Who shrunk our extended Jewish family?

If a growing number of American Jews don’t see Israelis as part of their family, don’t blame Trump or Netanyahu.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport on May 23, 2017. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
U.S. President Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport on May 23, 2017. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The latest survey of American Jewish and Israeli opinion from the American Jewish Committee has just been published, and the results are not surprising. The gap between the two populations is growing on some important issues. Americans and Israelis are divided by their opinions of U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as by issues relating to the Middle East peace process. But the most noteworthy finding is about family, not politics.

U.S. President Donald Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport on May 23, 2017. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

When asked whether they regarded each other as siblings, first cousins, extended family or “not part of my family,” the two groups gave very different answers. Some 28 percent of Israelis saw American Jews as siblings, 10 percent answered first cousins, 40 percent saw them as extended family, while only 22 percent said they were not family at all. By contrast, only 12 percent of American Jews said Israelis were siblings, 15 percent said first cousins, 39 percent as extended family and 31 percent not part of the family.

That gap, which shows that American Jews feel less of a connection to Israelis, is far more significant than political differences over Trump and the peace process. The findings, which seem to build on statistics in the 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans produced by the Pew Survey, show a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood among American Jews.

If so, then the question to be asked is who or what is causing the extended Jewish family to shrink.

To critics of the Israeli government, the alienation that many Americans feel about the Jewish state is directly linked to politics, both American and Israeli.

As the dual survey illustrates, Americans and Israelis see the world very differently.

Chief among those differences is their attitudes towards Trump. A whopping 77 percent of Israelis approve or approve strongly of the way the president has handled U.S.-Israeli relations. Only 34 percent of American Jews agree. When it comes to his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which the United States finally recognized as Israel’s capital, 48 percent of Americans were opposed while 47 percent supported it. By contrast, a stunning 85 percent of Israelis were in favor of the move with only 7 percent opposed.

Other major differences include the fact that a strong majority of Americans—59 percent—favor the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank. Only 44 percent of Israelis concur. The same percentage of Americans, 59 percent, also believe that some or all West Bank settlements should be dismantled for peace with the Palestinians, while only 39 percent of Israelis favor such a policy.

Another key point of disagreement was the lack of religious pluralism in Israel. A whopping 80 percent of Americans favor giving non-Orthodox rabbis the right to perform marriages in Israel with 17 percent opposed. Among Israelis, a slight plurality agrees with 49 percent favoring giving them that right and 45 percent opposed. Those numbers are, rather obviously, a function of identification with religious denominations. Only 11 percent of American Jews identify as Orthodox or Haredi, while 21 percent do so in Israel. But while a majority of Israelis see themselves as either traditional/not religious or secular, a miniscule 1 percent identify with the non-Orthodox movements as opposed to 46 percent of Americans.

The twin surveys are interesting reading, but these numbers don’t tell us more than we already know about the two communities. There are points of general agreement, such as a belief in both a thriving Israel and Diaspora. But Israeli Jews clearly lean to the right politically, while American Jews are overwhelming liberal in their points of view about a host of issues.

Yet if you were looking for an answer to explain that key divergence about seeing each other as part of the same family, it would be a mistake to get lost in the weeds as we delve through the numbers.

A lot of the discrepancies, especially on Trump and Jerusalem, can easily be explained by partisan affiliation rather than fundamental disagreements. A majority of American Jews are liberals and Democrats. They despise Trump and see everything he does in a negative light, even something like moving the embassy, which was once a consensus issue among American Jews. Their attitudes about the Israeli government are similarly influenced by partisanship.

But if American Jews are less inclined to care deeply about the ties that ought to unite these two branches of the Jewish people, it would be foolish to view policy or partisan differences as the main point of contention.

It’s true that for some, anger about the “occupation” or resentment about pluralism might be driving some them away from Israel. But at the heart of the matter is a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood on the part of many American Jews, not their views of Trump or Netanyahu.

Novelist Michael Chabon’s address to the graduating class of Reform rabbis at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion, in which he blasted not merely Israeli policies but also the whole idea of promoting in-marriage, provoked controversy. But the real problem is that his views reflect the reality first explored by Pew that a growing number of American Jews agree with him about the value of preserving a distinct Jewish people. In an American culture that sees all parochial beliefs as suspect, if not racist, many Jews eye Israel with suspicion or no longer value the connection to a Jewish state. It’s not so much that Israel is identified with the right or doing anything that outrages Americans as it is bound up with ideas about nationalism and identity that many Jews have come to revile.

It is this problem rather than mere differences over the peace process, pluralism or even Trump that those who wish to strengthen ties between Israelis and Americans must address. If American Jews truly wish to preserve our extended Jewish family, then they need to look to actions that reinforce their Jewish identity and understanding of the importance of Israel and Zionism, and not be distracted by a partisan divide that, while significant, doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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