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2019 Annual Assessment

Jewish ties to Israel can be seen in nearly every index of emotional attachment in the various Jewish communities. A third of Israeli Jews view US Jews as siblings; a third of French Jews consider Israeli Jews to be siblings. Only a minority of French Jews (16 percent), and a minority (though a more substantial one) of American Jews (28 percent) say they do not regard Israelis as “family.” A minority of US Jews (35 percent) and of French Jews (37 percent) do not agree that “Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” Only a small minority (13 percent) say that caring about Israel is unimportant. Nearly half of the Canadian Jewish community, the fourth-largest in the world (possibly on its way to becoming the third-largest, overtaking France), have very strong ties to Israel (48 percent).

In parallel, there were growing voices in Israel emphasizing the centrality and dominance of Israel in the Jewish world today. An example of that was a book by Professor Yossi Shain of Tel Aviv University. In his book, The Israeli Century and the Israelization of Judaism, Shain writes that “Israel, rooted in sovereign territory, in tribalism and religiosity, is rising in status globally and in the Jewish world, while Diaspora Jewry – American Jewry first and foremost – is fighting for its vitality and communal identity”.

This assertion, with which many Jews will disagree, is nevertheless becoming increasingly widespread, certainly in Israel, and in not just a few other Jewish communities as well. In the JPPI Structured Jewish World Dialogue conducted a year ago, marking 70 years of Israel-Diaspora relations, those relations were shown to be “in a state of flux.” Demographic, military, and economic fortification, as well as cultural development, have made Israel the Jewish people’s strongest community. Much empirical evidence attests to this, but it was also the belief held by the dialogue participants. Four out of five (81 percent) agreed that Israel is the “center of the Jewish world.” This, of course, was true for a very large majority of the dialogue’s Israeli participants (96 percent), but a significant majority of the Diaspora-Jewish participants also shared this view. Three out of four Americans (77 percent) and four out of five participants elsewhere in the world (82 percent) affirmed Israel’s centrality in the Jewish world.

The Israeli model was extensively presented this year in a JPPI study of Israeli Judaism (Rosner and Fuchs). The model in question is one of identity, whose salient features are: the incorporation of both Jewish tradition and Israeli nationality into an amalgamated identity; being at ease with tradition as a cultural element of the Israeli environment; and lack of fear regarding “Jewish continuity,” which seems assured so long as Israel’s survival is assured. These characteristics highlight the difference between Jewish life in Israel and Jewish life in the Diaspora and make it hard for Israeli and non-Israeli communities to understand each other’s circumstances, cultural challenges, and concerns. This past year, as anti-Semitism has been powerfully felt in the Jewish world, the contrast between the two communities has come into sharper relief. A large proportion of Israeli Jews – second-, third-, and fourth-generation Israelis – have only a second-hand acquaintance with anti-Semitism. They have heard about it, but do not feel it. Their ability to recognize the essential nature of Diaspora Jewry’s plight is, accordingly, diminished.

Diaspora Jews visiting Israel are exposed to this reality to some degree. Data published this year indicate that 40 percent of US Jews have visited Israel at least once in their lives, but the figures for communities elsewhere in the world are higher (eight out of ten Canadian Jews, 65 percent of French Jews). As noted above, studies in all of the communities attest to Diaspora Jewry’s strong ties to Israel (even if some in the Diaspora are harshly critical of the country’s leadership; periodic reports of an unbridgeable rift between the two communities should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the fact that these ties are not identical in quality across all existing communities and subpopulations must not be overlooked; there are groups that unquestionably feel alienated from Israel (and groups within Israel that feel alienated from Diaspora Jewry). We already mentioned the disparity in level of connection to Israel between Canadian and US Jews hardly. Another example: in a study of the Greater Washington, D.C. Jewish community one can detect a disparity in ties to Israel between Jews married to Jews and Jews married to non-Jews, as well as between older Jews (65 and over) and younger Jews. This study’s findings also underscore the strong link, one repeatedly substantiated by researchers, between visiting Israel and having emotional ties to it. Among those who have never visited Israel, nearly a third say they have no sense of connection to the country (29 percent). In contrast, only 2 percent of those who have visited Israel several times attest to a lack of emotional connection.

Diaspora Jews’ sense of connection to Israel is affected by many factors, some related to values and political trends, others to personal choice and social trends, still others to developments in Israel/Israeli culture, Diaspora Jewry, and the world generally. Public discourse in the Jewish world commonly emphasizes current affairs and political developments as drivers of general trends. Thus, the fact that most American Jews vehemently oppose Trump administration policy and find Donald Trump personally abhorrent, while Israeli Jews express gratitude and appreciation of the current US president, has given rise to a monumental political dissonance that sometimes spills over into the more complex spheres of identity and values. Similarly, when Israel elects governments that are influenced by the Orthodox parties, difficulties are created for many non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, for whom Israeli policy on issues of religion and state is a source of alienation.

Nonetheless, it must be stressed that developments on the political plane explain only some of the challenges that characterize Israel-Diaspora relations. No less, and perhaps more significant, are the cultural and social developments underway in both the Diaspora and Israel. The fact that Israeli Jewish culture emphasizes national expression, while Jewish culture in many other places is religion-oriented, makes it hard to conduct a mutually-understandable dialogue on issues pertaining to the Jewish people’s shared future. Once known for its intimate, small-scale feel, Israel has transformed over the past few decades into a teeming populace divided into subgroups, each with its own social agenda and ideology. Israel has a high birthrate and enjoys considerable military/political might and rapid economic growth that puts it well along the path toward a Western-style society of abundance.

Politically, it is dominated by the conservative right, which relies on religious and traditional voters, many of whom are Mizrachim – Jews whose families came to Israel from Middle Eastern/North African countries. Diaspora Jewry, by contrast, is characterized by rising integration in general Western society, diminishing group cohesion (due, among other things, to a fading sense of threat from surrounding societies), an erosion of organized-community power, a shift in philanthropy from community-based to individual, a steep upturn in intermarriage rates, necessarily reflected in changing patterns of Jewish consciousness (given that a large proportion of those belonging to the Jewish community are not Jewish), a growing demand for change in the framework guiding relations with an ever-stronger Israel, and reservations among some groups within the Jewish community on issues of Israeli foreign policy (primarily the Palestinian issue) and religion and state.

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