Analysis from Israel

Mosaic magazine has been running a fascinating series about why American Jews are drifting away from Israel. All the contributors (correctly) ascribed this drift primarily to the dilution of American Jewish identity through a combination of rampant intermarriage and attempts “to universalize every aspect of Judaism,” as one contributor, Jack Wertheimer, put it. But among the secondary factors contributing to this development, one has been oddly overlooked: the difference in lived experience between Israeli Jews, still surrounded by enemies who truly want to kill them, and American Jews, currently enjoying an era of (possibly short-lived) safety almost unprecedented in Diaspora Jewish experience. To understand just how significant this experience of safety is, it’s worth comparing American Jewish attitudes with those of Jewish communities in Europe.

Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer, who covers European Jewish communities extensively for his paper, once summarized attitudes toward Israel as follows: “the further east you go, all the way to the Caucasus, Jews become steadily more right-wing, more stridently pro-Israel, and less prepared to countenance any form of concessions or compromise towards Israel’s enemies and rivals.” Nor is the reason hard to find: In places where anti-Semitism and persecution are lived experiences or fairly recent memories, Jews consider a strong Israel an asset.

Pfeffer said Russian and Ukrainian Jews have told him that “When Israel bombs Gaza and kills Palestinians, our neighbors here fear and respect us.” But there’s a simpler reason why Jews who feel threatened want Israel to be strong: A strong Israel is one that will still be around to welcome them if the day comes when they need someplace to flee. And many European Jews consider this a real possibility.

Daniel Ben-Simon, who wrote a book about French Jews’ response to anti-Semitism, estimated back in 2012 that “almost one in two French Jews maintains a residence in Israel. It’s a sort of insurance policy, just in case the situation in France gets even worse.” Today, some of those Jews have started moving: Immigration to Israel hit a 15-year high last year, and French Jews led the pack, with 7,900 immigrants, an all-time peak.

Not far behind, however, were Ukraine and Russia (7,000 and 6,000, respectively), where Jews were fleeing political instability, economic turmoil and conflict in eastern Ukraine. This is particularly noteworthy because intermarriage rates in Ukraine and Russia are even higher than in America, and many immigrants from those countries are either intermarried themselves or the children or grandchildren of intermarriages. In other words, the drift away from Israel caused by intermarriage in America hasn’t been replicated in Eastern Europe, for the simple reason that there, unlike in America, intermarried Jews and their children can still imagine needing the refuge Israel provides.

The anomaly of American Jews’ feelings of safety is also reflected in voting patterns. Not long ago, Jews in other Western countries supported left-leaning parties as reliably as American Jews did. But today, they are increasingly shifting their support to center-right parties; in Britain, France, Canada and Australia, for instance, most Jews now vote conservative. This isn’t because they’ve become less economically or socially liberal than their American peers; it’s because the specter of anti-Semitism (initially masquerading as anti-Zionism) has suddenly risen from its very shallow grave and is concentrated mainly in two communities: Muslims and the hard left. A prime example is the recent spate of anti-Semitism scandals in Britain’s Labour party, which prompted former BBC director Danny Cohen to declare last weekend that he couldn’t imagine any Jew voting Labour today: “it would be like being a Muslim and voting for Donald Trump, how could you do it?” Thus outside America, Jews have increasingly reverted to the age-old practice of voting for the party they think will protect them.

And this brings us to a third reason why Jews who feel less secure are more likely to sympathize with Israel: Anyone who has experienced insecurity understands that sometimes it leaves you with no good choices; only a choice between two evils. How, for instance, is a British Jew to vote if he loathes the Tories’ economic and social policies but also abhors Labour’s increasingly open anti-Semitism? For him, both choices are bad; he can only try to pick the lesser evil.

And having faced that situation, he’s more likely to understand that Israel, too, faces unpalatable choices in dealing with very real threats. The status quo in the West Bank clearly isn’t ideal, but withdrawing would likely make the situation worse, as it did in Gaza. Bombing Gaza in response to Hamas rockets isn’t ideal, but letting Hamas bombard southern Israel with impunity would be worse.

American Jews never experienced as much anti-Semitism as their European counterparts did, but even for them, fear of persecution was at least a living memory until recently. They had parents or grandparents who fled persecution in Europe, or who had experienced the genteel anti-Semitism of the “gentleman’s agreement,” whereby Jews were quietly excluded from many American companies, hotels, clubs and even colleges.

Thus, those American Jews could still imagine needing Israel as a refuge – if not for themselves, then at least for their brethren in Europe. They could still feel, like Ukrainian and Russian Jews today, that Israel’s military victories made them more respected by their neighbors (it’s no accident that American Jews’ affection for Israel soared after its stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War). And they could still understand that Israel, confronted by enemies who genuinely want to destroy it, has no ideal solutions available; instead, it must choose among multiple evils.

Given what is happening on American campuses nowadays, I’m not convinced those bad old days won’t return. But for now, basking in the safety America has provided, too many American Jews have forgotten the lessons of millennia of Jewish history. And in the process, they have also forgotten one of the key universal values they so pride themselves on upholding, that of compassion for those not blessed with similar safety – all the Jews who may yet need the refuge Israel provides, and the Jews busy ensuring that refuge will still exist when it’s needed.

Originally published in Commentary on April 20, 2016

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‘We need to talk’ about the role of non-Orthodox movements

The Jewish Federations of North America are holding their annual General Assembly this week under the title “We Need to Talk,” with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are unnecessary to maintaining Jewish identity—something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and 7 percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent, respectively, of Reform and Conservative Jews.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

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