The Jewish Community of the 21st century

 by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror


“Who is a Jew?” and “what is Judaism?” are the perennial Jewish questions. Jews have been arguing over this since the European Enlightenment and will likely continue to do so for generations to come.

Less controversial is the feeling that being a Jew means to sense oneself as part of a community. Jewish identity and Jewish community are for many Jews one and the same. Significance of community is a fundamental value of Judaism. It is not an exaggeration to claim that alienation from the community is a greater cause of assimilation than one’s lack of ritual observance or religious agreement. This is because being Jewish manifests itself in a sense of belonging and an active desire to attach oneself to some aspect of Jewish communal life no matter what one’s level of religious observance.

Although it is impossible to call someone an agnostic or atheist Christian or Moslem, the phrases “he is an agnostic Jew” or “she is a Jewish atheist” are perfectly logical in a Jewish context. Judaism might be a religion, but Jewishness is an ethnicity. Yet modernity has been eroding this sense of community for the past several centuries, and globalization now presents even greater challenges to its continuation.

Judaism has survived because it has been historically adaptive. From the patriarchs through the judges and kings to the prophets, throughout the 2,000-year history of rabbinical Judaism, the Jews adapted to the necessities of mostly negative external forces. However, modern global civilization has now given us the positive opportunity to exploit our adaptive gifts for our own creative growth rather than as a response to negative externals.

Globalization has created its own antithesis, the desire of “small” peoples to maintain their cultural uniqueness. This desire is welcome and healthy, if we apply the model of ecological diversity to human culture.

Globalized Zionism

How can we correlate Zionism with an emerging global reality that the founders of Zionism could not have conceived? Classical Zionism saw the Land of Israel as the only place where Jews could prosper and maintain their heritage. Today, however, globalization and the affirmation of cultural pluralism are enabling various ethnic Diasporas to maintain and even enrich their cultural heritages in countries far away from their homelands.

The question of sustaining a Diaspora identity is no longer an exclusively Jewish issue. The existence and success of other Diaspora global tribes is well documented in Joel Kotkin’s book Tribes (Random House, 1994). The universal Jewish Diaspora must cease to be viewed as a disease that the Jews must be cured of (the view of classical Zionism). Instead, the Diaspora must be seen as a Jewish and Zionist resource that would have to be invented if it did not already exist.

The Internet, joined to the fact of Israel’s existence as the largest Jewish community in the world, changes the very concept of aliya. We may now talk about the plausibility of intellectual aliya. A Jew might live in London, New York, or Los Angeles and transmit his or her intellectual product to Israel, to an Israeli company or organization operating outside of Israel, or to other Diaspora communities. Conversely a Jew would be able to work in New York or Paris or Tokyo and still reside in Tel Aviv or a kibbutz. Tom Friedman in The World is Flat describes numerous instances of such activities which might be replicated in a Jewish context.

In the Internet world we can envision a multitude of Jewish cultural centers, numerous cultural nodes existing on a global Jewish cultural network, reflecting the rich cultural pluralism that characterizes every Jewish community in the world today. The future may consist of 50 Israeli nodes, 20 North American Jewish nodes, and 15 European Jewish nodes as well as other cultural nodes in Latin America, Australia etc.

Rather than one Israeli-Diaspora relationship, we might have a multitude of Israeli-Diaspora relationships, as well as Diaspora-Diaspora relationships

and Israeli-Israeli relationships. If we look at current reality as it is rather than through ideological blinders, we would recognize that such relationships already exist because World Jewry constitutes a multifaceted world community.

Synergy and the Jewish Question

Synergy refers to effective mutually beneficial cooperation. The Jews face a cultural and communal choice, either to prosper by striving for cultural synergy between Jewish and global culture or to decline. History records examples of synergies that have created new cultural patterns which advanced both cultures to a higher stage of creativity. Synergy has always been a key element in Jewish history. In the 21st century we are faced with the challenge of cultivating synergy between global and Jewish cultures.

Jews have lived in Babylon, Egypt, Canaan, Greece, Rome, Medieval Christendom, the Islamic Caliphate, Modern Europe, and North America. These experiences were synergetic. These cultures contributed to and transformed the Jews, and the Jews in turn contributed to them. The most striking example of this synergy is the American Jewish experience.

By adopting a strategy of synergy, we are obliged to do away with the notion that the history of the Jews is only one of suffering and persecution. It is time to reject this woeful premise of Jewish history. Many peoples have suffered terribly in human history, the Jews included, but neither human history nor Jewish history is simply the story of suffering.

The recognition that Jewish history has not been one long unique tragedy is not to discount the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust. But the Czarist “Pale of Settlement” has its parallel in apartheid South Africa and Jews being limited to certain trades has its parallels in the Eta of Japan and the Untouchables of India. Pogroms, massacres, and lynching are a universal and not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. The histories of the Armenians, Tutsis,

and American Blacks confirm this.

Jewish hand-wringing is a hazard to our well being. How can it not alienate increasing numbers of young Jews? What mentally healthy person wants to be part of a culture that is dedicated to never-ending mourning, let alone devote his or her life to that culture?