As a means of dealing with anti-Semitism and persecution throughout history, many Jews have resorted to assimilation into different cultures, societies and countries. The process of assimilation was defined by Park and E. W. Burgess in 1921 as the act of acquiring memories, sentiments and attitudes of a local or foreign group due to common experiences and history. Later, with the emergence of globalization, assimilation also started being considered when this acquisition occurs due to the sympathy one has towards a specific group. In the case of Jews facing persecution, assimilation was often a means of surviving. For instance, by introducing themselves into alien cultures, many Jews were able to escape concentration camps during World War II. Even before the Holocaust, pogroms in Soviet Union and the ghettoization of Jews across Europe in earlier times were strong reasons for Jews to negotiate their identities.
The negotiation of identity in the context of persecuted Jews who left their home countries – which could be, arguably, called refugees – took place through assimilation. By introducing themselves and taking part of a foreign culture, Jews were then able to hide their “Jewishness” and, hence, avoid persecution. In the text, “We Refugees,” Hanna Arendt uses the word assimilation in multiple instances. She argues that the word assimilation received a new, deeper meaning vis-à-vis the expulsion of Jews from Germany. Arriving in France, German Jews started considering themselves Frenchmen, despite the differences and ongoing rivalries between the two countries. Hence, based on that, one may argue that an important factor concerning assimilation is one’s historical circumstances, rather than nationalistic sentiments or ideologies. According to Arendt, one of the German Jews who moved to France even said that “[they] have been good Germans in Germany and therefore [they] shall be good Frenchmen in France.” Statements like this one added a new layer to the phenomenon of assimilation in the European Jewry context: loyalty. Instead of simply willing to promote the inculcation of another culture into theirs, many Jews were deeply concerned in helping and serving the society which the culture was based on. And this is what Arendt considers one of the major paradigm shifts concerning Jewish assimilation into other societies. Nonetheless, Arendt also claims that the necessity to assimilation reflects the lack of optimism among Jews who resorted to assimilation. Yet what really epitomized pessimism was the presence of suicides committed by Jews, who chose death over humiliation, despite the fact that the former is often deemed as unacceptable in Jewish cultures and religion.
Understanding how assimilation took place with the context of Jewish communities is particularly relevant for me due to a series of reasons. First, I envision a relevant connection between suicide prevention and assimilation, since one may argue that many Jews resorted to assimilation in lieu of suicide as a means of escaping unbearable conditions. Concerning the need to escape such conditions, I would call the attention to the concept of “death worlds,” introduced by Edith Wyshcogrod’s work Spirit in Ashes. She argues that humans, when treated in extremely inhumane ways (e.g. torture, famine, rape) tend to enter a cycle known as a “death world.” In this cycle, the witnessing and bearing of pain is so despicable that even death is preferred. Nevertheless, if the individual is denied the right to kill him/herself or prefers not to do so, he/she would be introduced to this never-ending, torturous cycle: the “death world.” Hence, moving to another society was, for many Jews, not only an escape from death but also from “death worlds” – even though there were also disadvantages in living in the new society. Moreover, comprehending the successes and failures of Jewish assimilation into other societies may establish an important counter-point to deal with assimilation of other peoples into different societies and cultures. Bearing in mind the current refugee crisis, it has remained a challenge to integrate people from Middle Eastern and African cultures into European societies, especially due to language barriers (i.e. situation of immigrations in Calais refugee camp in France). Finally, since historical analysis and comprehension can serve as platforms to prevent future miscalculations and challenges, I strongly believe that learning from past refugee problems can be a powerful way to seek solutions to the ongoing ones. Certainly, it is paramount that people working with refugees and asylum-seekers look for ways not only to support their moving process to a new society but also their transition, adaptation and integration. By doing so, one ensures that these “newcomers” will have more stability and, as a result, will be capable of actually making significant contributions to the society as a whole.
Wyschogrod, Edith. Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. Iwabuchi, Koichi. "Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism." Duke University Press 1. no. 1: 2002. 1-288. Nee, Victor. "Rethinking Assimilation Theory for a New Era of Immigration." International Migration Review 31. no. 4: 1997. 826-874. Hundert, Gerson David. "The Jews in Poland and Russia: Bibliographical Essays." Indiana University Press 1. no. 1: 1984. 1-276. Profeta, Katherine. 2015. Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, Arendt, Hannah. "We Refugees" Altogether Elsewhere: Writers o Exile. ed. Marc Robinson. 110-116. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.