Should We Really Burst the Jewish Bubble?

In all walks of life you will meet fellow denizens of the Jewish bubble. Perhaps your boss’s daughter was your roommate’s best friend at Birmingham University. Or maybe you volunteered at Jewish Care with the brother of your future fiancée. Does this one sound familiar: the doctor overseeing your child’s surgery grew up around the corner from your parents in Mill Hill.

Such examples may draw smiles of recognition from some, shudders of claustrophobia from others, and even scowls of contempt from those on the outside of the bubble. Take a step beyond the Jewish world and you may find thinly veiled sentiments of how the Jews only help their own kind, or worse — conspiracy theories of the “secret Jewish network.” Whilst we can all agree that the worst of these accusations are patently false, Jews have had to question whether our insularity is a badge to wear with pride or to hide with guilt.

The practice of giving preferential treatment to those who are similar to us extends beyond our mere accepted cultural practice. A handful of Jewish laws actually codify favouring Jews over non-Jews, such as giving priority to Jewish recipients of charity, and prohibiting lending with interest only to fellow Jews. In a world where nationalism has become almost a slur, such distinctions between in-groups and out-groups may be at odds with our modern desire to be a “citizen of the world.”

But research and social modeling has challenged the easy stereotype that maintaining ethnic identities somehow fragments society. Moreover, this research has also suggested that the globalist ideal may be a very dangerous one. John Lennon famously wrote about his utopia in “Imagine,” where there are no religions or countries to divide us. As it turns out, this vision may be a practical impossibility at best, and a dystopian nightmare at worst. 

Consider the landmark study completed by Harvard anthropologist Robert Putnam in 2001, titled “E Pluribus Unim,” where he set out to prove the hypothesis that communities with high ethnic diversity were better places to live. The results of his study proved exactly the opposite. As he writes, “Immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” The idealised multi-ethnic society is in fact more damaging than previously imagined.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French aristocrat and one of the first anthropologists, noticed a similar trend when he visited the fledgling United States in the early 19th century. He remarked that while democracy had demolished the fixed class system, it created a risk of individuals feeling as if they were just one person in a sea of millions of equals. To combat this, he said, Americans set up local religious communities as well as local governments in order to maintain a sense of belonging and of making a meaningful contribution to their society. In his own succinct words, “the bond of human affection is extended, but it is relaxed.”

Why do we need to belong to a smaller subgroup within the larger nation or species? Edmund Burke, the 18th century politician and philosopher, explained that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of our country, and to mankind.” In other words, human beings inherently form tangible relationships with a small circle of people, which allows them to extrapolate that sense of community to a greater one.

To explain it more simply, think about your notion of love. It did not come from a textbook, nor did it originate with some universal sense of love for all of humanity. You began with your immediate family and friends, and from that feeling you were able to empathise with those whom you do not know directly. Ze’ev Maghen, a prominent professor at Bar-Ilan University, recalls a moment sitting in a restaurant when he heard on the news that 230 people had died in a plane crash in Indonesia. At first he gave the perfunctory “that’s terrible,” and continued on eating. But then he made himself imagine if the plane had instead been carrying 230 Israelis. At that point he felt so sick he could no longer finish his sandwich.

Tribalism gives us a deeply personal context through which we can develop our unique stories. By defining an in-group, it makes the world small enough so that we are safe enough to invest in the greater whole, starting with one’s own community. What’s more, in 1999 the sociologist Marilynn Brewer published conclusive findings that showed that the degree of identification with an in-group is in no way correlated to negative feelings for the out-group. Contrary to popular belief, the strength of one’s bonds within the Jewish bubble will in no way determine whether a person likes or dislikes non-Jews.

Is it good to get out and meet new people? Very likely. Should we care about those outside of our immediate tribe? The Torah contains thirty six different commandments to love the non-Jewish stranger, to treat him or her fairly and to extend the benefits of society to that individual. But a unified world is built through a patchwork of unified communities, which in turn are bolstered by unified families. It is not a coincidence that within the Jewish people themselves there exist twelve different tribes with their own territories and customs.

So before we burst that Jewish bubble, let us cherish the deep connections that bubble has afforded us. They will make us into the citizens of the world that we aspire to be.

- July 10th 2019

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Plagues, Pesach and Coronavirus

How to Break-Up with Your Smartphone

Should We Really Burst the Jewish Bubble?

Confessions of a Passover Traitor

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