Victor Karady


Problems of modern Jewish identity (With special reference to Post Communist Societies).


An exposé in four topical parts : - some preliminary remarks about collective identity

                                                    - methodological distinctiveness of Jewish identity

-          historical patterns of Jewish identity

-          the post-communist (or post-modern) juncture


I. Preliminary definitions. Collective identity has to do with the definition of social groups and with one’s relationship to groups of which one is (or is liable to be) a member

-          by ascription, attribution of critera for membership by insiders and outsiders

-          by actual commitment (voluntary participation, adherence, specific activities and practices)

-           by mere inheritance of membership criteria (passive membership)

-          or, obviously, by a combination of the above


Thus, in practice, the personal experience of collective identity can be described with reference to three aspects of the relationship to the given identity patterns (which must be further specified in different historical junctures, as below) :

o       heritage from the family or the larger group (of collective assets, resources, qualities, attributes, competences, representations)

o       options between available collective identity patterns or development of new ones for reasons of social advantages, to achieve a better social position, or to adapt Jewish identity to new ’needs’

o       individual strategies as to how to perform or live up to the implications (duties, exigencies, ways of life, etc.) of the chosen collective identity pattern or – simply – strategies to opt out or to opt for Jewry as a global identity choice


With this a number of basic questions related to identity has been implicitely broached, to which we must return later in more details:

-          Once identity is defined relationally, in relation to available or merely possible patterns, this initial statement implies that identity in concrete terms is always a construction out of various elements (resources, assets, references)

o       such construction has always two sides :

§         a social one : a pattern (various patterns)

·         thus Jewish identity used to be conceived of as a combination of assets derived from religion, ethnicity and social attributes (legal restrictions or privileges, economic competences, social class resources and expectations of professional mobility, etc.)

§         an individual one, defined by the way how each of those concerned  experiences the pattern

·         with shame or pride, as a distinction or a charge, suffering or enthusiastically, with self-hatred, resignation or engagement, openly or via public dissimulation

·         including strategic options out (efforts to leave the group)

o       empirically, the construction of identity may be scrutinized via two questions

§         a ’what’ question (about the quality or the attributes of members, what they are like or how they should behave)

§         a ’who’ question about the boundaries of the group („Who belongs to it ?” „Which criteria determine membership ?” „Who should be counted as Jewish and who not ?”)

·         the two questions cannot be separated in practice

o       historically both questions have been highly controversial, so much so that one should talk about a permanent and double conflict situation

·         conflict between often contrasting or even opposing definitions of membership by insiders and outsiders 

·         conflict between various definitions of the group by insiders (among Jews) themselves as well as by outsiders themselves

§         like in the case of anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic definitions of Jewry

§         thus, Jewish identity has always been, since ancient times, a field of vehement fights for the ’right definition’ of membership in the group (’luttes de classements’ as the late Pierre Bourdieu would put it)

·         With the figure of the ’good Jew’ and various definitions ’how to be a good Jew’ as a major stake for would-be members

                                                                -implying precise norms set to define the behaviour

                                                                 exoected from a ’good Jew’

·         But also with a number of conflicting criteria applied by outsiders to ’good’ or ’bad’ Jews

o       A typical occurrence with groups under heavy outside pressure

o       Even the Nazis exempted some Jews from anti-Jewish legislation when they regarded them as ’useful’ for the Reich


II. The uniqueness of Jewish identity. With this we have already approached some general problems of Jewish identity : let me go further along these lines and make some elementary statements about how Jewish identity can be distinguished from membership in other social clusters


o       Jewry is a particularistic cluster (unlike social classes)

§         One must remember here Max Weber’s distinction between two fundamental forms of social stratification

o        social class is one, based on positions in the system of social division of labor, power and economic assets (functionally stratified Gesellschaft)

o       Stande, status groups or particularistic clusters endowed collectively with symbolic social assets like prestige, authority, reputation (or the lack of these : negative assets) – community (Gemeinschaft)

- The main such status groups in modern societies are of

                                      confessional, etnic, regional or legal (nobility as against                                         

                                      commoners) nature


-          Jewry is a historical status group in many senses (as against non historical ones)

·         With a very long historical continuity of the identity group as represented in the historical memory of the cluster

o       Though this apparent continuity covers a number of discontinuities in reality (due to abandonments, extinction of families, conversions into the group, etc.)

o       There is a continuity of representations of the group as a self-reproducing social unit, envolving the idea o fan essential historical sameness on he long run

·         Whether this idea can be confirmed (real) or not, referring to an imaginary past

·         reference to the past serves as an essential asset for the construction of such identity


-          multiplicity of functions or social uses of Jewish identity (a functionally over-invested identity as compared to other similar status groups linked to religion, ethnicity or other particularistic assets)

§         social integration, a warm community (with a sense of primordial ties)

§         protection against outside attacks (like in the case of pogroms)

§         community of mutual aid (or a primary social security system)

o       intra-community philanthropy (orphans, widows, poor, burials, marriages of unendowed girls, etc.)

o       a solidarity network in case of danger

§         a community of trust and possibly a channel of economic success

o       ex. trading circles based on trust in members of the community (as in the Antwerpen diamant trade !)

§         a source of social distinction, self-appreciation and prestige

o       via the consciousness of uniqueness

§         with reference to racial purity, prestigious ancestry (the Bible as the ’first book’ of humanity), representations of historical seniority, dignity of historical martyrdom and the sense of innocence (as against persecutors)

§         here the Holy land, Jerusalem as the Holy City, Sion, etc. Play a major role

§         self-perpetuation (demographic expansion)


- Jewry as a fundamentally strong status group identity (as against clusters of weak identity) even for those having formally left it…

-          thanks to the functional multiplicity of membership

-          owing to the multiplicity of resources serving as criteria for membership

o       past, history, memory

o       religion

o       folk culture, ethnicity

o       the impact of ancestry and the lineage

§         identity inculcated through the family, often in obsessive, compelling ways

-          due to the prevalence of danger intailed in collective consciousness

o       hence identity as a moral stake, as an act of resistance to potential persecution, as an act of potential heroism of sorts

o       the enormity of collective suffering and pains lend itself to ideological elaborations in form of the representation of the collective self as a primordial community of destiny of sorts

·         however irrational this may appear, this creates primary social links among Jews

·         it also compells (and has, historically, always generated) various forms of moral, material and financial solidarity with fellow members which, in their own right, contribute(d) to further strengthen identity ties

·         the diaspora situation itself – that is, the virtual and optional nature of community membership - strengthens, paradoxically enough, identity ties by the mere fact of offering a permanent chance of opting out

§         those who remain must find strong reasons to do so with reference to resources mentioned above

§         the self-distinction of the remainder (in form of respect for the moral obligation of membership in a group under menace or in duress proper) also contributes to the consolidation of community ties

§         but the very optional nature of membership also increases tremendously the moral and social costs (price) of abandonment

o       the apostat (convert) happens to be stigmatized

o       his integration in the adopted new community remains questionable

o       those who leave risk to become social outcasts


III. Historical patterns of Jewish identity. (From Enlightenment to Communism)


-          In pre-moder times (under feudalism) Jewish identity was on the whole unproble-matic, since there was a general consensus about its dual nature based on

§         inheritance (decent from a Jewish mother following Halakhah)

§         religion (with the obligation to believe and to practice)

·         to boot, religion represented a total life world, a distinct way of life separating Jews from Christians

·         once recognized, Jewish identity was legally sanctioned via a number of restrictions imposed upon Jews (ghetto, professional prohibitions, intermarriage, etc.)

·         though even there situations could be ambiguous in some cases

o       France, Portugal, Spain, Netherlands: marranos, forced converts to

                              Christianism and their descendants

o       in Poland of the 18th century : classification of voluntary Frankist apostates

o       in Hungary : extremist ’judaizing’ anti-Trinitarians : Sabbatarians opting for Judaism after 1868


- With modernization this general consensus has broken up for Jews and non Jews alike. In the balance sheet of identity heritage tended to lose weight to the benefit of options and strategies (in the framework of differential individual life stragies). This development was generated by a number of factors connected to modernity :

o       secularisation of societies : religion counts less in defining social identity because it is less and less obligatory and more and more optional

·         no obligation - enforced by the state - to believe or to practice in modern societies due to the legally guaranteed ’freedom of conscience’

§         hence appearance of secular Jewry : Jews claiming Jewish identity without reference to religion

o       Jews defined as a race by political anti-Semites (late 19th century)

o       Movement of baptism generating an intermediary social cluster : ’Christians of Jewish background’

o       Growth of the temptation of dissimulating or ignoring (playing down) Jewish identity, hence emergence of patterns of ’situational identity’ especially in cities

§         strategy of black-out, like among Jewish intellectuals in Republican France and – more importantly – among Socialists or Communists in the 20th century under the aegis of universalist salvation ideologies


o       integration of Jews in modern nation states via emancipation (grant of civil equality, no legal discrimination any more)

§         emergence of ’national’ or nationalised Jewries, ’Frenchmen (Brits, Hungarians, etc.) of the Mosaic faith’ (Franco-Jewry, Anglo-Jewry, Magyar Jews, etc.)

o       their accelerated social mobility breaking down the framework of traditional Jewish life worlds (embourgeoisement)

o       urbanisation, allowing various life strategies outside community structures (retirement into privacy, dissimulation of identity, etc.)

o       institutional reform of Jewish religious practice following the spread of the Berlin Haskalah, giving rise to a number of new patterns of Jewish religious identity

·         splits and conflicts between Hassidim, rabbinical Orthodoxy, maskilim and mitnagdim, conservative or radical reform Judaism

·         even formal schism (as in Hungary after 1868)

o       birth of modern Jewish politics, political mobilisation of Jewish masses under the aegis of new ideological commitments

·         universalism (Liberalism, socialism, esperantism, feminism, communism)

·         guest-nationalism (typically in the West : France, Italy, Britain, but also in Hungary or even in 19th century Poland)

·         Jewish nationalism : Zionism, folkism, Bund – offering new, secular but thoroughly Jewish identity options (with strong institutional support and attractive ideological foundations)

-          Hence, much more than ever, the field of Jewish identity was transformed into a battle field with antagonistic options and strategies of collective and individual self-assertion

§         Due to new collective patterns of Jewish identity (new patterns of how to be a ’good Jew’)

§         Large individual freedom to manage one’s Jewishness following highly individualised life strategies 


-          this new ’modern’ Jewish behaviour suffered two major crises due to Nazism and Communism with not quite dissimilar results (in spite of appearances)

§         Nazism and radical anti-Semitism requalified all Jews globally as targets of anti-Jewish violence (legitimized and carried out by state power) and thus brought about a forced levelling of sorts of Jewish identity options

o       In the Shoah no distinction between Orthodox and secular Jews !

o       This was an unprecedented historical regression : a return (in concrete legislative terms) to the state preceding emancipation,

o       Henceforth, no Jewish identity option could escape the heritage of the Shoah : whatever could be, in concrete terms, the identity pattern adopted, all those associated with Jewry must regard themselves as heirs to the victims of the Shoah (and as potential future victims of anti-Semitism)

·         Hence the consolidation of ’Jewish sensitivities’ among all those concerned

§         Communist regimes attempted just the contrary. They also forcibly requalified Jews, apparently in the opposite sense, as quasi ’non Jews’

o       as undistinguished rank and file citizens expected (and obliged) to minimise, neutralise, indeed dissimulate any objectified forms of particularistic identity

o       typically, dissimulation of Jewish identity became the rule leading to the intensification of assimilationist tendencies under the aegis of Communism

·         with all its manifestations : mixed marriages, desertion of synagogues, adoption (by Jewish communists) of anti-Jewish stances, etc.

·         but forced dissimulation could, in some cases, just exacerbate the sense of Jewishness and generate new needs in the same sense on the strength of defiance of prohibitions

o       but Communism was also highly promotional for Jews :

·         strong Jewish participation in the Communist nomenclatura

·         controversial patterns of social mobility under communism :

o       destruction, declassement of the bourgeoisie

o       party and civil service careers opened up

o       academic sciences and scholarship : old-new fields of Jewish professional mobility (beside management of entreprises, medicine, law)

o       continuation of relative Jewish over-schooling (in spite of occasional numerus clausus : URSS, Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, etc.)


§         hence perhaps the explanation of the post Communist situation


IV. After Communism, in new born Eastern European open societies


o       a historical return, but a return to what ?

·          To the situation of Jews in pre-Nazi or proto-Nazi nation states ?

·          To the pre-Communist situation ?

·         No, both the Nazi and the Communist experience of Jews remain there, as in-built fundamentals of post-Communist Jewish identities. Let us try to sum up the main elements of the new situation

o       In terms of the social condition of surviving Jewry (remaining in Eastern Europe) - the objective side :

·         Small numbers concerned henceforth, a few thousands (5000 in Poland – as compared to 3 millions before 1939)

§         With the exception of former Soviet states

§          indeed ever less and less, due to the Shoah and successive waves of mass departures – a process still continuing from successor states of the USSR (with the only significant exception : Hungary)

·         the majority of Jews are members of educated elites :

§          ruptures, but also continuation of the social mobility of remaining Jews under Communism in most countries (except those, which have been all but completely evacuated by Jews – Poland, for one)

·         a group marked by post-assimilationist levels of acculturation

§         hardly any speakers of ’Jewish languages’ in Eastern Europe after the 1960s (except some elderly in Romania or Russia)

·         advanced level of secularism

§         due above all to the legacy of forced Communist secularisation policies


      - on the geo-political scene

§         easy conditions of emigration to Israel and the West

o       w2ith special social selection of leavers, those remaining belonging to better educated and integrated, often ’higher’ professional clusters

§         freedom of conscience and the press

o       a new Promethean moment proper : free choice of identity patterns, free relationship with them

o       but this applies to Jews and anti-Semites as well

§         new anti-Semitism has probably not much new, but it can be expressed openly while it had been suppressed under Communism (or orchestrated in state managed disguises)

§         philo-Semitic stance of Western public opinions (US and German politics outright favorable to Jews)

o       mitigated only by pro-Arab stances in the Israeli-Arab conflict


      - inter-Jewish developments

§         Israel appears as a major new reference for the affirmation of Jewish identity and Jewish pride

o       division of Jewish opinion though : strong anti-Zionist attitudes among leftist (let alone Communist) Jewish intellectuals

o       but Israel becomes a focal point of identification for many Jews

o       its existence promotes a hitherto unavailable sense of security : a powerful state always ready to integrate Jews under menace (for the first times in history)

§         Influence of Western Jewish identity patterns

o       Inclusive of the new attraction of Orthodoxy : Lubavic Hassidism propagating the ’conversion’ of Jews back to tradition

o       rediscovery and recovery of the common Jewish heritage in new cultural institutions, research centers, ’Jewish universities’, prayer houses, schools (3 Jewish gymnasiums in Budapest !)

·         multiplication of new types of communal experiences (women rabbis, etc.)

§         new ’free market’ of the distribution of religious and cultural goods (more open than ever before !)

·         thanks also to the financial support of powerful and well funded Western Jewish foundations

§         reappraisal of recent Jewish history with the heroization of victims of the Shoah

o       proliferation of memorial services dedicated to the victims of the Shoah (’martyrs’ memorials)

o       recognition of a ’better role’ performed by Jews in history both as modernizers and victims of AS

o       this fits into the general pattern of the reintroduction of symbolic ethnicity in Eastern European politics

§         a partial reversal of symbolic power relations or balance of attractiveness between Jews and Gentiles in spite of reorganised AS pressures

o       this does not apply to all Gentile public opinions though

§         Jews are also accused of having brought about Communism !

o       But, for many, Jewish identity gains in attractiveness even in mixed marriages

o       Large ’associated Jewry’ besides the core Jewish population

·         Recognised since 1970 by the rearrangement of the ’Law on the right to return’ in Israel

·         Jewish identity appears to be often ’more fashionable’ than Christian one…

§         a post-assimilationist situation though : secondary and stategic nature of marginally reemergent Jewish religious nativism

o       as demonstrated in recent surveys on young Hungarian Jews


Main resources and particularities of ’new Jewish identities’ :

o       all beyond assimilation, even those which appear to rescuscitate traditional

            Jewish cultural or religious assets

      -   Reference to the Shoah (and the potential anti-Semitic dangers Jews have to face)

o       reference to Israel and to Western or World Jewry (with institutional support)

o       non exclusive nature of Jewish identity : combinable with

·         guest nationalism or universalist values, like leftism, Marxism, Communism, socialism, etc.

·         anti-Israeli stance of some intellectuals

·         with baptism and Christian religious commitment or – more often – with explicit or tacit atheism

o       in Hungary converts represent 1/3 of those concerned after 1948

o       Msgr Lustiger, archbishop of Paris = a proud Jew

o       an often radical dissoiciation of Jewish identity from religion (a great first in History)

§         implicating the autonomisation of a purely classificatory Jewish identity pattern, unaffected by any sort of cultural particularism proper

o       reappraisal of the universalist values inherent in traditional Judaism

·         philanthrophy, care for the poor, elderly, widows, orphans

·          reappraisal of Jewish contributions to the promotion of modernity (pride in it)

§         this concerns most Noble Prize laureates in Hungary…

§         Freud, Einstein, Wittgenstein (less Marx) – new Jewish heroes

       - Reappraisal of religious ritual endowed with new functions (synagogue attendance on

          high holidays, candle

         lightening, ritual fast) as civc religious practices

§         aimed above all at the assertion of symbolic community ties

o       especially with the dead, the ancestors, kins fallen victim of the Shoah

o       but also with surviving Jewry in general

o       a demonstrative affirmation of surviving Jewry as against the Shoah and reemerging AS


Conclusions :

o       a typically post-assimilationist, post Shoah and post-Communist

            configuration of identity options

·         integrating the three major experiences of modern Jewish identity as

strategic responses to outside challenges and intra-Jewish developments

·         with a dominant stress

§         on highly individualised options

§         with direct reference to all three major preceding sets of options adopted under duress : assimilationist social contract, Nazi oppression, Communist integrationism

-          this amounts typically, in practice,

§         to a strong sense of Jewishness combined with a

§         largely (but not completely) empty consciousness in terms of traditional cultural resources and values

o       because of the weakness or the reconstructed nature of traditional cultural assets

§         a unique case of strong particularistic identity with reference to a new conception of community of destiny under pressure  (or the sense of potential danger)