Jewish assimilation

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Jewish assimilation refers to the cultural assimilation and social integration of Jews in their surrounding culture, a continuous process over centuries.


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. Jewish Hellenism is an early example of Jewish assimilation.

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."[1]

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.

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.

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.

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,[2] with many universities and professions barred to them or with a quota limit.

"Before emancipation Jews had traditionally been a separate nation with their own culture. […] This was regarded as a barrier to full citizenship in many modern nation states."[3]

Contemporary debate[edit]

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."[4] 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 intermarriage 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.

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. They generally agreed that anti-Semitism was the explanation for continued Jewish identity.

Christian–Jewish relations[edit]

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. They have made use of dual-covenant theology.[5][6][7]

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.

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.[8] Descendants of Arabs, Moors, and Jews (moriscos and marranos), occupied lower caste positions in Iberian societies (limpieza de sangre), but 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.

See also[edit]



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

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