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2018 Annual Assessment

Among American Jews, with an emphasis on those with a liberal perspective, an erosion of the Jewish component of identity seems to be accelerating. High intermarriage rates contribute to this trend. More than half of U.S. Jewry identifies as liberal, and just 20 percent of them self-identify as conservative. Most American Jews (70 percent) were on the losing side in the 2016 presidential elections. Israeli policy on various issues (primarily its continued control over the Palestinians) is perceived by many liberal Jews as inconsistent with the call to be a “light unto the nations” and the value of “Tikkun Olam.” (Along this line, the approval of the Nation State law on July 19, 2018 has generated harsh criticism among these groups).

Thus, there is a tension between their liberal values and their love of Israel. For these Jews, Israel is moving in a conservative direction and distancing itself from liberal and pluralistic values. A reflection of this can also be seen in the controversy over the realm of “religion and state”: recognition of Judaism’s different streams, conversion and, prayer at the Western Wall.

The concurrence of an internal U.S. trend rightward and the strengthening of the right in Israel makes it difficult for many liberal/progressive Jews to feel a sense of solidarity with Israel. The lack of Jewish unity with regard to Israel also impacts the community’s ability to exert political influence on Israel’s behalf. Additionally, one should consider the possible decline of the power of Jewish organizations at both the community and national levels, in light of the general trend of abandoning large organizations and the “post-organization” era in America generally, and among American Jews in particular.

The American Jewish leadership also faces a dilemma related to President Trump: if and how to express the discomfort most Jewish Americans feel with the president without losing the status and influence they have acquired through tremendous effort over a period of decades. Moreover, how can they do this without harming Israeli interests? Israel sees Trump as a friend who deserves a great deal of credit (the Trump administration has not hidden its frustration that his pro-Israel steps – highlighted by the embassy move – have not been met with appropriate recognition and gratitude from many American Jews).

The internal Jewish polarization points to another phenomenon: the same group of American Jews (20 to 30 percent) – mainly Orthodox – who supported Trump suggests a new strategy for Jewish integration in American society at large. During the past century, the integration model was based on adopting liberal social values – pluralism, tolerance, and equality – while concealing external Jewish cultural and religious characteristics (identified with Orthodox Jewry). The growing impact of the American Christian right and the relative increase in the number of Orthodox Jews, underscores a different path for integration into American society based on conservative notions of fairness (reward and punishment), loyalty, sanctity, and respect for authority, rather than the liberal values traditionally associated with American Jewry.30
This phenomenon is reinforced by the reality that portions of the liberal Jewish public are assimilating into general American society while the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, with their high birth rates, are rapidly growing. However, those communities are traditionally less involved in the public and political discourse and therefore, it still isn’t clear what impact internal-Jewish demographic trends will have on the future strength of Jewish influence in America.

The ideological polarization taking place in the United States has, to some degree, an Israeli parallel. The leadership of both countries rests with political parties that emphasize conservative notions of nationalism, religion, and tradition, and support a foreign policy based on competition and realpolitik with no illusions of worldwide brotherhood. These ideological trends in the two countries, along with the growing power of Orthodox Judaism in America, signal a development that is not yet clear will become permanent: the emergence of an alternative relationship triangle whose shared values are significantly different on certain points than those that have characterized the “old” triangle.

Against this background, some among the American Jewish leadership are warning that decision makers in Jerusalem must pay more attention to changing trends in America. They believe that the passage of time is eroding the memory of certain formative historical events – the Holocaust, the heroic establishment of the State of Israel (“the few against the many”), the victory in the Six Day War, the Entebbe Operation, and the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, Israel must make it a top priority to nurture bipartisan American empathy toward it and enhance awareness of its achievements as a valuable U.S. asset. They also emphasize that resources should be allocated to create a support base among the younger generation and among the growing minority communities in America (Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians). At the same time, they also argue that Israeli policy must also relate to the difficulty of the large liberal Jewish population in the United States to feel an affinity with Israel, particularly among younger Jews.

The phenomena described place complex dilemmas before the Israeli government: Is Israel interested (and capable) of taking a particular approach to the Trump administration that maintain the level of closeness with it while also reflecting the fact that Israel does not agree with all of its views? Should there be additional channels for dialogue and should mechanisms for coordination be improved so that the positions of Diaspora Jewry can be weighted more effectively in the decision-making processes taking place in Israel on Jewish people issues? And, naturally, to what extent should Israel be sensitive to the views and concerns of American Jews when making decisions that have implications for them?