Assimilation, Anti-Semitism and American Liberalism

[Jasper Johns, Three Flags (1958)]

I’m still sorting through and building up my thoughts regarding the New American Haggadah  and Wieseltier’s criticism. What strikes me is howJewish cultural conservatives (even liberal ones like Wieseltier) have turned anxiety about the assimilation of American Jewishness and Judaism into a cottage industry peculiar and unto itself. Fretting about the future gets tucked into to a more generalized fear among cultural conservatives regarding the blandishments of open liberal society. (About the New American Haggadah and Wieseltier, I’ve posted below.)

The classical theory, which predates the current conservative moment in Jewish thought and philosophy, is that equal citizenship and acceptance into mainstream society and culture pose the greatest challenge to Jewish identity in the United States. American democracy and popular culture are too alluring for Judaism to withstand (sort of like Israelite princes in the Midian desert).

An alternative theory that I would float would have it that, historically, a primary cause of assimilation in the United States is cultural anti-Semitism, not liberal democracy. I would argue that the idea made by Spinoza that ant-Semitism holds the Jews together may be less true today in the more open environs of America than would have been the case in Europe since it was Europe, unlike America, that failed the test of Enlightenment and Emancipation where the Jews were concerned. (I actually think that this theory would also hold up for German Jews in the 19th and early 20th century. It was anti-Semitism more than Enlightenment and Emancipation that most radically stimulated assimilation.)

As for American anti-Semitism, we tend to underestimate its negative effect on patterns of Jewish affiliation and culture. We do so because the WASP nativist cultural prejudices and social exclusions faced by my parents’ generation (Jews who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, and entered adulthood in the 1940s and 1950s) were less ferocious and more ordinary than the more viral forms of anti-Semitism in 19th and 20th century Europe.

When for the children of immigrants acculturation and integration were the order of the day and when anti-Semitism was much more embedded culturally, there would have been good, good reason for some or many if not all or even most Jews to exercise their constitutional right to free themselves from both religion and parochialism and to blend into the background, either in part or altogether.  And perhaps there was much less to keep them on board, apart from engrained, automatic, unthinking patterns of cultural affiliation and filial devotion, the strength of which were going to ebb inevitably over time.

I imagine this to be less true of the generation of Jews growing up in recent decades during which the most overt forms of anti-Semitism seem to have waned among large sectors of the American public and when Jews and Judaism fit more comfortably into a bundle of niches as part of the mainstream. These are unique features of the cultural moment occupied by many if not most American Jews today.

Everything is relative, of course. But if there is even a shred of truth to it, this alternative theory would allow one to see that with less anti-Semitism in America today, there will be less pressure for Jews to jump ship. More welcoming social and political environments would seem to have already encouraged the formation of new Jewish identities and forms of cultural and religious expression at varying degrees of intensity across the social-cultural spectrum.

Relatively speaking, it may be easy, or easier today, to disappear into America, but there’s concurrently much less reason to do so. I think it is easier today to be Jewish today in the United States than ever once was. Jewishness and Judaism carry less stigma today, relatively speaking; or don’t they? This might mean that the Jewishness and Judaism of younger American Jews might turn out to be far less reactive and far more natural than the types of Jewishness and Judaism at large when I was growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s.

This is just a theory, but I am not persuaded that liberalism is bad for Judaism.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Assimilation, Anti-Semitism and American Liberalism

  1. Personally, I think the classical theory still holds. Put simply, in America Jews are literally born emancipated. I would argue that in other countries, even today, Jews are born Jews. They live in Jewish neighborhoods, go to Jewish schools, befriend other Jews, and therefore have little choice but to be Jews. Their smaller numbers in other countries almost demands this kind of tribalism, but so too does an historic legacy of anti-Semitism far worse than any anti-Jewish prejudice ever witnessed in the US.

    I would offer another twist, though. While the freedom of democracy certainly plays a role in diminishing Jewish identity, so too does the freedom of the marketplace. Judaism is just one of a host of spiritual outlets available to Jews in the American spiritual marketplace. To be sure, one can be a Jew and a Buddhist, or be a Jew and practice Yoga, Tai Chi, or other spiritual practices. Still, many Jews still mouth the old American adage, “I am spiritual, not religious.” And that ability to choose spirituality over religion is a powerful threat to Jewishness in America.

    I am not saying that Jews who choose not to be Jewish are wrong. I am saying, though, what countless thinkers have said about America and its effect on Jewish identity, namely that the freedom of choice threatens Jewish identity in America far more than anti-Semitism does.

  2. zjb says:

    Thanks for your incredibly thoughtful reply, erikgreenberg. I guess, though, I’m more optimisitc in that I think I see resilience on the American Jewish scene that is qualitatively superior to anything that I would have recognized growing up in the 1970s. I don’t see how the more serious sentiment undergirding the silly old adage “I am spiritual, not religious” is not or can’t be worked into a foundation upon which to create new forms of Jewish expression in the United States.

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