(September 15, 2017 / JNS) By Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org
For Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political opponents, his government’s woes aren’t just an opportunity to score political points at his expense. They also provide easy-to-understand explanations for the question that nags at the margins of every debate about American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Every negative development or unpopular decision associated with the prime minister is used to rationalize and sometimes even justify the growing chasm between American Jews and Israelis.
But a new study about America Jewish identity gives the lie to this argument. The main reason for changing Jewish attitudes about Israel is rooted in faith, not Israeli politics.
The list of reasons why Jews have problems with Israel is long: There’s the usual carping about settlement building and the stalled peace process; the lack of religious pluralism and the abandonment of a plan to expand an area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall; Netanyahu’s eagerness to stay on President Donald Trump’s good side which is deeply unpopular with most American Jews; accusations of corruption, and now his son Yair’s distasteful use of anti-Semitic memes on social media to attack his father’s foes.
All point to reasons why Americans, especially younger Jews, see Israel and Zionism as a burden on the conscience of Jewish liberals. That ignores the context of a conflict that continues largely because the Palestinians have refused to make peace. But while arguments about Netanyahu’s shortcomings are hindrances to Jewish solidarity, they’re not the real problem.
A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute provides some sobering data about Jewish affiliation. Four years after the Pew Research Center published its, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” that detailed the toll assimilation and intermarriage have taken on Jewish identity in this country, the PRRI survey reveals that these trends have only accelerated.
Among its insights is a breakdown of denominational loyalties. Overall, only 54 percent of Jews claim to be affiliated with one of the religious movements. Reform is the answer for 28 percent, 14 percent say Conservative, 10 percent are Orthodox and two percent Reconstructionist. More than one third, 37 percent, say they are “just Jewish.” Three percent claim to be “something else,” and six percent refuse to answer or say they don’t know.
But if you look only at Jews under 30, the numbers break down this way: Reform, 20 percent; Conservative, 8 percent; Orthodox,15 percent; Reconstructionist, 3 percent and just Jewish, 44 percent.
The key point is the “just Jewish” tag doesn’t so much connote independence of synagogues as it does a sense of Jewish identity devoid of religion or any substance more than a vestigial memory of the past. A whopping 33 percent do not regard themselves as being Jewish by religion. That number expands to 47 percent for those under 30. Pew called this demographic “Jews of no religion.” PRRI calls them “cultural Jews.” But either way, these are people whose connection to being Jewish appears to be mostly a matter of things like food, comedy or a belief that liberal political stands is the essence of their heritage. These numbers reflect not merely the collapse in synagogue attendance among the non-Orthodox but also a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.
This reflects the triumph of freedom in the U.S. in which rising rates of assimilation are a function of the collapse of the barriers between faiths. But the idea that a growing demographic in which Jewish traditions, law and faith is absent can sustain support for Israel is risible. While it can be argued that a secular Jewish identity can be sustained in a country that speaks Hebrew, lives by the Jewish calendar and whose history is bound up in a past rooted in faith as well as ethnic identity, it’s a different story in the United States. Cultural Jews or those without religion here are far less likely to feel the tug of emotion that ties Jewish communities together no matter what political issues divide them. The fact that the Orthodox are more likely to be supportive of Israel and to view it as a litmus test when voting, makes this all the more obvious.
The issues that are driving American Jews away from Israel are much bigger than attitudes about the peace process or pluralism. Think what you will of Netanyahu, but the collapse of faith and peoplehood among U.S. Jews has far more to do with declining support for Israel among the non-Orthodox than with his faults. If American Jews are becoming a people without faith, then Israel is bound to be the loser no matter what its government does.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a Contributing Writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.