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2017 Annual Assessment

It will take more study and research to substantiate the statements, illustrations, and hypotheses advanced in this paper with precise data, and to formulate policy proposals to encourage creativity. Also, there are possible genetic and epi-genetic sources of creativity that have not yet been discussed. What is clear so far, is that the explosion of Jewish talent in the West and Russia from the late 19th to the late 20th century was a direct result of the emancipation, of Jews leaving the ghetto. The historical conditions of the emancipation period will not be repeated, except perhaps for a thin trickle of Ultra-Orthodox Jews joining the modern world.

Todays’ assimilated Jews, for whom Jewish identity has little or no meaning and who have never experienced discrimination, have nothing to prove, do not need to compete with their non-Jewish c ounterparts. Does this mean that the “Jewish century,” as Slezkine called the 20th century, was a unique historical period that will never come back? Jewish creativity is not limited to the 20th century. Biblical, Hellenistic, and Spanish Judaism during the so-called “Golden Age” were rich in creativity. During these periods, some of the conditions identified for the 20th century were also met: high levels of education, multicultural perspectives, and abundant stress.

In the next few decades, American Judaism and Israel could go in different directions. Levels and quality of education vary between the two. American Jews are probably better off now, but Israeli education is improving. Cultural versatility seems to be growing in Israel, but perhaps less so in the United States. The stress factor is very strong in Israel, but weaker for young American Jews. Can we say that Jewish creativity will fare better in Israel than in America, not least because Israel needs creativity for its sheer survival and American Jews don’t? No, it would be too hasty. We can test past conditions and triggers of creativity with all the yardsticks and data we can get, but exceptional creativity is ultimately a mystery that cannot be planned. Luck and coincidence play a decisive role in the presence or absence of creative individuals. Mozart contracted smallpox at the age of eleven. In the 18th century, up to a third of the infected died of the disease. Had Mozart died then, the history of Western music would be radically different. Or, had the Nazis come to power in 1900 rather than 1933, Einstein would not have had time to develop and publish his relativity theory, and the history of science and technology in the 20th century would have followed a very different course.

What can be said is that a people that produced many creative individuals in the past arguably has the potential to produce more in the future. To encourage their emergence, a high level of education, a versatile, multicultural perspective, and some stress would appear to be essential. Policies can help with the first two, and history and human nature, for better or worse, will see to it that the third will not disappear, at least not in Israel.

At the end of this reflection, we have to return to a comment made at the beginning. Why is it good for the Jews to be creative? Jewish and Israeli contributions to science, technology, and medicine have facilitated Jewish and Israeli prestige and defense, no doubt. In the humanities and the arts the situation is more complex. Jewish creativity and innovation in literature, art, philosophy, and jurisprudence has challenged, according to some, or enriched according to others, many established majority traditions. It has gained respect, but is has also triggered enormous hostility. Anti-Semitic literature mentions Marx and Freud as proof of the alleged evil influence of Judaism on Western civilization. It is an old phenomenon but difficult to explain because it is unique to the Jews. Is creativity also a double-edged sword?