An activist Jewish sociologist, I have long been fascinated by Jewish views on the sensitive subject of assimilation. Assimilation is ordinarily seen as taking the explicit form of intermarriage, or the subtler version of shedding religious and ethnic Jewish identifications in favor of blending in with the larger society.
Suppose, though, there is another, more threatening assimilation problem: the abandonment, by Jewish figures in public life in America and in Israel, of the core ethics that have shaped Judaism and Jewish consciousness.
That second threat to our Jewish world as we know is in front of our eyes. There are at least two dozen Jewish Trump appointees - including Stephen Miller, Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, Steven Mnuchin and Jared Kushner.
We now see Jews like these who willingly collaborate with a president who encourages white supremacists, racists and anti-Semites. He even invited two overtly anti-Semitic Christian fundamentalist preachers to speak at the ill-advised opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
What is going on here?
The heart of the Jewish ethical mission is the attempt to negate the brutalities and inhumane practices that were rampant at the time of the writing of classic Jewish texts and beyond, through mandating justice and righteousness, valuing human life above all and working for social justice.
Jews can be said to have invented social criticism. The Biblical prophets were the social critics of their era. They reminded kings and citizens of the differences between corruption and justice, which is the core of Jewish ethics.
The Jewish ethical core has for millennia rubbed raw the nerves and sensibilities of self-serving elites throughout the world.
From tikkun olam, to "Love thy neighbor as thyself" to "Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person." And this less -known statement from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 54b-55a):
Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.
And more recently, from the civil rights activist rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."
In Israel, with his insistence on Israel as nation-ghetto, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to complete Israel’s transformation from a beleaguered country trying to survive to a state that, in his own words, lives forever by the sword.
Forget his cynical co-optation of religious terminology and endless rhetorical repetitions of Israel as Jewish, Jewish, Jewish: Netanyahu and his rightwing government have abandoned the ethical core of Judaism in favor of an obsession with power.
Many Jews in Israel and the United States complain that Israel is no different from other countries that repress and persecute minorities. They have a point, but those other countries did not proclaim 3000 years ago that they had come upon a strikingly new ethical truth from On High, and reiterate those Biblical texts as legitimacy and justification for state policies.
What is so Jewish or ethical about Netanyahu’s policies? Is Jewish machismo to replace Jewish ethics?
Those Jews who abandon the prophetic vision in favor of wealth and power are assimilating to the life-denying, justice and planet-threatening values of societies that have sucked countless religious and secular people and movements into their jaws where they chew them up and spit them out to negate empathy, compassion, and decency.
It surely delights anti-Semites that Jewish right-wingers in the United States and Israel conflate ritual observance with ethical behavior, as if there was the unified "Jewish character" anti-Semites endlessly fantasize about.
Those Jewish right-wingers constantly point to the Orthodox Jews in Trump’s inner circle, as if proving the administration is both Jew-friendly and Jewish values-friendly. They celebrate Jared Kushner, because of his overt religious practices, and denounce Bernie Sanders, whose approach to politics and social change represents far more closely the Jewish ethical core.
Were I an anti-Semite, I would delight in what is going on in Washington D.C. The most corrupt, wealth-obsessed, power-hungry U.S. presidency in history has surrounded itself with compliant Jews.
And at the same time, Netanyahu is a leader who elevates the norms of power over those of compassion and justice, who declares it's better to live by the sword and ditches solidarity with Jews around the world - and the sublimely revolutionary Jewish ethics - for alliances with ethno-nationalists.
It is up to Jews in America, Israel, and elsewhere to shed light on the damage right-wing Jews in power do to the very foundations of Judaism itself. This is arguably the far greater and more urgent Jewish assimilation problem we face.
Gordon Fellman is Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University, where he also chairs its undergraduate interdisciplinary program in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies
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