Jews in Revolt

Globalization has broadened human interaction, but also created feelings of disconnect and alienation. Who knows about all that better than the wandering, solitary Jew?

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.Credit: Seth Wenig / AP
Nadav Eyal
Nadav Eyal

Exactly two millennia ago, in 19 C.E., the Roman emperor Tiberius expelled the Jews from the empire’s capital. It was, apparently, the first decree of expulsion issued against a Diaspora community in the history of the Jewish people, although for some reason, in our era, it hasn’t attracted the popular attention it deserves. The Roman elite despised the steady stream of Jews into Rome, and the trend of converting to Judaism, which took hold among some members of that same elite, was viewed as blasphemous, degenerate and a show of contempt for pagan tradition.

When Rome’s rich and established Jewish community was informed of the decree of exile, the daily sacrifice was still being offered up in the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, even before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Jewish people not only lived in exile, they also lived the exile. The expulsion from Rome of part of the population on religious grounds was an uncommon event, and the pattern that was set in the empire – and was repeated during the reign of Claudius, about three decades later – became a basic element of the Jewish experience.

Expulsion is only one aspect of that whole experience, and if the latter can be summed up in one word, that word is “solitariness.” There is no need to break it down into its quintessential elements; a people that dwells alone shall not be reckoned among the nations. In the pre-Emancipation era, Jewish solitariness was reflected in extraordinary obligations, which were usually respected: Jewish slaves in Rome, for example, did not work on the Sabbath, and synagogues were not desecrated by statues of emperors.

Following the Emancipation, that solitariness became more difficult and intense. The crumbling of the walls of the ghetto confronted the Jewish people with what Yeshayahu Leibowitz called the “final crisis,” which began to emerge a century before the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. The tens or hundreds of thousands who were absorbed in short order into Christian European society amid a rapid process of assimilation turned their backs on a people that dwells alone. From coerced solitariness, the Jews moved to solitariness by choice – which is, by its nature, more onerous.

The need to cope with this choice is the gateway through which all streams of Judaism have passed since the onset of modernity: Reform Jews, who allow themselves to make changes in halakha (traditional religious law); ultra-Orthodox Judaism derived from the practices of Hungarian Jewry and of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber), whose dictum was based on his interpretation of a Talmudic injunction that the “new is forbidden by the Torah”; the national self-determination pushed by Theodor Herzl; the socialist Bundists; and humanistic liberalism, which views the whole world as its home.

Theodor Herzl.Credit: Emil Salman

The absence of a home was not characteristic of Jews alone. It only made them emblematic of the entire modern period, because for them home lacked any concrete, national form. Martin Buber, in a 1938 series of lectures in Jerusalem entitled “Between Man and Man,” said that all of humanity was no longer dwelling in its home.

“I should like to call this peculiarity of the modern crisis man’s lagging behind his works,” Buber said. “Man is no longer able to master the world which he himself brought about: It is becoming stronger than he is, it is winning free of him, it confronts him in an almost elemental independence, and he no longer knows the word which could subdue and render harmless the golem.”

Modernity’s gardeners

Martin Buber.Credit: Universal History Archive / UIG

That “elemental” phenomenon could be described as globalization. The reciprocal relations between nations, cultures and individuals have broadened and become more intensive and rapid than at any time in the past. Along with the Industrial Revolution, these interrelations have deeply altered production – its means and the distribution of its output; the extent to which cultural influences and ideas are disseminated; a people’s ability to migrate and the ability of states to curb migration; the sense of locality and of community; and the way capital is used and penetrates human relations themselves.

Globalization of some sort has always existed, but in the Belle Epoque it became far more critical – a development that could be measured economically (for example, international trade as part of the gross world product) and felt both politically and culturally. It collapsed in World War I, but it never disappeared as a distinct political concept, as something related to capitalist liberalism.

World War II struck the world dumb briefly, heralding a rare era of responsibility and stability in which voters and decision makers succeeded in uniting, unusually, around mainstream political discourse. Both East and West accepted the underlying assumptions of a need for rationality, for progress through science, and for rejection of extremist ideologies and of the grasp of established religion on politics.

The bipolar power struggle of the Cold War unleashed a competition over who was providing the good life in exclusively material terms – doctrines of morality and religion were shunted aside. For a brief moment, we witnessed an orderly world in which the rule was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” When scientists began to issue warnings about the expanding hole in the ozone layer and the substances causing it, no one questioned their conclusions: They were not accused of being biased because of their national identity, and anyone who might have preached against them in the churches would have been considered irrelevant. Within a short time the nations of the world convened, under the leadership of Washington and Moscow, and outlawed the polluting materials, CFCs. It was an era of responsibility, and despite the postwar period’s terrible wrongs – in Vietnam, in Korea, in the suppression within the Soviet Union – it planted the trees that the world enjoys today.

The Jews were the outstanding gardeners of the modern world. They irrigated and cultivated socialism, social criticism, liberal capitalism, and Zionist nationalism. Once, I was speaking with a racist nationalist living in Europe. When I asked him about the Holocaust, he retorted, “You [Jews] caused damage to European culture with the Frankfurt School” – a reference to the philosophical and sociological movement founded in the Weimar Republic.

Responsibility and repudiation

Globalization returned as a political project of the United States in the 1990s, when it became the world’s only superpower. While the purpose of this American endeavor was not actually to threaten nation-states, but to heighten prosperity and win the Cold War – that was exactly its subversive outcome. Together with the information revolution and the spread of corporate capitalism, any person or place that thought locally came under threat. The sword was capitalism, which for example threatened to wrest control over Bougainville Island, in the Pacific, with its vast copper deposits – but the armor was liberalism and Americanization, which penetrated traditional communities and disrupted their sense of identity and importance. Let’s take, for example, the desire among Jews, Hindus or Muslims to marry within their community and perpetuate their religion in future generations. What is that in the face of the Romeo and Juliet ethos, of a love that surpasses all social and other differences between communities and which is the basis for many of the ideas that come out of Hollywood?

So, globalization may have expanded, deepened and accelerated human ties, but it also understandably fomented increasing feelings of disconnect and alienation. Eighty-one years ago, Buber had the sense that “man lives in the world as in an open field” under the great expanse of the heavens. In our time, man feels as though he is living on a lone asteroid, one that repeatedly collides with other asteroids.

The era of responsibility in which we lived following 1945 collapsed, of course. Around the globe people feel that their jobs are at risk, that their savings are not secure, that migrants are likely to show up anywhere, that community identity is under threat and that terrorism can strike at any time. They are rebelling. This is not a “populist wave” – a somewhat meaningless catch-all term used in the West. Populism does not describe, for example, the rise of fundamentalism almost everywhere, from East Asia to the United States. The extreme right is not truly populist, not really, and neither is the radical left.

Diagnoses of a “wave” or “reaction” tend to ignore the mounting threats to authoritarian regimes, which also feel that they are mired in deep and ever more acute distress, and manifested by protests and challenges all over, from China to Turkey via Iran. This is a revolt that lacks ideology, but is charged with sentiment, fluidity and shifts. This revolt focuses more on razing present power structures than with building new ones. It is razing them because they are no longer relevant; they have been exposed as a mere façade of power. Sometimes the revolt targets structures because they are not democratic enough; sometimes it feels as if democracy has a paralyzing influence and citizens yearn, as do many in the West, for “strong government.”

Protests in Tehran, Iran, November 2019.Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/Reuters

The revolt need not encompass a “majority” of the population; it is enough for it to exist among those who determine the fate of elections or of a country – let’s say, white voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin. This is a historic moment that is characterized by a decline in the prestige of the political center in favor of radicalization, because the center was a disappointment and its solutions turned out to be unsuccessful and hypocritical. It’s not a coherent ideological platform, it’s a radical moment of repudiation. It is not the October Revolution of 1917 but the February Revolution that preceded it, in which the czar was removed and a vacuum was created into which flowed, within months, a determined band of Bolsheviks.

Secular challenge

Don’t these descriptions also express vividly the breakdown and shattering of the great halakhic authorities in the Orthodox Jewish world since the end of the 20th century? Is the era of the gedoilim – the great rabbis – coming to an end? Moreover, there is a feeling among their followers that all of current rabbinic authority itself is just “faking it,” and that it no longer possesses the power “to command” or to render halakhic decisions as in the past. Alternatively, if the rabbis want that power, they have to turn Judaism into a cult that is closed off to society and appallingly extreme – to ignore more flexible traditions in favor of adhering to the text in near-Karaitic fashion, and perhaps commit grave offenses to that end. Hasidic sects that force their members to take psychiatric medication to curb “evil inclinations” are one example of this.

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz.Credit: Alex Levac

The Haredi and national-religious communities are a minority within the Jewish people. Indeed, the majority of Jews in the world of 2020 do not lead lives that differ much from those of non-Jews. Of this, Leibowitz, the religiously observant hero of many secular Jews, said, “All that remains as a Jewish element in his way of life [i.e., of one who does not observe the commandments] is nothing but the empty shell of the consciousness of belonging to the Jewish people.”

Leibowitz’s rejection of elements within the consciousness, and of sentiment and mysticism is well known, and the fact is that despite the so-called secular challenge, there are those who belong to the fourth generation of total secularity and who still identify as Jews. What preserved that identify as such, in many cases, are various aspects of community life, recognition of a shared tradition, and other similarities. This can be seen as a “shell” only if the exclusive mirror of Judaism is observance of the precepts according to Orthodox halakha.

In recent decades, Jews have tended to live near each other in the United States, not far from a synagogue, and have built shared institutions for themselves in order to preserve their identity – in part because of the refusal of the country club to accept them. They celebrated the Jewish holidays and sent their children to learn Hebrew in Sunday school. Above all, they insisted on defining themselves as Jews and carried out many actions in the practical realm that are related to this, from circumcision to setting aside money for tzedakah.

A kosher, gourmet bakery in Miami. At the same time that many American Jews want no part of the organized community, the fastest-growing group is the Orthodox. Credit: Lynne Sladky / AP

But that fragile structure has collapsed. Across the United States there is an exceptional increase of people who describe themselves as having “no religion.” In fact, they now constitute the largest group in the United States this year, passing even the evangelicals. It’s only natural that Jews should be part of this trend, if not its spearhead.

Data from the United States in the past two decades bring home an even more important development: The main challenge today is not assimilation – an accusation that Israeli politicians like to hurl at American Jews as if it is some sort of collective sin – but dissociation. Millions of people define themselves as Jews but have no connection to any communal structure, ritual practices, language or other sort of organized social activity in their lived lives. They are Jews the way that Elizabeth Warren is an Indian; it’s a genetic genealogical distinction of zero significance in actual life.

What’s more interesting is that many of those who still define themselves as Jews don’t want any sort of community connection as part of their everyday life. These are two conflicting, and totally understandable, phenomena of revolt. There are those who cut themselves off from any traditional or other power structures, and those who flock to its most extreme version – let’s say toward the fastest-growing community within American Jewry: Orthodox Judaism.

Other forms of the same revolt include the attempt to redefine Jewishness solely as a progressive, political last testament in the post-Holocaust era. It’s Judaism as a political action group. And whereas such efforts may have tremendous humanistic value, they turn Jewish identity into a mere tool for local-political claims. In conceptual (though not moral) terms, the mirror image of the American left-wing Jew who has no real connection with Judaism is the Israeli nationalist, who also sees Jewish identity as a mere instrument for achieving other goals, territorial or ethnic, and therefore has no problem turning his back on history and forging an alliance with racists both foreign and domestic. The power of such foreign racists is fueled by the revolts in their own societies, and because they propose a return to an invented identity and a pure universe that never existed. Revolt encounters revolt.

In this sense, the experience of the revolt we are now witnessing is explicitly Jewish. Like the wandering Jew, suddenly, everyone feels the absence of home, and globalization isn’t providing anyone with a new home in place of the one that was destroyed.

Nadav Eyal's book "Revolt" will be published in the beginning of 2021 by Ecco in North America and Picador in the U.K.