The history of the Jewish people is filled with anguish and struggle. More often than not, the defining motif of Jewish life has been exile, forced wandering, and lament. And yet, through this travail the Jewish community has bequeathed much to the world: a developed monotheism, a prophetic social critique, an awareness of God's presence in history, and the foundation of two other world religions, Christianity and Islam.
As important as these contributions are for the Jewish community, of which I am a part, the paradigm of liberation that forms the heart of the Jewish experience, the dynamic of bondage confronted by the call to freedom, has been appropriated by other struggling peoples throughout the ages. The songs of African slaves in nineteenth-century America calling on God for freedom echo the lamentations of the Jews in Egypt. The Exodus tradition, articulated in the writings of Latin American liberation theologians, again emerges within the struggle of Latin Americans for justice.
To cite these contributions of the Jewish people is to pose a fundamental contradiction of world history, one posed often but answered only weakly. Why is it that a people who have contributed so much to the world have often received such scornful treatment in return? Why is it that, historically, Jews have been considered more problematic than principally contributing to Western religious and intellectual heritage? And why is it that, in these allegedly enlightened times, a people born of suffering are sometimes doubted and dismissed, as if the world should have no concern for a people's long and difficult history?