Why Jews Assimilate

Contrary to the title of this article, I don’t really know the reason that Jews assimilate, especially in the US. I do know without doubt that Jews are extraordinary and that those who leave Judaism behind literally don’t know what they’re giving up.

The impact of Jews on Western civilization is second to none, with the arguable exception of Ancient Greece. Our moral code has influenced the two largest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, although that code’s impact is often conspicuously absent. The contributions of Jewish intellect are wildly disproportionate to our numbers, as a quick look at Nobel Prize winners, or even your local listings of professors, doctors, and lawyers attests.

Given that Jews are “extraordinary” (extra-ordinary), why do some Jews leave this extraordinary category to join with the “ordinary” group? I understand that after Jews left or were forced out of their ancient homeland, majority groups in their new lands could and did force conversion upon them. Then there were the Jews of later centuries, who thought that joining the dominant religion would enable them to succeed in their chosen field; they were often correct.

But at what price? When Jews converted during the Inquisition, they were far from welcomed. They were kept separate and suspected of being “secret” Jews by the “Old Christians,” who called the newcomers “New Christians.” During the Inquisition(s), New Christians were persecuted, not the unconverted Jews who remained in small numbers.
Some of the converts were sincere in adapting Christianity while some became “secret” Jews, also known as Anusim or Conversos, who retained Jewish customs surreptitiously. But all New Christians were considered suspect by the Inquisition authorities. For the most part, scholars believe that it was avarice on the part of the accusers which caused many converts to be tortured and/or killed and their estates to be seized.

In Nazi Germany, a similar fate awaited Jews who had at least one Jewish grandparent, regardless of whether there was a conversion. Though they might be sincere Christians, the “Jews” were shipped to the concentration camps by the fanatical Jew-hating National Socialist regime.

Today, Jews who assimilate have no such worries. They probably won’t adopt a new religion – they just slough off the religion they inherited. But is that possible? There have been perhaps 800 or more generations since the first Hebrews inhabited Canaan.

I maintain that it’s impossible to negate the “799” generations of one’s forebears without being influenced by Jewish ethics and values, one way or the other. That’s why a person like Karl Marx is identified as a Jew, although his parents had converted to Christianity. But this residue of yiddishkeit wears off as it is diluted after a few generations. And while there are some people who rekindle the spark of Jewishness in themselves (many of them descendants of Conversos), the vast majority become “ordinary” people, with no knowledge of their lost heritage.

Most countries with sizable Jewish populations have strong Zionist organizations highly supportive of Israel. While the US has the largest Jewish population after Israel, its proportion of immigrants to Israel is small, a reflection of the fact that the American Zionist movement is not potent. In fact, the strongest Zionist group, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), is shunned by most American Jews as far too right wing in its support for Israel.

Zionism, as practiced by the generation of Americans after WWII was strong, excelling at edifice-building (synagogues) and fostering Jewish brotherhood and sisterhood. There were some agricultural colonies set up to prepare young Zionist pioneers to move to Israel, but the numbers weren’t significant. Even in the flush of the enthusiasm for Israel after the miraculous Six Day War of 1967, not many Jews opted to leave the “New Jerusalem” (USA) for a hard scrabble existence in the nascent State of Israel.

Even though Zionist organizations like B’nai Brith were popular, they didn’t result in many young people “rising up” (the meaning of ‘Aliyah’) and moving to Israel. My own father had a prominent role in B’nai Brith of NJ, but our families were shocked when my wife and I announced we were moving to Israel with the grandchildren. The ironic joke at that time was that American Zionists believed in raising money to send other people’s children to Israel.

Partially because Zionism is not strong, intermarriage is rampant in the US. Obviously, “marrying out” (as it was known) is a step towards assimilation for the children in the family, if not the Jewish parent. Proof of that is the static number (at best) of American Jews in the last few decades, even allowing for those people who self-identify as Jewish.

Jewish families aren’t having many children, except for the growing Orthodox population. For comparison’s sake, the average Israeli mother — Jew or Arab — has three children, while the Jewish American mother has less than 2 children, below replacement level. (This includes the religious Jewish mothers with many children.) In addition, young Jews often remain single or postpone marriage. “As a group, this generation of contemporary younger Americans is marrying later than the generation of their parents and grandparents, according to numerous previous studies.” (Jewish People Policy Institute -2017)

The Jewish people have always been a small nation. Probably, it will remain so. Because the younger generation of Jews haven’t absorbed Jewish values enough to appreciate their heritage, the majority of Jewish marriages are “mixed.” Inevitably, the majority of the children won’t remain Jewish and there will be fewer identifying as Jews in subsequent generation. Most of the descendants of the intermarried Jewish parent will not be Jews.
Does this portend disaster for the Jews? I think not. This is speculative, but perhaps losing members of the tribe who aren’t dedicated to it is not a negative. Like Israel itself, Jews remain a potent force no matter their small number, with the brain power and instincts of 800 generations flowing through our veins. At least I hope this is so, given the unmistakable trend of assimilation.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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