What is Jewish Identity in the age of the Jewish Question?
Why has President Trump’s new executive order exploded in the Jewish Twitterverse? Why is Jewish identity a central topic in the UK elections? Why are the French debating the definition of anti-Semitism? Why does it feel like ground is shifting under the feet of Jews in the Western world? History may be repeating itself, and this may be the return of an old problem.
The term “Final Solution” is quickly identifiable by educated people as a Nazi euphemism for the Holocaust. But what was it solving? The solution to what, specifically? Decades after the term has fallen into disuse, most have forgotten the phrase “Jewish Question,” which is what the Nazis were talking about.
And so, while many are troubled by the quantifiable rise in global anti-Semitism, they may not realize that something else has changed. The Jewish Question has returned.
The term used by the Nazis was “Endlösung der Judenfrage.” In English, the “final solution to the Jewish Question.” There were also other answers to the Question. Perhaps the most notable was Zionism. How two such opposite movements can be responding to the same question requires some explaining.
What was the Jewish Question?
When the Jews of the West were emancipated, a profound transformation was expected. The idea was that the formation of secular Nation/States would create places where people of different (or no) faiths would exist in harmony. Assimilation into French, German, and British nationals would make Jews indistinct from their neighbours. The Jews of Denmark, Belgium and the US could expect to blend in with a citizenry that replaced faith and ethnicity with nationality as the marker of belonging.
The hypothesis was based on the assumption that anti-Semitism was a religious intolerance, and secular nationalism would eliminate it along with other forms of racism and bigotry. Modernity would eliminate the base hatreds of the Middle Ages with enlightened humanism and healthy coexistence.
It didn’t work out that way.
And so the Jewish Question was born. Essentially it asks, “Why are the Jews still different, and what should we do about it?” It is essentially a neutral question that can be discussed by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves. How one answers the Question will determine which of those categories one fits into.
Early Zionist thinker Leon Pinsker stated it this way,
This is the kernel of the problem as we see it: the Jews comprise a distinctive element among the nations under which they dwell, and as such can neither assimilate nor be readily digested by any nation.
A brief stroll through the relevant Wikipedia page will take you through the historical use of the term Jewish Question (and the synonymous “Jewish Problem”) from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries. For our purposes we need to understand that there was a vigorous debate about the distinctness of the Jewish minority, the continued presence of (a now secular and racist) anti-Semitism and what should be done about it. It was used by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves when discussing these matters. Solutions included assimilation, Communism and Zionism.
And, of course, the Nazis ultimately chose yet another approach, elimination, as their Final Solution. In the aftermath of that horror, it became socially inappropriate to even discuss the Question. Anti-Semitism persisted, but was officially condemned by establishments. The place of the Jew in Western Nation/States became inviolate and unquestionable, and the Question became unmentionable.
Where has it appeared again?
We have all noticed the rise in anti-Semitic violence and vandalism over the last decade. This is deeply unsettling and much discussed. But it is only part of the change we are seeing. The Jewish Question is being asked again in mainstream conversations, in ways that it hasn’t been asked since World War II.
The opening paragraph of this essay contains just a few examples of triggers for the current iteration of the Question in the US and Europe. It is being argued over by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves when discussing these matters.
This time, however, there is a major difference. In the past, a Jewish State was one of the answers to the Question. Today, that State exists, and is often a trigger for the Question.
Here are some aspects of the Question commonly being discussed:
Are the Jews a religion or a nation?
Should Jews be loyal to, and support, Israel?
If that support is to be expected, isn’t that dual loyalty?
Is anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism?
If Jews define their identity differently, who speaks for the Jews?
Do Jews have “white privilege”, or are they replacing “whites”? Are they “white” at all?
In other words, the role and identity of Jews in Western countries is being discussed and debated in mainstream political and social discourse. You can take whatever side you choose in these debates. But the role of Jews, and how to talk about them, is unclear and debatable again. The Jewish Question, in its 21st Century iteration, is being asked aloud by anti-Semites, philo-Semites, and Jews themselves. And again, how one answers it will determine which of those categories one fits into.
Why is it back in the spotlight?
It will require the historical reflection of future thinkers to explain the return of the Jewish Question. But two observations seem apposite.
The presence of anti-Semitism was part of the background to the Jewish Question. And the resurgence of that old hatred is making it a relevant discussion again. It can be heard in shouts from Yellow Vest rallies, and dabbled with by the National Front. It can be heard in chants at Charlottesville, and read in tweets from a Minnesota Congresswoman. As political discourse becomes more polarised, anti-Semitism gets louder on both extremes. This recapitulates the atmosphere of pre-Shoah society. In other words, the return of ubiquitous anti-Semitism revives the Jewish Question.
Israel has made Jewish identity for diaspora Jews more complicated. In general, there is a desire to support Israel, but not be held accountable for Israeli policies. This is a reasonable self-image, surely. In practice it seems hard for many to keep these lines, between Israel criticism and anti-Semitism, clear. That lack of clarity generates the return of the Jewish Question.
The first of these problems is probably best addressed by non-Jews. Other than identifying anti-Semitism when it appears, and calling it out, there is not much Jews can do to reduce it.
But the second problem is one that Jews themselves must wrestle with. Complex self-definitions will be weighed and chosen. Values will be prioritised differently by various groups, leaving clear lines of demarcation hard to come by. Jews will debate questions of their own identity with varying levels of respect and tolerance. This is inevitable, traditional, and positive in many ways.
What might this mean for the future?
There is no way to know. Apocalyptic doomsaying seems incredibly premature, if not also immature. But Jews should be aware and attentive to their place in Western democracies. And they should listen to how their role is understood by others. When people tell you what they think, believe them. Perhaps more importantly, Jews should continue to think about and identify their own answers to the Question.
Zionists long ago answered that the Jews are a nation/people, and Judaism is that people’s culture/religion. Where do you stand on that formulation?
To quote my Makom colleague, Robbie Gringras,
In the end, beneath the contemporary politics, there lies a fundamental question of Jewish identity you might wish to explore around a Friday night dinner table.
If I agree with [the opinion] that Jews are not a nation, then what do I think about the State of Israel?
And if I agree with Ben Gurion and countless Zionists since, then what do I think about my American nationality?”
Theodor Herzl used the term freely and frequently. In his address to the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in 1897, he said, “We Zionists, seek for the solution of the Jewish question, not an international society, but an international discussion…. We wish to place the question under the control of free public opinion”.
It may be disquieting to acknowledge that the Jewish Question is being asked again. To quote Ahad Ha’am, “The truth is bitter, but with all its bitterness it is better than illusion.”
Even if it is somewhat uncomfortable to discuss it, it should also be exciting and enriching. Let the conversations continue.