The Genesis Prize: Reflecting on Jewishness

"I believe that the Jews are a 'chosen people' not because we are better, or cleverer than others, but because we dare to challenge the views of the majority."

Co-founder of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Mikhail Fridman. (photo credit: GENESIS PRIZE FOUNDATION)
Co-founder of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Mikhail Fridman.
Despite the very short history of the Genesis Prize Foundation Award, it has attracted much attention from Jews all over the world, stirring debate about what makes the Jews who have been short-listed for it special. This was our goal and intention. We wanted people to reflect on their Jewishness – not take it for granted.
Last year it was mayor Michael Bloomberg. This year it is Michael Douglas.
Both men have had plenty of awards, but this one is different. It is not an award for their achievements in public service or art – great as they are. It is not an award for their contribution to the Jewish faith or their service to the Jewish community. It is an award for enriching Jewish identity with their personal endeavor; for perpetuating the system of values and the way of life that makes us Jews indestructible.
I strongly believe that identifying and celebrating these values is particularly important now, when the temptation and ease of being assimilated into other cultures is greater today than at any point in our history. And this creates one of the biggest challenges to Jewish identity. For many generations of Jews, particularly in the part of the world that I come from, identity was never a question. The state took care of it. Luckily, it no longer does.
It may seem odd to talk about the risks of assimilation when anti-Semitic attacks are becoming more frequent. Jews in Europe are being killed for being Jews.
The shooting at the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen, the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and a Jewish museum in Brussels – these barbaric outbursts of violence have conjured up memories of the darkest days in Europe’s history and prompted questions about the safety of Jews in modern Europe. But we would be giving in to terrorism and negating our own achievements if we were to allow for our identity to be defined by these acts of persecution.
In fact, while anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head once again, the world has become more accepting of Jews. The number of people holding unfavorable views of Jews in Europe is declining. The hatred of the Jews today is an anomaly, not a norm. After the deadly attack in a kosher supermarket in Paris, thousands came onto the streets holding signs reading “Je Suis Juif.” Some of them were even Muslim. Many of the governments of the countries where anti-Semitic acts have occurred feel ashamed.
Jewishness is not a barrier to education or careers as it was half a century ago.
As a student in the Soviet Union I could not enter Moscow’s top physics school, because I was a Jew. But it was not just the Soviet Union that barred Jews. Yale University, where two of my daughters now study, once had a 10 percent quota for Jews. But at a recent graduation ceremony I heard the Yale president, Peter Salovey, who comes from a distinguished rabbinical family, tell his students to commit themselves to tikkun olam and cite the Golden Rule of Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary – go and study it!” The flare-up of anti-Semitic attacks must not obscure the fact that the world as a whole is becoming more tolerant and free, just as outburst of some horrible diseases must not obscure the fact that people on the planet live longer than ever before. In fact, today’s rise in nationalism and xenophobia is a reaction to this growing freedom, not a symptom of its decline. The question for us is not just how we protect ourselves from nationalism and xenophobia, but how we respond to growing freedom and tolerance. How do we define who is and is not a Jew? To me, Judaism is a philosophy of a minority that wants to remain a minority.
“Jews” or “Ivrim” are “people from the other shore.” Having the courage and confidence to be alone with the truth is the essence of Jewishness. It is obviously easier and certainly less troublesome to get dissolved in a majority. There are plenty of Jews in the world who are fully assimilated in other cultures. But there is always a minority that refuses to get dissolved and who think of themselves as “others.” This is not easy, but usually highly productive.
It is this refusal to fit in with the majority that makes Jews a threat to any totalitarian rule. This is why in the Soviet Union anti-Semitism served as common ground for nationalists and Stalinists.
People who believe in individual freedom and who have earned the right to be a minority will always resist nationalism, which rallies around the idea of a majority.
Freedom is a condition of our survival.
I believe that the Jews are a “chosen people” not because we are better, or cleverer than others, but because we dare to challenge the views of the majority in thought and in art, because we smash barriers of conventional wisdom and push ourselves to the forefront of knowledge and human endeavor. If we sustain these key Jewish qualities of pushing the boundaries and overcoming obstacles, we will never run out of Nobel Prize winners, Oscar laureates, or Forbes List billionaires.
In the strictest sense, our laureate this year is not a “perfect” Jew. His mother is not Jewish. I even suspect that he does not spend every Friday evening in a synagogue and does not follow kashrut. Yet, he is someone who put his energy and determination into being Jewish, who exercised his free will and showed commitment to follow the path of his ancestors in search for a foundation. Should we deny his Jewishness on the basis of his mother’s birth or should we celebrate it on the basis of his commitment to embrace Judaism and pass his Jewish heritage to his children? Are not free will and determination the essential qualities of the Jews? We can respond to freedom by building barriers and closing up, or we can respond to it by being inclusive and supportive of those who chose a path of Judaism. I choose the latter.
This is not to say that Jews should start actively recruiting non-Jews or those who are indifferent about their Jewish identity into their faith or way of life.
We never did it before, nor should we start now. Judaism is not a fashion item or a consumer good to be acquired out of fancy. It is a highly complex philosophy and culture that requires studiousness and dedication.
But we should support and encourage those who have made a decision to embrace their Jewish identity and pass their Jewish heritage to their children, like Michael Douglas is doing. We should welcome them with open arms – not turn away from them.
They have chosen a difficult path in life – to be Jewish. It is a path on which they and their children could encounter many trials. But it is also a wonderful path, full of ferocious struggles and great achievements in the name of the most important task in life – to make the world a better place. As Albert Einstein said, “Today every Jew must recognize that to be Jewish is to bear responsibility for the whole of humanity.”
This column is based on Thursday night’s speech at the 2015 Genesis Prize ceremony by the writer, who founded the Genesis Philanthropy Group.