Jewish Assimilation is Not Primarily about Intermarriage
by Gordon Fellman
An activist Jewish sociologist, I have long been fascinated by the Jewish people’s views on the sensitive subject of assimilation. For Jews, there has always been a fine line on this issue. We wish to be assimilated enough to be accepted, but we know that too much assimilation could erode or even destroy the core values and practices that have defined us as a people.
For many years now, intermarriage has been seen as a scourge to the Jewish community – an example of assimilating too far, and losing our Jewish identity. I see a far greater threat to our Jewish world as we know it – and it’s right in front of our eyes whenever we watch the news. I am talking about Jewish right-wingers who now hold positions of power, especially in Donald Trump’s White House and in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Knesset and billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s involvement in both. They may consider themselves to be good Jews because of their devotion to Jewish culture, especially religious rituals. However, in their pursuit of power and influence, they have abandoned the core ethics that have shaped Judaism from the beginning.
I am appalled at the number of Jews—almost all of them Orthodox—currently or recently working in the Trump administration. They include Jared Kushner (the son-in-law of Donald Trump, Kushner has no political experience and is in charge of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, rebuilding government along corporate business lines, and other tasks his father-in-law has assigned to him), Ivanka Trump (a convert to Judaism who like her husband Kushner, has no political experience), Stephen Miller (speech writer, advisor, and for seven years aide to the right-wing Attorney General Jeff Sessions), Gary Cohn (no longer working for Trump; formerly head of Goldman-Sachs who once headed the White House National Economic Council), Jason Greenblatt (special representative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), David Friedman (a bankruptcy lawyer with no political experience and very strong commitments to the far right in Israel, now U.S. ambassador there), Steven Mnuchin (Goldman-Sachs executive who is now Secretary of the Treasury), David Shulkin (a physician and health entrepreneur who heads the Department of Veterans Affairs), Reed Cordish (a realtor and developer now assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives), Avrahm Berkowitz (a former Kushner employee now a special assistant to Trump and Kushner), Lewis Eisenberg (a financier and investor who is finance chairman for the Republican National Committee), Michael Glassner (public relations and AIPAC figure who was national political director of Trump’s campaign), and Boris Epshteyn (an investment banker and finance attorney who is now a special assistant to Trump). Two others who recently left the White House are Ezra Cohen-Watnick (former National Security Council Senior Director for Intelligence Programs) and Carl Icahn (a private citizen who was advisor on regulatory reform issues). This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.
I find it puzzling that these Jews willingly collaborate with a president who actively supports and encourages anti-Semitic far right wingers including KKK, Nazi, and other white supremacist followers. However, given the all-but-complete takeover of the Israeli government by that society’s far, far right wing, it is not surprising that a similar Jewish right wing would become increasingly common in this country too. What is going on here?
Jewish rituals vs. Jewish ethics
The heart of the Jewish ethical mission is the negation of the brutalities and anti-human practices that have marked our species for 10,000 or so years. It is precisely this point that people like Kushner and Netanyahu and Adelson fail to grasp. They may or may not regularly read from the Torah, observe Shabbat, etc. Through their obvious grabs for power and control, however, they are an affront to Judaism’s historical commitment to justice and righteousness.
As a sociologist, I have long been fascinated by what I see as Judaism’s invention of social criticism. The overarching divinity that Jews claim envisions humans at peace. It instructs Jews to value human life, to consider themselves stewards of nature, to seek justice, and work toward a transformed world embodying these values. The prophets of old were the social critics of their era. They reminded kings and citizens of the differences between corruption and justice.
A classic Jewish vision is encompassed in the phrase tikkun olam, meaning the repair and transformation of the world. The concept goes back to the Mishnah (which, in about 200 BCE, codified rabbinic teachings) and in the 1950s came into American Jewish conversation as a calling to promote activism and social change. To rabbis and lay activists who value human life over land and religious symbols, tikkun olam is more than a responsibility. It goes right to the ethical core of Judaism itself.
In addition to tikkun olam, there are several other well-known expressions of Judaism’s ethical core. They include the “Love thy neighbor as Thyself” passage from the Torah (Book of Leviticus) and the Jewish version of the Golden Rule, “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person.” Less well known, but also parts of the ethical core, are these:
“Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b-55a)
“He that oppresses the poor blasphemes his maker, but he that is gracious to the poor honors God,” and “Speak up, judge righteously, Champion the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 14:31 and 31:9)
“The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
Jews true to the ethical core of their religion and their tradition are critics of wealth and power as ends in themselves. To the extent that some Jews abandon the prophetic vision in favor of wealth and power goals, they are assimilating to the life-denying, justice and planet-threatening values of societies that have sucked countless religious and secular people and movements into their jaws where they chew them up and spit them out in successful efforts to negate empathy, compassion, love, decency, and even planetary survival.
By completely assimilating to the larger culture’s insistent dedication to wealth and power, the Jews around Trump and Netanyahu hollow out the human meaning of religion. They replace it with mechanical acceptance of rules lacking all concern for the ethical brilliance of Judaism.
Benjamin Netanyahu has accomplished something perhaps unique in Jewish history. He presides over a Jewish nation-state that has assimilated to the worst wealth and power norms of human invention. Except in ritual religious terms and endless rhetorical repetitions of Israel as Jewish, Jewish, Jewish, Netanyahu and his colleagues in the most rightwing government in Israeli history have thrown out the ethical core of Judaism and Jewish traditions in favor of emulating the wealth and power obsessions of those people who have persecuted Jews for 2000 years.
Triumphalism, ethics, and the nation-ghetto
Netanyahu and his allies have prepared for what they see as self-righteous (and tribal) triumphalism of Jews over just about everyone else. Netanyahu has gained world-wide scorn and contempt for his obsessive fantasy that Israel can continue the Occupation and its attendant brutalization of Palestinians forever. He turns to anti-Semitic American evangelicals and other right wingers in this country for political affirmation and support. As a result, it’s impossible for Netanyahu to take Trump and his supremacist advocates to task.
What’s even more disturbing is that he’s turning Israel into a Jewish nation-ghetto. Some of Netanyahu’s allies want to expel all non-Jews, thus hideously granting victory to numerous forces that have wanted to isolate and contain Jews. Netanyahu even wants to build a fence around the entirety of Israel, to, as he puts it, keep the “wild beasts” out there. Only Trump and his alt-right supporters can match this Netanyahu racist depravity.
With his insistence on Israel as nation-ghetto, Netanyahu can all but complete Israel’s transformation from small beleaguered country trying to survive to militarily powerful ruthless state closely emulating the brutalities that have been a deep part of its citizens’ consciousness—and traumas—for 2000 years. Is this to be the realization of Jews overcoming their tormented history? We shall live forever by the sword? What is Jewish or ethical about this bizarre claim made by Netanyahu?
There is a slippery slope between the idea that “never again will we be passive victims” to “now it is our turn to be active victimizers.” If this seems a lot to take on and feel responsible for, it is. Tragically. Exchanging victimhood for victimizing others is an essential piece of abandoning Judaism’s ethical core.
If I am right in this speculation it would help explain what seems to be an obsession on the part of countless Israelis in office and in the military and on the streets to cause outrageous sadistic pain to “the other,” the Palestinians. To be sure, Palestinians, especially in Gaza, do sometimes have supplies of rockets they can lob to Israel. Doing so, it is widely understood, courts far greater destructive retaliation from Israel. The only party to gain from this is Netanyahu, who needs to reinforce his politics of fear from time to time for him to continue to govern.
Many Jews in Israel and the United States complain that Israel is no different from other countries that persecute minorities. They have a point. What China does to Tibetans, what Australia has done to aborigines, what Russia does to Chechnyans, what the US does to African-Americans and Indians, what Myanmar does to Rohingyas, what India does to tribals and “untouchables,” and what still more countries do to their “others” is no more or less acceptable than what Israel does to Palestinians.
True enough, but China, Australia, Russia, the U.S., Myanmar, India, and other countries brutal to minorities did not proclaim 3000 years ago that they had come upon a strikingly new ethical truth from On High. Nor did they thus commit themselves on that basis of revelation to the messianic vision, dedication to tikkun olam, reverence for social justice, and loving all humans alike.
This is exactly what Jewish right-wingers scorn and mock in their dedication to wealth and power. In doing so, they undermine the ethical contributions of Judaism and Jewish history to the project of saving our species from its baser impulses and looming disasters.
I believe that the Jewish ethical core has for millennia rubbed raw the nerves and sensibilities of world elites who scorn decency, democracy, and even survival. Too many 1%’ers have found those ethical Jews a pain in their necks for promoting what was from the Biblical period on the unique Jewish step forward in attempting to create a world livable and pleasurable for all its inhabitants. They believe these principles must be undermined at all costs.
Jews in power with Trump, as well as their counterparts in Israel, are confusing ritual observance with ethical behavior. I can imagine Trump (and Steve Bannon and countless other anti-Semitic Trump advocates) glorying in undermining Judaism and Jewish ethics by holding that classic carrot of wealth and power in front of the Jews they court. How brilliant of them to hire complicit Jews to subvert and negate the core of the Jewish ethical mission.
So, who is more Jewish — Jared Kushner, because of his overt religious practices, or Bernie Sanders, whose approach to politics and social change dovetails with the Jewish ethical core? If you had to vote for a Jew committed to positive social change, your vote would not go to Kushner, would it? Correspondingly, who is more Jewish — Benjamin Netanyahu, who sanctions brutalizing an entire other people, or the Dalai Lama, whose life mission is promoting tikkun olam?
The anti-Semites’ dream
Jews like Jared Kushner and Benjamin Netanyahu are thus the anti-Semites’ dream, for they have forsaken the ethical origins and core of Judaism and have assimilated to world norms of wealth and power. They have thus turned their backs on the Jewish contribution to civilization.
Were I an anti-Semite, I would delight in what is going on in Washington and Israel. The most corrupt, wealth-obsessed, power-hungry U.S. presidency in history has surrounded itself with compliant Jews. At the same time, the Israel of Netanyahu has forsaken Jewish ethical principles and earned condemnation throughout the world.
It is up to Jews in America, in Israel, and elsewhere to shed light on the damage that right-wing Jews in power are doing to the very foundations of Judaism itself. They have in effect renounced the ethical core of Judaism and historical Jewish identity and thus the Jewish contribution to civilization. This, in contrast to intermarriage, is the far greater Jewish assimilation problem.