The American Jewish community is developing in two distinct directions. One direction is the demographic growth of the Orthodox and especially the Ultra-Orthodox community, which gives them increasing weight and presence. The second direction is that the liberal non-Orthodox community is becoming increasingly enmeshed in a welcoming American society and is developing a new model of Jewish identity based upon personal choice. The challenge facing the liberal American Jewish religious and communal leadership is to craft forms of Jewishness and Jewish belonging that are attractive to Jewish individuals.
The policy challenge facing the Government of Israel is that the liberal American Jewish community and their leadership believes that the Government of Israel has written off their support and their attachment to Israel. They attribute this in part to their view that Israeli decision-makers have erroneously come to believe that the liberal camp is in a state of inevitable terminal decline.
We recommend that the organized Jewish community, the major Jewish organizations and the Government of Israel facilitate and encourage the increased entrance of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews into the American public sphere and politics on the national (and not only the state) level. Such entrance will enable their influence on issues that are of concern to the entire Jewish People and not only to the Ultra-Orthodox community.
At the same time, we recommend that the Israeli government continue to view the liberal American Jewish community as an important source of support for Israel and as a strategic asset. While we recognize that the liberal non-Orthodox Jewish community is becoming more deeply enmeshed in American life, we do not believe that this necessarily makes for indifference to, and distancing from, both Jewish life and Israel. Evidence from the past shows that educational interventions (post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Jewish Learning and projects like Taglit and Masa) can keep liberal and even assimilated Jews connected to Jewish life and supportive of Israel. We recommend that such programs be not just maintained but expanded. (A detailed set of recommendations will come at the end of the chapter.)
The effects of these programs can be seen in that Seven in ten Jewish Americans say they feel either very attached (30 percent) or somewhat attached (39 percent) to Israel, according to the 2013 Pew study. Recent studies of Birthright participants show their “connection to Israel persists and is significant.”1 The number of American Jews visiting Israel has increased in recent years, both in absolute numbers,2 and as a percent of American Jews who have been to Israel.3 And the internet and social media enable Jews wherever they live to communicate both easily and constantly. Furthermore, other studies have shown that the children of intermarriage and other “borderland” Jews are responsive to educational programming and in their wake form genuine attachment to the Jewish community and Israel.4
However, there are also troubling signs: The multi decade bi-partisan support that framed decades of U.S.-Israel relations is beginning to fray. As noted in a recent Gallup poll, there is now a historically unprecedented 38-point gap between Republican and Democrat sympathy for Israel versus the Palestinians. This has implications for the relationship of American Jews to Israel. 70 percent of American Jews continue to vote for Democratic candidates and have strong antipathy for the values and policies advanced by President Trump.
Furthermore, multiple studies have documented that identified American Jewry can be demographically described as a 90/10 percent split — 10 percent comprised by Orthodox communities (from Modern Orthodox to Haredi) and 90 percent reflecting those who identify as Reform, Conservative, or Just Jewish. While both groups or camps identify and embrace Zionism have strong positive views about Israel and ties to Israel, most in the “Orthodox camp” – with some exceptions– tends to vote Republican in substantially greater numbers and to be more supportive of policies being advanced by the present Israeli government; and most in the “Liberal Camp,”—with some exceptions—tend to vote Democratic in substantially greater numbers and have far greater differences with policies being pursued by the present Israeli government.5
During Israel’s first decades, broad segments of American Jewry were united in their commitment to mobilize to support for the young state. The widely cited slogan “We Are One” obscured the reality that American and Israeli Jewry lived in two substantially different contexts: in Israel, in a sovereign state with a government elected by its citizens providing one center of integrated authority; and in America where Jews lived in diffuse voluntary communities. These structural differences were less visible as Israel in its first decades relied heavily on both World Jewry and global governments for vital support and legitimacy.
The overall picture of relations between the two largest Jewish communities is one of strong and solid relations. And yet such a picture has an increasing backdrop of concern as changes take place. Israel today is no longer a weak country in urgent need of American Jewish philanthropic largess. The strength and size of Israel’s economy has re-contextualized global Jewish philanthropy which continues to support important work in Israel but is no longer indispensable for Israel’s survival. Larger and larger segments of Diaspora Jews no longer live under the emotional power of 20th century Jewish history—the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, and the Six-Day War. Moreover, whereas Jewish identity in Israel is ascriptive and national, large segments of American Jews are increasingly described by observers as “Jews by choice.”
Said differently, the largest segments of identified American Jews view the religious diversity of the Jewish People as an asset for strengthening the Jewish Future and are deeply troubled by what they perceive as the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate monopoly over religious issues including issues related to conversion. They were deeply troubled by the present government’s abrogation of the Kotel agreement in June 2017 and their leaders and those most involved advocate for the Israeli government to recognize the major religious streams and provide equitable funding to them. Large numbers of those in the “Liberal Camp” are also troubled by what they observe to be challenges to Israel’s democracy: threats to an independent judiciary and efforts perceived as seeking to stifle dissent. Finally, large numbers in the liberal camp are troubled by the 50-year occupation of the West Bank and would like to see the Israeli Government be more supportive of credible efforts to break the Palestinian-Israeli impasse, although most recognize that a range of issues in the Palestinian camp are equally if not more responsible for the stalemate.6
From “we are one,” two “camps” are emerging. And this is further compounded by the conflation of Israeli advocacy and Israeli education. This has resulted in the perception, particularly among large numbers of the young in the Liberal camp, that there is little support or context within American Jewish institutions—for significant opportunities to learn about the range of Zionist views and visions past and present, to debate difficult policy issues or to deal with the challenging “grey” issues. And beyond this, some individuals or groups which raise difficult issues have been branded anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or both.
The Liberal Camp is stunned by emerging trends in Israel and many of the recent policies being pursued by the GOI. Yet their “representatives,” the leadership of the Reform, Conservative movements and Federations – arguably 70 percent of American Jewry – believe they have less access and less impact on decision makers in Israel. They attribute this in part to their view that Israeli decision-makers erroneously come to believe that the Liberal Camp is in a state of inevitable terminal decline hence Israeli decision makers need not be concerned with the Liberal Camp’s grievances even if presently is broadly reflective of American Jewry. Conversely, the Orthodoxy Camp is more supportive of emerging trends in Israel and most policies being pursued by the GOI and is seen as becoming more dominant in American Jewry as the decades unfold.7
Despite the liberal/Orthodox divide, deep concerns are increasingly shared throughout the community. In a widely noted op-ed in the NY Times (March 18, 2018), Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, a conservative, Republican, Likud supporter for decades, shared his deep concerns about the future of Israel. They included what he described as “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish Diaspora.” He continued “By submitting to the pressures exerted by a minority in Israel, the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish People.”
The relationship of American and Israeli Jewry is multifaceted: both strong and challenged by trends in both societies and policies being pursued by the present Government of Israel on the cultural level, the differences between living in a Jewish community increasingly “of choice” as distinct from a national sovereign state are becoming more manifest. As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue said “Israeli Jewry and American Jewry are on two very different trajectories. Israel is headed toward centralization, exclusion and insularity. American Jewry toward decentralization, inclusion and pluralism.” (Park Avenue Synagogue, Dvar Torah “The Two Worlds of Judaism,”; May 9, 2015)
To conclude, the State of Israel and the organized Jewish community should continue to invest in both major segments of the American Jewish community: the liberal majority and the Orthodox minority.
One major segment is the Orthodox and especially the Ultra-Orthodox. This community is growing owing largely to much higher birthrates than among non-Orthodox liberal Jews. (Currently, 30 percent of Jewish children nationally, are being raised in Orthodox households.) Because of this demographic growth, it is important that Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews enter the public sphere and politics and achieve positions of influence. In the second half of the Twentieth century, liberal Jews achieved great professional and public prominence and hence positions of public influence. With their growing demographic rise, it is important that Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews do the same. The Ultra-Orthodox do have considerable political representation on the State level. This representation is mainly concerned with attaining benefits for the Ultra-Orthodox community. We are recommending that the Ultra-Orthodox community expand its representation to the national level and deal with Jewish People concerns and not only with issues that only affect the Ultra-Orthodox community. Placing Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox members in national public service and public life will continue Jewish People influence under changing demographic circumstances. The organized Jewish community and the major Jewish organizations should encourage this trend, by offering training especially adapted to the Haredi community, to public service and communal professionals. The Government of Israel should encourage and support these initiatives.
The other segment is the liberal non-Orthodox community. JPPI recommends that a worthy policy for the Government of Israel is not to disregard segments of the Jewish People but on the contrary to maintain a broad, pluralistic Jewish People with many segments and points of view. This is for two reasons: It is the very raison d’etre of the Jewish state to preserve and maintain the Jewish People in all of its variety. Secondly, the support of the broad Jewish community is a strategic asset to the State of Israel.
In order to maintain and expand the connection with the liberal Jewish community JPPI makes the following recommendations:
- Programs such as Birthright and Masa have had considerable efficacy in strengthening the bonds between the broad, liberal segments of American Jews and Israel. Such programs, with the significant support of the Israeli government, should be continued and expanded into new areas.
- The government of Israel should make an effort to understand and appreciate the new model of being Jewish by choice. It should enter into dialogue with Diaspora communities so to better understand the model’s advantages and disadvantages.
- The Government of Israel should explain its security and political needs to the liberal Diaspora community. It should discuss its constraints and its opportunities so as to give the Diaspora communities a more empathetic understanding of its policies.
- The Government of Israel should expand its cultural ties with the liberal Diaspora communities, including the showcasing of art, literature, music, and thought.
1 “Beyond 10 Days: Parents, Gender, Marriage, and the Long-term Impact of Birthright Israel”, Leonard Saxe, Michelle Shain, Graham Wright, Shahar Hecht, and Theodore Sasson, December 2017 – https://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/noteworthy/jewishfutures2015.html
2 “סקר תיירות נכנסת” שנת 1998-2015, משרד התיירות
3 The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that 35% of American Jews had visited Israel, while the 2013 Pew Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that 43% of American Jews had visited Israel.
4 Theodore Sasson, Janet Krasnic Aronson, Fern Chertok, Charles Kadushin, Leonard Saxe, “Millenial Children of Intermarriage: Religious Upbringing, Identification and Behavior Among Children of Jewish and Non-Jewish Parents, Contemporary Jewry, April 2017, 37:1, 99-123.
5 “עליית האורתודוכסיה וקיטוב פוליטי-תרבותי בקהילה היהודית האמריקאית”, ד”ר שלוה פישר, המכון למדיניות העם היהודי – http://jppi.org.il/new/he/article/aa2017/part-2-dimensions-of-jewish-well-being/identity/the-rise-of-orthodoxy
6 For example, “Why Many American Jews Are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel”, Daniel Gordis, Mosaic Magazine, May 2017 – https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2017/05/why-many-american-jews-are-becoming-indifferent-or-even-hostile-to-israel/
7 See עליית האורתודוכסיה וקיטוב פוליטי-תרבותי בקהילה היהודית האמריקאית mentioned above and 2013 Pew study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, pages 81 to 95. This study shows that American Orthodox Jews’ opinions are more congruent with those held by the current Government of Israel, compared to those of non-Orthodox Jewish Americans.