Opinion |

Assimilation Is the Failure of American Jewry, Not Israel

Ron Lauder claimed in a New York Times op-ed that Israel’s policies cause ‘assimilation’ and ‘alienation’ from Israel. Is he serious?

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Ron Lauder
Ronald Lauder, president of World Jewish Congress.Credit: Bloomberg
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

Unlike many Israelis, I believe that Jews in exile are entitled to intervene in Israel’s domestic affairs. Israel is the state of all Jews worldwide, and even if their criticism is sometimes absurd, it’s a testimony to the fact that they care. Caring, even if it’s expressed negatively, is better than alienation, withdrawal and assimilation. After all, withdrawal and assimilation are exilic Jewry’s chief existential problems, and therefore ours as well.

I intentionally used the loaded term “exile” instead of the more common term “diaspora.” The term “diaspora” gives an ideological seal of approval for Jews to live outside their homeland, even though the result has been mass assimilation. In the early 1960s, there were about six million Jews in the United States. Today, even with the “reinforcement” of hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from Israel (as well as Jewish refugees from Russia and eastern Europe who preferred America to their homeland), the main U.S. Jewish organizations can identify no more than 5.5 million Jews, and some of those are merely “on the spectrum.”

As was pointed out a decade ago at a conference on assimilation, had American Jews reproduced the way, for instance, secular Israeli Jews have done, America would have between 15 million and 18 million Jews today. One can imagine what an influence they would have had on the country of their birth, and also on their homeland. Therefore, this is an exile, not a diaspora. In our era, assimilation is the face of the exile.

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ron Lauder, published an op-ed in the New York Times this week that doubled as an open letter to Israelis. In it, he charged that Israel’s policies are causing “assimilation, alienation and a severe erosion of the global Jewish community’s affinity for the Jewish homeland.” Are you serious, Lauder?

Like him, I also believe that driving Reform Jews away from the Western Wall’s main plaza and turning it from a national site into a synagogue controlled by the ultra-Orthodox was a sin by successive Israeli governments, for which there is no atonement. But to view this, or other forms of discrimination which the non-Orthodox communities suffer at Israel’s hands, as a reason, even a minor one, for their mass desertion from the ranks of the Jewish people – which reached its peak decades ago, and over which Israel has virtually no influence – is a clear projection.

The greatest failure of America’s Jewish community – and one of the greatest failures in the history of the Jewish people – was the failure to prevent assimilation, which spread on an unprecedented scale. Yet this community (Lauder isn’t the only person who makes this claim) is trying to cast the blame for this historic failure on Israel.

The assimilation issue seems far more important than the diplomatic arguments Lauder raises, some of which are banal and others absurd. His op-ed, if only because of his public stature and the fact that even in Israel there are people who agree with some of his claims, requires a broad and thorough response, which should be made someday.

But if Lauder really intended to conduct a dialogue with the Israeli public, and not just to publish (another) comprehensive indictment of Israel, he would have chosen an Israeli media outlet for his op-ed. Haaretz would presumably have given him a platform, and the electronic media would certainly have interviewed him at length. His choice of the New York Times attests to a desire to reinforce the paper’s well-known accusations against Israel, this time from someone who bears the honorable title (yet devoid of any real meaning) of “president of the World Jewish Congress.”

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