assimilation 1


From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Sun Feb 22, 2004 1:13 pm
Subject: assimilation

Sorry to have caused confusion. I will try to restate what I think is relevant about the concept of assimilation and its role in Rudolf Steiner's views on Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness.

Assimilation is most certainly not antisemitic in and of itself. In the Germany of Steiner's day, most Jews were firmly in favor of assimilation, and they definitely weren't antisemites; in fact the most prominent organization of pro-assimilationist Jews, the Centralverein, was also a major opponent of antisemitic agitation. There were other tendencies within German Jewry that were much more ambivalent toward assimilation, including many Orthodox Jews and many Zionists, but these were minority viewpoints at the time.

Within the non-Jewish population (which is to say, the vast majority of Germans), there were many supporters and defenders of Jewish rights; these people are sometimes called philosemites (though that term, particularly in Germany, carries a quite a few complicated connotations). In my view, Steiner belonged to this stream around the turn of the century, when he published a series of articles denouncing organized antisemitism. Along with these philosemites, there were of course also many antisemites, who appeared in a great variety of ideological types, from religious antisemites to cultural antisemites to political antisemites to economic antisemites to racial antisemites and more. To complicate matters further, the range of general attitudes toward assimilation among non-Jewish Germans was spread more or less evenly across this ideological spectrum: some antisemites were in favor of assimilation, as they understood it, and others were opposed. Moreover, many philosemites also shared an emphatically pro-assimilationist perspective.

The trouble is that for the most part, Jews and non-Jews meant very different things by the term 'assimilation'. For Jews, especially assimilationist Jews, it generally meant fuller integration into mainstream German society while retaining their Jewish identity. For many non-Jews, in contrast, assimilation meant the abandonment of Jewish identity as such. This is how Steiner understood the concept, for example. This fundamental difference greatly exacerbated the existing social conflicts surrounding the so-called "Jewish question" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I hope this won't muddle things even further, but it's important to keep in mind that racism and antisemitism are two different things. Although they do often coincide, there are certainly racists who are not antisemites and antisemites who are not racists. This is relevant to the contested notion of assimilation because most racial antisemites -- those who viewed Jews as racially distinct from 'German' or 'Aryans' -- opposed assimilation. However, there are instances of antisemites who favored assimilation and who also held a more or less racial conception of Jewishness; in my view, some of Steiner's mature views on Jews (after his turn to Theosophy) fall into this category.

In summary: assimilation itself is neither necessarily antisemitic nor necessarily racist; it is, instead, a significant distinguishing issue in the complex debates over the status of Jews within German culture and society in Steiner's day. The difference between Jewish and gentile understandings of 'assimilation' is a mainstay of the abundant historical research on German-Jewish history; when I get back to the computer later today I will try to post a selection of quotes from various works that will hopefully give a fuller picture of this multifaceted question.

Peter Staudenmaier

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From: at
Date: Sun Feb 22, 2004 3:53 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] assimilation

This is something I have been puzzling over for some time. Given:

1. It is not anti-Semitic if "assimilation" means integration into mainstream society without loss of separate ethnic identity. 2. If assimilation results in a loss of separate cultural identity, whether inadvertent or intentional, then it is anti-Semitic.

The next question is what to think if someone says (either then or now) "It would be nice if the Jews lost their separate identity and merged completely with mainstream culture."

By most definitions, this is an anti-Semitic position, whether or not it is intended with an element of compulsion or not.

What are we then to make of the following fact? In modern US society many Jews have lost their separate identity and been assimilated into mainstream culture, becoming non-practicing agnostics. Does that make US society anti-Semitic? If you find this development good, does that make you an anti-Semite? Are such Jews themselves anti-Semitic? If the definition of anti-Semitic is stretched so far that the freedom of an individual Jew to choose to abandon their heritage becomes anti-Semitism, that seems inimical to a humanist view of individual freedom of conscience.

On the other hand, if there is no objection to an individual choosing to abandon their heritage, why is it wrong for someone to say that they feel, in principle, such an occurrence would be desirable? It seems like a catch-22.

I'm curious whether anyone else has any thoughts on the matter.

Daniel Hindes

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From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Sun Feb 22, 2004 7:05 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] assimilation

Hi Daniel, great questions. I think we're getting much closer to the heart of the matter, as I see it. Here are my off the cuff thoughts:

1. It is not anti-Semitic if "assimilation" means integration into mainstream society without loss of separate ethnic identity. 2. If assimilation results in a loss of separate cultural identity, whether inadvertent or intentional, then it is anti-Semitic.

Not necessarily. It takes more than an improper conception of assimilation to make a specific set of beliefs antisemitic, in my view. You also have to look at contextual factors, and at the overall judgement of Jews and Jewishness that is explicit or implicit in the set of beliefs.

The next question is what to think if someone says (either then or now) "It would be nice if the Jews lost their separate identity and merged completely with mainstream culture." By most definitions, this is an anti-Semitic position, whether or not it is intended with an element of compulsion or not.

I certainly think such a position can be antisemitic, but it need not be; alot depends on why the person thinks such an outcome would be nice. I hasten to add that this "why" question is not, to my mind, primarily a matter of motives or intentions; I think the more central issue is the broader ideology of rejecting Jewishness as such.

What are we then to make of the following fact? In modern US society many Jews have lost their separate identity and been assimilated into mainstream culture, becoming non-practicing agnostics. Does that make US society anti-Semitic?

No, I don't think it does, certainly not overall.

If you find this development good, does that make you an anti-Semite?

Again, I think it depends on why you find this development good. If you find it good because you associate Jewishness with the prime evils of modern society, then yes, there's a good chance that this stance is antisemitic.

Are such Jews themselves anti-Semitic?

Not in my eyes, except in rare cases.

If the definition of anti-Semitic is stretched so far that the freedom of an individual Jew to choose to abandon their heritage becomes anti-Semitism, that seems inimical to a humanist view of individual freedom of conscience.

I agree, that is one good reason not to stretch the definition of antisemitism too far.

On the other hand, if there is no objection to an individual choosing to abandon their heritage, why is it wrong for someone to say that they feel, in principle, such an occurrence would be desirable? It seems like a catch-22.

I don't see it as a catch-22. It makes a difference, after all, whether a Jew or a non-Jew announces their thoughts on the disappearance of Jewishness. I'm sorry that I still haven't gotten around to explicating my own arguments regarding Steiner's attitudes toward Jews (still just trying to catch up with all the current replies!), but I will try to do so soon and expand on the other factors that made his position partially antisemitic, in my estimation, above and beyond his stance on assimilation. Thanks for a very thoughtful post,

Peter

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assimilation 2


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