Jewish Identity or the Way Term Paper

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Jewish Identity in Modern Times: Jonathan Sacks, in an article Love, Hate and Jewish Identity appropriately sums up the dilemma of Jewish self-identity in modern times by stating: "Until the beginning of the 19th century, Jews defined themselves as the people loved by God. Since then most Jews...have defined themselves as the people hated by Gentiles." This is probably because in pre-modern times, the Jewish child felt no significant 'identity conflict' as he grew up into adulthood in isolated, self-contained Jewish communities. This state of relatively secure Jewish 'self-identity' was, however, severely disrupted by the advent of enlightenment in modern times, which forced the Jewish community to interact with the political, cultural, and economic forces outside their limited, self-contained Jewish society.

Jewish self-identity in modern times, however, is not as simplistic as stated by Sacks. According to Michael a. Meyer, apart from enlightenment (which is an ongoing process), the other two forces that have most shaped modern Jewish identity more than any others are anti-Semitism, and the sense of Jewish people hood and nationalism represented by Zionism (Meyer, 1990, p. 8) While enlightenment forced Jews to identify with a larger world beyond the boundaries of Judaism, anti-Semitism has resulted in both strengthening and weakening Jewish ties. Zionism has mostly resulted in uniting modern Jews together in support of a common goal. These three forces, i.e., enlightenment, anti-Semitism, and Zionism have, in varying combinations, compelled the modern Jews to rethink and reevaluate their Jewish identity and the role of Jewishness in their lives.

The eighteenth century European enlightenment was a universalistic force that drew Jews away from their Jewish identity. Those Jews who were influenced by the ideals of enlightenment started to think of themselves as Europeans, Germans, Communists, or socialists. Some even disavowed their Jewish identity altogether. Most 'enlightened' Jews, however, found no contradiction between their Jewishness and their 'other' identity such as being a European or a socialist and started to consider Judaism as just a personal religion.

The universalistic identity of the 'enlightened' Jew received a severe setback at the hands of severe anti-Semitism that was unleashed in Europe and particularly Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Its effect on the modern Jew has been somewhat different than in the past. Anti-Semitism in the past was considered by the Jews to be divinely ordained: the Jews were destined to be prosecuted by the Gentiles as punishment for their sins; they still remained God's chosen people and would ultimately be rescued by the Mesisiah and return to the 'promised land.' Modern day anti-Semitism has had an ambiguous effect on Jewish self-identity: it either tends to reinforce Jewishness in some, or produces self-hatred among others.

Finally, the nationalist movement of Zionism has also had a profound effect on Jewish self-identity. With the establishment of Israel, the long-promised state for the Jewish people, it became easier for Jews to identify with a nation state. It has not created a uniform Jewish identity for all Jews though since the Diaspora Jews cannot call themselves Israelis, however closely they relate to the Jewish nation state. Zionism, and the creation of Israel, has also changed the perception of the Muslims and the Arabs towards the Jews. Historically, there was little anti-Semitism among Muslims; the trend has seen a major reversal after the creation of Israel.


History of the Jews." (n.d.) History World. Retrieved on April 5, 2007 at

Meyer, M.A. (1990). Jewish Identity in the Modern World. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Sacks, J. (1997, November). "Love, Hate and Jewish Identity." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 26+.

The negative Jewish identity also gave rise to Jewish self-hatred; Karl Marx, himself a Jew, once wrote that Judaism was not a religion or a peoplehood but the egoistic desire for gain, and the love of money. (Meyer, 40)

According to Erik Erikson influential theory of identity, individual identity is built upon pre-adult identifications with the values of persons close to the child; at adulthood these identifications must be integrated with the norms of the society with which the individual interacts; otherwise it results in prolonged "adolescent crisis"

This type of self-identity still exists among many Jews who consider themselves human beings first and Jews second; they are ones who have assimilated successfully into the Gentile society.

Jewish Identity[continue]

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