It's Still Hard to Be a Jew
Thoughts from Mexico.
The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum's Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. I think that the melancholy words of Sholem Aleichem form a background to many of the questions that will concern us in this seminar. If the ideal of a continuing Jewish identity within the Diaspora were not confronted by the menace of other individual and rigidly determined identities that threaten its continuity, we would not be dealing with the issue. If the question of Jewish identity in the Diaspora were not confronting new and difficult challenges in a world which oscillates between one or another kind of religious extremism, multiple identities, and the total loss of identity, we would not be sitting here.
History of the Jewish Diaspora
And so I feel that one way of approaching the situation of the contemporary Jew outside of Israel is to rapidly examine the history of this problem expressed by Sholem Aleichem. And also it is the perspective I feel qualified to apply. I am an historian, not a philosopher; I'm accustomed to believe that the meaning of facts and events is to be understood through their development across time. It's hard to be a Jew for the same old reasons and also for certain new ones. My modest proposal here is to sketch the history of this "difficulty" from the past down to the immediate present.
The Jewish Diaspora, as we all know, is a history marked by intolerance, persecution and, all too often, attempts at local or, with the Nazis, global extermination. But there have also been long periods when specific Jewish communities have richly flourished: the Golden Age in medieval Spain, the overall peace (with some violent interruptions) in the pious and conservative shtetls of Poland, the flourishing of humanistic liberalism in the Germany of the Enlightenment and in post-revolutionary France. During each one of these historic moments, it seemed possible that the Jews had a chance to overcome the essential difficulty of being Jewish, our otherness vis-à-vis a majority culture. But we all know that this otherness would become a justification for the utmost horror in the midst of the 20th century.
A survivor of the Holocaust once told me the story of one of his elderly relatives who arrived, during the first weeks of World War II, in Bialystok, after fleeing on foot from the small city of Wyskow, which had been bombed during the first days of the war and where the invading German army had already murdered much of the Jewish population. The old man wore only rags and, looking off into the distance, he said "nishto kein gott," "there is no God," and died. It was a time and place where it was not only hard to be a Jew. It had become nearly impossible.
Conscious of a surge of pogroms and anti-Semitic incidents (partly orchestrated as a political move by the last Czarist governments of Russia), the Jews of Europe, from the latter part of the 19th into the 20th century, would explore various modern political options, in an attempt to overcome the dilemma of Jewish otherness: universalist socialism, the specifically Jewish Bundist form of socialism, Communism, and Zionism. Another sector chose the old remedy of assimilation. Perhaps the largest number of European Jews chose not to ask new questions or try to leave their otherness behind but remained faithful to the old ways, to daily religious practices and belief in the God of Israel, within various Orthodox or Hasidic currents.
The Nazis of course, and those willing to help them, were uninterested in these internal Jewish divisions and would proceed to exterminate most of European Jewry, together with their culture, religion, and language. Many of the small percentage who survived--the largest number being those who were native Russian citizens or who had fled to the Soviet Union before the advancing German armies--would stay alive but, within the Soviet ambit, anti-religious and universalist, would preserve little or nothing of their culture or religion. Many thousands followed the paths of their ancestors by emigrating to the U.S. or Latin America or to the new promised land of Israel.
In Latin America, Jews did not find a promised land but (with some exceptions such as the early Spanish Inquisition during the Spanish Empire and mid-20th century Argentina) they did enter a space mostly free of anti-Semitism.
In the various countries of Latin America, Jews who had arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries from Europe (and earlier from cities of the Middle East, like Aleppo or Damascus) prospered for nearly a century, to a degree where many of them may almost have forgotten how hard it is to be Jew. If we link this Latin American history to the much longer and flourishing progress of the Jewish people in the United States, we must conclude that America, America as a whole, has become the site of a new "Golden Era" of Jewish history.
Throughout most of the Western world, the fact of the Holocaust had the effect of creating a truce in the sporadic but millenary western record of hostility to the Jews. It was a truce that in its moment seemed on the verge of becoming permanent peace. It seemed that the Jew of the Diaspora had acquired a certain immunity against the onslaughts of bigotry, at a monstrous collective cost that no one would have willingly chosen to pay.
As a consequence of this truce, in a large part of the Diaspora (with the exception of the Soviet bloc, where all religious and particularist loyalties were strongly discouraged) there came into existence a much more ample possibility of living as a Jew (religious or secular) among non-Jews. And to this propitious atmosphere, there was added, in the decades immediately after the war, the considerable, positive prestige of the new state of Israel.