October 22, 2019

A Look Back at the Jewish Century: 1918-2018

Over the past 100 years, Jews have experienced extraordinary elements of triumph and periods of significant tragedy. It represents a time frame of profound contradictions and challenges to the global community. For Jews, it can be seen as a defining moment in our long and complex historical journey.

In November 1918, with the release of the Balfour Declaration, the dream of a Jewish homeland was affirmed. With this announcement, “the Jewish century” would be born. The promise of national statehood excited a community that had been accustomed only to periods of anti-Semitism and rejection, of anticipation and loss. Indeed, the promise of a Jewish state would be realized 30 years later.

However, with the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918, the wheels were set in motion for the emergence of National Socialism and the rise of Nazism. From 1933 to 1945, Adolf Hitler’s demonic ideas fundamentally redefined Jewish history, as the world witnessed the demise of European Jewry.

This would be the century in which Jews emerged from being the victims of history to ultimately becoming the masters of their destiny, in turn reconstructing their story.  Now, for the first time, they could define their future. Jews not only would achieve national hegemony but also gain access to Diaspora power centers that had been closed to them for centuries. Modernity permitted new beginnings for the Jewish world.

The phenomenon of a minority people arising out of the ashes of Auschwitz to reframe not only their world but to also profoundly impact the broader culture may best summarize this century of Jewish influence.

Great civilizations are marked by eight characteristics: complex religious systems; language; literature; governance systems; social service; public works; culture; and technology. By each measure, Jews have made profound contributions to the body of Western thought and knowledge, commerce and charity, science and industry, politics and culture. The extraordinary accumulation and distribution of wealth for causes parochial and secular also has uniquely defined this Jewish era. Possibly because they were denied political access during earlier historical periods, Jews have played in this age a profound role in shaping both global and national politics. Their significant presence in such transformative events as the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, America’s New Deal and this nation’s postwar recovery as well as its civil rights movement would be testimony to their evolving and changing status.

This has been a time frame of extraordinary creativity and diversity of Jewish expression and activity. Specifically, out of the trauma and tragedy of the earlier decades of the 20th century, Jews redefined their image and reconstructed their roles in the post-World War II period. This represented a point in time when Jews became identified as risk takers and core actors in the public arena, just as they would be seen as builders and leaders of institutions representing all segments of society. If Jews were previously identified as marginal to the public square, then in this new construct, they have emerged to become the “producers” of great ideas impacting and shaping public discourse, civic action and institutional practice. The phenomenon of a minority people arising out of the ashes of Auschwitz to reframe not only their world but to also profoundly impact the broader culture may best summarize this century of Jewish influence.

Internally, the quality and depth of Jewish life have flourished during this time. The emergence of Jewish studies as a distinctive academic discipline would be one of the key markers of this era, as would the flourishing of Jewish literature, music and the arts. The creative expansion of liturgy and theology has redefined American Judaism. The vitality and growth of communal life represent additional indicators of this unique moment in Jewish history.

Indeed, Jews would seed two principle contributions, each reflective of different aspects of their historic pathways. The voice of the prophetic tradition, with its call for a socially just world, would be their universal message, while their struggle to achieve Zion, their historic dream of a national Jewish homeland, would serve as their particularistic contribution. The emergence of these two ideas would remain in creative tension with each other, their universalistic mandate in contention with their politics of self-interest.

Is the century of the Jewish people coming to an end? Over time, civilizations are measured by the skill sets and insights of their leaders; by their capacity to reinvent and grow the intellectual resources of language, culture and religion; and by their innate ability to adapt to changing conditions, taking on external and internal threats.

Has the modern Jewish world been able to achieve the outcomes necessary to sustain and grow its brand? Among the questions before us: Have we become a civilization that has so blended into Western culture that we are no longer able to articulate and advance a distinctive Jewish message? Is contemporary Jewish leadership subject to the same abuses of power and of entitlement that today afflict many of the core institutions within the public square? In this time frame, are our leaders able to reflect on the distinctive “Jewish voices” derived from our tradition and melded into our historical journey?

At this point in time, other cultures and civilizations now are asserting their presence on the global map. The current reality may be best measured by the loss of peoplehood that so affirmed the Jewish story over these decades. Division and contentiousness have replaced the central idea of unity, as this extraordinary moment in Jewish history appears to be sun setting. Loss and discord define the current mindset of our people. Shared destiny has given way to a splintered and disjointed scenario. Coherence appears to have come undone.

As anti-Semitism again rears its head, and as Israel is challenged by its enemies and critiqued by its friends, will this next era of the Jewish saga be marked by a period of rejection and the politics of hate, as a war on the Jewish century is unleashed? Just as anti-Jewish behavior defined the formation and evolution of this century, the test here will be how those who reject us will seek to minimize our presence and marginalize our input by seeking to rewrite or dismiss this unique 100-year chapter.

Yet, on the horizon, one also finds the sparks of a new era of Jewish inquiry and the potential for a new century of cultural, civic and religious creativity. Might we be witnessing another Jewish renaissance, this time not necessarily framed by great external events that defined the early 20th century but now by new generations filled with an internal vision for what the world and Judaism might look like? As some of the legacy models of the communal order recede, and as boutique instruments of Jewish expression are piercing the landscape, what might this next iteration signal? Will this new Jewish age be framed by the emergence of multiple choices of religious and communal practice, as these new actors recalibrate the Jewish experience for a different generation?

Jews have always lived with an abundance of questions. As a result, their unique place in human history continues to be challenged by complexity and uncertainty.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writing can be found on thewindreport.com. A version of this story originally appeared on ejewishphilanthropy.com.