Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Elie Wiesel, Noam Chomsky, Shimon Peres, Steven Spielberg, Garry Kasparov. It’s hard to think of an industry or a profession in which Jews did not excel in the past century. From well-known communists such as Genrikh Yagoda and Rosa Luxemburg, and communist spies such as the Rosenbergs, to the most zealous anti-communists such as Roy Cohn. Captains of industry and of social justice, from Golda Meir to Bob Dylan.
Leaders of the 1968 student rebellion like Daniel Marx Cohn-Bendit and of the forces arrayed against it, such as Milton Friedman. Comedians, artists, heads of secret police, terrorists, chemists, writers.
Never before in history and likely never again will such a small group of people create such influence as did Jews in the 20th century. How can we understand this influence? Is it overstated? Why did it occur? Why will the 21st century witness an overall decline? Population was one factor. In 1900 there were an estimated 1.6 billion people in the world, and around 10 million Jews. Around 0.6 percent. The number of Jews would peak at 17 million on the eve of the Holocaust when there were 2.3 billion people in the world. Today the number of Jews is not only far less as a percent (.01%), but the Jewish population is concentrated almost entirely in the US and Israel. In 1900 by contrast Jews were a major minority in many of the world’s cities, from Odessa to Baghdad. Not only were there more Jews as a percentage of the world’s population, they were concentrated in the most influential cities in the world. Before urbanization became standard in countries like China and Russia, Jews were urbanized and were pioneers in new industries.
If you traveled the world in the year 1900 many of its major cities had substantial Jewish populations. In Vienna 9% of the locals were Jewish, in Berlin around 4%, but almost 10% of Dresden. Similar populations were found in Amsterdam and Prague. In England and France there were significant but smaller communities, whereas in eastern Europe there were many cities that had massive Jewish populations, such as Krakow, Chernivtsi, Edirne (now in Turkey), Lvov, Salonika, Warsaw, Minsk, Odessa, Kishinev and Budapest, with between 20% and 60%. Romania had numerous towns that were over 30% Jewish. Further east, Damascus was 5% Jewish and Aleppo almost 10%. Algiers was almost a sixth Jewish, and in Egypt there were 30,000 Jews. Many cities in North Africa were more than 5% Jewish.
A quarter of Baghdad’s population was Jewish.
All of that is gone now, often leaving only a bare memory that it ever existed. Between Nazism, Communism, nationalism and Islamism in the Muslim world, almost all Jewish communities have been destroyed, and in many cases their contributions to local culture forgotten.
But the contributions of Albert Memmi, Jacques Derrida, Yitzhak Kaduri and others cannot be forgotten.
Is there a tendency toward navel-gazing when it comes to celebrating Jewish achievements and influence? The disproportionate influence is borne out in statistics. Start writing in Google “percent of Nobel prize win...” and by the time you get there it will fill it in for you “who are Jewish.” The response will tell you 20% of winners were Jewish. In other fields, such as philosophy, visual arts and architecture it might be more difficult to quantify. But obviously the influence is disproportionate when one considers just a list of great Jewish architects such as Louis Kahn, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Oscar Niemeyer.
The same disproportionate achievement is clear in the world of business. Do we have to wade through more names than Soros, Adelson, Ellison, Ballmer, Bloomberg, Isidor Straus, Loeb, Weill? More than half the major players in Barbarians at the Gate, from Peter Cohen to Henry Kravis and the Pritzker family, were Jewish. Jews played such an outsized role in fashion and cosmetics in the 20th century that you could spend a lifetime in Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole and Calvin Klein outfits.
Jews played a smaller role in politics, but nevertheless an influential one. There were great Jewish mayors such as three from Toronto: Nathan Phillips, Mel Lastman and Philip Givens. Fiorello La Guardia’s mother was Jewish, as was Ed Koch. France had two Jewish prime ministers. Jews played major roles as advisers, consultants and in various other capacities around the centers of political power.
Beyond all this there is another, larger current in 20th century history that has to be acknowledged: Jews were both the progenitors and victims of the mass social movements of the century. They played a massively outsized role in social democratic movements, socialism and communism, which made sense since they were the primary victims of nationalism, fascism and Nazism. Amid all that, Jews played a major role in social justice movements including in South Africa and the US. Beyond all that some Jews sought to revolutionize their society through the creation of a Jewish state, eventually creating one of the most successful new countries of the 20th century, with one of the strongest armies in the world.
What has to make us pause when we think of all this is how used to this achievement and tremendous contributive role Jewish communities have become. But there is an inevitable let-down coming as Jewish communities decline into obscurity in most countries. Even in those countries where they once had disproportionate roles, they are outpaced by other minorities. Their role is often forgotten in the rewriting of history by groups, whether it be African-Americans in the US, or South African history.
No one in the Muslim Middle East wants to remember Jewish labor activists, Jewish businessmen from Iraq, Jewish philosophers. The time when physics and psychoanalysis could be called “Jewish sciences,” both derisively and accurately, or when Hollywood could be called “Jewish,” are nearing an end.
The freedom and mobility that enabled Jewish achievement in the 20th century is also enabling the diversification of minority achievement beyond Jews. Concentration and demographic decline have had their impact, as has the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Jews. This will have a long-term effect on Jewish self-perception and self-understanding regarding the influence of Jews in the world. The feeling of almost universal respect that those like Elie Wiesel commanded, the respect paid those like Shimon Peres, and the role of “public intellectual” adopted by men like Noam Chomsky, will pass in the 21st century.
For better or for worse, it is worthwhile to reflect on this passing, and the heritage that was provided to 21st century by their legacy.
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