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Assimilation – a natural response to exile

November 18, 2010 – 9:19 pmOne Comment

Woody Allen & Larry David - Two artists whose work has dealt with the struggles of assimilated life.

This article is part of the Hineni journal, Partition, which will be distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine. We will be publishing a selection of articles from the journal.

Home Away From Home

By Elliott Spira

Sixty Three years on from Resolution 181 of the UN General Assembly, we are privileged to be witnessing a new chapter in Jewish history, where Jews will no longer be exiled from Israel.  In our lifetime, we are witnessing the period immediately after the end of a Jewish exile of 2,500 years.  In this article, we will consider the patterns of Aliyah and assimilation and try to understand their consequences in terms of the definitional changes regarding the notion of galut (exile) and the implications that these changes have on the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora.

The Jewish Diaspora was born over 2,500 years ago, and propagated by the military conquests of Israel since the time of the Assyrian Empire.  This galut first began in 575 BCE, when the Assyrian emperor Tiglathpileser conquered the land belonging to Zebulun and Naphtali and exiled their inhabitants.  Following suit, emperors Shalmanaser V and Sargan II conquered the remainder of northern Israel, exiling the Jews of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh.  In 434 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian armies conquered the remaining province of Judah and destroyed the temple, tens of thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon.  Following this conquest came that of the Romans, the construction and destruction of the Second Temple, the Byzantine conquest, the Persians, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Turks, and the British; the Jewish people experienced an exile of epic proportions.

Kaf-Tet B’November and the passing of Resolution 181 of the UN General Assembly will forever be a key date in Jewish history, marking the birth of legitimate Jewish statehood within the modern world.  On a definitional basis alone, one could consider the concept of Jewish statehood as negating the notion of galut.  From this moment onwards there was a shift in momentum, such that Jews were no longer being pushed away from their homeland, but being pulled towards their place within the gola (diaspora).  Statistics collected by the Jewish Agency indicate that in 2009, 61 years on from the declaration of independence, only 3,076,027 of the world’s 13 million Jews have immigrated to Israel.  In 2009, the Jewish population of Israel and her territories, numbered 5,569,200, leaving 7,739,600 Jews in the Diaspora; in a state of galut.

Considering the numbers, it seems that the definition of the Diaspora has changed in the 2,500 years of Jewish exile from Israel.  What was originally an English term used to describe the communities of exiled Jews, no longer represents that which it once did.  Surely, if the average Diaspora Jew was in exile, after 62 years of independent statehood far more Jews would have made Aliyah and the State of Israel would hold the majority of the world’s Jewish population.  Perhaps the Jews were experiencing that which they did at the end of their exile in Babylonia when it fell to Persia.  At this time the King, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to Israel, yet a large proportion of this population did not return, having established life in Babylon.  The fact of the matter is that the average Diaspora Jew does not live in exile, at least not an exile like that of our yesteryears.  Ultimately, the Jew living in galut is destined to face a change in identity, such that the concept of Jewish statehood conflicts with a newly developing, more local flavour of nationalism.  In such a situation, one transforms from the mentality of a refugee to that of a citizen; perhaps the situation of the Jews of Babylon.

In understanding the implications of this assimilation and definitional change in the galut of the exiled Jew, we will consider the causality behind the change.  Could this assimilation be the result of the dilution of Jewish identity alone, or maybe a lack of an intrinsic sense of Zionism?  Is this rather the bi-product of a period of unprecedented equality and social consciousness, such that the Diaspora Jew can integrate into his or her local community with greater ease.  I argue that assimilation is a natural response of an exiled Jew to the situation of living in exile.

Conversely, I believe that communal insularity is the natural response of the exiled Jew to anti-Semitism. Considering the trends published by Shulamit Reinharz in Jewish Intermarriage Around the World, since 1930 intermarriage has risen in a steady fashion on a global scale.  In 1930, the highest rate of intermarriage present in Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia was 25-34.9%.  At this time, approximately 65% of the world’s Jewry lived in a country where intermarriage was occurring at a rate of under 5%. By the year 2000, the only country with intermarriage occurring at a rate under 5% was Israel.  In his book, Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon proposes that assimilation occurs along a continuum starting at acculturation and ending in intermarriage.  Considering such a proposal, the global trend of increasing intermarriage and the relative freedom with which Jews currently live within society, it seems plausible that the rate of assimilation is inversely proportional to the persecution that a Jew suffers in the state of galut.  Fundamentally, the feeling of exile only exists where one lacks the ability to identify with the society they exist in.

One can assume that if left unchecked, assimilation and intermarriage will only continue to rise in the Diaspora.  In such a situation, do we try to counteract this trend by investing in the formation of stronger Jewish identity within our community, or do we acknowledge the trend and focus on Aliyah and more sustainable models for Jewish community? I believe that with a strong focus on Jewish statehood and an adoption of a pluralist focus on Zionism, our community can bridge gaps between disparate divisions within each Jewish community and develop the sense of Jewish statehood necessary for the survival of the exiled Jewish People.   Or perhaps like the Jews of Babylon, we require strong leaders like Ezra to bring us back from exile.

Elliott currently leads year 11 in Hineni Sydney and is the Federal Treasurer. He is passionate about balancing both sides of the accounting equation.

The following parties helped make the journal possible:

Frank Levy, JNF, Unger Catering, JMC Corporate Real Estate Consultants, Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, Hagshama Melbourne, Antique Silver Company, shaundesign.com, Danielle Blumberg (editing), Mervyn Chait (formatting)

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