Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Representing Those Who Care

Kudos to the ADL’s Abe Foxman for having the guts to say the obvious. After a Pew Research poll released earlier this week found that only 38 percent of American Jews think Israel “is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians,” the Jewish Daily Forward concluded that American Jewish organizations have a problem: Since “American Jews are far more critical of Israel than the Jewish establishment,” shouldn’t the establishment change its positions to better reflect those of its constituency?

Most Jewish leaders the Forward interviewed rejected that position. But Foxman demolished it in two short sentences. “You know who the Jewish establishment represents?” he said. “Those who care.”

Foxman, of course, is exactly right. The 38 percent who believe in Israel’s peacemaking bona fides is statistically indistinguishable (since the poll’s margin of error is 3 percent in either direction) from the 43 percent who deem “caring about Israel” an “essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” and actually exceeds the mere 28 percent who consider “being part of a Jewish community” essential to their Jewish identity.  Belonging to a Jewish community, incidentally, was outranked in American Jews’ list of Jewish essentials not only by “remembering Holocaust” (the chart-topper at 73 percent), “leading ethical/moral life” (69 percent) or “working for justice/equality” (56 percent), but even by “having good sense of humor” (42 percent) and “being intellectually curious” (49 percent). Only “observing Jewish law” and “eating traditional Jewish foods” came in lower.

But organized Jewry can’t plausibly represent people with good senses of humor or intellectual curiosity, or who “work for justice/equality,” since the vast majority of Americans in these categories aren’t Jews. Indeed, no organization can claim to represent anyone who has no interest in belonging to an organized community. Hence the only people Jewish organizations can reasonably claim to represent are that alarmingly small minority who care about “being part of a Jewish community.” They are the people who provide these organizations with the cash and volunteer hours needed to run them, and they are the people whose views these organizations exist to represent.

But they are also the people most likely to care about Israel, and as the American Jewish Committee’s Steve Bayme noted, they “are also [the] most knowledgeable” about it. Thus they are less likely to believe simplistic narratives of the conflict such as that settlements are the main obstacle to peace. Indeed, even the Forward’s reporter admitted that the 22 percent of self-identified Jews who said they had “no religion”–who are far less Jewishly committed than other Jews by every criterion Pew measured, including such basics as raising Jewish children–are also “far less likely to believe that the Israelis are sincere in their peace efforts than those who said that their religion is Judaism.”

Left-wing critics of Israel like Peter Beinart have recently been pushing the narrative that Israel’s behavior, and the Jewish establishment’s failure to criticize it sufficiently, are driving young Jews away from Jewish life. That was the implicit point of the Forward article as well. But what the Pew poll shows is that the opposite is true: The problem isn’t that Israel is driving Jews away from Jewish life; it’s that Jews for whom “being Jewish” means nothing but the Holocaust and a sense of humor are inevitably less pro-Israel. In contrast, those who care about Jewish communal life are far more supportive. And as Foxman said, Jewish organizations represent the latter group–“those who care.”

Thus contrary to Beinart, J Street, and their ilk, the problem committed American Jews ought to be losing sleep over isn’t how to increase pressure on Israel. Rather, it’s how to produce more Jews who actually care about being part of the Jewish community.