By Barry Rubin
The key to understanding contemporary Jewish political behavior in Europe and North America is the history of Jewish assimilation strategy. I tell the story more fully in my book, Assimilation and Its Discontents, but here is a short version, adapted for what’s happening right now.
This strategy was developed in Western Europe in the mid-1800s. There was single theorist, influential book, or coherent doctrine. Rather, it was a pragmatic approach to the issue of how Jews could adapt to the pressures and opportunities of democratic societies. It is important to understand, however, that the assimilationist strategy continues to this day though people aren’t aware of it.
There were many—religious traditionalists, Zionists, and leftist revolutionaries—who pursued alternative routes but I’m not going to talk about them here. I am also fully aware of exceptions, such as the Jewish Bund and the post-World War One political situation in Poland, but cannot deal with them in this limited space. Please understand that the following points need to be generalizations but they are accurate ones.
The mainstream assimilationist approach has been as follows:
- Since the Jews were so weak and the surrounding majority so hostile, they would have to beg for equality and prove themselves worthy rather than to agitate or demand. Moreover, since Jews were attacked for allegedly having too much power, even when they had little or none, the emphasis was on being eager to make concessions. This was a strategy developed long before the days of majority guilt, multiculturalism, and Political Correctness. The Jewish approach thus contrasts with contemporary movements of minority groups which are ore confident, aggressive, united, and demanding.
- How would they do so? By proving they were good citizens, by showing they were unselfish and sought nothing for themselves, by demonstrating their willingness to dissolve the bonds and customs of their own community, by becoming exemplars in spreading the values and culture of the country where they lived, and by showing that being nice to them would benefit everyone or almost everyone. In other words, altruism was a central element in the strategy. This, too, contrasts with contemporary practice in which rights are taken for granted and society is expected to adapt to the minorities.
- A key element of the assimilationist doctrine has been to prove that Jews were assimilating as individuals, to deny there was a collective communal interest, and to avoid making collective demands. This, too, is in contrast to the situation of other minorities today, which hold onto their intellectuals and elite members while keeping them in line largely through shame or even forms of intimidation. This approach is totally absent in the Jewish community. On the contrary, large parts of the Jewish elite are proud and deem it virtuous to abandon the community and reject any notion of communal interests (including Israel and religion).
- In fact, the elite's emphasis is to escape identification with the community, proving they are cosmopolitans, being the first to demand the dissolution of any community loyalty and viewing the embodiment of Jewish peoplehood—Israel—as an impediment to those goals. While antisemites charge that all or almost all Jews in positions of power pursue a distinctively Jewish interest, the exact opposite is the truth. This explains how left-wing Jews extol multi-culturalism and self-determination for other peoples even as they hold the exact opposite attitude toward their own people, whom they are determined to show are not their own people. The concept of “self-hating Jew” is totally useless in today’s environment, when the radicals simply have an alternative destruction, albeit one as destructive as that held by their Bolshevik predecessors who mostly ended up being shot or imprisoned by Stalin.
- For a variety of the reasons listed above, Jews are eager to prove their credentials by criticizing their own people or Israel. (Can you imagine any other group constantly being pressed to do this?) They will fete their enemies and jump at showing sympathy with their grievances. The very concept of "bending over backwards" simply cannot be applied to any other community.
- A number of the above-mentioned weaknesses are balanced out by a high degree of activism and energy, education and articulateness. History has taught Jews that engaging in politics and intellectual dispute is a matter of survival. Issues involving Jews or Israel are so controversial precisely because Jews do fight back. It isn't that only Jews (or Israel) are being criticized, it is that other groups and causes let themselves be run over with far less complaint. Having said this, though, one must quickly add that this applies largely to more recent historical times and even then mainly to North America and Australia, far less to Europe where Jewish communities are far more passive and often paralyzed with fear and deference.
- From the mid-nineteenth century through 1945 the main enemy of Jews was on the political right, not only fascists but also traditionalists, nativists, Christian reactionaries, and conservatives generally. As a whole, Jews are unable to make the intellectual or political transition to understanding that the main enemy in the West is from the left. Nor do they understand that Christians, even traditionalists, are not a serious threat while Islamic extremists are. Those on the right are seen as Cossacks, missionaries, and potential Nazis, a theme that the extreme left knows very well how to exploit.
- As noted above, Jews want to prove they are good citizens but that has come to be interpreted—once cultural assimilation has been achieved—as those who make society better, who look after the poor and downtrodden also seen as potential allies against the suspect elites. This concept remains unchanged even when Jews become key parts of the elite, the imagination continuing to supply a fantasy, which had a basis in reality during past times, that there is a wealthy reactionary antisemitic blend of aristocrats and capitalists ready to pounce.
- Given these premises, what do most Jews implicitly believe will work for them in the present? To show they are tolerant in order to gain the tolerance of others. It is simply not imaginable for many that rabbis can demonstrate in favor of the establishment of a (radical) mosque near the World Trade Center attack site then have a mosque established that systematically teaches hatred for Israel and anti-Jewish doctrines.
- A weak spot for Jews has been dealing with situations where hatred for them and an effort to destroy them as a community has been coupled with seemingly humanitarian, progressive rhetoric. Communism, of course, has been the ultimate example up until recently, a cause which attracted many Jews though it killed them or betrayed them. Since the history of this experience is simply not taught anywhere, they have not been learned. This story must be told in large part because it bears such relevance to contemporary parallels.
- There is thus an overwhelming, if irrational or outdated, hysterical fear on the part of most Jews (most obviously in the United States) at seeming to behave or as being perceived as reactionary. There is no group against which cries of "racist!" or "right-wing!" or "fascist!" is more effective.
For to be placed in that position is not only seen as joining with the enemy but also as inviting the vengeance of the "masses." To put it bluntly, when a Jew is called a "racist"--and such can be the penalty in the community if one didn't vote for Barack Obama--that not only signifies uniting with the historic enemies of Jews but also to tremble (secretly and subconsciously, of course) at a supposed attack of African-Americans against Jews. The explanation is that a community that is objectively powerful and well-off is also subjectively fearful and insecure. Believe it or not, this is true.
As a result of these factors, Jews in the West are not going to be won over to conservative views no matter what arguments are used or logic is invoked. The counter-forces of history and self-image are simply too strong. You can argue on this point but those Jews who do so know in their hearts that it is true.
What is possible, however, is to show persuasively and honestly how the contemporary far left and reactionary, radical Islamism are anti-liberal and anti-democratic in nature. They destroy the tolerance of society through which Jews have benefitted and embody dictatorial tendencies. They seek to destroy religion and demonize the embodiment of Jewish peoplehood, Israel. They have made large parts of those institutions responsible for protecting real liberal values--the university and media--into ideological machines for indoctrination into anti-democratic values and slanderers against Jewish interests. They are bad for the countries to which Jews have given their allegiance and to the Enlightenment values which Jews, more than almost any other group in the world, have embraced.
In other words, Jews will not cease to be largely liberal but survival now requires understanding two things.
First, the threat to real liberal institutions and values come from both extremes of the political spectrum.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) CenterMiddle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
Second, radicals and anti-democratic revolutionaries can pretend to be liberals, just as Communists once did when it suited them, but nobody should be fooled by this impersonation.
What might be the most adaptable people in world history must continue to adapt to new threats and changing conditions.