I had a perfectly assimilationist weekend. On Friday night my wife and I went to an Irish wake in my small town for a guy I'd really liked. It was jammed. As we left my wife said, "One great thing about this community is how strong the rituals are."
She didn't go to the funeral the next morning in the Catholic church, I did, with my closest friend in these parts, a contractor who was once an altar boy in the church. I sang along with the great hymn "I Will Raise Him Up at the Last Day," as the nave filled with the big stricken family. It was incredibly moving. We drove to the cemetery, and my friend said, "Now you understand why people believe everything Bush says, because they believe all that shit." I said, "Still you have to admit the story of Christ on the road to Emmaus is a great one." He had to allow that.
Then yesterday my wife went to a special yoga session on breathing and tried to get me to go along. I backed out on my usual grounds: awkwardness, and I probably need it.
My parents' best friends moved to Israel 40 years ago because they saw all this coming: the complete inclusion of Jews in American society, and the resulting loss of Jewish identity. They wanted their kids to grow up Jewish and marry Jews; as they now have. But I can't tell you how many Jewish laws I broke this weekend; and I'm hardly alone.
Sometimes it's hard to say whether Zionism is an answer to assimilation or a denial of assimilation. At Yad Vashem, the big Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, they deny assimilation. They reproduce a dark-panelled room from a fancy Berlin house of a professional Jew in the 1930s, with his telephone and his daughter's private-school drawings framed on the wall, and you can just hear the cackles echoing all the way through the other horrific rooms. Assimilation is a delusion; gentile society will never accept us. And that's why Israel has to exist, because Jews will never be safe in the west. Many Jews in the U.S. believe this too. One of my editors, a Harvard classmate, used to ask me about my gentile in-laws, "Will they hide you?" in the event of another Holocaust. I think even Brit Tzedek progressive Zionists have that fear in their hearts. That's why they don't join up with the Christian groups–they don't really trust them to determine the fate of the Jews.
Denial of assimilation hasn't worked. You can't deny assimilation's attraction. Jews are being happily accepted in western society in a way they weren't in Spain or Central Europe before this. First time tragedy, second time farce. We're the engines of the new information-based economy, everyone wants a part in the Jewish century, as Yuri Slezkine described Jewish success, and we love you right back. With 62 percent of American Jews under 35 intermarrying, more and more Jews are having the polyglot life I lead and not worrying about mom putting her head in the oven (the punchline of an old Jewish joke about a guy marrying a schwartzer, or black person).
Assimilation threatens the Israel lobby. Younger Jews don't care as much about Israel. And assimilation's evident success seems to remove the whole rationale for Israel's existence. The essence of AIPAC's service is that it is the guardian of Israel: If we don't take care of ourselves, no one else will (just what an Israeli officer warned on "60 Minutes" last night). But the safer Jews feel in the U.S., the more absurd and ethnically-bound that idea becomes. After all, Jews aren't the only people to have had genocide visited upon them by scientific racists.
I can't argue that assimilation is not a threat to Jewish existence. Indeed, assimilation has actually given Israel a new reason to exist:
the only place where Jews will be left in the world in a generation or two. It's now common to hear that rationale for the Jewish state at functions where they raise money for Israel. Basically: We're dying out here 'cause we're having such a good time; here's my tithe to the existence of the Jewish people–the Israel I didn't have time to make aliyah to, and my kids better not either!
I don't think that's sustainable. It's one world. The greatest contradiction between Jewish life here and in Israel is that here we have goldplated minority rights, which is the source of our strength, and there they offer diminished or derisory minority rights, and lo it's the source of Israeli weakness. Israelis have a lot to learn from us; it's about time we started offering them our lessons. Even if that means helping them toward a binational state, which is what Fatah is now warning is the natural outcome of the failure of the peace process. As it is, the price of the Jewish state–the apartheid conditions in Palestine–isn't worth it. And if Jewish identity is premised on support for those conditions, believe me, it's going to die away.
If you end Jewish nationalism do you thereby end the Jews? I doubt it. I think Jews will long be an important force. Hey, it's the brand, dude. But then I don't know. I'm just looking at now. And my own experience is emblematic, in that the old religions have less and less meaning in many young Americans' lives, and we're a more multicultural society than ever. Look at everything around you, the Olympics, Obama, the billboards in Manhattan, your nephew's darkskinned friends at college. We should be true to that, and lead.