A Torah scroll that the Nazis stole from a Czech congregation on display at The
A Torah scroll that the Nazis stole from a Czech congregation on display at TheCourtesy of the European Union for Progressive Judaism

With the proliferation of antisemitism in politics, academia, and popular culture throughout North America and the West, some sectors of the Jewish community are particularly at risk, though not necessarily from physical harm or violence. Their scars cannot be seen. Any time Jews feel embarrassment or shame in response to false accusations that Israel practices apartheid or abuses human rights or that traditional Judaism is bigoted or intolerant, their ability to counter antisemitism erodes – with some even accepting the classical antisemitic slurs that are routinely hurled against the world’s only Jewish state. Indeed, some are so alienated from their heritage and so politically indoctrinated against Israel that they side with haters who claim Jewish tradition is irrelevant, Jewish history is false, and the Jewish state is racist.

Some even come to identify with their detractors the same way kidnap victims can develop Stockholm-syndrome during lengthy periods of captivity.

We see it among nonobservant Jews who equate Jewishness with political affiliation, secular communal organizations devoted to progressive social justice, and nonorthodox movements that conflate Jewish values with liberal politics and deemphasize the value of traditional observance. We see it in Tel Aviv's progressive municipality which this year outlawed placing a mechtiza separation fence at the yearly public Kol Nidrei and Ne'ilah prayers in Dizengoff Square sponsored by the Orthodox Rosh Yehudi organization and attended by thousands of secular Jews.

The common thread binding these elements together is the definition of Jewish identity in cultural or ideological terms disconnected from normative tradition and Torah values and the adoption of progressive values that define two thousand years of traditional gender separation at prayer, for example, as misogynistic..

The modern trend to redefine Jewish identity began with Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) in the nineteenth century and continued through the movements and institutions it spawned. The Haskalah’s efforts to reinterpret Jewish identity differed from prior generations when disaffected Jews often chose apostasy – usually in response to unrelenting persecution. In contrast, the maskilim (“enlightened ones”) did not reject Jewishness, but rather sought to define it in worldly terms, reduce the centrality of ritual and mystical observance, and eliminate the Jew’s otherness.

Many of the original maskilim viewed Jewish identity consistent with the burgeoning nationalist movements of the day, with some seeing it as the Jewish version of pan-German nationalism or the Italian Risorgimento; and consequently, many of the early secular Zionists regarded Jewishness in temporal terms that compartmentalized spirituality and history and eschewed the concept of Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence). They regarded Jewish identity through the same evolutionary lens as any other form of national or cultural expression.

The more radical elements of Haskalah sought to homogenize Jewish identity and encouraged acculturation with European society; but not all maskilim went this way. Indeed, many wanted to preserve Jewish uniqueness by encouraging the use of spoken Hebrew as the vernacular and developing a modern Hebrew culture that would supplant observance but inspire Jewish national integrity. They believed this modern Hebrew culture would be informed by the Jews’ spiritual past without being bound to the Halakha (Jewish law) that had kept them intact during their long exile amongst the gentile nations. They also presumed an organic spirituality flowing from the nation’s scriptural tradition but untethered by its historical connection to the law.

Though the maskilim advocated modernization of religion to appease European sensibilities, they were not motivated by self-rejection. Indeed, many sincerely believed they could ameliorate Jew-hatred by appearing less alien, though others saw the assimilationist risk of such thinking and focused instead on Jewish national regeneration. Leon Pinsker, for example, originally advocated cultural assimilation before turning to Jewish nationalism, writing the influential “Auto-Emancipation,” and founding Hovevei Zion.

Nevertheless, efforts to reconceptualize Jewish identity during and after Haskalah weakened the uniformity of standard that had assured Jewish continuity through the generations, and instead promoted heterodox touchstones that for many led to cultural and historical revisionism, faithlessness, and assimilation. And this spirit of heterodoxy was incorporated into the framework of the religious reform movements that were also born in the nineteenth century.

The 1837 Reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, for example, rejected the centrality of Halakha, ritual observance, and messianic redemption. It also repudiated traditional identity by renouncing Judaism’s ethnonational components, embracing Berlin as its Jerusalem, and proclaiming the synagogue its Temple. Echoing the themes of Wiesbaden, the US Reform movement at its 1869 Philadelphia Conference rejected ritual law and “the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David…” American reform went further in their 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, wherein they stated: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to [the homeland], nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state.”

Though various reform leaders claimed to espouse the Tanakh’s universal values and prophetic traditions, they ignored the essential Scriptural messages of return to Torah and national regeneration. They instead conflated Torah values with secular ideologies, with many of their adherents flocking to sympatico political movements in Europe and the US, where their clergy often claimed that labor socialism, trade unionism, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” reflected authentic Jewish values.

In the 1960s, radical clergy often allied themselves with the political left, which came to regard Israel with disdain and traditional Judaism as anachronistic and intolerant. And since the 1990s, many liberal Jeiwsh clergy have erroneously equated tikkun olam with political agendas that promote radical social policies, disparage traditional observance, devalue Jewish national claims, and legitimize anti-Israel and even antisemitic leftists.

It appears that the more the nontraditional movements have strayed from classical standards, the more prone they have become to equating Jewish identity with liberal politics and ideologies. Moreover, some communal organizations seem to have supplanted traditional advocacy with partisan apologetics.

And what about those with weak backgrounds who yearn for spirituality rather than politics, but who because of their Jewish illiteracy seek fulfillment from faith traditions that contravene Tanakh? The uneducated are most at risk from theological assault by evangelical missionaries in the US and Israel, who expend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to subvert the Jewish soul with non-Jewish subterfuges like “messianic Judaism.” Those who get sucked into this labyrinth are typically incapable of recognizing the fundamental antisemitic stereotypes that permeate Christian text or the discordant scriptural and doctrinal differences between Judaism and Christianity.

But it’s not only the secular, uneducated, or spiritually confused who have been affected by the reimagining of Jewish identity.

The perceptual changes triggered by Haskalah also affected many within the religious community – not because they were confused about the nature of Jewish identity, but because they associated “enlightenment” negatively with the objective study of history. For many in the Orthodox world, the academic study of Judaism was viewed as a mechanism for secularizing Jewishness while discouraging traditional belief, observance, and messianic yearning.

This negative association aroused mistrust towards Jewish history as an academic pursuit, which was apparent early on with Heinrich Graetz’s publication of “The History of the Jews.” There was also religious opposition to the Wissenschaft des Judentums, a movement dedicated to the study of Jewish culture and literature (though the Wissenschaft also found support among some Orthodox scholars, e.g., Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer).

It is also apparent among those who teach the false history of Islamic tolerance in order to blame political Zionism for causing enmity between Arabs and Jews before and after 1948.

The Orthodox are certainly more likely to maintain traditional standards of identity than secular or progressive Jews. However, minimizing the importance of history, or presenting it to reflect negatively on the perceived enemies of religion, can also have a deleterious impact on the ability to combat Jew-hatred.

Those without a traditional sense of Jewish identity – or who don’t know history – are at a disadvantage when confronting antisemitism. If Jewishness is equated with secular political ideologies, then loyalty to heritage will always be subject to shifting sociopolitical priorities and agendas. This is demonstrated by the liberal establishment’s failure to condemn the rising tide of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel zealotry on the left and among progressive Democrats.

Gentiles cannot be counted on to eradicate antisemitism because at the end of the day, it’s only Jews who suffer the consequences; and in order to defend themselves, Jews must know who they are and where they come from. But if Jewish identity can be stretched to mean anything, it ultimately means nothing at all – especially when conflated with contrary faith traditions or political ideologies that are hostile to Jewish Scripture, values, and national claims.

In the final analysis, Jewish identity divorced from Torah and molded by revisionist assumptions is insufficient for defeating antisemitism.