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2017 Annual Assessment

In many respects, the Jews (along with the overseas Chinese) were among the first modern peoples in the sense that for at least a millennium before the modern era they embodied many of the appurtenances of modernity: they were both literate and urbanized, they understood how money worked and they were networked internationally. Combined with a sophisticated approach to money and the need to rely on trade when craft professions and land tenure were denied them, Jews were early beneficiaries and artificers of a nascent global trading culture. This has worked to the benefit of Jews economically by allowing them to thrive and, when necessary, move persons and assets with some facility.1 But this has been a double-edged sword, providing precisely the lightning rod for charges of “rootless cosmopolitanism” to be leveled against Jews when nationalist, nativist, or xenophobic stirrings have become exacerbated indirectly or actively encouraged by political currents.

Jews are today distributed predominantly and disproportionately in the major urban centers of the leading Western democratic societies. This is a considerable transformation from the turn of the prior century when the experience of the broader Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and the Middle East – and even locales such as the U.S. – was a considerable measure of isolation, exclusion, or poverty. It is not coincidental that these new horizons were in the centers that themselves were taking the leading role in bringing about a more globalized economy and that were, until the recent rise of East Asia, its principal beneficiaries. Jewish emigration to the “coming” economies of South America – Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sao Paulo – was considerable during the same years that North America became a lodestone, and for the same reasons: a perception not only of opportunity but the possibility of wider connection to global opportunity. That these same communities have proven less of a magnet since the 1920s has something to do with their failure to achieve their perceived potential as future international economic hubs.

Moving forward, there is no reason to believe that Jewish communities will be exceptionally disadvantaged if more autarkic and nativist thinking becomes a major driver of economic policies both nationally and internationally. Neither is there much reason to believe that they would somehow be immune from the consequences if a more protectionist policy stance around the globe results in what most professional economists would expect to be a downturn in both trade and national incomes. It is probably the case that because of educational attainment, orientation toward trade, and family tradition Jews are involved more directly in pursuits that constitute active participation in the globalized economy than is true for their non-Jewish compatriots. Certainly, the high degree of professionalization that has become a characteristic of Jewish labor force participation since Second World War makes Jews inherently better connected to the global knowledge economy that has grown massively. While not often the focus of globalization’s opponents – and, indeed, even in many cases the designated engine that policy makers in most countries seek to mobilize to enhance their nation’s posture in a globalized economic environment, this trade in knowledge resources and its embodiment in the migration of the technically highly trained to centers of global excellence may be impinged indirectly by other measures designed to limit the flow of immigration more generally. At the same time, if Jewish communities experience the consequences of a more general economic downturn from more restrictive national trade policies, their successful accumulation of wealth over the years of economic liberalization should provide something of a cushion.

The conclusion is that while Jews may well be affected by a shift away from globalization of world trade and a global orientation of economies in the countries in which they reside, they are unlikely to do so disproportionately. Quite the opposite; while seeing traditional avenues for economic advancement become more constricted and, therefore, possibly lowering growth or even leading toward economic stasis, Jewish communities might be better placed than others to weather the consequences – economically. The political consequences of such a radical turn in the minds of the citizens of the democratic, developed West that would predispose such a reversal from the course that had been previously followed may have considerable effect on the sense of well-being and security perceived by Jewish communities – and perhaps even on the reality of their social and physical acceptance within the nations in which they reside.