Monday, September 14, 2009

More on Assimilation

Norm Geras runs a bit with a ball I had last week, and now I'm running with it a bit further. The topic is Jewish assimilation of the type where people cease to identify as Jews or lack the identification from birth (probably the larger number). As disagreements go, Norm and I aren't really bickering here, we mostly agree, but perhaps our differences can illuminate the issue a bit.

Norm makes four points. First, that if you're liberal or pluralist (European terminology) you've got to respect the decisions of the individual even if you'd have prefered them to decide differently. He's right. When individual Jews decide to leave the fold, that's their right which we must respect (tho he leaves open the possibility for personal anguish, and he's right about that, too).

Second, it's equally right for Jews to make efforts that as few leave the fold as possible, so long as the efforts are legal. So, education or social encouragement are alright but coercion would be wrong. On this, also, we agree.

Third, that the presistence of antisemitism is an important reason to persist in being Jewish and encouraging others to do so. While I don't disagree, I'm less bothered. In spite of my daily reading of the Guardian, antisemitism isn't really an important part of my everyday life, and it's low on my list of reasons to persist in being Jewish. The way I see it, being Jewish is an effort and always has been, and poking the antisemites in the eye, while pleasurable, doesn't justify the effort. There are better, more proacative reasons.

(For those of you who have encouraged me to write that book about the antisemites, as I sometimes say I ought, thanks for the encouragement. Yet even if I ever do so it won't be as an expression of my Jewishness, rather as part of Israel's war against its enemies - related, but not the same).

Finally, Norm tells that as he sees it, the Jews aren't about to disappear, and worrying about it isn't a priority. I agree that the entire group called the Jews aren't about to disappear, but I can see with my own eyes that large numbers of them are. My great grandparents left Russia as Jews at the start of the 20th century - so we sidestepped the Shoah. A century later, most of their youngest descendants are no longer Jews, and the trend will continue except in Israel. There's nothing particularly unusual in my family.

Since being Jewish is extremely important to me, this saddens me.


Victor said...

Yaacov, your insistence that Israel is a de-facto last bastion of Jewish life is a bit thin. Most Israelis I meet have little to no understanding of Yiddishkeit, and are more prone to be misinformed than Diaspora Americans, even.

Take an Israeli guy, post army, put him in Chicago, take him out to the clubs, and I don't think we'll want to place any bets. Many Israelis are very distrustful and hostile to what they think of as Jewish life, and associate basic Jewish concepts - keeping shabbos (no, I don't mean "mall day") and kashrus - with restricting their freedom and "fundamentalism".

The only reason you are able to claim this for Israel is simply the overwhelming preponderance of Jews who reside there makes it a statistical probability that Jews will marry Jews and have Jewish kids. That's something, but it's not everything, not even close.

Intermarriage and assimilation are serious issues in the Diaspora, but they are also the end of a very long tail - the fruit of trees planted long ago. It doesn't help anyone to be shocked now. We should have been shocked when the German Jews were "innovating" 150 years ago.

The Jewish community I belong to, in the American Midwest, is growing in both natural growth and infusions of converts (almost half my shul are gers). It's one person at a time, one Jew at a time - that's how you give birth, it's how you build a community, it's how you build a nation.

To paraphrase Rambam, we should see the entire world - and the Jewish people, specifically - on a scale, hanging in the balance, and a single of our acts to perform a mitzvah, a good deed, a favor for a Jew, can tip that scale to the positive. If those of us who are Jews and are committed to Jewish life do what we need to do, and even a little more, we'll continue growing from strength to strength.

Yaacov said...

Hi Victor -

We agree, and disagree.

I never said, nor even insinuated, that it's impossible to be Jewish long-term outside Israel, not even in the free and modern world where it really is a matter of choice and most Jews aren't committed to religion. Tho perhaps you and I both agree that some sort oforthodoxy may indeed help.

Nor did I say that all Jews in Israel have a fully formulated committment to their Judaism - tho here, perhaps, we disagree partially. It seems to me, and always has, that the decision to be in Israel, for which there is a price, is not to be taken lightly. Jews in Israel speak Hebrew, live according to the Jewish calender, and are infused with things Jewish to an extent that makes assimilation by Norm's definition almost impossible.

Victor said...

Israel is a special place. It's our spiritual inheritance as Jews. It is a nation of Jews. It's our home. I wouldn't be reading your blog if Israel was not important to me, and I am proud and thankful for Jews like you, who live there, who defend the nation and live as proud Jews.

There is a Zionist ideal that a Jew cannot self actualize to their potential except in Israel. This ideal is not based so much on faith, but on pride, on nationalism and the Zionist ethos.

In many ways - at least that is how it is perceived on this side of the ocean - the campaign to "save" Jews on the verge of being "lost" in the Diaspora, by bringing them to Israel in order that they have fewer choices to "go astray", rings more of an ideology bent on the preservation of itself, than the preservation of its people. It simply doesn't seem genuine, not to us.

Having Jews come to Israel on a 3 month ulpan program, get plastered in Tel Aviv and burn through a few packs of condoms is not helping anyone.

I'm not saying coming to Israel has no value, it certainly did for me. The point, and I don't think you disagree, is that what makes us Jews is not where we live, but who we are and who we serve. And in that respect, we all have work to do.

Shalom, Cherry Hill said...

It seems to me that Victor and Ya'acov probably mostly agree. It certainly is true that unless one is actively secular (as opposed to just not really religious) growing up in Israel gives a stronger base line Jewish identity than a secular American Jew has. Of course, that isn't a substitute for religious education and belief.

I lived in Israel for several years and spent most of my life in America. One can certainly live well as a religious Jew in America--but to me, it really is on a lesser level than possible in Israel. No matter how great your synagogue and community, we still are a small minority in a Gentile culture.

Shanah Tovah and Chatimah Tovah to all. And thank you, Ya'acov, for providing me with so much information and enjoyment in your blog; I am truly grateful.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

A very well-written post (like most of what your write).

How can you coerce someone into not marrying out? You can't, these days. But you can shun them. Is shunning a valid option?

Anonymous said...

Yaacov -

This is an important topic and I hope I you won't drop the discussion on it. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to comment on it now. As a non-assimilated Jew, the next 4 weeks are a flood of cooking and family gatherings. (Does one assimilate to avoid all the cooking?)

In the mean time, shana tove. May you have year of health and good things and continued blogging. May the coming year bring many posts filled with good news for all of us.


David T said...

In reality, at least for the last 2000 years, the *normal* pattern of Jewish life is for a certain percentage of Jews to give up being Jewish.

Judaism as a religion has established pretty high entry criteria. As a result, there aren't that many converts (at least to orthodoxy). Ibrahim bin Yusuf talks about "shunning" - in reality, although that sort of thing did happen extensively a couple of generations ago - my wife's grandfather never saw his parents again - it just doesn't these days.

By contrast, there have always been a number of very good reasons to stop being Jewish. You discount antisemitism - chief among those reasons - but seriously, why would you wish on your child, an identity which will mean that s/he is a target for hatred or violence?

For Jews, just blending in has always been an option. There was, recently, a programme about the children of Holocaust survivors. Two of the children had never been told by their parents that they were Jewish. One reacted - when he was in his 60s - by starting to practice Judaism. The other was sad at her parents' choice, but felt no particular connection with Jewishness. And why should she? Culture isn't genetic.

In the past, ex-Jews have always figured large in the persecution of Jews: from the medieval convert-priests who 'told the truth' about the Jewish religion, to the likes of Gilad Atzmon.

A desire to escape your ethnicity is a very common reaction to racism and is by no means confined to Jews. I remember reading a very upsetting study about 20 years ago in which black children in Britain identified white people as more attractive, for example. And look at Michael Jackson.

Hostility to Jews, by contrast, is a product of the belief systems of both Christians and Muslims, and is therefore culturally endemic. It has lasted about 2000 years. I don't see any prospect of it coming to an end, and therefore I would expect Jews to continue to drift away from Judaism as they always have.

If you want to see genetic evidence of this process in action, look at the genes of the Spanish. 20% have Sephardi genetic markers. 11% have "moorish" markers.

Yet more than 50% of the Spanish - according to a recent Pew survey - hold negative views of both Jews and Muslims.