Jewish assimilation

Jewish assimilation (Hebrew: התבוללות, Hitbolelut) refers to the gradual cultural assimilation and social integration of Jews in their surrounding culture as well as the ideological program promoting conformity as a potential solution to historic Jewish marginalization in the age of emancipation.[1]


The Jewish holiday Hanukkah stems from the Maccabees' revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Many Jews of the era had adopted the Hellenistic language and culture, which the Maccabee group considered an abomination. Use of the vernacular is an example of acculturation, one of the key characteristics of Jewish assimilation in the modern era.[1]

Jewish assimilation began anew among Ashkenazi Jews on an extensive scale towards the end of the 18th century in Western Europe, especially Germany, as the Haskalah emerged as a culture. Reasons cited for its initial success included hope for better opportunities accompanying assimilation into the non-Jewish European communities, especially among the upper classes. "The concentration of the Jewish population in large cities had a strong impact on their lifestyle and made them more visible in the economy and in the culture."[2] As legal emancipation remained incomplete in Germany, many upper-middle class urban Jews propagated Enlightenment ideals, which they believed would allow them to improve their social standing. "The ideologues consequently envisioned a regeneration of German Jewry that would gain it equal rights but would also lead to the formation of a new kind of Jew based on its ideal of man."[3]

Both the Christian and Jewish communities were divided concerning answers to what was known as the Jewish question. The question, coming during the rise of nationalism in Europe, included the extent to which each nation could integrate its Jewish citizens, and if not integrated, how should they be treated and the question solved. The breakdown of the traditional Jewish communal structure, the Kehilla, marked the declining perception of a distinct Jewish nationality among those Jews that promoted emancipation. However, attempts to reduce Judaism to a confession did not necessarily induce an increase in tolerance of the Jews on the part of the majority society.

As an alternative to a more liberal practice of Judaism, assimilation also took the form of conversion to Christianity. None of the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn retained the Jewish religion. Assimilationists saw Jewish cultural distinctiveness and tribalism as the root of antisemitic hostility and thus felt that Jewish social bonds needed to be weakened.[1]

This led some Jews to philosophical questions of Jewish identity and Who is a Jew?. The propriety of assimilation, and various paths toward it were among the earliest internal debates of the emancipation era, including whether and to what extent Jews should relinquish their right to uniqueness in return for civic equality. These debates initially took place within the diaspora, a population with a revered historical Biblical homeland, but without a state of their own for nearly 2,000 years.

Jewish academics in the nineteenth century partook in social scientific studies concerning anti-Semitic notions of Jewish degeneration. Their active role in this intellectual discussion served as both a calculated response to anti-Semitic allegations and a way to explore common social bonds uniting Jews as the autonomous community had been in full decline. Many Jewish social scientists did not entirely disagree with the ideas of distinct Jewish traits conceived by anti-Semites. This lent itself well to the contentious debate over assimilatory practices. "The political and social message of this immutable Jewish nature was clear: the 'Jewish body' was racially different and pathological, and opponents of emancipation and integration were correct in insisting that Jews were unfit to be part of a healthy modern nation-state."[4] Participating in the exploration of Jewish lineage can also be seen as a form of appeasement as "It allowed Jewish social scientists to fill the roles of apologist and reformer, to defend their own people based on the knowledge and insights of science."[4]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conditions in Eastern Europe convinced many Jews to emigrate to the United States. In Germany, Jewish integration into the Army and other occupations was successful. In the United States traditional disabilities were generally absent but they faced many different challenges of acculturation. In the early 20th century, there was social discrimination against Jews in certain quarters,[5] with many universities and professions barred to them or with a quota limit.

In the modern 21st century, although the view on Jews has considerably improved, in the US specifically, the nation is guided as a Christian nation, with a common example being all of the Christmas songs and ads being played during the holiday season with parents needing to say "we do not celebrate Christmas." ,[6] and the lack of such advertisement for any Jewish holiday during the year. Jewish assimilation is common more in the modern day since the pressures of society to be like everyone else are high. The new Reform Judaism Movement also adds to this, since it is a branch of Judaism that has become more moderate on following the laws of the torah, leading Jews to be more relaxed instead of strict on their religion.

Contemporary debate

The issue of Jewish assimilation has agitated Jewish polemicists and intrigued Jewish historians for a considerable time. Since some Jews supposedly abandoned traditional Jewish customs to embrace modern secular Western culture, more conservative Jews have chastised them for deserting the Jewish people. "Religious Jews regarded those who assimilated with horror, and Zionists campaigned against assimilation as an act of treason."[7] As a result, the term assimilation, once used proudly by those who sought integration into European society, became seen as a term of contempt for a symbol of subservience to gentile culture, a sign of rejection of all links to the common history and destiny of the Jewish people, and a betrayal of their ancestors who suffered pogroms to keep Judaism alive. Such Jews consider assimilation a loss of Jewish identity of an individual either by marriage to a spouse who is not Jewish or by abandonment of Judaism to adopt another religion.

In Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon defined assimilation as a continuum, with the first stage acculturation, that is, the adoption of such outward cultural forms of the larger society as language, dress, recreational tastes, and political views. Total assimilation is possible only if the host society is receptive and extensive interfaith marriage takes place (at its most in former European colonies with a divisive black-white line, which allowed Jews to be seen as part of the desirable white element and where miscegenation was hardly a taboo). Most European and American Jews acculturated, but they rarely lost their sense of Jewish identity. They most frequently abstained from what Gordon called "structural assimilation," the creation of friendships and other contacts primarily with members of the host society.

In Assimilation and Community: The Jews in nineteenth-century Europe, Marion Kaplan describes how the Jewish identity was maintained and how the German-Jewish identity was formed, specifically through Jewish women and their actions within their families and their communities. Jewish women placed a lot of importance on their culture and religion by reinforcing their traditions. They accomplished this by continually observing Jewish traditions and rituals, such as family dinners on Friday evenings, and holidays from the Jewish calendar. Strict adherence to Judaism was essential in maintaining their Jewish identity within their household.[8] Kaplan also stresses the importance of family and community; close knit families had strong ties with one another. This strong sense of community helped them in protecting and maintaining their culture. However, ways in which Jews adapted to the culture can be seen in the way Jewish women raised their children in Germany. They encouraged them to take part in sports, learn musical instruments, and read German fairy tales to them. Jewish women also subscribed to German periodicals, following its fashion styles and news.[9]

In Paula Hyman's book The Jews of Modern France demonstrates that Jewish assimilation into French society allowed them to integrate in the community. The term assimilation is based on the modern term. Assimilation is presumed to "reflection the substitution of a French identity for a Jewish one."[10] It is believed that this simplistic view does not give an all encompassing view on the intricate relations between Jews and the French. The Jews had to constantly defend their legitimacy as a minority group in France. While most people associate assimilation as a negative term, "they were not simply passive absorbers of bourgeois French culture; they also participated in its shaping."[10] Jews contributed to French society, through participating in all aspects of society like government and universities. In her book Hyman helps illustrate instances that show integration in French society. Beginning with the cooperation of the French state, Jews were able to maintain networks of communal institutions in the system of consistories that both promoted acculturation and reinforced Jewish feelings of solidarity. These consistories also helped support the existence of specific Jewish institutions. These institutions provided charitable assistance to Jews through a variety of philanthropic societies. Examples of these would be a network of modern Jewish primary schools as well as extended supplemental Jewish education to Jewish children who began attending public schools. Despite mass participation by Jews in all levels of French society – government, universities, and professional careers – the vast majority of Jews in 19th century France chose to be married and buried as Jews.[10] This clarifies that Jews were not fully assimilated into French society nor sought the disappearance of their institutions and/or biological merger with the French society.[10]

David Sorkin's The Transformation of German Jewry 1780-1840 assesses what should have been an immensely successful integration process given the Jewish population's great societal contributions as they adopted German secular culture and the bourgeois ideal of individualism known as Bildung. Instead, a separate German-Jewish subculture developed while emancipation lagged. Sorkin depicts the fruitless attempts of the Jews to be tolerated as no level of self-denial would ultimately prove acceptable to their counterparts.[3]

From an international conference on Jewish assimilation held at Haifa University in May 1976, Bela Vago edited a collection of papers entitled Jewish Assimilation in Modern Times. Most of these papers accept the Zionist equation of assimilation with Jewish group disappearance.

Christian–Jewish relations

The question of Jewish assimilation is a topic of concern for both Jewish and Christian religious leaders. A number of Progressive Christian denominations have publicly declared that they will no longer proselytize Jews.[11][12][13]

Early Christian Europe proved a time and place where Jews and Christians could come together while coexisting socially and creatively amidst the persecution. They were living so closely together in some areas that leaders from both would be worried about the influence one religion had on the other. A Christian Monarch in charge of a growing town would invite Jewish merchants to help revitalize the economy. There was a pattern of expulsion and re-invitation that allowed for the two to live intimately together in smaller towns throughout Europe. Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne in the Holy Roman Empire, was the first to leave detailed descriptions of the rights of Jewish Merchants.[14]

In Spain and Portugal, after the 15th century, there was controversy over the sincerity of Iberian Judeo-Catholics who converted under pain of being expelled from the Peninsula.[15] In Spain and Portugal, descendants of Arabs, Moors, and Jews (moriscos and marranos), were, for a period of time banned from certain guilds, positions in the clergy and particularly from emigrating to Latin America (limpieza de sangre). This early discrimination system was weaker in Latin America due to the social status that Sub-Saharan African slaves had, much below that of New Christians from the Old World, a contributing factor to the absorption of these elements in the developing culturally pluralistic societies of the New World.

The Roman Catholic Church has attracted some Jews, such as Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marcel Proust, Edith Stein, Israel Zolli, Erich von Stroheim, and Jean-Marie Lustiger.

See also


  1. "YIVO | Assimilation". Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  2. "Wayback Machine" (PDF). 13 October 2012. Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  3. Sorkin, David (1987). The Transformation of German Jewry 1780-1840. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 5. The ideologues consequently envisioned a regeneration of German Jewry that would gain it equal rights but would also lead to the formation of a new kind of Jew based on its ideal of man.
  4. "Racial Science, Social Science, and the Politics of Jewish Assimilation on JSTOR". JSTOR 237051. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. "The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation, The Twentieth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center". Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  6. Israel, Jeffrey. "What Jesus Means to a 21st Century Jew". Big Think. Retrieved 2017-10-11.
  7. Vago, Bela (1982). Marsha L. Rozenblit (ed.). "Review of Jewish Assimilation in Modern Times". Jewish Social Studies. 44 (3–4). JSTOR 4467195.
  8. Kaplan, Marion A. Assimilation and community: The Jews in nineteenth-century Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 205.
  9. Kaplan, Marion A. Assimilation and community: The Jews in nineteenth-century Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 210.
  10. Hyman, Paula (1999). The Jews of Modern France. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 57.
  11. Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue (World Council of Churches)
  12. Brockway, Allan R. "Should Christians Attempt to Evangelize Jews?". Retrieved 9 February 2018.
  13. Policies of mainline and liberal Christians towards proselytizing Jews (
  14. Marcus, Ivan (2002). A Jewish-Christian Symbiosis. Schocken. pp. 453, 449. ISBN 0805212019.
  15. "Famous Jewish Catholics". Retrieved 9 February 2018.


  • Frankel, Jonathan; Zipperstein, Steven J. (1992). Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Cambridge University Press.
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