Up to modernity, Jews and non-Jews lived within boundaries, well defined from within and without. With the fall of those boundaries in the rise of nation-states and the dismantling of traditional Jewish communities, the latent tensions between the universal and particular aspects of Jewishness became were radicalized. Jewish politics, largely passive and inward-looking for centuries, now became activist, and in the drive for citizenship and emancipation, its latent universalism brought into play like never before.
As the magisterial, controversial thinker and rabbinic leader Abraham Isaac Kook observed shortly before World War I, modernity had essentially whirled apart the constituent elements of Jewishness—transcendence, universal ethics, and peoplehood—which each became the property of one party: the Orthodox, the liberals, and the nationalists. As each contended against—and at times attempting syntheses—with the others, their arguments over politics and policies became ineluctably arguments over values and ideals.
Meanwhile, these modernized Jews became the most visible signifiers of the destabilization of modernity, for good and for ill. You see, for capitalists and communists simultaneously to accuse Jews of seeking world domination seemingly makes no logical sense, until you realize that both phenomena—modern capitalism and modern socialism —were themselves very new and destabilizing reactions to new and deeply destabilizing realities. And indeed, Jews were involved in generating the new reality as well as both forms of reaction to it. What critics failed to realize was that what looked to them like Jews striving for world domination was instead just individual Jews, whose own sense of self was as much under siege as everyone else’s and in many ways more so, trying to survive.
The Jewish mix of particular and universal is not easy to figure out, for Jews or anyone else. Modernity remade and radicalized that mix, yielding both modern anti-Semitism and its reactions, above all Zionism.
Yehuda Mirsky, “The New Jewish Question”, The American Interest (2 December 2016)