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2017 Annual Assessment

The idea of doing an Annual Assessment of the state of the Jewish people was novel when JPPI first decided to produce it 14 years ago. While the scope of each year’s report has changed and the measures used to evaluate basic trends have been developed, the annual assessment has provided a good yardstick to judge how Israel and the Diaspora fared in the preceding year. Initially, at least, there was not an expectation that there would necessarily be dramatic changes from year to year – even though the metrics used to make judgments (geopolitical realities, demographics, identity and identification, inter-communal bonds, and resources) offered the possibility of identifying such changes or developments if they had taken place.

That said, 2016-2017 certainly stands out as a year of surprising developments. The backlash against globalization figured prominently in the Brexit and Trump votes. The reality of globalization – driven by technologies that continue to accelerate the pace of change, generate and exploit big data, create new supply chains, and shrink the planet – cannot be denied or wished away. But the social and economic dislocations created by globalization have not been sufficiently taken into account, particularly in the Western democracies. Not surprisingly, distrust of elites and populist, nationalist appeals to those most negatively affected by the impact of globalization have been the result.

Traditionally, the emergence of populism and its xenophobic companion have been accompanied by a growth in anti-Semitism. JPPI held a brainstorming conference to discuss the current international setting, the social, economic, political, and ideological shifts in the West, indicators of increased anti-Semitism, and how Israel and the Diaspora could deal with potential new dangers and leverage possible opportunities. Six main areas posing policy dilemmas and challenges to decision-makers in Israel and the Diaspora communities were identified in the conference discussions and are included in this year’s assessment. One key factor that stands out is that the liberal international order is under threat, raising questions about whether the United States will continue to play the role it has in preserving that order, the need to take account of the rise of non-Western powers, the importance of formulating a policy toward the rise of far-right parties in Europe, and positioning Israel and Diaspora communities in light of increasing polarization in Western societies.

The recommendations in this year’s assessment reflect these considerations. For example, in the Trump administration one sees proponents of the U.S. ontinuing to fulfill its responsibilities internationally and those more prone to favor U.S. withdrawal from commitments – with Israel’s deterrence far stronger in a world where America remains powerful and willing to stand against aggression. Hence, one recommendation in the Assessment suggests that Israel encourage those voices in the administration “calling for the United States to reassert itself as the leader of the free world.” Similarly, given the intense political polarization in the U.S. today, another recommendation calls for preserving Israel’s strict bipartisan approach, ensuring that Israel does not become either a Republican or Democratic cause but remains an American interest. To that end, the Assessment suggests that Israel should “differentiate between developing a good working relationship with the Trump administration and projecting an ideological affinity to it.”

Other recommendations relate to particular developments in Israel and the United States. Given the pace of scientific change in today’s world – and the hard and soft power that accrues to Israel because it is seen as the “start-up nation” — it is essential that Israel continue to develop the human resources that keeps it developing cutting-edge technologies. To that end, it is essential that the State of Israel “fulfill governmental resolutions mandating all schools” include “a high level of core curriculum instruction.”
As for the United States, the Assessment points out that the demographic profile of the Jewish community is shifting in light of the “growing weight of the Haredi community.” Given that, the Assessment recommends that the Israeli government “encourage the leadership of this community to engage” far more with the mainstream Jewish organizations, and that those organizations seek to increase the involvement of the Ultra-Orthodox in communal life andleadership.

In this connection, increasing the involvement of the Haredi community in broader Jewish communal life could affect one of the key measures we use in the Annual Assessment. For example, the state of intercommunal relations is one of the barometers we use in evaluating how the Jewish people are doing – and in this year’s Assessment we have not changed our evaluation of it.

However, the shifting demographic weight of the Ultra-Orthodox has potentially major implications for the cohesion of the Jewish community in the United States, the relationship of major Jewish organizations and the broader Jewish community, and the relationship between the world’s largest Diaspora community and the State of Israel: the growing influence of the Orthodox communities in the U.S. and Israel, combined with the nationalist movement in Israel.

Although the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews indicates that only about 10 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox, that number is growing. The Orthodox community in the United States is becoming more numerous, due to higher birthrates and the attractiveness, in a troubled world, of an emphasis on tradition, and more influential, with growing prominence in the business, legal and political communities, especially in the greater New York area. They proudly emphasize their Orthodox way of life, its values and traditions. They are increasingly forming their own policy research institutions and consulting firms.

As the Annual Assessment notes, this is a sea change from the implicit liberal Jewish model that has guided much of the Jewish community, in which Jews were increasingly integrated into American society, but kept their Jewish identity more private. The Orthodox community is generally more politically, culturally, and socially conservative than the majority of less traditional American Jews. This has encouraged a political and cultural identification and collaboration with Evangelical Christians and some Catholics on both controversial domestic issues, like abortion, same sex marriage and gay rights, and on foreign policy issues from the threat of Iran to support for Israel, including its settlement policy.

At a communal level, this has many advantages, and if they wished, the Orthodox community could help lead the broader Jewish community into a greater engagement with the Jewish religion and tradition, and with the State of Israel. But their greater numbers and influence also present Jewish Federations and other institutions with a challenge, because most Orthodox Jews stay within their own communities and institutions, and often do not become leaders and financial supporters of broader Jewish organizations. These institutions are already buffeted by more secular Jews, particularly younger Jews, who do not identify with Jewish organizations.

The dilemmas are most evident at the political level, with implications for the unity of the American Jewish community, and for Israel. In the last four presidential elections, Orthodox voters preferred Republican candidates, in contrast with non-Orthodox Jews who generally supported Democratic, more liberal candidates. This came into stark relief in the 2016 presidential campaign, when non-Orthodox Jews voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, by over 70 percent, while almost 40 percent of Orthodox Jews supported Donald Trump. But in some Orthodox neighborhoods, he received over 50 percent support, and over 90 percent in some Haredi neighborhoods.

In the Trump administration, the Orthodox community is represented in his own son-in-law and senior adviser; his special representative for international negotiations, including the Middle East peace process; and the U.S. ambassador to Israel. As more appointments are made in departments and agencies, we can anticipate that of the Jewish appointees, there will likely be a disproportionate percentage of Orthodox Jews.

The Orthodox community is not only making common cause with socially and politically conservative Evangelicals and Catholics, but with the conservative coalition government in Israel, which combines Orthodox and nationalist parties, who support a one-state solution, and have less concern for minority rights in Israel and the Palestinians in the territories. The rise of the Orthodox segment of American Jewish society, is mirrored by a similar phenomenon in Israel, with the rise of the religious nationalist right. In 1990, the population share of Haredim in Israeli was a mere 3 percent; today it is 10 percent and rising.

This creates a challenge to the triangular relationship between Washington, Jerusalem, and the American Jewish community. Trump’s triumph and his support in Israel, and many of the actions by the Israeli government, are at odds with the views of the majority of American Jews. The problem is that the overwhelming percentage of American Jews are non-Orthodox and many do not share the same worldview as the Orthodox community in the U.S. or in Israel.

Among many, President Trump is highly unpopular, rightly or wrongly; there is a greater concern for minority rights, and for the two-state solution. These views are especially held by young Millennials. They must not be made to feel they have to choose between their own liberal, democratic principles and Israel. Likewise, they do not hold the views of the dominant parties in the Israeli coalition government.
This creates a dilemma for many major Jewish organizations. They should, and must, maintain positive relationships with the Trump administration, although many of their members may have other thoughts. Likewise, the more the Israeli government is seen as implementing conservative policies and as being unwilling to implement the compromise Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky negotiated to open a third, egalitarian, section at the Western Wall (Kotel), or acting contrary to what many perceive to be liberal norms, the more it may alienate a significant segment of American Jewry.

Already for the more general American public, Israel for the first time in its history may become a partisan issue. Among the grassroots, the decline in support for Israel is troubling. As the JPPI Annual Assessment notes, the deepening divide between parts of the liberal Jewish community and a conservative Israeli government requires sophisticated responses.

There is no question that, in its early months, the Trump administration has been friendlier to Israel than the Obama administration had been perceived to be by many Israelis. That perception has permitted the administration to take steps that have not drawn criticism from Israelis even though they reflect a continuation of Obama administration policies: the Trump administration recently signed a certification that Iran was complying with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA; the president signed the necessary waiver to prevent the U.S. Embassy from moving to Jerusalem; and President Trump has not given Israel an open door to unlimited settlement expansion, though many within the Israeli government had expected him to do so.

One of JPPI’s broad objectives has been to promote policies that enhance acceptance of pluralism in Jewish life, and, in particular, to identify better ways of fostering tolerance and accommodation of all the different streams of observance. Readers of this year’s Assessment will see that theme figures prominently once again, especially as it relates to its emphasis on Jewish values.

Every annual assessment has offered insight into the direction of Israel and the Jewish world, and important recommendations to ensure that world Jewry thrives. In our view, this year’s Assessment may be one of the most important JPPI has produced. In a world where the basic rules of the game are now being questioned, in which the post-World War II institutions and global order are under siege, and the threat of boycotts hang over Israel, it is important that the Israeli government and American Jewish leaders act with sophistication to build bridges of cooperation between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities within the U.S., and between the American Jewish community, the U.S. government, and the Israeli government.

We believe that JPPI has the capability to help the Diaspora communities and the Government of Israel constructively consider these challenges and formulate action oriented policies to overcome them successfully.

Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat

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