As the scholar Jacob Neusner has remarked, the Holocaust followed by Israel’s creation constituted a kind of civil religion for Jews, reminding them of their eternal vulnerability while offering salvation in the form of statehood. Memories inevitably change, however, and as the impact of these two titanic events fade, an increasing number of the next generation of Jews are starting to reject the particularism associated with both events in favor of a rebirth of the universalism that once characterized life in the Diaspora. Professor Wolfe argues this is a positive moment, for both Jews and the non-Jews with whom they live.
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.
Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003).
Alan Wolfe, “Israel’s Moral Peril,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25, 2012.
Alan Wolfe, “Free Speech, Israel, and Jewish Illiberalism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 17, 2006.
"A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews," Pew Research Center (October 1, 2013).
Laurie Goodstein, "Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews," New York Times, October 1, 2013.
Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The New York Review of Books (May 2010).
David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel, eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998).
Jordan Chandler Hirsch, “Diaspora Divided,” review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, Jewish Review of Books (Spring 2012).
Alan Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (Boston: Little Brown, 1997).
Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jews, and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
Marc Gellman, “Joe Lieberman as Rorschach Test,” First Things (December 2000).
Dana Evan Kaplan, Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
Irving Kristol, “Why Religion is Good for the Jews,” Commentary (August 1994).
Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).
Allan Arkush, “All-American, Post-Everything,” review of Shaul Magid’s American Post-Judaism, Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2013).
Yehuda Mirsky, “Do Israeli and American Jews Need Each Other?” review of Shmuel Rosner’s Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball, JewishIdeasDaily.com.
Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Jacob Neusner, Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust,” Zionism, and American Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, edited by Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997).
David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Jack Wertheimer, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People,” Commentary (June 2006).
Ruth Wisse, Jews and Power (New York: Schocken, 2007).
In the News
October 1, 2013, the Pew Research Center released A Portrait of Jewish Americans. The survey reports that Jewish identity is changing in America, and touches on such issues as Jewish affiliation, intermarriage, and child rearing. On September 24, Boisi Center director and Political Science professor Alan Wolfe spoke about his current book project on Jews in America and the blessings of exile.