Paradoxes of the Jewish Renaissance

One would be hard pressed to find an instance of historical renewal that parallels the odyssey of Jewish tragedy and rebirth over the past two generations. Arising, phoenix like from the abyss just over 70 years ago, the Jewish People went on to establish a sovereign national home in Israel – an unprecedented success story by almost every parameter — alongside vital and flourishing communities around the world that have left their mark on culture and politics to an extent far surpassing their relative demographic weight. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we are poised at the very crest of a global Jewish renaissance. Never in the past two millennia has Jewry lived in such safety or enjoyed such prosperity. Jews around the world share a profound sense of pride in their identity. All this points to outstanding resilience and collective determination. The great paradox is that our very success entails profound ironies that threaten to undo these achievements. If we wish to sustain the global Jewish family, we must confront these issue head on.

The first great irony derives from the tension between acceptance and exclusion. For centuries, Jews were denied access to society at large, forcing them back into the confines of their own communities. The almost universal acceptance of Jews in contemporary western societies is both the cause and the effect of their prosperity and success, a self-reinforcing mechanism that only accelerates as time goes on. The more Jews are accepted, the faster they assimilate into the general population and the higher their consequent rate of success, the more intense the cycle of prosperity and assimilation becomes. This is a natural progression that follows seamlessly from the very social integration and belonging Jewish communities rightly aspire to. The irony, then, is that the process of assimilation that breeds Jewish success in the first place makes it increasingly difficult to sustain Jewish identity in subsequent generations. Eight out of ten children are already born into families with only one Jewish parent. How does one impress upon the child of a mixed couple the primacy of her or his Jewish identity? The encounter between identities, of course, is not bad by definition, but it will make it increasingly difficult to communicate the importance of belonging to an historical collective as the Jewish renaissance proceeds. Will Jewish success ultimately result in our disappearance?

The second irony emerges from the relationship between Israel and world Jewry. Jewish communities around the globe have become ever more empowered in recent decades. Yet this newfound strength is a mixed blessing. As world Jewry feels stronger and more self-confident, as Israel feels safer and more self- assured, all parties begin to assert themselves, often at the expense of other parts of the Jewish collective. The resulting tensions between Israel and world Jewry, thus, can only be expected to grow. For many years, the default attitude of the American Jewish community, for instance, was automatic support for Israeli policy. This reflected an unstated division of labor. The State of Israel defended the common, Jewish homeland, while diaspora Jews pooled their efforts to make sure it had the wherewithal to do so. American Jews never second guessed decisions made in Jerusalem. The stronger the American Jewish community becomes, however, and the greater its self-awareness as the legitimate voice of half the Jewish people, the less it is willing to automatically endorse every Israeli government policy. Israel, for its part, feeling less reliant on the support of American Jewry, is increasingly willing to disregard policy concerns of diaspora Jews in the pursuit of what it perceives to be the national interest. For the Jewish communities of Israel and the United States — both of roughly equal size — the question of primacy (which side has the authority to determine what Jewish interests are) therefore becomes increasingly acute. The strength, safety and self-confidence of Jewish communities is, to be sure, a most welcome development of today’s Jewish renaissance. It will, however, make it increasingly difficult to contain intercommunity tensions and the centrifugal forces pulling the Jewish family apart.

These ironies pose a daunting challenge. The Jewish Agency for Israel was formed some 90 years ago as the agent of the Jewish people – operating in its name and on its behalf wherever Jews live to ensure that we continue to flourish together as one people. In order to succeed in this role, The Jewish Agency must embrace the Jewish renaissance, champion it, and help it continue to flower. All the while, however, we must remain cognizant of the paradoxes it brings in tow. We must relentlessly promote Jewish prosperity and security, while simultaneously addressing concomitant hazards to Jewish unity, resilience and mutual responsibility; we must help fuel the Jewish renaissance even as we deploy correctives to its inevitable consequences. It is a critical balancing act. It is the challenge of our time.

About the Author
Dr. Shivi Greenfield is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel and is responsible for the strategy, planning and evaluation of the organization’s operations across the globe. He holds a PhD in Political Theory from Oxford University, where he was a Weidenfeld Scholar, and received master’s and bachelor’s degrees in political philosophy and economics from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has also held research positions at NYU Law School and the Chazan Center for Social Justice and Democracy at the Van-Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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