Assimilation and The Jewish Establishment

Lenin wrote that "the best Jews have never clamoured against assimilation" (Critical Remarks). For Lenin, Jewry consisted of only two groups—the 'rabbis' who advocated a cultural ghettoisation, and the 'progressives' who urged assimilation. He saw no third way. He seemed ignorant of the fact that, particularly in Western Europe, it was actually the anti-Communist Jewish leadership which was trying to force the masses into assimilation. A correspondent to the Jewish Chronicle wrote:

"To anglicise the Russian immigrant is a paramount duty ... his children are in excellent hands at the Jews Free School but it is hard for the teachers of that institution to have to find their efforts partly neutralised by the fearful patois which their children have to hear, and often speak, at home ... what is needed is some systematic apparatus for teaching English to adults and indeed for teaching them everything that is needed to make Englishmen of them" (31.7.1891).

The drive towards assimilationism, from within the community, was a product of two interlinked motives which determine all actions of an elite within an oppressed community. Firstly, assimilationism was an exercise in class power by the establishment. It was an attempt to tame the Jewish masses and as such the establishment were acting as pawns for the British bourgeoisie. Indeed, the elite had highly personal motives for this as some of them owned factories—particularly in the garment making industry—where their own Jewish employees had achieved high levels of militancy and socialist consciousness. A classic illustration of this was the attitude of the elite towards the development of a radical Jewish political forum. The Jewish Chronicle spoke disparagingly of the opening of an autonomous Jewish Socialist Club in Manchester where:

"A number of men and children were interspersed with a few women. A lecturer standing on a slightly raised platform held forth in "Yiddish" on the wrongs of the proletariat" (3.7.1891).

This was one of several such clubs that sprung up in Manchester, Leeds and London. The response of the communal establishment was to sponsor alternative venues for Jewish workers where collaboration, not conflict, was the theme. The Manchester City News (7.2.1891) reported the opening of a Jewish Working Men's Club where the mayor and "leading Jewish families" were seated on a platform flanked by a banner with a portrait of the Queen and the motto "God bless England, the land of freedom". In describing the club's activities the President noted that "the only subject excluded was politics".

There was an additional motivation, as well as naked class interest, which led the elite to advocate assimilation. This was a direct consequence of anti-semitism. The fear this engendered lent the elite a self-perceived altruism—they saw themselves as responsible for the protection of the entire community. Protection, they believed, would come through assimilation. Assimilation did not mean a haphazard merger into the host community, but a conscious merging to avoid persecution. This consciousness has been a constant feature of the world view of the Western European Jewish establishment.

As early as 1888 the Jewish Chronicle was arguing that:

"If poor Jews will persist in appropriating whole streets to themselves in the same district, if they will persevere in the seemingly harmless practice of congregating in a body at prominent points in a great public thoroughfare, like Whitechapel or the Commercial Road, drawing to their peculiarities of dress, of language, of manner, the attention which they might otherwise escape, can there by any wonder that the vulgar prejudices of which they are the objects should be kept alive and strengthened?" (28.8. 1888).

Perhaps the most extreme example of the drive towards assimilation can be found in the pocket book Helpful Information and Guidance for every Refugee issued In 1938 by the "German Jewish Aid Committee in conjunction with the Jewish Board of Deputies", This was given to the few Jewish refugees who managed to pass through U.K. immigration control. It spoke of "the traditional tolerance and sympathy of Britain towards the Jews", and then immediately went on to provide the refugees with a list of "duties to which you are honour bound" in order to avoid intolerance, including:

"Spend your time immediately in learning the English language and its correct pronunciation",
"Do not talk in a loud voice",
"Do not criticise any government regulation or the way things are done over here",
"Do not make yourself conspicuous by your manner or dress",
"Do not join any political organisation or take part in any political activities",
"Do not spread the poison of 'It's bound to come to this country', The British Jew greatly objects to the planting of this craven thought".

The above attitudes only just stop short of advocating forced conversion for Jews! The impression gained from such material is that the elite had to stop short at some point if only to retain its own power base. In essence, they were calling for the abolition of the public expression of Jewish identity. From this perspective an analogy with the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, who though baptized, remained secret Jews, is not inappropriate.

It may well be that this combination of class interest and perceived altruism is what has historically defined the position of the Jewish establishment. Thus it also explains its support for immigration control at the turn of the century, which was seen as a way of both controlling and protecting those Jews already in this country. In any event, such a combination is absolutely prejudicial to the interests of the Jewish masses in that its whole thrust is to attempt to remove them, as far as possible, from progressive political struggle. In this country the Jewish bourgeoisie attempted to depoliticise the struggle against the Aliens Act, and then the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. An example of this is the attitude of the Jewish Chronicle towards the fascist march through Cable Street. Under the heading "Urgent Warning" the paper said:

"It is understood that a large Blackshirt demonstration will be held in East London on Sunday afternoon ... Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings. Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-semitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew-baiters keep away" (2.10.36).

The attitude of the Board of Deputies, as expressed by its President Nathan Laski at a public meeting in Shoreditch, was to rely on the police and the Home Office (Jewish Chronicle 18.9.36). In answer some Jewish militants replied in a letter aptly headed "Did Judas Maccabeus² Stay at Home?" (Jewish Chronicle 23.10.36).

All historical experience has shown that assimilation is never an answer to anti-semitism. It can actually provoke further anti-semitism. The habit of Jewish immigrants of anglicising their East European names was, at the turn of the century, frequently pointed to as an example of how Jews wanted to remain powerful but 'hidden'. Even conversion is no defence—the Inquisition in Spain was launched precisely to persecute the Marranos. Moreover, the drive towards assimilation by the Western European and U.S.A. elite in the last hundred years has itself had a disastrous historical consequence: the Jewish masses are left confused about their Jewish identity, apart from whatever relationship they have with zionism. One reaction has been for sections of the Jewish youth of the last decade to hark back to the past. There has been a mini-revival both of interest in Yiddish and in Hasidic religious movements. However, all this is essentially recidivist and based exclusively on either nostalgia or obscuranticism. Especially within Hasidism, there is a rejection of progressive movement for social change.

Matters of culture and the struggle against organised fascism are equally 'political'. It is a pernicious form of liberalism which relegates culture to the domain of the 'personal'. The truth of the feminist axiom the personal is political' is no more vividly obvious than in a response to anti-semitism which calls for the abolition of Jewish cultural identity. One of the most startling realisations in reading the historical and modern documents is how closely the assimilationism of the Jewish elite resembles that of Lenin. Both expressly saw assimilation as an answer' to anti-semitism. Both were, and are, wrong.

²Judah the Maccabee led the Jewish revolt against Syrian occupation in about 160 B.C.E. He exploited ambush, night movement and rapid attack, in what was essentially a guerrilla Campaign.

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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