The Dangerous Narrative of the Jewish “Debt to Society”


I believe the world has a deep antipathy towards the Jewish people, implicitly baked in over thousands of years of hatred taking various forms. There is a real question about whether seeing ourselves as a “light unto the nations” acts more as a beacon of hope or a lightning rod for hatred. It is because of this that I don’t think we should reinforce the idea that we are different from anyone else. We need to take our future, and subsequently our survival, incredibly seriously. It is our job as the Jewish people to prioritize our safety over all else. When we openly encourage the idea that we are different, we invite danger.

To that end, what do Jews owe the world? If to “owe” is to be obligated to give something in exchange for something received, to be in debt, I would ask, what have we received? What would warrant such an obligation from the Jewish nation?

Being in debt is scary and leaves one vulnerable. People will do anything to absolve themselves of debt, and the mindset of being in debt is dangerous to oneself and to those around you. As Jews, we shouldn’t go about life believing that we inherently owe something to the rest of the world. Rather, we should think of ourselves as contributors towards a better future—just as all nations are. 

The notion that Jews owe something beyond what is demanded of all people is dangerous not only because we could feel a detrimental internal obligation, but because the rest of the world might “catch on,” so to speak. The world may start to believe that we truly do owe them something. The only thing more destructive than internal manufactured debt is perceived external debt, and as soon as you have both, it isn’t artificial anymore. If the larger population starts to feel that we owe them something because of this rhetoric we put forth, Jews are put in a dangerous situation of needing to give to the world, rather than being able to do so of our own volition.

I do not mean to imply that we have no responsibility to the world; I do believe that everyone has an individual responsibility to the earth, and to exercise moderation when reaping its bounty. But, more important than the question of what we may or may not owe the external world, is the question, “What do we owe ourselves?” I believe that Jews specifically have a responsibility to the future of our culture, religion, and people. We are an extremely resilient people, but resilience requires action. I believe we should prioritize our safety and our responsibility to ourselves over our role as a “light” unto anyone else.

To many, the concept of being a “light unto the nations” feels almost arrogant. Who are we to say it’s our obligation to shine a light on the otherwise darkened nations? That we are the ones to hold the torch to lead the world morally, spiritually, and/or conceptually?

Judaism is one of the oldest religions on earth, and we have had largely the same laws and morals—morals that have spread all across the world—since the beginning of our people. We have provided a “telos,” something to strive for. That is our light. Being a light is not a responsibility of the present, but rather our impact on the present through our influence on the past.

Anti-Semitism is a growing threat. It is something that we must all devote significant time and energy combating. We cannot trust anyone to do it for us. In a chapter of Dara Horn’s book People Love Dead Jews, discussing Holocaust education and museums, she states: “They will have learned something officially important; discovered a fancy metaphor for the limits of Western civilization. The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people that we don’t want our children to become.” It is up to us and only us to defend our future.

How do we do this? I do not know for certain, but what I do know is that we cannot forget our Jewish history, both negative and positive. We cannot make concessions to those who want to see our downfall, as that, by nature, validates their argument. We must stop using the phrase “I’m Jewish, but–”, as a tool to justify our very existence.

Jews have already given the world so much that to expect more of ourselves might actually be harmful rather than constructive. Our role as the “light unto the nations” has already been fulfilled by bringing new ways of thinking to the world. 

More importantly, what do we owe ourselves? We owe ourselves a commitment to building a  future in which the Jewish people are held to the same standard as everyone else without being singled out for what we have done or what we should do. In doing so, we will better the world in typical Jewish fashion.

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