The historic bargain linking American Jewry and Israel since the founding of the Jewish state is coming to an end.
The terms of the deal were unspoken, but clear. Israel would provide American Jews with a sense of pride and identity as Jews. They, in turn, would shower upon Israel financial and political support.
But Israel is no longer a source of pride for non-Orthodox Jews, and they don’t want to share the identity it provides.
That conclusion emerges from a recent study published by sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman. They found that American Jews under 35 do not care much about Israel.
They are not just apathetic. Indifference is “giving way to downright alienation,” write Cohen and Kelman.
More than half of Jews under 35 said that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy. They could live with the death and expulsion of millions.
What young Jews under 35 feel towards Israel goes beyond apathy to resentment. Israel complicates their social lives and muddies their politics.
Only 54 percent profess comfort with the idea of a Jewish state at all. In Europe and on elite American campuses, internationalism and a world-without-borders are the rage.
The Jews of Israel, with their stubborn insistence on protecting their nation-state, are, as always, out-of-sync. Young American Jews do not wish to be tarred with such atavisms.
On campus and where enlightened folk meet, Israel is scorned as a colonial oppressor. Who wants to be branded a sympathizer with apartheid?
No mere abstraction
Trend lines were pointing in this direction 40 years ago. In a 1965 Commentary magazine symposium of younger Jewish intellectuals — the least religiously identified segment of American Jewry — only one expressed complete comfort with Israel’s creation and pride in its accomplishments, and he eventually made aliyah.
The rest expressed various degrees of discomfort with Israel’s militarism (and this was before 1967 and the “occupation”). The only Jewish identity they acknowledged was that of the “Jew” as the perpetually alienated critic of those in power — not exactly one upon which to base a connection to other Jews. Now the rest of American Jewry is catching up.
Jewish Agency chairman Zev Bielski labeled the recent results “very distressing,” and then gave a ridiculous explanation for them: the comfortable life of most American Jews.
Cohen and Kelman know better. Their answer is summed up in the demographic they did not interview for their study: Orthodox Jews. A survey of them would have yielded a diametrically opposite result.
Among younger Jews, those for whom their Judaism is important, primarily the Orthodox, will remain connected to the fate of their fellow Jews in Israel. Most Orthodox American youth will study in Israel after high school, some for many years.
Almost all will visit Israel many times. Eretz Yisrael is not a mere abstraction for them, but the center of the spiritual life of the Jewish people.
The majority of young American Jews and the majority of young Israelis share in common a lack of interest in Judaism. But that shared negativity provides little basis for a relationship.
Shared gene pools won’t do it either; that smacks of racism. Ethnic identity, it turns out, cannot be passed down, or survive the breakup of ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods.
But the survey signals something else as well: a declining understanding by American Jews of Judaism as a national identity that imposes obligations to one’s co-nationals.
That is being replaced by the self-definition of classic German Reform: German (or in this case American) nationals of the Mosaic persuasion.
Cohen and Kelman wrongly argue that ethnic identity is being replaced by religious identity. When young American Jews say that they view Judaism as a religious identity, the religion they refer to is a tepid affair.
Because it is so tepid, it fails to provide them a sense of connection to their fellow Jews, in America or abroad. It is a religion largely lacking connection to the Land of Israel, and even more importantly to the defining event in Jewish history, the giving of Torah at Sinai. Absent the latter, there is no common mission to link the descendants of those who stood at Sinai.
Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College (Reform), described the new Reform prayer book as emphasizing Reform Jews’ increased interest in spirituality over national identity.
Unfortunately, the Torah defines us as a nation, not just a faith community.
Any religion that downplays the common national identity of Jews is not Torah Judaism, but some new creation.
The effect of the declining sense of responsibility to one’s fellow Jews is being felt not just in attitudes towards Israel. Already only 6 percent of giving by mega-Jewish foundations goes to remotely Jewish causes.
It is hardly surprising, for instance, that non-Jewish spouses are not eager to contribute to Jewish causes. In time, funding the institutions of American Jewry will become more difficult, and the Orthodox will be left to donate to Israel.
The political implications are large as well. Fortunately, Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer are wrong about an Israel Lobby comprised mostly of those with Jewish-sounding names.
Devout Christians, not some nefarious Israel Lobby, are the primary bulwark of American support for Israel today. That we have to rely on Christian support, rather than fellow Jews, however, is a mixed blessing.
Jonathan Rosenblum is founder of Jewish Media Resources.