Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Dec. 4, 2001 / 19 Kislev, 5762


These days, it seems US Christians care more about Israel than American Jews do



By Jonathan Rosenblum

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CONVENTIONAL wisdom attributes the broad popular support that Israel enjoys in the US to the power of the Jewish lobby and the intense support for Israel among American Jews. That conventional wisdom, however, misses a great deal.

Concern with Israel's security has long since ceased to preoccupy most American Jews. A recent survey by the Jewish Studies Center of CCNY concludes that of the 5.5 million Americans defined by sociologists as Jewish, half list their religion as "other" or "none."

Not surprisingly, ethnic identity of American Jews is declining rapidly. With little sense of themselves as Jews, most American Jews have little connection to one another, much less to Jews far away.

Even among those with more than a minimal Jewish identity, the Israel connection tends to be fickle. Witness the Reform movement's cancellation of programs last summer and the nearly 50% drop out rate among this year's rabbinical and cantorial students at the Conservative Shechter Institute. A mere 135 foreign students are registered for the Hebrew University's one-year program this year, less than a quarter of the number just two years ago.

When American Jews express opinions on Israel, they often appear to be completely out of touch with events here, and with the vast changes in Israeli public opinion over the past year. A recent survey conducted by Jewish groups close to the Clinton administration claims, mirable dictu, that 85% of American Jews want the US to return to the activist role of the Clinton years - 75% even if it leads to confrontations between Israel and the States.

While those numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, the remarkable thing is that they reflect absolutely no change in light of the events of the past year. The sole exception to this bleak general picture is the American Orthodox community. At the typical Israel Day Parade, a large majority of the participants will be wearing knitted kippot and long skirts. Already 20 years ago, historian Lucy Dawidowicz observed that only the Orthodox vote reflects great concern for Jewish interests, among which the security of Jews in Israel is paramount.

Nor is Orthodox support limited to sending checks. Despite a year of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, there has actually been a slight increase in the enrollment of American post-high school students registered in yeshivas and seminaries in Israel.

Over 5,000 single young Orthodox Americans have come this year to study at these institutions, and thousands more young married men are continuing their yeshiva studies.

All this is not to say that the Jewish lobby does not play an important role in Washington, or that American Jewish philanthropy is not vital to Israel. AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups are feared, if not always loved, on Capitol Hill. Any politician with national ambitions must consider the heavy concentration of Jews in states rich in electoral votes, and the wildly disproportionate Jewish money contributed to campaigns.

But while Jewish votes assure that New York's senators will always be demonstrably pro-Israel, those votes cannot begin to explain the broad consensus of congressional support for Israel and the consistently positive feelings toward Israel of the general American population.

Many of Israel's staunchest supporters in Congress have traditionally come from states with small Jewish populations: e.g., Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Senator Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, Attorney-General John Ashcroft, formerly a senator from Missouri; and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Far from being supported by the mainstream Jewish community, these men are often anathematized by Jewish groups for their social conservatism. On a host of issues, from school prayer to aid to educational tax vouchers to abortion, they consistently line up on the opposite side from the organized Jewish community.

These men support Israel not because of the mainstream Jewish community, but despite it. Their views are shaped by their own consciences and reflect the consensus of their overwhelmingly Christian constituents.

Devout Christians constitute the bedrock of American support for Israel. Such Christians number in the tens of millions. Unlike American Jews, they are not embarrassed by criticisms of Israel in certain left-wing circles, and do not cancel tours to Israel after each terrorist incident.

Even a casual survey of the letters to the editor of The Jerusalem Post reveals how avidly many American Christians follow events in Israel. Mindful of the crucial importance of devout Christians, AIPAC employed an evangelical Christian as its chief lobbyist for years.

Orthodox Jews constitute a potentially vital link to the fundamentalist community. They find it easy to talk to believers of other religions. "God talk" does not give them the willies; they also talk like that.

Christian supporters of Israel open up their Bibles and read that Israel is the Promised Land, promised to the Jews. The God-intoxicated Jews they read about in the Bible observe strict dietary laws, honor the Sabbath, and are bound by strict codes of sexual morality.

The Jews of the Bible, however, bear little resemblance to those the average American Christian is likely to see on TV or read about, who are likely to be found at the forefront of every movement of sexual liberation.

Given the image of Jews as the least religious segment of the American population, Christians who take the Bible seriously are bound to ask themselves: Do the Jews of the Bible - the ones to whom the Land was promised - still exist?

Similar questions about the connection between Jews of today and those of the Bible are aroused by the apparent indifference of so many modern Jews to the sanctity of the Land and even to the most important historical sites of their religion, like Rachel's Tomb and the Temple Mount.

Israel's Christian friends are thrilled when they meet Jews who take seriously the Bible's commandments and who continue to cherish the Temple Mount as the place where the Divine Presence dwelt. A visible Orthodox community thus serves as an important corrective to Christian stereotypes about godless Jews.

Orthodox Jews are Israel's secret weapon in the war for American public opinion. They constitute, as a group, Israel's most committed supporters within the American Jewish community. And they serve as a crucial link between Israel and its strongest Christian supporters.


JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He can be reached by clicking here.

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© 2001, Jonathan Rosenblum Distributed by Am Eachad Resources<