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Jewish World Review
Sept. 12, 2007
/ 29 Elul, 5767
The End of the Bargain
More than half of Jews under 35 would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy, according to a recent report. The exception were the Orthodox. What makes them different and what can the Jewish establishment learn from them?
Sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman have now confirmed what everyone
already knew: Young American Jews do not care very much about Israel. They
are not just apathetic about Israel, that 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. The death and expulsion of
millions is something they could live with. By those standards, they
probably would not see the Holocaust as a "personal" tragedy either.
"These results are very upsetting," said Jewish Agency chairman Zev Bielski.
He then proceeded to give an inane explanation for those numbers: the
comfortable life of most American Jews.
Cohen and Kelman know better. And their answer is summed up in the
demographic they did not interview for their study: Orthodox Jews. A survey
of young Orthodox Jews would have yielded a diametrically opposed and highly
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. And 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.
Even an anti-Zionist Satmar chassid living in the secluded village of Monroe
will intensify his prayers when Israel is at war and follow the action
closely. Why? Because for him the name Jew means something.
The majority of young American Jews and the majority of young Israelis share
in common a lack of interest in their Judaism. But that shared negativity
provides little basis for a relationship. Shared gene pools won't do it
either that smacks of racism. And ethnic identity, it turns out, cannot be
passed down, or survive the breakup of ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods.
What young Jews under 35 feel towards Israel goes beyond apathy to outright
resentment. Israel complicates their social lives and muddies their
political identity. Only 54% profess to be comfortable 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 their atavisms. On campus
and where enlightened folk meet, Israel is scorned as a colonial oppressor.
Who wants to be identified as a sympathizer with apartheid? Once Reform
Judaism disavowed Zionism for fear of being thought disloyal to their host
countries, and young American Jews today share similar fears of being out of
step with their enlightened peers.
Molly Umberger, whose mother is program director of the leftist New Israel
Fund (NIF), told the Jerusalem Post that she views both Israel and
Palestinians as having made lots of mistakes and the situation as
complicated, but generally "tries not to think about [ Israel]." (No wonder
when Bruce Temkin, the director of the NIF, describes Israel as a
"turn-off.") Daniel Alperin, 33, describes his interest in Israel as waning
when he began to hear "the bad stuff" probably about the time he entered
Already the trends lines were pointing in this direction forty years ago. In
a 1965 Commentary 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 at all 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 to those once young intellectuals.
The implications of Cohen and Kelman's findings for American Jewry are
great. The historic bargain linking American Jewry and Israel since the
founding of the 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, and they, in turn, would shower upon Israel
their financial and political support. But Israel is no longer a source of
pride for non-Orthodox Jews, and the identity it provides is not one which
they wish to share.
But the survey signals something else as well: a declining understanding on
the part of American Jews of Judaism in terms of a national identity that
imposes obligations to one's co-nationals.. That is being replaced by a
return to the self-definition of classic German Reform: German (or in this
case American) nationals of the Mosaic persuasion.
Cohen and Kelman are wrong to argue that ethnic identity is being replaced
by religious identity. For when young American Jews say that they view their
Judaism as a religious not national identity, the religion they refer to is
a pretty tepid affair. Precisely because it is so tepid does it fail to
provide them a sense of connection to their fellow Jews, whether 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.
The impact of the declining sense of responsibility to one's fellow Jews is
being felt within American Jewry itself, not just in attitudes towards
Israel. Already only 6% 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 ever more difficult.
And the Orthodox will be left to donate to Israel.
The political implications for Israel are large as well. Fortunately,
Professors Walt and Mearsheimer are wrong about an Israel Lobby comprised
mostly of those with Jewish-sounding names. It is devout Christians, and not
some nefarious Israel Lobby, which is the primary bulwark of American
support for Israel today. That we have to rely on Christian support, rather
than our fellow Jews, however, is a very mixed blessing indeed.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is founder of Jewish Media Resources and a widely-read columnist for the Jerusalem Post's domestic and international editions and for the Hebrew daily Maariv. He is also a respected commentator on Israeli politics, society, culture and the Israeli legal system, who speaks frequently on these topics in the United States, Europe, and Israel. His articles appear regularly in numerous Jewish periodicals in the United States and Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. Rosenblum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children.
© 2007, Jonathan Rosenblum