The new Pew Research Center study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape shows a steep decline in Christian affiliation and a parallel increase among the unaffiliated. Some believe the study’s results suggest that we will have a more difficult time advocating effectively on behalf of Israel, as spelled out in Robert Goldblum’s article, “Less-Christian U.S. Seen Disturbing for Jews on Israel” (May 15). But this judgment is not so clear-cut.
While 78.4 percent of Americans identified as Christians in 2007, today that number has fallen to 70.6 percent. The losses have been incurred primarily within the mainline Protestant (-3.4 percent) and Catholic (-3.1 percent) communities. Evangelicals, whose theologically-based support for Israel is more fervent and less dependent on developments in the region and perceptions of Israeli policies, experienced a much smaller decline (0.9 percent).
The continued decline in membership in mainline Protestant churches has policy implications. In contrast to the Evangelicals, some of the mainline churches have been among the least understanding of Israel’s legitimate security needs and the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA), at its biennial gathering last June in Detroit, narrowly adopted a resolution calling upon the denomination to divest from three U.S. companies doing business in “Israel-Palestine.” The rationale: these companies stood accused of profiting from the oppression of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
Catholics in America also have experienced significant reduction in numbers. While not representing the kind of advocacy challenge posed by mainline Protestants, the Catholic Church in the U.S., like the Vatican, has commitments to both Israel and the Palestinians that it strives to balance. The Vatican, while maintaining close diplomatic relations with Israel, nevertheless recently concluded a treaty recognizing Palestinian statehood. This development, not surprisingly, has been criticized by the Israeli government and some Jewish organizations.
While still a very small proportion of the population as a whole, the percentage of Muslims in America has increased relative to the proportion of Jews. Largely an immigrant population, they are working more on achieving social integration and economic success — as earlier Jewish generations did in America — and less on organizing advocacy vehicles to advance their public policy objectives. Nevertheless, it behooves the Jewish community to reach out to and cultivate relationships with this growing constituency.
The “nones” — atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular — filled up the space vacated by the religiously affiliated, rising from 16.1 percent to approximately 23 percent. Millennials are much less religious than older adults, so the trend lines identified by the Pew study are likely to accelerate in future years.
The bigger challenge to Israel advocacy with this population is not the religious/secular dimension, but the fact that these young people have grown up with a very different Middle East historical context. The Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars – for them are all ancient history. They have experienced the Israeli issue through sporadic bouts of asymmetric warfare in Gaza and Lebanon, with scenes of Palestinian civilian casualties and widespread devastation, and a military occupation closing in on half a century with no resolution in sight.
The antidote is not to place great emphasis on providing Millennials and Generation Xers with the context they lack. On the contrary, our research consistently has shown that historical and legalistic arguments are doomed to failure. Instead, messages that express empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians, and that paint a picture of complexity rather than simple right and wrong answers, have proven to be most effective.
Release of the Pew study coincides with the formation of Israel’s new coalition government. It is worth recalling a previous Pew survey, the one carried out in 2013 analyzing the American Jewish community. While most of the attention was drawn to intermarriage and other internally oriented data, there was another finding that should be of deep concern to those engaged with Israel advocacy. Only 38 percent of American Jews expressed the belief that Israel’s government was making a sincere effort to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Moreover, in 2013, the Israeli government was less right-wing than the current coalition. In addition, the young and religiously unaffiliated, now shown by the new Pew study to be growing in numbers, were the most skeptical. If this is the situation within our own community, then it is not a leap to assume that such skepticism runs even deeper in the non-Jewish world.
Those of us who lived through the 1960s and 70s operated from a core conviction that Israel is always ready, indeed eager, to pursue all reasonable measures to achieve peace with its Arab neighbors, while taking into account its legitimate security requirements. Whether justified or not, this conviction is undergoing significant erosion. If Israel backtracks on a strategic commitment to the vision of achieving peace with the Palestinians based on two states for two peoples, serious damage would result to its image. This, more than the changing religious landscape of America, is what would make Israel advocacy an uphill climb in the period ahead.
Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and currently serves as an advisor to the Israel Policy Forum.