Entry in the Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel (ed. Patai), excerpts
Assimilation became an acute problem (emphasis added) early in the 19th century, when emancipation transformed the legal status of the Jew from that of a ghetto dweller to that of an equal citizen.
The pressure toward objective assimilation has been inherent in the very freedom that the Jew enjoys in the democracies. Here the pressure is strong because the inner resistance to it grows progressively weaker. As the Jew weaves himself organically into the social fabric of his native land, the factors making for Jewish group distinctiveness fade. The greater his access to the means of economic, political, and social advancement and the more frequent and intimate his mingling with non-Jewish fellow citizens, the greater becomes his urge to cut the distance between himself and them by adopting their outlook and patterns of living. Also, the higher his general educational attainment, the larger looms the deficit in the Jewish, as against the gentile, component in his cultural makeup. Shifting of occupational structure, residential mobility, growing engagement in the professions and public services, new skills removed from traditionally Jewish crafts, increasing participation in civic affairs and social action, adaptation to prevailing forms of entertainment and recreation – all this, combined with a rising laxity in Jewish religious observance, a declining appreciation of Jewish values, and an ever-increasing pull from the general community, have made the Jew more susceptible to conformity and rendered his ‘otherness’ less relevant. This has brought in its wake an increasing rate of intermarriage, a growing indifference to things Jewish, and a nagging uncertainty as to the value of Jewish survival. The Jew’s vulnerability to assimilatory tensions has increased correspondingly.
This vulnerability has been further enhanced by certain philosophies and ideologies which underlie the programs of some Jewish groups and which, whatever the subjective intentions of their proponents, objectively breed assimilation
Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish discrimination have tended to foster Jewish group cohesion and strengthen Jewish resistance to assimilation. The emergence of Zionism played a central role in combating both assimilationist tendencies and ideologies. Jewish communities have functioned vigorously in the larger democracies; in the smaller countries they have somehow managed to hold their own. They have all been profoundly affected by assimilation, but their power of resistance has not been totally lost. This resistance is reinforced by anti-Semitism and other forms of anti-Jewish bias to which Jews are exposed in larger or smaller measure even in the most liberal countries. Whether they will continue to be able to counter the effects of the disintegrating objective factors by mobilizing sufficient subjective forces rooted in the Jewish will to survive, only time will tell.