ASSIMILATION IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
We should distrust those who use scare tactics that warn of loss of ethnic identity. Minorities today need not fear cultural oblivion…
Let’s say you’re very unhappy that a high proportion of the members of your minority group are losing their identity and assimilating into British society. Would you describe that as a Holocaust?
Granted you’re deeply concerned about ensuring the continuity of your group’s culture and values. The lure of the host culture is such that you look into the future and see empty prayer houses and community centres, the collapse of family traditions, the end of practices that have lasted for generations. But to see assimilation as the equivalent of mass extermination, with all its evil connotations? As a deliberate act of self-immolation?
Well, yes, there are those who so describe assimilation. And no, it’s not a group setting out deliberately to trivialise the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Calling Jewish assimilation a “Holocaust” or “the silent Holocaust” is now shockingly common among some Orthodox Jewish groups and among some who fund, or are responsible for, Jewish education.
We could now go in the direction of a discussion about unacceptable Holocaust comparisons. And indeed, the sickening nature of the Jewish use of the Holocaust tragedy to describe a choice that most people freely make about how they wish to live their lives raises deeply worrying questions. But what concerns me more at this moment are the emotions and ambivalences surrounding the issue and their relationship to the reality of assimilation today.
As is clear from the “silent Holocaust” phrase, assimilation is a highly emotive issue among Jews. A short promotional video released last week by Masa, an organisation supported heavily by the Israeli government, that brings young Jews for lengthy trips to Israel specifically to combat loss of Jewish identity, was withdrawn a few days ago after widespread anger at how it was conveying its message. It showed a series of headshots of young Jews on posters, pinned up in various western locations, carrying the word “Lost” or “Missing” in English, Russian and Spanish, with a Hebrew voice over saying “More than 50% of Jewish youth outside of Israel are assimilating and are lost to us … Strengthen the connection with Israel so they won’t be lost.”
The implied denigration of Jewish life in the Diaspora was not only offensive but now runs counter to the official discourse of Israeli organisations, which claim to accept that Jewish life outside of Israel is authentic and worthwhile. Equally troubling is the idea that bringing young Jews to Israel will strengthen their Jewishness, when it’s widely acknowledged that there is a crisis of Jewish identity among young Israeli Jews themselves.
Full assimilation undoubtedly leads to a weakening of such identities. Nevertheless, I believe that most people from minority groups understand that a very significant degree of assimilation is absolutely necessary in order both to gain the full benefit of what society offers in terms of work, education, health services and so on, and to be able to contribute to society’s common good.
In the past, not only was the pressure on newcomers to assimilate very strong, but members of immigrant groups also regarded assimilation as the only path to integration, and a climate existed in which it was seen as a very good thing to lose most of the traits you brought with you from your former home. Great pride was taken in the degree to which you felt you had absorbed the ways of your new home.
Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way. The collateral damage caused by assimilation was recognised and, in an increasingly multicultural society, it was acknowledged that the maintenance of traditional identities would have positive benefits both for members of a group and for society as a whole. But to go too far down either route has its dangers. So there is certainly a dilemma facing Jews, Muslims and other groups which wish to preserve and nurture their cultural, religious or ethnic identities: how do you achieve a balance?
However, this is only a partial and rather sanitised picture. The choice has never been one that the individual can simply make and follow without hindrance. Even while some societies have demanded assimilation as the price to pay for acceptance, forces in those societies made assimilation very difficult to achieve. And even when, by all measures, it was achieved, acceptance was withheld. Assimilated Jews in Germany at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries were effectively told: “You will never be one of us”. Even today in Britain, where both pro- and anti-assimilation attitudes prevail, the choice of which path to take is undermined by pervasive racism, hostility to newcomers in some media and contradictory messages from government as to who is and who is not welcome in this country.
The “silent Holocaust” approach to assimilation is quite simply grotesque and the Masa video insulting. But they also take no account of what assimilation actually means today and how the nature of diasporas affects the maintenance of cultural distinctiveness. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the “agony and splendour” of assimilation has come to an end in Europe, both for Jews and other groups. The life and death pressures to homogenise are no longer there. The means of reshaping our identities – through cosmetic surgery, dress, internet personas, photoshop – are accessible to millions. At the same time, as Gabriel Sheffer’s work shows, such processes can also be used to maintain the distinctiveness of Diaspora groups, which are not disappearing as many have predicted, again reducing the need to fear cultural oblivion.
We would all be far better off if we took a more relaxed attitude to assimilation. A strong society can accommodate fundamentalist religious groups that want to keep themselves apart from society, as long as they accept the fundamental principle that “the law of the land is the law”. And if, for example, Muslim or Jewish groups wish to mitigate the effect of assimilation on the identities of their youth in non-coercive, voluntary ways which are compatible with common values, this too poses no danger to society and can be of mutual positive benefit.
Equally, we should derive some satisfaction from the result of research carried out by Lancaster University that, as the Asian News put it:
“British Muslim teenagers are more assimilated with the nation than their counterparts growing up in other European countries. They are less radical, do better in school and suffer less discrimination than Muslim youngsters brought up in France and Germany.”
And at the same time, we should understand why members of old Anglo-Jewish establishment families won’t hear a word of criticism of assimilation, which they see as the route to their success.
Professor Bauman may be putting it a little too strongly when he writes that in Europe, “identity is no longer the front line along which coercion and freedom, imposition and choice, inclusion and exclusion confront each other in a war of attrition.” But frightening people with talk of a “silent Holocaust” and using emotive anti-assimilation videos to promote a Jewish nationalist agenda won’t do the legitimate cause of strengthening Jewish identity any favours whatsoever.
By Antony Lerman