Assimilation and its Discontents
by Barry Rubin
Times Books. 400 pp. $25.00
While other peoples and nations took only from the new and foreign flow what was good for their existence, thereby preserving their individuality and uniqueness, the Jews suffered with the curse of appropriating all that was new and foreign like no others did, while repudiating all that was holiest and most authentic.
So wrote Pauline Wengeroff, a Russian Jewess, at the beginning of this century in her Memoirs of a Grandmother. Her words, a reaction to the tendencies of a particular class of Jews in czarist Russia, could have been voiced by many a despairing Jewish mother and grandmother throughout Europe and the Americas. For, in the last two centuries, Jews in remarkable numbers have indeed partially or totally distanced themselves from Jewish religious and cultural traditions.
This distancing is only a part of what Wengeroff bemoans, however. The acts of alienation she recounts occurred against the backdrop of political changes throughout Europe and North America which allowed Jews to be, or to fantasize about becoming, equal members of a broader society. That is, Jews were attracted to the “foreign flow” because of the social, economic, and intellectual possibilities of modern life, beside which Jewish tradition seemed, to many, positively primitive.
The combination of partial or total alienation from Jewish tradition and attraction to new political or social identities is generally referred to as assimilation. Over the last two centuries, within different political or social frameworks, distinct patterns of the phenomenon have emerged. In this book, Barry Rubin, an American political scientist who has written previously about Arab-Israeli affairs and who now lives in Jerusalem, seeks not only to tell the story of Jewish assimilation but to “solve [its] enduring riddle.”
Rubin proceeds by focusing almost exclusively on a number of rich and/or famous Jews who have striven to find a place in the societies they wished to enter and have thereby changed themselves and, in more than a few instances, their societies as well. A skillful storyteller, Rubin presents his case studies with wit and energy. We meet writers, businessmen, politicians, entertainers, intellectuals, and dreamers, all characterized by the desire—in some cases, the outright need—to divest themselves of any trace of Jewishness. Although the strategies they employ may vary, Rubin’s assimilationists share a mixture of, on the one hand, creativity, drive, and ambition and, on the other hand, personal ambivalence and even self-hatred.
From these profiles and vignettes Rubin creates an assimilationist “type,” perhaps best exemplified by the comic-book character of Superman (the creation, as it happens, of two Jews). Superman adopts a new society and pledges himself to sustain and preserve it. As long as he is in and of that society, he is invincible and invulnerable; the only thing that can hurt him is contact with his home world and culture. Translation: to the assimilating Jew, Jewishness is kryptonite.
It is this allergy to their own Jewishness that explains, for Rubin, why assimilationists may be found in the forefront of those opposing the “parochial,” and are often even involved in causes inimical to the interests of their fellow Jews.
Sometimes their activities in this connection are undertaken in the name of a universalism that would break down all distinctions among groups; sometimes in the name of distinctions established by others. If the former impulse has yielded “tragicomic figures claiming the right to direct humanity’s future when they have lacked the most basic understanding of themselves,” the latter has yielded an often servile elevation of everything sanctified by the adopted culture.
Rubin perceptively shows how, in our own day, this deformity extends even to the world of the academy, where “Jewish professors championing Western civilization . . . battle other Jewish professors fighting for multiculturalism and more third-world material in the curriculum.” Needless to say, “both sides see themselves as impartial fighters for truth”—but for neither side does the truth embrace anything smacking of their own culture. The credo of such humanists, Rubin writes, might be: “nothing is alien to me—except Jewishness.”
But how strong is the assimilationist impulse today? As Rubin notes, thanks to the antithetical movements of history, Jews intent on merging into their host societies can now do so freely, at least in the democratic West, while in Israel, Zionism has rendered assimilationism utterly irrelevant. In the future, he concludes, Jews will either be “normalized citizens of a Jewish state [i.e., Israel], non-Jewish citizens of other societies, or find some stable level of semi-integration.” In each of these cases, the “logical culmination” of assimilation will be, ironically enough, to “extinguish” assimilation itself as a viable or even a necessary strategy.
Rubin’s book is very welcome for its compelling portraits of individuals and types. But it is also flawed. For one thing, by focusing on the rich and/or famous and influential, Rubin has avoided the more central task of dealing with assimilation as a genuine mass phenomenon, by means of which hundreds of thousands of individuals have quietly disappeared from Jewish history. Nor has he thought about the causes and consequences of this mass phenomenon in historical terms.
Had he done so, he would have had to focus on the numerous shifts in government policies toward Jews in the modern era, especially in the areas of education and military conscription; on Jewish migratory patterns; and on the different pace of assimilation among different segments of the Jewish population (especially as between male and female, and urban and rural); on the role of violence—particularly, in Europe, Soviet and Nazi violence—in forcibly alienating far greater numbers of Jews from their traditions than might otherwise have been the case; on the economic realities of the various societies in which Jews have settled in relatively large numbers; and so forth.
Further, he would have had to note that assimilation is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. Over the last few decades numerous scholars have placed assimilation in an illuminating cross-cultural perspective; unfortunately, the impact of their work is not felt here.
As for whether the assimilationist impulse has run its course, as Rubin believes, that one may be permitted to doubt. As his own narrative suggests, the impulse seems to be alive and well in the most advanced sectors of Western society, including in the universities (though it would be wrong not to register the presence, even in those same sectors, of countervailing forces and even of a return, among some, to Jewish traditionalism). In Israel, too, paradoxical though it may sound, the desire to escape the “taint” of Jewishness is hardly unknown—it only takes on new and more inventive forms.
In the end, then, this book hardly “solves the enduring riddle of Jewish assimilation.” Nor does it tell anything close to the whole story. Yet Assimilation and Its Discontents is nevertheless valuable in documenting clearly the creative energies unleashed by the desire of many Jews to adopt some other identity; the often grotesque results of these efforts; and the ways in which they have sometimes failed miserably even to achieve their desired aim of camouflage and disappearance.
Perhaps the most poignant such failure, and one rich in historical irony, can be glimpsed in the very ease with which Rubin is able to identify, as Jews, any number of people who changed their names in order to disguise their origins; of people whose parents and even grandparents were baptized as Christians; of people who insisted that they were Germans, or French, or citizens of the world, anything but Jews—to no avail. Even if it does not do everything it might, Rubin’s book has much to teach us both about assimilation-ism and about its numerous, sometimes amusing, often bitter, discontents.