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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Blessings of Exile: Why Minority Status is Good for the Jews--and Everyone Else

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Assimilation is a prospect faced by all minorities in America. Some groups respond by embracing it wholeheartedly; others turn inward to resist the possibility. In his new book At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews, Alan Wolfe argues in favor of the current rebirth of a universalistic outlook among American Jews.

Wolfe explained that the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel—both monumental and particularistic events—prompted American Jews to focus their attentions for decades on the well-being of their own community, and were encouraged in doing so, Wolfe argued, by the American Jewish establishment. In recent years, however, as a result of the fading memory of the two most important Jewish events of the twentieth century, the establishment has lost its hold on the minds of American Jews, especially among the younger generations. These Jews have adopted a more universalistic attitude of late: they exhibit more openness to intermixing with other cultures as well as concern for the well-being of other peoples.

This is positive, Wolfe argued, for both Jews and for the wider society. Jews’ history in the Diaspora makes them particularly adept at understanding the sufferings of other minorities, and they have a great capacity to benefit all of society if their attentions are directed outward.

Wolfe acknowledged concerns many Jews have with universalism, especially its connection to assimilation and intermarriage and the threats these pose to the continuity of the Jewish people. All minority groups face this challenge, Wolfe explained, with many facing far higher intermarriage rates than do the Jews. It is moreover important to remember that, due to its history of exile, Judaism is adept at traveling and transforming. The richness and beauty of Yiddish culture results from the mixture of its Jewish and Eastern European roots, for example. Similarly, Jews have already contributed a tremendous amount to American culture, and Wolfe expects good things as they continue to contribute with this reemerging universalistic outlook.