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  • Assimilation and Its Discontents
  • Stephen J. Whitfield
Assimilation and Its Discontents. By Barry Rubin. New York: Times Books, 1995. xvi + 333 pp. $25.00.

The process of assimilation Barry Rubin defines as “seeking integration in a larger society and increasingly taking one’s ideas and customs from it”; and “the ultimate result” has taken the form of “conversion, intermarriage, or fully entering another nation or ideological framework” (xiv). The inferiority of Judaism to Christianity is presumed; and allegiance is denied to “a people bound together” in the Diaspora “by a culture, ideology, and set of mutual obligations creating a community consciously resolute to preserve its solidarity” (5). Treating Jewishness as a source of shame, an infirmity that had to be overcome, “those who accepted negative stereotypes of their people tried to dissociate themselves or disprove this image through personal achievement, patriotism, conformity, and selflessness” (117). Intellectuals in particular found it hard to say the Sh’ma loud—and say it proud, since Judaism had failed to match the aesthetic or spiritual power that Christianity projected; civilization had been born in Athens and Rome but not in Jerusalem. The desire to become terminal Jews was often nurtured for the sake of the children, to spare them the stigma, which is why the trajectory is that of generational declension. “The meaning of being a Jew was defined ever [End Page 276] downwards,” Rubin writes, “from people to religion, from religion to ethnicity, and then to merely being an outsider, a meaningless model for those now fully integrated into society” (182).

But European history would play a nasty trick on the assimilationists. They tried desperately to discredit the antisemitic accusation that “clannishness” made Jews dubious material for citizenship in the nation-states that emerged after the French Revolution. But when Jews did integrate themselves into the economy and society, conspicuous success bred resentment, envy and eventually murderous hatred, driven by the “essentialist” fear that Jews were inassimilable after all, having more in common with their fellow Jews than with their fellow citizens. Even Jews who rejected a blind patriotism failed to erase their own distinctiveness, since no one else was “so eager to replace religion, nation, and self-interest with a cult of altruism, objectivity, and humanism. Professing universalist humanism was an assimilationist strategy, a way Jews could be included without being mentioned” (227). But because only they tended to champion such virtues, because “no other group produced so many people extolling neutrality or self-criticism as proof of even-handedness” (237), this minority remained conspicuous, a fate that the assimilationist strategy was designed to prevent. Who else would present themselves as “cosmopolitan humanists”?

Persistent bigotry might give refresher courses in Jewish identity. During a meeting in Berlin in 1890, the Russian Marxist Alexander Helphand proclaimed that “even the manufacture of my coat demonstrates the international character of the world”: the wool had been spun from sheep that had grazed in Turkey; Lodz workers had done the weaving; the buttons had been made in Germany; the thread had come from Austria. This paean to brotherhood was interrupted by the Zionist tribune Nachman Syrkin: “And the rip in your sleeve comes from the pogrom in Kiev!” (quoted on p. 142). After devoting a chapter to the Marxist revolutionaries, the author concludes: “Blinded by their own ideology, such radical Jewish thinkers saw everyone else’s ideas—but not their own—as products of false consciousness originating from one’s position in society” (149).

In making his case, Rubin ranges widely and ingeniously across two centuries and two continents; Assimilation and Its Discontents stretches from the salons of Berlin during the Napoleonic upheavals to the post-Communist Poland of Jerzy Urban and Adam Michnik. Since the modernization that ripped across Jewish communities exerted its most poignant impact in Germany, its “stepchildren” are paid special attention: Moses Mendelssohn, Rachel Varnhagen, Ludwig Börne, Heinrich Heine, Hermann Cohen, Walter Rathenau, Jakob Wasserman, Walter [End Page 277] Benjamin, plus the Austrian branch in Arthur Schnitzler and Otto Weininger and the Bohemian branch in Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel. This book is manifestly influenced by Gershom Scholem’s sense that the vaunted German-Jewish dialogue was really a...

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