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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 19, May 11, 2024

The New Assimilation: Reflections on the campus protests in the US | Josh

Saturday 11 May 2024


May 07, 2024

I was proud to organize with Standing Together [1] at UCLA last Wednesday morning (this was the morning after the heinous assault [2] by counter-protestors, but before the encampment was shut down by the police). We held signs like “ceasefire now,” “hostage deal now,” “humanitarian aid now,” and “war has no winners.” But it was also heartbreaking to speak with current students who told me about broken friendships and a culture of hostility on campus. I was struck by a conversation I had with a Mizrahi Israeli-American student who told me they hide their identity as an Israeli, and that being Israeli is essentially no longer an acceptable identity on campus. She was not a hasbarist or mouthpiece for AIPAC; just a young person as outraged by Israel’s crimes in Gaza as anyone on the other side of the barricades.

Whether or not Jews are literally unsafe strikes me as the wrong question; Jewish people no longer feel open about expressing their identity among their progressive colleagues anymore. That is scandalous enough. It is especially scandalous that this is coming from a movement that makes claims to protecting the sanctity of identity categories and vulnerable minority groups. A movement that pressures people to recite the right slogans or otherwise hide themselves is antisemitic. This is the new assimilation: say the right words or don’t bother being Jewish at all. It is worth remembering that assimilation, too, is a tool of settler-colonialism. (It’s also why groups like Jewish Voices for Peace are so important to the movement: it can’t afford to be seen as pro-assimilation – especially given that Jewish assimilation into American whiteness undergirds so much of the rhetoric castigating Jews – and so groups like JVP serve to launder the assimilationist demands of the movement).
UCLA students protesting with Standing Together on May 1st, 2024

There is a spectrum of possibilities about what is happening to American Jewish life right now that range from “this is Kristallnacht,” which is absurd fear-mongering, to “everything is fine, there are Jewish protesters in the encampment,” which is propagandistic dissembling. There are many different gradations along the way: Iraq in the 1950s, or Poland in the 1960s, and the Soviet Union in the 70s, or Paris in 2024. Or maybe this is something else entirely. But something is changing for Jewish life in America.

American society and political culture is vast: there are other places for American Jews to go outside of these highly educated, left-wing bubbles. But this is the place that many Jews are comfortable in and have always been a part of. They can still retreat into the safety of their communities, or corporate America, or other right-leaning religious spaces and institutions; but the space for Jews who want to be a part of progressive American life without renouncing their identity as Jews is closing. That is bad for everyone – for Jews, for the left, and for America.

If America becomes just another country in the Jewish diaspora – like England or France – then something has already fundamentally changed for us. America was different; it was exceptional in that it offered Jews not just a safe-haven, but liberation; to live as whatever kind of Jews we pleased. How sadly ironic that it is, in part, some of the most assimilated Jews, so unaware and incurious about the breadth and diversity of Jewish life – indeed, the ones who lay claim to being the most committed diasporists – that have abetted this change in the promise of a flourishing Jewish diaspora.

[The above is reproduced with the permission of the author from his blog The Diaspora]

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