The term Jewish Assimilation refers to a movement that began among Ashkenazi Jews in 18th century Europe, which encompasses outward social, cultural and genetic processes, as well as internal religious processes and events. It fostered assimilation and integration of the previously segregated European Jews into predominantly Christian Europe and later, the wider world. It was made legally possible because of the emancipation, which followed the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Prior to that the laws of their host countries prohibited Jews from participating in various occupations, and from enjoying the privileges of citizenship.

Assimilation developed outwardly following Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment. German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn argued that the separate language, clothing, diet and customs of the Jews were preventing them from participating in the Enlightenment and Mercantilism that had been altering the feudal system in the countries whose rulers had granted permission or even encouraged the Jews to live in.

The changes that assimilation made to Judaism resulted in a schism between the religious practices (called Reform Judaism) of the assimilated and traditional or Orthodox Judaism. Reform Judaism adapted practices from Christian Protestant services, including eliminating most use of Hebrew (at the time a dead language, only used in the Torah scrolls, religious services, and Talmud study.) Also eliminated were the wearing of head coverings (yarmulkes), phylacteries (tefillin), prayer shawls (tallitot), fringes (tzitzit), and earlocks (payis). Also modified was the number of times a day that devout Jews were expected to pray, and the requirement to follow kosher dietary laws.

Later, in an attempt to bridge the differences between Reform and Orthodox, a third branch called Conservative Judaism developed that retained more of the orthodox traditions but allowed for deviations as may be needed to integrate.

The schism resulted in Orthodox Rabbis not recognizing marriages performed by Reform and Conservative Rabbis.

Jewish assimilation began among Ashkenazi Jews on an extensive scale towards the end of the 18th century in Western Europe, especially Germany. Reasons cited for its initial success included hope for better opportunities accompanying assimilation into the non-Jewish European communities, especially among the upper classes.

Although some laws were changed and had allowed assimilation to flourish, the history of European antisemitism, which often had resulted from church and state actions, was not as easily forgotten. Both the Christian and Jewish communities were divided concerning answers to what was known as "the Jewish question.” The question, coming during the rise of nationalism in Europe, included the extent to which each nation could integrate its Jewish citizens, and if not integrated, how should they be treated and the question solved.

As an alternative to a more liberal practice of Judaism, assimilation also took the form of conversion to Christianity. None of the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn retained their Jewish religion. However, anti-Semites often imagined even converts from the Jewish religion and their descendants to still possess inherited Jewish traits that the anti-Semites considered "undesirable," and inferior to "native" citizens. Assimilated Jews often did not achieve the acceptance that they were hoping assimilation would provide.

This antisemitism led Jews to philosophical questions of Jewish identity and Who is a Jew?. The propriety of assimilation, and various paths toward it were among the earliest internal debates of the emancipation era, including whether and to what extent Jews should relinquish their right to uniqueness in return for civic equality. These debates initially took place within the diaspora, a population with a revered historical Biblical homeland, but without a state of their own for nearly two thousand years.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conditions in eastern Europe (particularly Russia and Poland) convinced many Jews to emigrate to the United States. (In Germany, where Jewish assimilation got its start, Jewish integration into the Army and other occupations was successful. It was not until the rise of fascism that German Jewish assimilation failed horribly.) In America traditional disabilities were generally absent but they faced many different challenges of acculturation. In the early 20th century there was social discrimination against Jews in certain quarters.[1], with many universities and professions barred to them or with a quota limit.

Preserved within the concept of assimilation are traces of the original struggle between the Reform Judaism and Orthodox movements over the future form of a modern and sustainable Jewish religious consciousness. Also included are the later political debates about a modern and sustainable nationalist consciousness, and conflicting aspirations of a separate nationalism and Jewish assimilation. Assimilation, however, was met by anti-Semitism in Europe. It split into a competing non-assimilationist diaspora nationalism, known as Zionism, in the belief that all Jews might realize a secure and separate national religious identity.

In the early 20th century the predominantly secular Zionist movement and its supporters began immigrating and purchasing land in Palestine for Jewish settlements. Although some religious Jews had continued to live in Palestine since the Roman exile, the Arab majority became increasingly concerned over the effects of the purchases and the increasing Zionist settlement. During World War I, both Jews and Arabs assisted the British to defeat the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany. As inducements for their cooperation, Britain made conflicting promises to both Arabs and Jews about their post war independence as well as British post-war plans; these included the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.

Following the Holocaust, and the failure of the European assimilation model, in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 replaced the British Mandate over Palestine with a partition of Palestine into two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, and a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem. The debate continues on Jewish assimilation and the internal questions which it raises both within the diaspora and in the state of Israel that emerged from that 1948 U.N. resolution and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars. It is noteworthy to mention that, because many un-assimilated European Jews were long not considered as citizens of their host nations, "being Jewish" can refer to either observing the Jewish religion or being a product of a Jewish culture.


In ancient times it was customary for conquered people to recognize the gods of their conquerors as more powerful than their own gods, and to at least add them to the gods they worshiped. In some of the conquering empires the Emperor was considered a god and Emperor worship was expected of all of his subjects. This was a problem for the monotheistic Jews of the conquered Land of Israel. Their religion forbade the worship of other gods. In addition to a challenge to maintaining their monotheistic religion, the people were challenged to retain their language and customs while part of a large Empire that conducted its business in a different language.

The Jewish festival of Hanukah stems from the Maccabees revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Many Jews of the era had adopted the Hellenistic language and culture of that empire, which the Maccabee group considered an abomination. Jewish Hellenism is an early case of what we now call Jewish assimilation.


The issue of Jewish assimilation has agitated Jewish polemicists and intrigued Jewish historians for a considerable time. Since some Jews first abandoned the traditional Jewish community to embrace modern secular culture, other Jews have chastised them for deserting the Jewish people. “Religious Jews regarded those who assimilated with horror, and Zionists campaigned against assimilation as an act of treason.”[2] As a result, the term assimilation, once used proudly by those who sought integration into European society, became a term of contempt, a symbol of subservience to gentile culture, a sign of rejection of all links to the common history and destiny of the Jewish people, and a betrayal of their ancestors who suffered pogroms and torture to keep Judaism alive. Such Jews consider assimilation a loss of Jewish identity of an individual either by marriage to a spouse who is not Jewish, or by abandonment of the Jewish religion to adopt another religion. In reality, the act of the assimilation comprises a number of elements and stages.

In Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon defined assimilation as a continuum, with the first stage acculturation, that is, the adoption of such outward cultural forms of the larger society as language, dress, recreational tastes, and political views. Total assimilation is only possible if the host society is receptive and extensive intermarriage takes place. Most European and American Jews acculturated, but they rarely lost their sense of Jewish identity. They most often abstained from what Gordon called "structural assimilation," the creation of friendships and other contacts primarily with members of the host society.

From an international conference on Jewish assimilation held at Haifa University in May 1976, Bela Vago edited a collection of papers entitled Jewish Assimilation in Modern Times. Most of these papers appear unmindful of the distinctions in assimilation widely used by contemporary sociologists and social historians. Despite the absence of polemics, most of the authors continue to accept the Zionist equation of assimilation with Jewish group disappearance. Thus they faced the question of Jewish group persistence despite the appearance of assimilation. They generally agreed that anti-Semitism was the explanation for continued Jewish identity. Persecution despite attempted integration forced assimilationists to realise that the host cultures were un-prepared to allow them to assimilate totally.

The last three decades have seen a renewal in religious Jewish Identity in a significant section of Judaism, mirroring the oscillatory movement towards and away from traditional religious teachings that is apparent throughout Jewish history.


According to Halakha, when a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, their children are considered to be gentile despite ironically inheriting the father's Jewish surname. But, when a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man, their children would be considered Jewish, as the womb of the child is a Jewess.

Christian-Jewish relations

In Christian-Jewish relations, the question of Jewish assimilation is a topic of concern for both Jewish and Christian leaders. A number of Progressive Christian denominations have publicly declared that they will no longer proselytize Jews. They have made use of dual-covenant theology.[3][4][5]

The Roman Catholic Church has historically attracted some Jews, such as Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marcel Proust, Edith Stein, Israel Zolli, Erich von Stroheim, and Jean-Marie Lustiger. In Spain, after the 15th century, there was controversy over the sincerity of Spanish Judeo-Catholics who converted under pain of being expelled from Spain.[6]

See also


  1. The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation
  2. Bela Vago, "Review of Jewish Assimilation in Modern Times", Marsha L. Rozenblit, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3/4 (Summer - Autumn, 1982), pp. 334-335 [1]
  3. Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue (World Council of Churches)
  4. Allan R. Brockway, "Should Christians Attempt to Evangelize Jews? Israel's Covenant with God Remains Valid"
  5. Policies of mainline and liberal Christians towards proselytizing Jews (

External links

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