The growing drift between American Jews and Israel is not a result of Jerusalem’s right-wing political policies, as many believe. Rather, it’s because American Jews are, well, less Jewish.
That’s the key point of a compelling essay by Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, who attributes the high rate of intermarriage to the distancing of young American Jews from Israel. His views, published recently in Mosaic online, have prompted a series of varied, thoughtful responses that underscore the complex factors at play in the troubled diaspora-Israel relationship.
Israel has always been a Jewish Rorschach test, a place on which we impose our hopes, expectations and fears. For centuries it was The Promised Land, a place to yearn for, a distant dream. In our time it became a reality, a miracle born of Zionist perseverance, heroism and realism that has survived and in so many ways flourished against all odds.
Within the last several decades, though, Israel has gone from the great unifier of the Jewish people — a source of tremendous pride — to the great divider, described increasingly as a cruel “occupier” and violator of its own humanistic ideals.
What seems clear amidst the various theories seeking to explain the shifting role of Israel in the eyes of diaspora Jews is that the gap between younger Jews here and in Israel is growing. There are those, most notably journalist Peter Beinart, who have argued that the chief reason for this shift is Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians. He says it creates strong dissonance with young American Jews who embrace democratic values, and the outcome is a culture clash that distances them from Jerusalem.
Elliott Abrams: Changing nature of Jewish community is cause of distancing.
I’ve suggested that a serious lack of Zionist and modern Israel education and connection among our children and grandchildren is largely to blame. I don’t think the majority of young American Jews have a bone to pick with Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett and their hawkish views; that’s because most don’t know who Lieberman and Bennett are.
For many of our college students, the Mideast situation is too complicated for them to deal with so they tune out.
Other contributing factors, I believe, include the unrealistic expectations we have of Israel, and the strong correlation between both diminishing religious affiliation and personal commitment to Israel among younger people.
Abrams notes the prevalent views that criticism of Israel is increasing because of Israel’s move to the right politically and/or because American Jews have a broader interpretation of Jewish values than Israelis, relating not just to the land and people of the Bible but to all mankind.
But Abrams asserts that “the criticism or distancing resides not in Israeli conduct, which is actually a minor factor, but instead almost entirely in the changing nature of the American Jewish community itself.”
In brief, that community is less religiously and ethnically affiliated than previous generations, less knowledgeable and less committed. And that, he says, is in large part a result of the 50 to 60 percent rate of intermarriage in recent years. According to a Pew survey, Jewish children of intermarriage are more politically liberal, less identified with Israel and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than other Jews.
Abrams cites Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of the Hebrew Union College who has written that “the [mere] ethnicity of people without profound purpose is doomed.” The rabbi explains that “profound purpose” relates to the kind of religious commitment and observance of ritual mitzvot that “the vast majority of Americans avoid or eschew.”
Others might argue that for younger Jews, that sense of “profound purpose” is found less in carrying out ritual mitzvot than in the application of Jewish values in their lives through repairing the world.
Pew and other studies show that Orthodox Jews are far more committed to Israel, a land central to their daily prayers, than are Jews from liberal denominations.
Daniel Gordis, an administrator of Shalem College in Israel and popular author, agrees with Abrams that a kind of watered-down strain of American Jewish practice and identity is a key factor in the distancing toward the Jewish state. He adds that Zionist history and ideology are little understood or appreciated here today. (He has most recently written a book, soon to be published, on Israel’s history, geared to American Jews.)
In a Mosaic essay, Gordis calls out his uncle, David Gordis, a former top official of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the American Jewish Committee, for misunderstanding what Daniel Gordis believes the Zionist enterprise is all about.
David Gordis recently wrote a personal piece in Tikkun in which he announced with sadness that “after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel,” he has concluded that “in every important way,” most notably in its treatment of Palestinians, Israel is “a noble experiment, but a failure.”
His nephew describes the piece as an exercise in “narcissism” and asserts the State of Israel “was created to transform the existential condition of the Jewish people — and despite its many failings (like the failings of America and other decent countries), it has done just that, and brilliantly.”
Other respondents to the Abrams essay include Martin Kramer, another Shalem scholar, who points out the reverse demographic trends of Israeli and American Jews. In 1948, there were about six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis. Today there are approximately six million Jews in each of the two countries, with less Israeli dependence on and interest in American Jewish views — in part because the majority of Israeli Jews are now of Sephardi or Mizrachi descent.
Mideast expert Daniel Pipes approaches the issue from a political perspective, noting that while most American Jews identify as liberal, it is the conservatives who are most supportive of Israel. (Progressive Jews, though, rallied around Bernie Sanders’ insistence that Democrats could be pro-Israel while criticizing policies of the government in Jerusalem.)
Pipes says Jewish support for Israel is decreasing because Jews remain firmly in the liberal Democrat camp.
The good news for him is that while Jews are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, 38 percent of Americans are conservative, and tend to heavily favor Israel. That may be changing, though, as studies show young Evangelical Christians, for instance, to be far less sympathetic to Israel than their elders.
Still, the current political divide is underscored by a new Pew survey that shows a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. Seventy-five percent of Republicans say they favor Israel while 7 percent favor Palestinians. For Democrats, it’s 43 percent (Israel) and 29 percent (Palestinians). Liberal Democrats are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause (40 percent) than toward Israel (33 percent). Perhaps most disturbing, 27 percent of millennials are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than toward Israel, a figure three times higher than a decade ago.
These various theories lead Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to note that it is one thing to assess blame over the Israel-diaspora problem and quite another to offer positive suggestions.
Hartman writes in his blog that telling and retelling our history is not enough to ensure our future. Israel “can no longer guilt one into Jewishness nor frighten one into identification.” He says Judaism must “inspire, challenge, enrich and ennoble.” That may mean changing Israel’s political policies and it certainly means widening the discussion about what kind of Israel we want.
Only if and when we appreciate our collective stake in the Jewish future, and its personal value to us, can we begin to draw closer — American and Israeli Jews — across the miles and the perceptions that divide us.
Telling and retelling our history is not enough to ensure our future.