Commentary Magazine


Topic: American Jewry

Using a Double Standard on Hate Crimes to Bash Israel

Hateful graffiti targeting a minority have repeatedly been scrawled on cars and buildings, including houses of worship, yet police frequently fail to arrest the culprits. Innocent people have been viciously attacked and occasionally even murdered just because they belong to this minority. Clearly, this is a country awash in racism and prejudice that it’s making no real effort to stem, so it deserves harsh condemnation from anyone who cares about such fundamental liberal values as tolerance and nonviolence, right?

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Hateful graffiti targeting a minority have repeatedly been scrawled on cars and buildings, including houses of worship, yet police frequently fail to arrest the culprits. Innocent people have been viciously attacked and occasionally even murdered just because they belong to this minority. Clearly, this is a country awash in racism and prejudice that it’s making no real effort to stem, so it deserves harsh condemnation from anyone who cares about such fundamental liberal values as tolerance and nonviolence, right?

That’s certainly the conclusion many liberals leaped to about a similar wave of anti-Arab attacks in Israel. But what I actually just described is the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the United States, and there has–quite properly–been no similar rush to denounce America. Since the American government and people overwhelmingly condemn such attacks, and America remains one of the best places in the world to live openly as a Jew, liberals correctly treat such incidents as exceptions rather than proof that the U.S. is irredeemably anti-Semitic. But somehow, Israel never merits a similarly nuanced analysis.

Consider just a few of the attacks I referenced in the first paragraph: This past weekend–on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year–swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity at Emory University in Atlanta, and also on a synagogue in Spokane, Washington, on the other side of the country. In August, a Jewish couple was attacked in New York by thugs who shouted anti-Semitic slogans, threw a water bottle at the woman, and punched her skullcap-wearing husband. In July, pro-Israel demonstrators were attacked by stick-wielding thugs in Los Angeles. On August 9, an Orthodox rabbi was murdered in Miami while walking to synagogue on the Sabbath; police insist this wasn’t a hate crime, though they haven’t yet arrested any suspects, but local Jews are unconvinced, as a synagogue and a Jewish-owned car on the same street were vandalized with anti-Semitic slogans just two weeks earlier. And in April, a white supremacist killed three people at two Jewish institutions near Kansas City, Kansas.

A Martian looking at this list, devoid of any context, might well conclude that America is a deeply anti-Semitic country. And of course, he’d be wrong. Context–the fact that these incidents are exceptions to the overwhelmingly positive picture of Jewish life in America–matters greatly.

Yet that’s no less true for anti-Arab attacks in Israel. As in America, both the government and the public have almost unanimously condemned such attacks. As in America, culprits have been swiftly arrested in some cases, like the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July; also as in America, the failure to make arrests in other cases stems not from tolerance for such crimes, but from the simple fact that some cases are harder to solve than others.

Finally, as in America, these incidents belie the fact that overall, Israeli Arabs are better integrated and have more rights not only than any of their counterparts in the Middle East, but also than some of their counterparts in Europe. Israel, for instance, has no laws against building minarets, like Switzerland does, or against civil servants wearing headscarves, as France does. Arabs serve in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and sometimes the cabinet; they are doctors, university department heads, judges, and high-tech workers.

Clearly, anti-Arab prejudice exists in Israel, just as anti-Jewish prejudice exists in America. But a decade-old tracking project found that it has been declining rather than growing. And successive governments have been trying hard in recent years to narrow persistent Arab-Jewish gaps: For instance, an affirmative action campaign almost quadrupled the number of Arabs in the civil service from 2007 to 2011. Indeed, as Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, argued in August, it’s precisely the Arab minority’s growing integration that has outraged the anti-Arab fringe and helped spark the recent rise in hate crimes.

So it’s past time for liberals to give Israel the same courtesy they extend America: Stop looking at hate crimes in a vacuum and start seeing them for what they are–isolated incidents that don’t and shouldn’t condemn an entire country as “racist.”

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Why AIPAC Matters and Its Critics Don’t

Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

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Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

The pro-Israel lobby has had its ups and downs and as Bruck’s article, which devotes a great deal of space to the history of the organization, demonstrates. The problems generally occur when Israel’s friends run into confrontations with sitting presidents and those stories always end the same way. Whether it was Ronald Reagan and his decision to sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia or Barack Obama’s attempts to head off plans for tough sanctions on Iran, no matter how much support AIPAC can amass on Capitol Hill, no lobbying group can beat the occupant of the mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if they go all in on a specific issue.

But even an attempt to write a critical history of AIPAC must acknowledge that it has helped forge a U.S.-Israel alliance whose enduring strength transcends party loyalties as well as the changing names of presidents and cabinet secretaries. As Bruck is forced to acknowledge in the lede of her piece, this summer’s congressional action to give Israel more funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system in the midst of the ongoing war in Gaza was a triumph for the lobby. It as also a timely rebuke from the leadership of both congressional caucuses to an Obama administration that had gone out of its way to try and delay the delivery of ammunition supplies to the Israel Defense Forces as part of its strategy to pressure the Jewish state into halting its counterattack on Hamas in Gaza and agreeing to unsatisfactory cease-fire terms. That two bitter foes like Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell who normally couldn’t agree to back a resolution saying the sky was blue would unite on behalf of Israel in this manner, with the Senate agreeing to delay its summer recess in order to get the measure passed, shows that AIPAC’s clout is undiminished. The fact that this is so despite the fact that, for all of its reputation as the most powerful lobby in Washington, AIPAC hasn’t nearly the money or the influence of other lobbies such as that of the oil or pharmaceutical industries only makes their achievement even more amazing.

But Bruck’s main point in a piece where she tries hard to work in quotes from the organization’s critics is not so much as to try and make a weak case about it losing ground on Capitol Hill. Rather it is to claim that AIPAC is out of touch with liberal American Jews who are increasingly distancing themselves from the Jewish state and who view Israel’s center-right government with distaste.

This is the same argument put forward over and over again by people like author Peter Beinart, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and was rehashed in the same newspaper on Sunday in another lengthy rant by British analyst Antony Lerman. They believe Israel’s refusal to make peace and insistence on occupation and rough treatment of the Palestinians disgusts most liberal Jews in the Diaspora, especially the youth that has grown up in an era in which the Jewish state is seen as a regional superpower rather than as the one small, besieged nation in the midst of Arab enemies determined to destroy it.

But the problem with this argument is that no matter how many times liberal critics of Israel tell us how disillusioned they are with the reality of a Jewish state at war, they invariably neglect, as did Lerman and Bruck, to discuss why it is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews see things differently. The point is, no matter how unsatisfactory the status quo may seem to most Israelis, unlike their Diaspora critics, they have been paying attention to events in the Middle East during the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords ushered in an era of peace negotiations. They know that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinian Authority peace deals that would have given them an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and that it has been turned down flat every time.

Rather than Israel needing to finally take risks for peace, as liberal critics keep insisting, the Jewish state has done so repeatedly. It brought Yasir Arafat and the PLO back into the territories and empowered them and rather than trading land for peace, it got the terrorism and horror of the second intifada. It withdrew every last soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza in 2005 and instead of creating space for a productive and peaceful Palestinian state, it got a Hamas-run Islamist state that has rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and used international aid funds and materials to build tunnels to facilitate terrorism.

This cruel reality has destroyed the once dominant left-wing Israeli political parties, but American liberals haven’t paid much attention to it or anything the Palestinians do or say. This is especially instructive this summer as Hamas launched a terror war that illustrated even for those not paying close attention that when it says it wants to end the “occupation,” it is not discussing the future of the West Bank but reasserting its goal to eradicate Israel and slaughter and/or evict its Jewish population.

It is true that American Jewry is changing in ways that may eventually cripple its ability to be a coherent force on behalf of Israel as well as its other vital interests. But, contrary to the liberal critics, that has little to do with the policies of Israeli governments and everything to do with statistics about assimilation and intermarriage that speak to a demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry.

That’s a serious problem as is the ongoing tension with an Obama administration whose barely concealed hostility to the Netanyahu government is making mischief on several fronts, including negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran that seems headed toward appeasement of the ayatollahs rather than a fulfillment of the president’s campaign pledges to prevent Tehran from acquiring a weapon.

But it doesn’t point toward the irrelevance of AIPAC, let alone the ascendance of J Street, its left-wing rival that has gained virtually no ground on Capitol Hill or anywhere else during an administration that should have been their ally.

AIPAC counts because it is connected to the reality of a Middle East where Israel remains the sole democracy and a vital American ally while the Palestinians continue to embrace terror and reject peace. So long as that is the case, Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people will remain firmly on Israel’s side and, by extension, AIPAC. Though we should expect that its critics will continue to carp away on the sidelines and predict its doom, so long as they ignore what the Palestinians do or say, they will remain irrelevant or sink into the same kind of conspiratorial anti-Semitism that sank Walt and Mearsheimer.

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The Problem with American Jewry

When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

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When it comes to either American politics or Israel, I find myself in constant disagreement with Peter Beinart. I find his approach to foreign policy absurd (his piece published yesterday in The Atlantic lamely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq failed to mention his own muscular, if temporary backing for the same conflict) and his writings advocating that Americans save Israel from itself are utterly clueless about the reality of Palestinian rejectionism as well as the needs of the Jewish state. But when it comes to the question of Jewish education, his position is as well informed as it is correct. Indeed, his most recent piece in Haaretz in which he lamented the sorry state of American Jewry, especially when compared to the Australian Jewish community, is right on target.

Most of the organized Jewish community has reacted to the dismal statistics about assimilation and intermarriage to be found in the Pew Study A Portrait of Jewish Americans, which I discussed in the November issue of COMMENTARY, with complacence if not indifference. The fact that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country is rapidly intermarrying itself into communal oblivion is regarded by some of the leading figures of American Jewish life as inevitable and not worth complaining about. I wrote about the efforts of a group of Jewish academics, writers, and community activists led by the trio of Steven Cohen, Steven Bayme, and Jack Wertheimer, to come up with a response to this crisis that can help turn the tide or at least change the conversation about the situation in the April issue of COMMENTARY. But sadly, it has not gotten the support it deserves. At a recent meeting of the group, it was addressed by well-meaning officials from leading Jewish federations who bragged of their great programs but displayed little interest in sounding the alarm about a problem which is effectively dooming their donor base.

But in contrast to much of the American Jewish world, Beinart gets it and is quite correct when he writes today that the lack of funding for Jewish education in this country is abysmal.

Beinart writes principally about the contrast between the well-attended Jewish schools in Australia and the situation in the United States where middle-class parents are often forced to choose between day school tuition and paying their mortgages. Day schools remain the best form of Jewish education and a chance to at least provide kids with an informed choice about their decisions about embracing Jewish life. They are not a magic bullet against assimilation and intermarriage. Given the ingrained secularism of the majority of American Jews, many, if not most wouldn’t send their kids to a day school if it were free. But along with improved synagogue schools, Jewish camps, and trips to Israel, they all provide a comprehensive alternative to a population that is Jewishly illiterate.

As Beinart points out, there is certainly enough Jewish wealth in America to fund all of these programs in a manner that could actually make a dent in the Pew statistics if not completely change the future of a community that is rapidly shrinking. But instead of funding schools adequately, American Jews have funded vanity projects like museums while not doing what’s necessary so that, “American Jewish six-year-olds [can] read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance.”

Beinart is wrong to lump Israel advocacy—which often struggles for support in much the same manner as education—with the money lavished by American Jews on secular universities and museums as examples of misallocated funds. That is a function of his feud with AIPAC, which he despises for its loyalty to the principle of backing Israel’s democratically elected government.

But I find myself sympathizing with Beinart’s joke about being a “self-hating American Jew” when he regards the complacent manner with which most of the community has reacted to Pew. The struggle to change our priorities in order to preserve non-Orthodox Jewish life in this country is an uphill slog and it’s easy to be discouraged about the foolish manner in which the Reform and Conservative movements as well as many federations have opted out of the fight. But at least this is one battle that needn’t divide us along the familiar lines of left and right.

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Why Anti-Zionist Jews Are a Minority

It is a principle of journalism that news consists of those events that are out of the ordinary. The old cliché is that when man bites dog, it’s news. A dog biting a man is not. Thus, the conceit of the New York Times Beliefs column feature on Friday met that basic standard for newsworthiness. A story about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be conceded that the subjects are unusual.

The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority. But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.

Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective. The Orthodox trio and the one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement rabbi (whose views may not be all that out of the ordinary among that small left-leaning demographic) highlighted are a peculiar minority. But the willingness of the paper to give them such favorable attention illustrates once again the falsity of the notion that it takes courage for Jews to oppose Israel. To the contrary, as was made clear last week by the controversy over two Manhattan rabbis who defied many of the congregants by signing a letter denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), those Jews who publicly denounce Israel can always look forward to the applause of the mainstream media.

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It is a principle of journalism that news consists of those events that are out of the ordinary. The old cliché is that when man bites dog, it’s news. A dog biting a man is not. Thus, the conceit of the New York Times Beliefs column feature on Friday met that basic standard for newsworthiness. A story about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be conceded that the subjects are unusual.

The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority. But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.

Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective. The Orthodox trio and the one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement rabbi (whose views may not be all that out of the ordinary among that small left-leaning demographic) highlighted are a peculiar minority. But the willingness of the paper to give them such favorable attention illustrates once again the falsity of the notion that it takes courage for Jews to oppose Israel. To the contrary, as was made clear last week by the controversy over two Manhattan rabbis who defied many of the congregants by signing a letter denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), those Jews who publicly denounce Israel can always look forward to the applause of the mainstream media.

While this quintet are entitled to their views about Israel and appear to be none the worse for wear for being so determined to flout the views of their co-religionists, two aspects of the article are particularly objectionable. One is the article’s assumption that there is something remarkable about the fact that they are able to go about their business while living in a Jewish community and attending synagogue without much trouble. The second is the failure of the piece to acknowledge that the views their subjects express are inherently bigoted.

It should be acknowledged that the article is correct when it states that prior to 1948, support for Zionism was not universal among American Jews. Many Jews, especially those affiliated with “classic” Reform temples, viewed it as a threat to the rights of American Jews to be treated as equal citizens in the United States. The reason the adherents of that view declined from minority status to statistical insignificance is that Israel’s creation did no such thing. To the contrary, the creation of a Jewish state only a few years after the Nazis and their collaborators had killed nearly one third of the Jews on the planet engendered the respect of other Americans as well as enhancing the self-esteem of every Jew in the world whether he or she was religious or a Zionist.

Israel gained its independence because the Jews had a right to sovereignty in their ancient homeland and not as compensation for the Holocaust. The sweat and the blood of the Jews who built Israel and fought to defend it earned that independence. But the Holocaust made it abundantly clear, even to those who had never previously given the idea their support, that without a Jewish state to defend them, Diaspora Jews who had not been lucky enough to make it the United States or the other English-speaking countries that had not succumbed to the Nazis would always be at the mercy of violent anti-Semitism. That was just as true of Jews who lived in Muslim and Arab countries (who were forced to flee their homes after 1948) as it was of the Jews of Europe. Theodor Herzl’s understanding of the inevitable fate of a homeless Jewry—a thesis that he adopted after seeing Alfred Dreyfus being degraded in Paris as a mob shouted, “Death to the Jews”—was sadly vindicated by the events of the first half of the 20th century.

Though their neighbors and fellow congregants treat them with the toleration that Israel’s foes do not extend to the Jewish state, the common failing of the five anti-Zionist Jews in the Times story is their failure to account for this basic historical lesson that the rest of their community understands. One need not support every action of the government of the State of Israel or have no sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians to understand that not only does Israel have a right to exist but that its fall would endanger the lives of its people and, by extension, Jews everywhere. The notion put forward by one of the subjects that “non-statist Zionism” would succeed was exploded several decades ago by the refusal of Arab opponents of the Jewish presence in Israel/Palestine to accept Jews on any terms.

Nor does the article ask its subjects why the Jews, of all peoples, should be asked to forgo the right to their own country when no other nation is required to do so. Cynthia Ozick famously wrote that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews. But it takes a particularly perverse kind of universalism to say that Jews should have fewer rights than other peoples.

But what is particularly disingenuous about the Times article is the unwillingness to hold its subjects accountable for the thinly veiled anti-Semitism that often masquerades as anti-Zionism in contemporary debates. Groups like Jewish Voices for Peace—which is supported by one of the quintet—aren’t content to support liberal Israelis or to criticize Israel’s government. Instead it seeks to wage economic warfare on Israel in order to destroy it. If the only imperfect state that is seen as worthy of such a fate is the one Jewish one—rather than the many others founded on national or religious principles—then it is clear that the driving force behind anti-Zionism is prejudice and not concern about human rights. Websites like Mondoweiss, to which one of the five contributes, similarly trades in anti-Jewish stereotypes in its campaign against Zionism.

What the overwhelming majority of Jews know that these five people and their adoring audience at the Times don’t is that opposition to Israel’s existence—as opposed to criticism of it—is taking a stand against the right of the Jewish people to life. While there is a portion of the ultra-Orthodox community that also holds to anti-Zionism because of their own bizarre interpretation of Judaism (which strangely goes unmentioned in the article), non-Haredim who do so are fighting common sense, history, and the basic principles of fairness. If those who adopt such positions are a minority, it is not due to any resistance on the part of the majority to ethics or concern for others but because of the implausibility of their beliefs.

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Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry

In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.

Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.

To read the rest of the cover story of the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, “Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry,” click on this link.

In the first half of the 20th century, the political and social perspective of the American Jewish community was defined by its collective experience of anti-Semitism—both in the countries from which Jews had emigrated and, in far more muted form, inside the United States. Four percent of Americans were estimated to be Jewish at mid-century, twice as many as at present. But the Jews of that time were insecure about their place in American society and often unwilling to make a show of their background and faith. They felt themselves a people apart, and they were. It was difficult if not completely impossible for them to live as American Jews entirely on their own terms.

Now the situation is reversed. As an explosive new survey of 3,400 American Jews reveals, 94 percent say they are proud of being Jewish. That data point dovetails neatly with the current place of Jews in American society—a society in which they make up 2 percent of the population but in which there are virtually no barriers to full Jewish participation. American Jews can live entirely on their own terms, and they do. But the stunning finding of Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the most comprehensive portrait of the community in 20 years and, in the richness of its detail, perhaps of all time—is the degree to which American Jews are now choosing not to live as Jews in any real sense. Secularism has always been a potent tradition in American Jewry, but the study’s analysis of what being Jewish means to its respondents reveals just how much irreligion has taken center stage in American Jewish life.

To read the rest of the cover story of the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, “Loving Us to Death: How America’s Embrace is Imperiling American Jewry,” click on this link.

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American Jews: Laughing But Shrinking

The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

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The release today of a Pew Research Center study about American Jews contained little that was surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the community in the last generation. Optimists will point to the numbers that tell us that 94 percent of Jews say they are proud of their identity. Three-quarters say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” A lot of attention is also going to the survey result that points to a whopping 42 percent who think having a sense of humor is somehow integral to being Jewish as opposed to a far smaller figure who say the same for Jewish religious law. But once we stop chuckling about the disproportionate influence of Comedy Central Jews, this survey must be seen for what it is: a portrait of a shrinking community whose non-Orthodox majority has only an amorphous sense of what it means to be a Jew—however they define it—and rates of assimilation that portend a rapid demographic decline in terms of absolute numbers and affiliation.

This means the American Jewry of the future will be more Orthodox but also far smaller than the already tiny community of the present day. Such a population will be less inclined to support Jewish philanthropies aimed at helping members of their own community or care about Israel. It should also cause non-Orthodox Jewish groups and denominations to take a hard look at their policies that, as I wrote in a response to a Jack Wertheimer essay in Mosaic on intermarriage earlier this month, are clearly failing. A counterproductive yet popular emphasis on outreach to those on the margins of the community must be replaced with a new concentration on strengthening rather than ignoring the core.

To acknowledge the dismal future that this charts for the community should not be confused with exaggerated claims about American Jewry disappearing. There are still an estimated 5.3 million people who claim Jewish identity and a critical mass of them are still raising Jewish children, many of whom will affiliate with religious denominations and have an affinity for Israel. But the breakdown of the data shows that among the non-Orthodox majority in the United States—a group that composes approximately 90 percent of the community—most are not marrying Jews or giving their kids a Jewish education. Indeed, the two elements of American Jewry that seem to be growing at the most rapid rates are the Orthodox and those who consider themselves to be Jewish in some way but have no religion, a group that makes up 22 percent of those polled. While, as Pew points out, secularism has always been part of American Jewish culture, most of those with no religion are not raising Jewish children or participating in or supporting Jewish institutions. Moreover, more than half of non-Orthodox Jews are also marrying non-Jews with the overwhelming majority of these families also giving their children no Jewish education.

The problem here is not just the absolute numbers of those Jews drifting away. It is the survey results that make it clear that an increasingly large number of Jews have notions of Jewish identity that are based on values not likely to promote future generations of Jewish life on these shores.

For example, “leading an ethical or moral life” or “working for justice or equality”—elements that 69 percent and 56 percent of Jews say is what it means to be Jewish—are integral to Judaism. But they are beliefs that are also integral to other faiths and even compatible with being non-religious. Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew. Remembering the Holocaust—a point embraced by 73 percent of those surveyed—is also important. But as vital a lesson as the Holocaust is, it is not a positive vision of Jewish life that can serve as a paradigm for the future. Ideas such as being part of a community or observing Jewish law have far less support, but it is those notions upon which a community is built. For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future.

The only theological point upon which the majority of those polled agree is that believing in the divinity of Jesus means you are not a Jew. That’s understandable given that this is still an overwhelmingly Christian nation. But again, this is hardly a factor that can serve as a building block for Jewish identity. If Jewish denominations are all suffering record levels of dropouts, it can be traced to the fact that a community in a free society that is based on such loose notions rather than the strong bonds of faith cannot hope to retain much of its membership.

Israel remains important to most Jews and that is a hopeful sign since it remains the vital center of Jewish life in our time. But here again those numbers are skewed since the rates of interest in Israel are far higher among the Orthodox and lower among the growing numbers with no religion and affiliation. Critics of Israel will point to the fact that pluralities disapprove of settlements and think the government of the Jewish state isn’t doing enough to make peace with the Palestinians. Those are debatable notions, but the far smaller number of American Jews who think the Palestinians are sincere about wanting peace shows that the majority is not completely detached from the reality of the Middle East.

As for domestic political considerations, like other polls of American Jewry, the survey shows the overwhelming majority are liberals and loyal to the Democrats. Since those numbers are reversed among the Orthodox, one should expect a gradual rise in the total of those who vote for the Republicans. Yet even with the Orthodox population growing far more rapidly than the rest of the community, it may take several decades for the GOP to make up that ground if at all.

Overall, the survey tells us that the falloff of Jewish affiliation among the young and the non-Orthodox is already considerable and will only grow in the future. If Jewish organizations want to have any sort of impact on these numbers, it will require them to cast off their illusions about the value of outreach, which has clearly failed. A community that is primarily defined by being inclusive or by values that are not specific to Judaism is dooming itself to irrelevance. Instead of accepting assimilation, Jewish groups must resist it whenever possible and concentrate their efforts on encouragement and investment in those elements that produce Jews rather than people with only a dim grasp of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. Only with major investments in those institutions that build Jewish identity such as schools, synagogues, and camps as well as trips to Israel can American Jewry stop or even lessen this demographic slide. The numbers show us that a largely secular, non-religious American Jewish community is well on its way to assimilating itself into a marginal group with only a vestigial memory of Jewish life as well as notions about food and humor that should not be mistaken for communal values.

If these trends continue or worsen, Jewish life and Judaism will not die in America. But it will be smaller, less diverse, and be increasingly unable to support the institutions that have been built here. That is not the same thing as disappearing, but for the majority of those who are not committed to a community of faith however they choose to define it Jewishly, it will be a distinction without a difference.

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Reverse Course on Intermarriage?

There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

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There has been no more astute observer of the American Jewish community’s response to intermarriage than Jack Wertheimer. Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been writing incisively about this topic and others for many years principally in the pages of COMMENTARY. He has taken up the issue again in this month’s issue of Mosaic where he argues that the organized American Jewish world’s defeatism about intermarriage is unjustified. Wertheimer provides a brief yet definitive history of the last 20-plus years of Jewish communal debate about intermarriage, and his analysis of the data leads him inexorably to the conclusion that most of what has been done has been utterly useless, if not completely counterproductive. He rightly believes the overwhelming emphasis on outreach and inclusion of intermarried families has done little or nothing to increase the chances that their children might choose to affiliate with the Jewish community in the future. Even worse, he understands the impulse to avoid any taint of a judgmental attitude about intermarriage, and that the desire to welcome those who choose to marry a non-Jew and their spouses and children has only helped to engender greater acceptance of a trend that threatens to drastically reduce Jewish numbers in the future and to undermine the community’s ability to maintain vital institutions.

Wertheimer laments this trend as being “abnormal if not a preposterous response” when placed in the broad scope of history in which endogamy is honored as a key Jewish value. But what bothers him just as much is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jewish groups in this country think there’s nothing they can do about it. He sees this point of view as not only wrong in and of itself but also based on a false reading of what affiliated Jews believe is right. In response to this mistake he urges organized Jewry to take a more assertive approach to the problem that would reject the emphasis on outreach and instead place more effort on encouraging conversion and trying to convince single Jews to marry within the community.

I think he’s completely right on the facts and in his conclusion. This article should be must reading for all rabbis, communal professionals, and interested laypeople. It should be spoken of in synagogues around the country during the High Holidays in the coming week and I would hope that it would provoke a spirited debate in both the pews and the boardrooms. But I must also say that a career spent covering Jewish life in this country leads me to believe the chances of his advice being heeded are virtually nil. Having spent the last two decades bending over backwards to undermine any notion of meaningful boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, most of the organized Jewish world is simply incapable of reversing course on intermarriage. Doing so would require it to admit error. That is hard enough. But it would also require the sort of courage that is in short supply in a community that works primarily on the principle of consensus that has elevated inclusion to a core principle that trumps every other value.

I should note in passing that I come to this issue with some history of my own. More than 18 years ago, when I was serving as editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger newspaper, I stumbled into a major controversy when I wrote a column explaining the policies of that paper regarding the announcement of intermarriages. My decision to reaffirm the existing policy of the paper not to include such events in the paper’s free page commemorating notable events in the community and to place it in the context of the broader debate about the community provoked a spirited–and at times, angry–discussion that soon spread to the mainstream press. It culminated in a New York Times article about the issue that generated a deluge of hate mail and death threats aimed at the paper, as well as vocal support.

In retrospect, the whole controversy seems almost quaint not only because the focus of the dispute seems so unimportant in the great scheme of events but also because it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone outside the Orthodox world taking a similar stance today. Most of us now understand that intermarriage is just a symptom of a broader trend involving assimilation and the decline of a sense of Jewish peoplehood. While few would dispute my arguments about the implications of intermarriage, the boat had probably already sailed on the issue at the time and that is even truer today.

Looking back on the experience and the subsequent year or two during which I was a frequent guest speaker at intermarriage outreach group events (those invitations were probably extended in the expectation that I would be the moral equivalent of the guy in the dunking booth at fairs, but most of the encounters were actually quite thoughtful), I learned a few things about the way the issue could place pressure on Jewish institutions. As an independent journalist, I didn’t have much to lose in asking people to draw a distinction between their personal inclinations and what was necessary to preserve the Jewish future. But others were not so fortunate. Moreover, even though virtually everyone—including intermarried couples—agreed that some lines should be drawn (we just disagreed on where they should be), the dynamic of the debate was such that any action that could be depicted as hurting the feelings of those who had made such a choice or saying no to them was impossible for non-Orthodox institutions.

As I wrote back then and Wertheimer noted in his Mosaic piece, intermarriage is the product of American freedom and the wide acceptance of Jews into American society. For most of those Jews who are not religious, that means adhering to endogamy requires a conscious decision to swim against a cultural tide that not only breaks down most distinctions between people but also wrongly regards any insistence on sticking to your own group as illegitimate if not racist. No one disputes that intermarried families interested in being part of the community should be welcomed. But with intermarriages now estimated to constitute more than half of those unions involving Jews, the trend has a built-in constituency that sees anything but complete acceptance of them as a litmus test of affiliation. While some optimists have claimed that the large number of families with feet in both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities is an opportunity for Jews to increase their numbers, as Wertheimer reports, the statistics point in the opposite direction. Yet even though a generation of emphasis on outreach has produced little but evidence of good intentions, Jewish groups aren’t likely to take Wertheimer’s advice and stand up for principle.

However, the primary obstacle to such a decision isn’t only the potential hurt feelings of the intermarried and their relatives and the way they have abandoned institutions—like the Conservative movement of Judaism—that refused to acquiesce to all of their demands. Just as important in understanding the failure of Jewish groups to face facts is the way the cult of inclusion has become enshrined in Jewish life. As those involved in debates about Israel and the BDS movement that aims to destroy it know all too well, asking communal institutions to draw a line in the sand about anti-Zionism is sometimes even more controversial than opposing intermarriage. With increasing numbers of communal professionals having grown up in an atmosphere in which increasing the size of the big tent is the primary value they’ve been taught to respect, asking them to look inward rather than outward is tantamount to suggesting that this overwhelmingly liberal population embrace pro-life stands rather than support abortion rights. It isn’t going to happen.

Wertheimer is right that those who form the core of the Jewish community already agree with him. Since it this group—which is statistically more likely to have had a serious Jewish education, gone to a Jewish camp and/or visited Israel among other factors—which will make up an increasingly larger percentage of the community in the years to come as the children of the intermarried drift away, perhaps Wertheimer’s views will eventually be heeded. But while I applaud his stand and hope his article marks the beginning of a reassessment of acceptance of intermarriage, I think we are still many years away from that point. Until then, any such initiative is almost certainly doomed.

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America’s Most Important Jewish Event?

Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

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Prediction is a loser’s game. But if one were to guess the Jewish happening of the moment in the United States of greatest future consequence – the one most likely to be discussed and to have influence 100 years or more from now – you could do much worse than to say the publication of a new English translation of the Talmud by Adin Steinsaltz by Koren publishers, the first volume of which is now available, and was reviewed today in Jewish Ideas Daily by Yehuda Mirsky. The volume’s appearance and the promise of the remainder of the entire great work to be published in the years to come is a landmark in making the text accessible to the millions of Jews whose native (and often only) tongue is English.

The Steinsaltz text is not the Talmud’s first English translation. In his review, Mirsky compares the new Koren edition to the Schottenstein translation, capably published for years by ArtScroll and widely available in Judaica shops and many houses of study. Mirsky praises the Schottenstein English as “lucid” and a great window into Jewish learning, and it certainly is. He also notes the “gravitas” of the ArtScroll format, which in its Talmud as in everything else conveys a valuable sense of tradition and history.

But ArtScroll, perhaps by design, seems incapable of reaching beyond the doors of Orthodox institutions. That gravitas can serve also as a barrier.

Steinsaltz and Koren seem to be up to something different. He reaches beyond even the basic vocalization of the Hebrew into brief English biographies of the various rabbis through whom the Talmud speaks and color illustrations accompanying the text, to say nothing of a planned iPad app. It is the manifestation of a mentality that is fully conversant in a Jewish tradition it feels uncomplicated reverence toward combined with a self-confident desire to use contemporary tools to make that tradition as accessible as possible for as wide an audience as possible. It creates a feel that gives you all the tradition of ArtScroll without any of the distance.

Orthodox publishing efforts in the United States often don’t get their proper due. Even a casual perusal of the offerings in any Judaica shop or through your smart phone or tablet computer of choice reveal a wealth of offerings in English or with English translation on nearly any Jewish topic imaginable. But they haven’t penetrated beyond those already within that community’s embrace. The new Steinsaltz English edition is therefore probably the best chance yet most American Jews have of accessing the central text of their tradition.

In his companion book The Essential Talmud, Steinsaltz notes that all Jewish communities that have lost the study of Talmud have eventually disappeared. His creation of this latest piece of his great corpus testifies both to the depth of his scholarship and the seriousness with which he views his own observation.

Koren has now taken the first step in making the monument of their tradition accessible to all American Jews, regardless of their background or beliefs. If they take it up, the implications will be profound.

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On Jewish Community and Continuity, Orthodox Lead the Way

As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

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As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

It is often assumed that the growth of Haredi and “yeshivish” Jewish communities will produce a corresponding increase in poverty and the need for public assistance. But as the authors note, “most poor Jewish households are not Orthodox.” This does not mean the number of poor in the Orthodox community is low–it is not, and in fact, the Orthodox represent the largest identifiable such group. But it does mean that 58 percent of the poverty within the Jewish community cannot be attributed to this lifestyle. Additionally, Orthodox communities centered on yeshiva life–usually referred to as yeshiva communities but in this report referred to as “yeshivish”–boast a significant communal support network, in addition to classic charitable giving.

Made up of gemachs, a Hebrew acronym of the term meaning acts of kindness, this network goes a long way toward making up for the material sacrifices made by low-income yeshiva households. Some Jewish communities have so many gemachs they have their own version of the Yellow Pages. The gemachs are families or companies that lend out items to those in need, including everything from books to wedding dresses to childcare products. To put it bluntly: the Orthodox Jewish community may have poor households, but its members possess an admirable and energetic sense of duty to one another.

The need for outside assistance, often from the local government, is therefore even more crucial for the non-observant. But their charitable organizations are raising money for those outside their own community as the number of Jewish poor continues to rise. In the Jewish community, it unfortunately seems that communal solidarity is fading along with observance. The community seems to be failing its Russian immigrants as well. Seven of every 10 elderly Russian speakers are poor, according to the study.

Is it any wonder then that, next to the Orthodox, Russian immigrants are the most identifiable conservative-leaning subgroup? Their more liberal brethren can’t be bothered to establish and support the kind of Jewish institutions that would help such immigrants form a bond with their new community. And the liberal/secular inclination to watch Jewish immigrants live in poverty while they pursue vague forms of tikkun olam and global citizenship is surely a failure to prioritize, even if their new pet causes are worthwhile (as many of them are).

The Orthodox certainly face challenges as their community grows. The Haredi community’s insularity means they must work hard to ensure that guidance counselors, special-needs educators, and other forms of crucial youth development services are available to their community. And poverty is often correlated with health risks that should not be ignored. But the Orthodox are also the source of the positive trends in the study. If the goal is Jewish continuity–as of course it should be–the Orthodox are leading the way.

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Some Hope for the American Jewish Future

An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

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An observer of the Jews of the United States will find no shortage of reasons to be depressed. But the language of an introductory address at a dinner with a traveling group of Knesset members and select young American Jewish invitees at the Avi Chai foundation’s headquarters in New York this past Thursday night gave small reason for hope.

First, a short review of Jewish troubles:

For 20 years, the intermarriage rate has hovered around 50 percent, and the overall population has likely not increased since the 1970s. Worse, both of these topics are today usually either studiously avoided or strangely characterized as strengths.

The vast majority of those Jews born since the 1970s have little Jewish knowledge, and so have unsurprisingly shown little interest in connecting to Jewish institutions as they have become adults. A corresponding drop off in “affiliation” rates with synagogues and organized charities has, since the mid-1990s, been dramatic.

Most of the parents of those Jews don’t seem to be much wiser, just a lot more instinctively concerned with the Holocaust and Israel.

The main source of vitality in the population – the Orthodox – still make up less than 20 percent of the overall total and either deliberately cloister themselves in insular “black-hat” communities or are generally too preoccupied with paying hefty day-school tuition fees and too lacking in confidence or concern to engage the larger Jewish world (to say nothing of the larger non-Jewish world beyond that) on the pressing cultural and political questions of the day. (Yeshiva University’s Straus Center is a notable caveat.)

That preoccupation with tuition fees derives, in part, from the continuing avoidance of the most pressing domestic Jewish issue today by most of the organized Jewish community: the high cost of Jewish living.

It must be said: most of the problems that afflict American Jewry are less Jewish-specific problems than the Jewish symptoms of larger American social problems. Jews can certainly do a lot more for themselves than they seem to realize, but the denigration of established institutions and the communal bonds they form wasn’t caused by Jews, and won’t be solved by them, either.

Nevertheless, at that dinner on Thursday night, the welcome address was offered entirely in Hebrew out of respect for the Israeli guests and the expectation that the American Jews would be able to understand. As I was able to follow all of it, it is safe to assume the rest of the room could as well. And at my table at least a good portion of the subsequent dinner conversation was also conducted in Hebrew.

I don’t know for sure, but I can’t imagine that American Jewish gatherings of this kind where even a portion is conducted in Hebrew have much of a precedent, if any, no matter the presence of Israelis. (I know that all meetings I myself had previously attended had proceeded seemingly without a thought toward Hebrew, and that this has been the overwhelming historical norm. Among other points of evidence for the trend, Leon Wieseltier told a story in 2008 about the then-exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s failed attempt to address a meeting of Jewish leaders in Hebrew, a language he knew but they didn’t.)

It may not seem like much. But an American Jewry with even a small portion of its young people both deeply interested in public affairs and capable of hearing about them in its people’s language is one with at least some cause for pride. May there be many more similar signs of American Jewish hope in the future.

 

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What Alienation? Donations to Israel Rise

More proof, as if any was needed after Sol Stern’s merciless evaluation in April’s COMMENTARY, that the alleged crisis in American Zionism is a psychodrama playing out inside Peter Beinart’s head and few other places:

Donations by U.S. Jews to Israeli nonprofits have doubled during the past 12 years, according to a first-of-its-kind study conducted by professors at Brandeis University. The study, scheduled to be completed in late April, disproves the widely held view by many Israelis that philanthropic donations from the United States have dropped over time due to economic and political reasons… [it] suggests quite the opposite.

The numbers are overstated a little bit – Ben Smith quickly noticed that the “doubled” claim doesn’t account for inflation — but otherwise conclusive.

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More proof, as if any was needed after Sol Stern’s merciless evaluation in April’s COMMENTARY, that the alleged crisis in American Zionism is a psychodrama playing out inside Peter Beinart’s head and few other places:

Donations by U.S. Jews to Israeli nonprofits have doubled during the past 12 years, according to a first-of-its-kind study conducted by professors at Brandeis University. The study, scheduled to be completed in late April, disproves the widely held view by many Israelis that philanthropic donations from the United States have dropped over time due to economic and political reasons… [it] suggests quite the opposite.

The numbers are overstated a little bit – Ben Smith quickly noticed that the “doubled” claim doesn’t account for inflation — but otherwise conclusive.

They’re also in line with overwhelming polling demonstrating that American Jews are as sympathetic or more sympathetic to Israel than they’ve ever been. Their identification with the Jewish State has remained inside a ten-point range, roughly between the upper 60′s and upper 70′s, for more than 10 years. There hasn’t been much work done on why the number fluctuates inside that range, e.g. if the changes are random noise or if they track with military and diplomatic conflict or if they follow the rest of America in dropping when Israel offers dangerous concessions. But overall American Jewish support for Israel simply hasn’t changed very much.

These findings should put an end to the pretenses of the anti-Israel American Jewish left. If American Jews were increasingly alienated from Israel, then J Street and Beinart and similarly minded partisans would be justified in trying to provide them with a “route into the pro-Israel world.” If the premise is false, then those partisans are bombarding broadly pro-Israel Americans with anti-Israel propaganda, with the only risk being that they decrease rather than increase sympathy for the Jewish State.

It can’t be emphasized enough how this part of the debate is no longer theoretical. It’s not a matter of two sides having different assumptions, each of which is backed by plausible arguments. Empirical evidence converges on the conclusion that American Jewish support for Israel is stable. Eventually, pretending otherwise goes from being understandable denial – after all, left-wing American Jews have invested a lot in the Alienation Thesis, literally and metaphorically – and slips into being willful dishonesty. We’re fast approaching that point.

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J Street’s False Foundational Myth

The Alienation Thesis or the Distancing Thesis or the Detachment Thesis or whatever we’re calling it this week — the claim American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel because of Israeli policies — is the central dogma of the anti-Israel left. If it’s true then groups like J Street are engaged in the salutary work of broadening pro-Israel Jewish politics to include traditionally anti-Israel positions. If it’s false then those groups are taking Jews who would have ended up with muddy pro-Israel sentiments and are needlessly bombarding them with anti-Israel propaganda. “Alienation” or “distancing” or “detachment” is the argumentative premise at the source of everything that happens downstream.

It’s not an accident that sophisticated erstwhile J Street defenders like Jeffrey Goldberg instinctively throw it in whenever they try to defend the organization. J Street itself, for all of the organization’s borderline aggressive lack of tactical acumen, makes a point of blandly asserting that the thesis is true. Hand wringing pathos-soaked “why must Israel do things that make me sad” Jews like Peter Beinart have been blandly pretending it’s valid for the better part of a decade.

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The Alienation Thesis or the Distancing Thesis or the Detachment Thesis or whatever we’re calling it this week — the claim American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel because of Israeli policies — is the central dogma of the anti-Israel left. If it’s true then groups like J Street are engaged in the salutary work of broadening pro-Israel Jewish politics to include traditionally anti-Israel positions. If it’s false then those groups are taking Jews who would have ended up with muddy pro-Israel sentiments and are needlessly bombarding them with anti-Israel propaganda. “Alienation” or “distancing” or “detachment” is the argumentative premise at the source of everything that happens downstream.

It’s not an accident that sophisticated erstwhile J Street defenders like Jeffrey Goldberg instinctively throw it in whenever they try to defend the organization. J Street itself, for all of the organization’s borderline aggressive lack of tactical acumen, makes a point of blandly asserting that the thesis is true. Hand wringing pathos-soaked “why must Israel do things that make me sad” Jews like Peter Beinart have been blandly pretending it’s valid for the better part of a decade.

Except it’s false. It’s so false that when you unpack it into constituent parts it’s false in multiple distinct and borderline contradictory ways, none of which manage to cancel each other out. In the most generous case J Street-style partisans assume American Jews are alienated from Israel because all the American Jews they personally know are alienated from Israel (figuring out the precise degree to which that’s breathtakingly revelatory is left as an exercise for the reader). In the less generous case they’re hoping against hope that no one ever scrutinizes their pretexts for uniquely mainstreaming anti-Israel smears into the American Jewish community.

Fundamentally there are two claims being made by J Street and their ilk. The first is that American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel, which is a flatly empirical claim. The second is that American Jews’ ostensibly increasing estrangement is on account of Israeli policies, which is a causal claim. Neither is tenable.

On the latter question of causality, let’s put aside the overarching silliness of pretending that railing against real and imagined Israeli sins will somehow make conference attendees more sympathetic to Israel. J Street’s subtler causal claim is about the source of alienation – Israeli policies – rather than what might solve it. But they’re making that up.

We’ve known for years that identification with Israel varies with Jewish identification. Especially for younger Jews, it’s a consequence of Jewish identity not its cause, which is why Beinart’s implicit claim otherwise triggered extensive on-point blogging on the link between Zionism and different strains of Judaism. Even Beinart, in contrast to J Street, has given up the ghost on there being a link between political views and emotional ties to Israel — which is only fair inasmuch as the best studies say no link exists:

On the right, in particular, writers describe the recent successes of J Street as an indicator of Jewish alienation from Israel (there is no evidence that it is so). The left also promotes the distancing narrative but mainly as a political weapon against Israeli government policies, which are described as alienating the next generation from Zionist and Jewish identities. Add to the mix the perennial interest of Jewish organizations in fundraising and you have a very potent set of interests driving the distancing narrative.

If there was decreasing American-Jewish attachment to Israel — i.e. the basic empirical claim, which is false — it still wouldn’t be because of Israeli policies. But there isn’t. In January Matthew Ackerman posted numbers on young Jewish identification that showed that a “feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews [and] has been gaining traction of late.” As for American Jews of all ages, AJC polling shows that pro-Israel attachment hasn’t changed in a decade. When asked how close they feel to Israel, between 65% and 75% of American Jews respond “very close” or “fairly close” (2011: 68%, 2010: 74%, 2009: 69%, 2008: 67%, 2007: 70%, 2006: 76%, 2005: 77%, 2004: 75%, 2003: 74%, 2002: 73%, 2001: 72%).

A 2011 poll of American Jewish voters unpacked that support in terms of concrete positions: 93% of respondents were concerned that Israel is “being threatened by Arab nations and Iran that want to destroy Israel,” 81% were opposed to “Israel being forced to return to its pre-1967 borders,” 73% supported Jerusalem “remaining the united capital of Israel,” and, critically, 88% of respondents insisted that “recognition of Israel as a Jewish State” had to be a “prerequisite for Palestinian Statehood.” Media outlets continue unblinkingly assert otherwise – see Jonathan’s post from yesterday on Iran polling – but that doesn’t make their oh-so-convenient wishful thinking any less false.

That poll was largely in line with a CAMERA poll taken about the same time. When asked, “If Israel no longer existed tomorrow, I would consider it to be…” 58% of American Jews answered “a major tragedy that personally concerned me” and another 24% went further and described it as “the biggest tragedy of my lifetime.” Again alienation pushers like Nicholas Kristof kept writing as if the CAMERA poll and several others didn’t exist, because why not?

Perhaps most critically, CAMERA poll respondents did not believe — as J Street pretends American Jews do — that Israel was responsible for the breakdown of the peace process. Instead they indicated that the Israeli government (84%) and its people (85%) are committed to establishing genuine peace, and a large majority blamed Palestinian incitement for the deadlock (77%).

Only 12% of respondents thought that either settlements or the “occupation” were responsible, which is exactly the opposite of what J Street pretends American Jews believe. There’s a reason, after all, why Obama lost almost half of his Jewish support at the height of his diplomatic offensives on settlement construction. It’s not because Jews feel alienated from Israel on account of settlement construction.

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The Communal Conversation on Israel

Bret Stephens’ burner of a column published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal is sure to make the rounds. He is also right to largely dismiss the political importance of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Still, it’s worth considering why the perpetually boiling Jewish communal conversation on Israel never seems to have much practical political import.

The central fallacy and problem with the discussion is the idea that American Jewish attitudes are the primary influence on American policy toward Israel. If you look at the thing without much nuance, it’s easy to see why. The recently closed AIPAC policy conference attracted no less than 13,000 delegates, the largest in its history, a healthy jump from 10,000 a year ago, and probably a doubling in five years. AIPAC also claims 100,000 members and has an annual budget of around $70 million, making it the biggest American Jewish advocacy organization (although it’s worth noting it was only relatively recently that it passed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in this regard).

In short, the central Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying address is no cupcake, and it is getting dramatically stronger every year. It deserves extraordinary credit for its successes and growth.

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Bret Stephens’ burner of a column published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal is sure to make the rounds. He is also right to largely dismiss the political importance of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Still, it’s worth considering why the perpetually boiling Jewish communal conversation on Israel never seems to have much practical political import.

The central fallacy and problem with the discussion is the idea that American Jewish attitudes are the primary influence on American policy toward Israel. If you look at the thing without much nuance, it’s easy to see why. The recently closed AIPAC policy conference attracted no less than 13,000 delegates, the largest in its history, a healthy jump from 10,000 a year ago, and probably a doubling in five years. AIPAC also claims 100,000 members and has an annual budget of around $70 million, making it the biggest American Jewish advocacy organization (although it’s worth noting it was only relatively recently that it passed the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League in this regard).

In short, the central Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying address is no cupcake, and it is getting dramatically stronger every year. It deserves extraordinary credit for its successes and growth.

But AIPAC and the Jews are not the reason America supports Israel. Like any successful lobby, AIPAC can ensure and push the margins on specific Israel-related legislation enacted by Congress. In the same way the NRA can make gun-control legislation very tough to pass, other successful grassroots lobbies are successful because they speak for policies that have the general backing of the American people.

The most influential Jewish organizations weren’t always with them. In 1922, the United States Congress may have unanimously endorsed the Balfour Declaration, but there was no organized pro-Israel lobby of any significance that made it so. The biggest and most important Jewish advocacy organizations of the day, as well as many of their leaders (as exemplified by the life of Cyrus Adler, who served as a head and founder of both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee, among many other important leadership roles) were non-Zionist, and far more concerned with unsuccessful attempts to loosen eventual restrictions to Jewish immigration to the United States than to restrictions placed on entry to Palestine.

Zionist organizations and leaders eventually became more prominent, both because they reflected the feelings of the Jewish street and because the Jewish state was a far more effective opener of the doors of power than other concerns.

It’s an argument that has been made often and much better than I can by Walter Russell Mead. It nevertheless seems to need perpetual repeating in light of the strange views that seem to dominate so much of the public debate about American Jews and Israel.

There is much that would be spiritually and culturally disconcerting about an American Jewry that really had decided it had no special affection for the Jews of Israel. But even if that happens, nobody should be surprised if a large contingent of those Jews who remained supportive of the Jewish state still continued to show up in D.C. and effectively lobby their political leaders.

In short, even if American Jews in their majority turn against the Jewish state, the United States likely will not.

 

 

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American Jewry’s Waning Exceptionalism

An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

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An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

If you try to figure out what makes French Jews different, the answer seems to be similar to those generally given for the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Similar to their proportion in the Jewish state, roughly half of France’s Jews come most immediately from majority Arab regions like North Africa. As in Israel, these Jews seem both more willing to consider the breadth of their political options and to be concerned about Muslim and Arab intentions towards Jews than their Ashkenazi counterparts. So as their political enfranchisement has risen, so have Jewish politics become more balanced.

Far from outliers of course, Israel and France represent the largest and third largest Jewish populations in the world.

American Jews might also be different in that, accustomed as they have become to robust bipartisan support for the Jewish state, they largely don’t feel the issue of Israel is fundamentally at stake in this country. Whatever discomfort they may feel with the policies of a particular administration, here, as opposed to abroad, they may feel certain – rightly or wrongly -  there are certain lines that simply won’t be crossed.

There are other ways American Jews stand out. Few Jewish communities abroad have non-Orthodox religious establishments of any numerical significance. Most have also – like Israel – long-adopted voluntary and stringent security measures that still would look out of place in most American Jewish establishments.

Perhaps the one thing that most accounts for American Jewish exceptionalism is the preponderance of Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, who are probably a larger percentage of the population and continue to hold a largely unchallenged sway over internal and external Jewish politics here to a greater extent than just about anywhere else.

Some changes, though, are afoot. Already in 2001 (the last year that a significant Jewish population study was undertaken), Orthodox Jews made up a steadily increasing 15 percent of the population aged 18-24, with a clear rise also for those who see themselves as “just Jewish” and declining proportions for Reform and Conservative Jews. An American Jewry that is both more Orthodox and more unaffiliated would be more in line with global Jewish norms.

As it has elsewhere, demographics may continue to wage its own irresistible changes. In many ways though many American Jews probably already find themselves outside the global Jewish consensus looking in. If American Jewry ultimately becomes more elastic in its political preferences, it will likely find not only its relations with Jews abroad easier, but the political system at home may become even more responsive to its concerns.

 

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