Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Are US Jews assimilating out of existence?

Over the weekend, I was talking with a Christian friend about Mideast politics, and we agreed that the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are a big problem for a number of reasons, but that from the point of view of maintaining Jewish identity and religious practice, they are in some ways an inconveniently good example. Inconvenient, […]

Over the weekend, I was talking with a Christian friend about Mideast politics, and we agreed that the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are a big problem for a number of reasons, but that from the point of view of maintaining Jewish identity and religious practice, they are in some ways an inconveniently good example. Inconvenient, because they demonstrate to everyone — not just to other Jews — that to hold on to one’s group identity against the assimilationist currents of modernity, one has to commit to live in ways that are a stumbling block to moderns. It’s not that everybody has to become Lubavitchers (or Amish, or any other separatist group), but any “tribe” that wants to maintain itself and its traditions is going to have to develop a more or less thick commitment to particularism, which implies an exclusivity that is appalling to bien pensant moderns.

I told my friend that as obnoxious as I found the Israeli government’s controversial recent ad campaign warning Israeli Jews not to move to America because they would lose their Jewishness — clarification: I personally didn’t find it obnoxious, because I don’t care, but I can easily imagine why so many American Jews (like Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin) did, which is why the ad campaign was politically stupid — I thought the Israeli government had a point. This morning, Spengler (David Goldman, who is an observant Jew) says yes, the Israelis really do. Excerpts:

Sadly, American Jews stand out as a horrible example of demographic failure. In the United States, secular and loosely affiliated American Jews, that is, the vast majority, have the lowest fertility rate of any identifiable segment of the American population.

As I wrote in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too):

”Nowhere is the fertility gap between religious and non-religious more extreme than among American Jews. As a group, American Jews show the lowest fertility of any ethnic group in the country. That is a matter of great anguish for Jewish community leaders. According to sociologist Steven Cohen, “We are now in the midst of a non-Orthodox Jewish population meltdown. … Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children.”

Half of the non-Orthodox children, moreover, marry non-Jews, and very few children of mixed marriages will remain Jewish. As Reform Rabbi Lance J Sussman wrote in 2010, “With the exception of a number of Orthodox communities and a few other bright spots in or just off the mainstream of Jewish religious life, American Judaism is in precipitous decline … the Reform movement has probably contracted by a full third in the last ten years!” 

As Spengler’s column points out, it’s not the case that you have to be ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain a robust and resilient Judaism across the generations, but you do have to be committed to traditional Jewish life and practice in a way that most American Jews are not, but the most Israeli Jews — not just the ultra-Orthodox minority — are. More:

Most Israeli Jews are not secular, but are partially observant. In a Jewish state where everyone speaks Hebrew, public school students have 12 years of Bible study, and Jewish holidays also are official holidays, it is easy to maintain a loose affiliation to Jewish observance. In the United States, nothing but the comprehensive commitment of Orthodox life sustains the Jewish community over the long term.

If present trends continue, Orthodox Jews will form the majority of a much-diminished American Jewish presence within a generation or two. And it is the Orthodox who identify most with the State of Israel; their children often spend a year at an Israeli yeshivabefore college, and many serve in the Israeli army. None of the Orthodox organizations seem to have objected to the expat-come-home videos, and for good reason: living in the land of Israel is one of the most important commandments, and the Orthodox respect those who observe it.

On reflection, American Jews should reconsider their umbrage at Israel’s Immigration Ministry. Their own organizations are painfully aware that loosely affiliated Jews of all shadings are falling away from the Jewish community, failing to bring enough children in the world to replace their existing numbers, and failing to raise them as Jews.

There are lessons in this for traditional-minded Christians as well. There is a real and hard to navigate tension between universalist ideals that most of us moderns — conservative and liberal — share, and the pre-modern, indeed anti-modern, convictions necessary to sustain traditional religious and cultural identities in contemporary life.

How is it possible, say, for a black man to affirm publicly that he wants his children to marry black people because it’s important to him to maintain black cultural traditions? You can’t get away from the racism of that position, though it’s the case that in our culture, blacks can get away with that in a way that whites cannot, for obvious reasons. And you know, I can completely understand why a black man would feel that way, and I don’t consider him bad for holding to that point of view, as long as he does not also believe that non-black races are inferior. It’s a difficult distinction to maintain, granted, but it’s easier to appreciate, perhaps, when you consider Jews who only want their kids to marry Jews, or Catholics, or Muslims who want their kids marrying Catholics. It need not imply bigotry towards non-Jews, or non-Catholics, but rather a love of one’s own “tribe,” and the laudable desire to see one’s traditions living on in the next generation. There is a difference, I suppose, in that there is an ethnic component to blacks and Jews preferring their own kind to Catholics or Muslims doing so, but I think the distinction is, in practice, minimal. The great sin of our times is preferring one’s own “tribe” to others. If one’s preferences in these sorts of things cannot be established according to universalist principles, then it is immediately to be suspected as a species of bigotry.

The thing is, how do you separate a laudable and indeed necessary (if you wish to preserve tradition) preference for one’s own tribe (ethnic, religious, cultural) without it becoming bigotry? I think the grounds for asserting this sort of preference within a moral framework acceptable to liberal universalism are pretty thin. This is mainly why white conservatives get so ticked at liberals over the whole “diversity” racket: asserting tribal identity and demanding exclusivist institutional expression of that identity is Good, but only if it’s done by a “tribe” officially approved of by liberals. The double standard is galling, and makes liberalism in practice look like a politics that exists not to ensure greater justice for all, but to disempower and exile disfavored ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Which, it might be said, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans spent much of the past two centuries doing, and finding a philosophical and political rationale to justify it.

We are far away from the question in the subject line of this post, but I hope I’ve indicated why the question of assimilation, liberal democracy, and identity is by no means one that the Jews alone face. It’s a bitter irony that Jewish life, which endured through countless persecutions and oppression in many nations, finds itself in an existential crisis in a society and polity in which it Jews are more free to be the kind of Jews they want to be, and more secure from anti-Semitism, than in any society except Israel’s. Absent social context reinforcing group identity, maintaining that identity in a modern society — which is to say, passing it on to your children — is far more difficult than many of us think. And again, by no means is this only a problem for Jews (says the man who was raised Methodist, converted to Catholicism, then to Orthodoxy, becoming one of the 40 percent of contemporary Americans who no longer practice religion in the church of their birth, or at all).

Nota bene, on the comments thread to this entry, I’m simply not going to post any by-the-numbers rants about Zionism, eeeevil Israel, blah blah blah. Stick to the broader topic.