Who Is an Assimilated Jew?

Israel's founding fathers believed the establishment of the state would also strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The result, however, has been the opposite.

It’s difficult to discuss assimilation from a liberal perspective. During the Emancipation, when assimilation among European Jews intensified, the struggle against assimilation was one of the reasons given for Zionism. But in the 21st century, deep into the era of globalization, when identities are in any case fluid, people connect with others around the world by virtue of their preferences in culture, technology, sports, and what not. What decent, enlightened person would demand that a couple in love give up their feelings in the name of some ancient religious affiliation – or worse, ethnic group?

But assimilation is a big question that is not asked with regard to the historic importance of the State of Israel in particular and the future of the Jewish people in general. In English some call it the “silent Holocaust,” and while this is an exaggeration, any serious examination of the existence of our people would find it difficult to avoid being concerned about it.

According to the recently released Pew survey, 58% of American Jews are assimilated, with the ratio soaring to 71% among non-Orthodox Jews. This is not just a loss in demographic terms; American Jewry constitutes the elite of our people from a cultural, scientific and business perspective. Without it we also risk losing the support for Israel that the community generates.

The question of why there has been such a huge jump in assimilation (in 1970 only 17% were assimilated) raises more questions rather than answers. In some ways it can be seen as proof of the historical necessity of the State of Israel to the Jewish people. Only here are Jews preserved. But this is a superficial perspective. The state’s founding fathers believed that the establishment of the state would also strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora. The result, however, has been the opposite.

Is it because the state’s survival has reduced American Jewry’s collective anxiety about the future of the Jewish people, and as a result their commitment has slipped? Is it possible that, just as many secular Jews relate to the ultra-Orthodox as the keepers of the flame, American Jews relate thusly to Israelis? Perhaps it’s because over the years it has turned out that the Jewish state is just another political entity, lacking unique values?

Another question is what exactly assimilation is. Should a Jewish man who marries a non-Jewish women but educates his children as Jews with the consent of his wife who doesn’t convert, be considered assimilated? Is it only the Jewish legal definition that decides? Does Orthodoxy have no obligation to adjust halakha to the situation of mixed couples? Or perhaps the religious are correct – that without any commitment to the Jewish religion the Jewish people loses its values and cohesion. But is the commitment to religion a commitment to the idea, or to the ethnic affiliation?

Assimilation is also a chapter in the wider story of an increasingly secularized world, in which both national and cultural boundaries are blurring. If an American Christian does not consider his religion to be a barrier between himself and another, why should the secular Jewish girl in his class think that it is? Leaving aside the Jewish implications, from many perspectives assimilation could be considered a positive indication of an enlightened era, in which people merge with their fellow human beings regardless of religion and race. But here’s a question that did not appear in the Pew survey: How many Jews are married to Muslims (not just in the United States, but around the world)? Despite everything, is there still an invisible line we will not cross?

Assimilation is a complex issue, with no definitive solution, and it is occurring across the sea. Nothing will be changed here by another newspaper report. But it is important to put it at the center of the Israeli agenda. Because if not, we will have a ridiculous situation in which we naturally accept a leadership warning of an existential danger to our people, even as the other half of it is disappearing in any case.