual happiness. Even besieged Israel will not be immune to this development. Lonely individuals and couples will seek community with people who share their work, their leisure interests and their convictions. Others will choose non-affiliation on all levels, preferring to pay for services rather than joining communities. A large number of rabbis, ceremonialists and teachers will provide rites, classes, and inspirational weekends for Jews who seek them out. The unaffiliated, in terms of marriage, children and congregation will play an important role in Jewish life. They will radically change the institutional ways that Jews are served as Jews.

Diversity in Jewish life will increase. With so many individuals freely making individual choices, the number of Jewish religious and cultural options will grow. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have already added Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic. More Jewish choices will inevitably appear. Conventional Jewish choices will shrink in number. Un-conventional connections will increase. Individual Jews, in their search for personal fulfillment, may prefer to be eclectic, tasting a wide variety of Jewish options.

With the exception of the militant Orthodox, the boundaries between the Jewish and non-Jewish world will be less fixed, more fluid. A shared global culture and world languages will enable people from ethnic enclaves to mix freely with people from other ethnic places. This development is taking place right now. There are three manifestations of this development. The first is the emergence of a smorgasbord of literature, music, food, holidays and celebrations that is now available to any educated person. Jews choose many non-Jewish items for their intellectual, cultural and ceremonial life. Non-Jews increasingly find Jewish cultural creations as attractive options. Jewish identity is far more open and porous than conventional Jewish leaders can tolerate.

The second manifestation is growing intermarriage. Most of this marriage is not interfaith, a difference of beliefs and values. Most of this marriage is intercultural, a difference of ancestors and ceremonies. Neither scolding nor denunciation by Jewish leaders manages to change this reality. Intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a mixed ethnic environment where personal freedom prevails and where the secular values of an emerging global culture dominate personal choices. While the racial profile of Israelis is getting “darker” because of intermarriage between Eastern and Western Jews, the racial profile of North American Jews is getting “lighter” because of intermarriage between Jews and Anglo-Saxons. Ultimately African, Asian and Hispanic genes will also make a dramatic appearance. Ethnic attachment and ethnic stereotypes are beginning to coincide less and less. Even Israel, with its enormous number of intermarried Russian immigrants, is confronting the same challenge. Only abolishing the new economy or militant segregation can change this reality. Many contemporary Jews have more than one ethnic connection. And future Jews will, too.

The third manifestation of an open society is that for many loyal Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish culture will not be their primary commitment. They love being Jewish and they want to participate in Jewish family life. But they have other commitments in the areas of personal relations, friend-ships, work and leisure that are more compelling. Even in Israel, many young Jews are weary of persistent appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The old, all-encompassing collectivism of family and tribe has lost its power for many Jews. Not even guilt can alter this new behavior. The Jewish world functions with increasing numbers of Jews who do not place their Jewish commitments in first place.

One of the future realities in Jewish life will be the growing importance of Israel in Jewish self-awareness. Given the military power of the Jewish state, it is highly unlikely that its enemies will be able to destroy it in the near future. Despite the shrinking of Jewish immigration to the Jewish state, within two decades the majority of the Jews in the world will be living in Israel. The new center of Jewish life may even become bigger than the dispersion. Inevitably, the external and internal problems of Israel will remain an important part of the Jewish national agenda. The culture war between the secularists and the Orthodox in Israel will feed the same war in the Diaspora. And the place of Israeli literature, music and film in Diaspora life will only increase.

Antisemitism will continue to be a significant force in Jewish life. Whatever its origins, the Jews continue to be a provocative people, demonized by both the Right and the Left. The grievances arising from life in a global economy and an emerging global culture feed the hatred of a people who are perceived as winners in the trial of global transformation. While Zionism has restored a vibrant center to the Jewish nation, it has simultaneously provoked an intense antisemitism in the Muslim world. This Jew-hatred will continue to endanger the survival of the Jewish state, even if some kind of accommodation between Israelis and Arab Palestinians is achieved. The imagined solution to antisemitism has only produced more. Of course, a continued antisemitism will continue to keep Diaspora Jews interested in preserving their Jewish identity and will contribute to Jewish group survival.

The consequence of this connection will be the movement of Jewish establishment political life to the Right. The defense of Israel and the defense of Jewish economic interests will finally coincide. The Jews, in modern times, chose the Left as the best guarantee against antisemitism. The future will feature increasing Leftist discomfort with the existence of the Jewish State. But the Right is also problematic for the Jews. Much of it is still antisemitic. And much of it is now religiously fundamentalist, an odd ally for a people that is overwhelmingly secularized or secular. This last development will keep many Jews uncomfortably on the Left. Even if a future American government forces peace by compelling the Israeli government to return to something close to the 1967 borders, persistent Muslim fundamentalism and Third World ambivalence will leave the Jews hovering between the Right and the Left.

Perhaps the most astounding development of the Jewish future will be the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora model to all nations. With national populations shifting and changing, especially in the First World of Europe and North America, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are turning into multi-national states in which racial and ethnic homogeneity has vanished. African, Asian and Mestizo populations are becoming local majorities in many western venues. Aging white populations are importing thousands of necessary young non-whites to sustain their economies. In America, the notion of a multi-cultural society is taking hold. In a time when technology can connect us instantly to any place in the world, dispersed communities can be tied together by the bonds of new communication and transportation which defy distance. Nothing is far away any more —neither South Africa, Japan nor Israel.

Even Israel is changing. The size of the population of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers is growing. The Jewish state is going through the same trauma as Europe and North America. It, too, is part of the dynamic First World. It, too, is experiencing itself as a multi-cultural or multi-national society. The future will only aggravate this development. Perhaps the age of the ethnically pure state is ending. Nations and states no longer coincide. States are territorial units accommodating people of a wide variety of national identities. Perhaps, in such a global society, state citizenship will be separated from national identity. The Chinese in America can be Chinese by nationality and American by citizenship. They can be loyal to the historic family to which they belong and loyal to the state that is their home. They can speak both Chinese and English and feel no discomfort in a multilingual global society. If it is possible for the Chinese, it is also possible for the Jews. As for the Jewish State, it will be like every other First World state, a mixture of several nations. In a global economy, Israelis will produce their own Diaspora, and necessary foreign workers will find their way to Israel. In a mobile world, forcing immigrants to conform to a single territorial model will no longer work. Israel will remain the center of the Jewish world. But it will never become a fully Jewish state.

It is quite possible that territorial nationalism, which is still very strong, will be undermined by the very economic and technological development that territorial nations embrace. By the end of the twenty-first century, the mixing of people will be so universal that old nations will turn into world-wide dispersions. When that happens, not Zionism, but the old Jewish ethnic model of a dispersed people will again become relevant.

Very early in their history, the Jews tasted the possibility of becoming a world people. This development may be their most enduring contribution to the world. Many historians will still maintain that monotheism and a compassionate ethics were the major contributions of the Jews. But monotheism is an increasingly problematic ideology in a secular world, and philosophic monotheism has its roots in many cultures. As for compassionate ethics, it is neither ethical nor empirically responsible for any nation to designate itself the inventor of ethics.

Given their history and influence, the Jews have been and remain a provocative and extraordinary people, the unwitting precursors of a global world they helped to invent.