A History of How Jews Erase Themselves To Meet Gentile Expectations

In recent years, there’s been a growing trend towards minority appreciation and pride. Ethnic names and hairstyles are being used and worn more frequently. Religious symbols like saris, hijabs and Sikh turbans are being featured more prominently in popular media. Yet Jewishness has not had the same popularization: Jews are still mocked in the media, our traditions are considered “behind the times” and “extreme,” and we are raked over the coals if we believe we should have a homeland. Sadly, in secular culture, Jews are considered most acceptable when we’re not “too Jewish” or Zionistic. But none of this is new. Throughout history, Jews were encouraged to erase themselves to receive better treatment by diasporic hosts.

We chatted with YU Jewish history professor, Dr. Joshua Karlip, about historical trends in which non-Jewish regimes asked Jews to disavow our heritage and connection to our land, in an effort to fit in better with the rest of society. Dr. Karlip explained that if you celebrate Chanukah, then you’re familiar with one of the most major incidents of antiquity in which a social deal was made with the Jewish people. Such a deal traditionally involves forsaking the Jewish way of life to fit in. The methods of the Greek Hellenists – who made offers of acceptance if we forsook our culture and religion in favor of theirs – is a predecessor of the “culture wars” that we have today. Such “wars” take place between those of us who believe that the price of giving up an identity is worth the social acceptance, while others of that group do not. People who are prepared to give in to the social demand of giving up Judaism will proceed to label those who do not do the same as narrow-minded, fanatics, and clannish – much as the Hellenist Jews denounced the Hasmoneans.

Not every instance of governmentally-encouraged assimilation resulted in outright war. Often, the major outcome of this discrimination was a laundry list of legal disabilities for Jews. Starting in Medieval Europe, the only ticket a Jew could take out of this predicament was converting to Christianity – and many of those Christian converts either tried to bring more Jews along with them, or convince the governments and churches to further vilify and strip the rights of Jews. Dr. Karlip doesn’t think that it’s a coincidence that many of Judaism’s biggest prosecutors in this time included those who had converted. Many of the disputations with some of our major rabbinic thinkers of the era were instigated by former-Jews: Nicholas Donin vs Rabbeinu Asher, Pablo Christiani vs Ramban, Gerónimo de Santa Fe vs R’ Yosef Albo, and many more. Many of these disputations resulted in the forbiddance or burning of Jewish literature, and further discrimination in an already hostile society.

It was only in the Modern period that Jews were allowed to remain Jewish and enter mainstream society, albeit at a price. During the French Revolution, Jews were offered emancipation along with the rest of the peasantry… yet still it was not complete freedom. In the French National Assembly of 1789, one of the biggest advocates for emancipation (especially for non-Catholics) announced, “To the Jews as individuals, everything. To the Jews as a nation, nothing.” If Jews were to become citizens of France, they would be expected to give up everything that was nationally particular about them: including unique customs and a community that runs according to halacha. Another direct quote from his speech states, “We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order.” The Jewish admission ticket into modern European society was, ultimately, giving up the Jewish way of life; by definition, that is not true admission nor true acceptance. Jews were also, incidentally, one of the only groups that needed to swear their loyalty to France upon their communal emancipation. The unspoken threat was: become a citizen, or become (or, remain) something other.

With that in mind, the nebulous consequences of assimilation began en-masse. The average Jew who was now permitted to move away from Alsace–Lorraine suddenly no longer spoke the western form of Yiddish, and began exclusively speaking French; they began shedding some of the more “bizarre” Jewish halachot and traditions, which included kashrut and Shabbat. While this was by no means the Haskalah, given that Germany was the center of that movement, the majority of the Jews of France consequently became much less observant. Even so, the Jews of Europe pre-19th century did not have the option of “radical assimilation” that we have today: there was no option to intermarry, for example, and otherwise disappearing from their Jewish lifestyle entirely. In order to intermarry, Jews in this period still had to convert – so the retention rate remained relatively stable despite the diminishing observance due to slow acculturation. 

And thus begins a trend in Western Judaism and the duality of loyalty and national identity. One of the first changes that the Reform movement – only a short while later – made to the siddur was to excise all references to Zion and the return to Israel as a Jewish land. This was motivated by the fact that Jews in Germany also had to prove their loyalty to the national government, much like the Jews of France. While emancipation in France occurred in one fell swoop, emancipation in Germany occurred piecemeal and at a much slower pace given that Germany was not a unified country until the end of the 19th century. However, all German states had a quid pro quo for Jewish emancipation known as “rights in exchange for regeneration,” which was predicated on the assumption that Jews-as-Germans needed to be “rehabilitated” before becoming “true” Germans. German antisemites believed that this was so because there was something innately wrong with Jews that could not be fixed; German defenders claimed that Jews were “difficult” members of society due to persecution, and if given rights they would come around and “fix themselves.”

Regardless, the issue was that Jews were too strange to be considered citizens on their own, and therefore needed to hold up their end of the emancipation bargain. For Jews who bought into this deal, the issue nurtured a particular thought pattern: if antisemitism still existed and Jews were still not accepted in society, then it’s their own fault. Particularly in Germany, this was not only a self-inflicted thought pattern, but one that was touted by the Christians of the nation. Even the reformatory attempts at alteration to the Jewish religion – beginning as an attempt to conform to German expectations of nationalism and citizenry – were not considered enough of an assimilative change for the German populace.

Similar movements were occurring across Western Europe as the national governments changed their structures. However, a completely different movement for Jewish recognition and assimilation was occurring in Russia – which, as an autocracy, warranted a different approach entirely. Czar Nicholas I decided that the Jews in the areas now known as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland were potentially a fifth settlement: a group who was sympathetic to the country’s enemies. So long as the Jews were so strange, had bizarre customs, and spoke and dressed differently, they would never be considered good Russians. This sparked a campaign of forced integration and acculturation. One of the methods used was the draft: a certain percentage of youth would be drafted to the Russian army for 25 years, or 31 years if drafted before they were 18 years of age. 

Russian maskilim (Enlighteners) even approached the czar in the 1840s, explaining that the cultural Jews would never assimilate  if they continued wearing strange clothes, and petitioned a ban on traditional Jewish clothing. Eastern European Jewish clothing before this time most closely resembled what we call “Hasidic levush” today. Before this time, that fashion was not exclusive to Hasidim, but it was the Hasidim who dug in their heels and refused to give up their Jewish clothing, and has since become most associated with their community. There were communities of Jews who, at the time, adhered to this law, while others found loopholes. The Gerrer rebbe, who was living in Warsaw at the time, began a minor change in clothing to be just similar enough to that of Russians – who also incidentally, wore long coats and beards, albeit with relatively minor stylistic differences. Litvish Jewry, however, didn’t have that option because they lived in areas where the rules were more strictly enforced and secular fashions were different; this is why most Litvish Jews do not wear traditional Eastern European garb today.

Dr. Karlip jokes that he tells his students that the czars were nasty yet relatively inefficient in their campaigns to assimilate and the Jews – the Bolshevik communists, however, were extremely efficient and accomplished in a few years what the czars had over decades. The Soviets offered the Jews a deal similar to what the French and Germans gave in the 19th century: Jews could be Soviet citizens and even rise as individuals… so long as they were not religious, as Judaism was virtually forbidden and Zionism was anathema. Anyone who remotely practiced Orthodox Judaism or was a Zionist faced persecution at best, and jail time and execution at worst – even before World War II. Ezra Mendelsohn put it this way: “The Soviet Union was good for Jews, but bad for Judaism.”

Dr. Karlip also proposes that the postwar trend in Jew-on-Jew persecution and assimilation in Russia is similar to what is seen in the contemporary United States. Assimilated Jews were willing to go along with Soviet stringencies to protect themselves, often throwing the more Jewish-looking Jews under the bus. However, what they were ultimately doing by weakening the Jewish community was thinning the numbers of religious Jews, which eventually made them the targets. In Russia, these Yevsektsiya (the communist Jews who aggressively shut down synagogues and Jewish schools) were originally empowered by the state to do so and received some benefits… until the purges of the late 1930s, and then again in 1951 when Jewish writers and other elite were murdered by Stalin. Once the assimilated Jews, in an effort to self-protect, did all the dirty work, the regime ultimately turned on them too. 

In truth, Jews are not safe in governments and societies like these, and the false assumption that individuals might be spared if they play along only hurts the Jewish community in the long run. Desperate Jews who are willing to scramble for “rights” in exchange for sacrificing their identities are only given said rights temporarily and conditionally, especially when it’s caused by Jews being baited into turning on each other for survival.

While in this day, it is legal to be Jewish and look Jewish and even be a Zionist, it remains a less-than-positive thing to be so publicly – and is viewed with increasing disdain. The adage that history repeats itself is quite true; another truth is that history has not even stopped. What might come across as repetition is simply a perpetual persecution of Jews in Western society at the hands of false promises and the encouragement of Jew-on-Jew hatred in the form of the assimilated vs the Orthodox. It is precisely when governments and societies tell us that we need to squelch our culture to make us more palatable as a minority that we need to stay united as a people and lean into our identity more than ever.

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