Commentary Magazine

The Disaffections of American Jews

In the months leading up to Israel’s 50th anniversary, an impatient if not downright surly tone came to permeate public discussion about the Jewish state within the American Jewish community. The Jewish press—mirroring the general media in this respect—was filled with stories about Israel’s “failings”: its practice of discrimination against Israeli Arabs, especially in housing; the disarray in its secret-intelligence agencies, as evidenced by botched operations in Jordan and elsewhere; its responsibility for the slow progress of negotiations with the Palestinians; and especially its inability or unwillingness to resolve the contentious matter of domestic “pluralism,” meaning the relationship between religion and state.

Within the organizational world of American Jewry, agencies that had once vied for the distinction of being Israel’s staunchest supporter now seriously debated whether their proper task should not be to sway the U.S. government toward a more assertive role in Middle East negotiations—including by applying pressure on Israel to make concessions. In order to rectify perceived weaknesses in Israeli domestic arrangements, some groups advocated the export to the Jewish state of American models of democracy, pluralism, and church-state separation. This, according to the executive of one such group, would “enable people to love Israel, and to honor it, not just because it exists, but because of what it is”—something evidently not possible under current circumstances. Meanwhile, there was much worried talk about declines in Israel-directed philanthropy and in levels of support for pro-Israel lobbying groups; although (as it happens) no such declines have occurred, quite a number of observers seemed to believe that, given Israel’s numerous shortcomings, they ought to have.

The prevailing mood in the organized community was perfectly captured—and further encouraged—by a widely reprinted article entitled, “For All Our Flaws,” by an Israeli journalist of American origin. Quoting the words of a fund-raiser to the effect that American Jews are “too upset with Israel these days,” the author pleaded for understanding—“We aren’t the heroes we once seemed to be, but maybe, one day, we will be again”—and ended by beseeching American Jews, “for your own sake as well as ours, . . . to keep loving Israel despite its glaring flaws.”

One would, of course, be hard-pressed to reconcile all this hand-wringing with the actual accomplishments of the Jewish state during its first half-century. Established by visionaries convinced that the Land of Israel must once again become what it was in ancient times—the vital center of Jewish life—Israel will soon surpass the United States as the largest Jewish population center in the world. It has grown primarily through the ingathering of Jews from the far reaches of the globe, an astonishingly successful process that has required herculean efforts to absorb and integrate diverse people. A society of recent immigrants, many if not most of whom arrived pauperized and suffering in varying degrees the traumas of persecution, Israel has created a dynamic, high-tech, $100-billion-a-year economy that generates a per-capita income rivaling that of several European nations. Simultaneously, Israelis have spearheaded a renaissance of Jewish culture—reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, creating a modern literature and new styles of art, music, dance, and other forms of cultural expression that have enriched the world.

In brief, anyone considering what the first Zionists set out to achieve just 100 years ago and comparing it with the record today would have to conclude that what was called for on the part of American Jews was nothing less than ardent thanksgiving and joyous celebration. That this has not been the case may tell us less about Israel and its true accomplishments as a Jewish commonwealth than about the current condition of some of its self-declared supporters.



It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the current chilliness is unprecedented. For the fact is that American Jews have long had a conflicted relationship with the Zionist enterprise. According to one apocryphal story, an American rabbi at the turn of the century, asked whether there were any Zionists in America, responded, “Yes, there are two. A madman named Stephen S. Wise and a madwoman named Henrietta Szold.” Until the desperate plight of European Jewry during the Nazi era demonstrated the vital need for a Jewish haven of refuge, American Zionism attracted only a small following. And even as late as 1948, membership in the various Zionist organizations in the United States amounted to only a fifth of the country’s Jewish population.

American Zionists historically defined their cause in philanthropic rather than political terms. Although they themselves were in no need of rescue, they saw their support of the settlement in Palestine as an act of solidarity with their fellow Jews, many of whom—just like the original settlers of the United States—had been the victims of religious persecution elsewhere. Writing in 1915, Louis D. Brandeis, the most prominent Zionist leader of the time and in due course to be appointed to the Supreme Court by Woodrow Wilson, directly linked the Zionist enterprise to the colonization of North America, describing the early halutzim (pioneers) as “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers” who endured “the physical hardships to which the life of a pioneer is necessarily subjected.”

This was not, to be sure, the only vision of the Zionist project. A small number of intellectuals in America saw the movement less in philanthropic terms than as an instrument of Jewish cultural regeneration. Writing some 90 years ago, one of the leading exponents of this trend, Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, urged that Zionism be judged not “by what it has accomplished in Zion and Jerusalem . . . but by what it has thus far achieved for Zion and Jerusalem, through the awakening of a national Jewish consciousness.” For Schechter and his circle, the Zionist cause would in particular enable Jews everywhere to withstand the challenges posed by modernity to their religious civilization and identity.

It took the Nazi catastrophe to propel American Zionists to embrace an openly political goal for their movement. The needs of homeless Jews required immediate attention, and in the years leading up to statehood American Jews began to raise ever larger sums of money toward that end, while also lobbying the U.S. government to recognize the fledgling state. But once Israel was established, and the immediate crisis passed, a period of relative quiescence set in once again; funds were raised, and lobbyists organized themselves, but Zionism and Israel were relegated to a minor place in American Jewish consciousness. According to the most probing sociological analysis of American Jewish life in the 1950’s, Marshall Sklare’s “Lakeville” study, Israel barely registered in the concerns of America’s rapidly suburbanizing and upwardly mobile Jews.

In fact, surprising as it may seem, it was not until Israel was in mortal danger on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, and then was almost overrun six years later in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, that large numbers of American Jews were captivated by developments in the Jewish state. It was in these years that Israel became, in the view of the sociologist Nathan Glazer, the “religion” of American Jews. Writing in the New York Times in July 1974, Norman Podhoretz could declare, without hyperbole, that “ever since . . . the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, it has become clearer and clearer that something new has happened to the Jews of America; they have all been converted to Zionism.” And yet the very title of Podhoretz’s essay, “Now, Instant Zionism,” underscored the possibly ephemeral nature of this development: one that marked, for American Jews, a rather recent departure from a history made up of some anti-Zionism and a great deal of non-Zionism or “indifferentism.”



Today, two-and-a-half decades later, the deep concern for Israel and its people that was so vividly on display in 1974 seems once again to have given way to “indifferentism” and worse. The regression can be tracked in a series of annual opinion surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Between 1993 and 1997, asked “how close do you feel to Israel?,” the number of Jews responding “very close” has declined while the number of those claiming to feel “very distant” has risen. An even more precipitous decline has occurred in the attachments of younger American Jews. In his analysis of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the sociologist Chaim Waxman found that whereas almost half of older American Jews felt very or extremely attached to Israel, not even 30 percent of baby-boomers felt such strong ties. This trend was confirmed in the 1997 AJC study, in which Jews over the age of sixty tended to report feeling close to Israel while those under forty were most apt to feel either fairly or very distant.

The sociologist Steven M. Cohen has probed these attitudes further. In a forthcoming study, he reports that only 52 percent of his respondents agree with the statement that “Israel is critical in sustaining American Jewish life.” On the basis of his analysis, Cohen concludes that “Israel can be termed very important to only about a fifth to a quarter of American Jews; it is of little importance to about a third of the population; and of intermediate importance to just under half of American Jewry.”1

Attitudes are reflected in actions. Most surveys indicate that, at most, a third of American Jews have traveled to Israel even once. Here again baby-boomers score significantly lower than their elders, and the disparity cannot be ascribed to the costs of international travel. Thus, during the academic year 1995-96, anywhere between 14,000 and 22,000 American Jewish university students were attending schools abroad, but only 1,667 were enrolled in study programs at Israeli universities—itself a big decline since the early 90’s. (This does not include the 3,000 American Jews enrolled in Orthodox yeshivas in Israel.)

In recent years, Jewish communal funds have been established to help young Jews travel to Israel. One such program in New York offers free round-trip airfare annually to as many as 300 college students who wish to visit Israel for the first time. But finding takers proved to be so difficult that a survey was done to learn why. Of those students who were intending to go elsewhere than Israel, almost all pleaded poverty, despite the fact that they would have been given a free ticket. Some expressed fear: as one of them put it, “I don’t go to Bosnia, and I don’t go to Israel.” Still others confessed to a different anxiety altogether: a trip to Israel “might be ‘transformative,’ ” leading them to become “too Jewish.”

And here we come to the nub of the matter: the attachment of Jews to Israel cannot be understood in isolation from other forms of Jewish engagement. In the 1997 AJC survey, those respondents who thought that being Jewish was unimportant were also likely to feel distant from Israel; not unexpectedly, the converse also held true. Denominational affiliation—a measure of Jewish religious involvement—is another reliable indicator: in the AJC survey, 38 percent of Reform Jews and half of those who eschewed any religious label reported feeling distant from Israel, as compared with 15 percent of Conservative Jews and only 4 percent of Orthodox Jews. A similar gap separated Jews who have married out from the in-married.

In short, the disengagement of one large sector of American Jewry from Israel is clearly an extension of a growing indifference to all things Jewish, and especially to an identification with the Jewish people.

These findings put the lie to a whole series of rationalizations that has been advanced to explain the growing disenchantment with Israel. In the early 1980’s, for example, some observers traced signs of disaffection to the coming to power in Israel of the Likud coalition in 1977; later, it was Israel’s handling of the intifada that was faulted; more recently, it was the election of Benjamin Netanyahu; and now, according to one journalist, “the growing indifference to and alienation of large parts of American Jewry from Israel” are to be ascribed to the “wars” over religious pluralism in the Jewish state.

The truth is otherwise: the intensity of disaffection is related in only minor ways to particular actions by Israel or particular policies of particular Israeli governments. Even in the wake of the Oslo accords, and before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin—in other words, in a period of relative euphoria over the prospects of peace in the Middle East—surveys indicated an ongoing detachment from Israel. After studying the matter, the political scientist Charles Liebman concluded: “Neither dovish nor hawkish policies, the controversies over ‘who is a Jew?,’ or even the recent conversion controversy seem to have major effects on the decline in the identity which American Jews feel for Israel.”



Does this suggest, then, that what Israel is or does has no impact on American Jewish attitudes—that the country is nothing more than a screen on which American Jews project their own sense of themselves as Jews? Clearly that is not the whole story, either. One factor accelerating the rift between the two communities is that, culturally speaking, they tread divergent paths, and in some ways have come to inhabit quite disparate worlds.2

Simply put, the oft-invoked slogan of the United Jewish Appeal—“We Are One”—has grown increasingly hollow, To take the most obvious difference in the situation of the two communities—and hence in the nature of their Jewish consciousness—American Jews live as a minority in a multicultural society that has become progressively more tolerant, perhaps especially of Jews; by contrast, Israeli Jews live as a majority that must cope with minorities living within the state’s borders, some of them hostile to the very existence of the Jewish state. Again, American Jews live in a voluntary society where their every act of engagement as Jews is a matter of choice; Jews in Israel, as members of a Jewish polity, are compelled by law and custom to participate in communal Jewish activities, whether they be performing military service, paying taxes to support the Jewish state, or obtaining state sanction for their marriages through the officiation of rabbis.

Given these disparate settings, it is hardly surprising that each Jewry also constructs its Jewish identity in a distinctive way. American values inform the thinking of Jews in the United States, so much so that even quintessentially Jewish rituals and observances have been redefined here in “universal” terms. Passover, for example, is not merely the holiday of Jewish redemption but has been reconceived as a journey to freedom analogous to the emancipation of blacks from slavery and women from “patriarchy.” In line with American Protestantism, Judaism itself has been reinterpreted as essentially a matter of ethical behavior; according to survey data, American Jews overwhelmingly believe that “a Jew can be religious even if he or she is not particularly observant.” Judaism in this country is also deeply affected by the powerful strains of individualism that permeate the American ethos. Many American Jews have so internalized this ethos that they see nothing wrong with embracing only those religious activities they find personally meaningful. As a consequence, some forms of institutional Judaism self-consciously strive to offer a “smorgasbord” of options, inviting their adherents to select as they see fit from an à la carte menu of beliefs and practices.

One need hardly point out that in Israel things are otherwise. Israelis live in a cultural ambience in which Hebrew is the common tongue, the Jewish calendar regulates the passage of time, and the land on which they reside is a constant physical reminder of the Jewish past. Participation in the life of the group is governed by an almost instinctive feeling of connectedness: when soldiers are wounded or killed, the nation grieves; when a lone individual commits a dastardly act, the nation is thrown into introspection and self-doubt. This identification with the Jewish family of Israel is reinforced by a deep suspicion about the intentions of non-Jews: as compared with their American counterparts, Israeli Jews tend to be far warier of Gentiles and to view the world as a more hostile place.

No less significantly, Israelis tend to be culturally and socially more conservative than American Jews. Their attitudes toward sexuality, women’s roles, and family structure are out of step with current American mores. Religion for them is still a package deal, and they either accept or reject the legitimacy of Judaism as it is defined by the Orthodox, showing little appreciation for non-Orthodox religious movements.



In moments of adversity, it is true, these cultural disparities have been bridged by a number of countervailing commonalities. In crisis and war, American Jews have repeatedly rallied to the banner of philanthropic Zionism, offering financial support and lobbying muscle. Despite cultural distance, moreover, American Jews are habitually sensitive to coreligionists in need; as recently as the early 90’s, a special campaign raised $1 billion to help resettle Jews from former Soviet lands in Israel.

But these commonalities, too, have come under assault in the last years, and in part from an unexpected direction. As Israel has become economically more self-sufficient, some Israelis have taken to denigrating the importance of American Jewish help, and have even urged American Jews to mind their own business. Israel’s president, Ezer Weizman, has repeatedly told visiting delegations from America that they should spend their money on Jewish education at home; Israel, he has said, is only interested in the immigrants that American Jews are prepared to send. Although these messages have been pooh-poohed by their recipients, they have also worked subtly to dissolve some very strong bonds.

Israeli intellectuals have likewise contributed to the process of dissolution. The noted writer A.B. Yehoshua, for example, has urged American Jews to abandon their loyalties to Israel altogether: “If you have extra money, please give it to alleviate the conditions of deprived groups in America—this is where your responsibility lies.” Other Israeli intellectuals have made it plain that they are bored with the very notion of a common Jewish culture. At a “Global Conversation on Writing and the Jewish Future” held in California this past February, the novelist Orly Castel-Bloom lamented that “all this Jewish-Jewish-Jewish stuff oppresses me,” and confided her “dream” that “Jews . . . will find a way to get rid of that . . . obligation of Judaism that produces nothing but paralyzing guilt-feelings and shame.” Understandably, a journalist covering the conference came away convinced that Israeli and Diaspora Jews “represent two people, joined by a common history but divided by language, culture, and even religion.”



Finally, one must add another catalyzing ingredient: the relentless barrage of attacks on the Jewish state that has been mounted in recent years by some highly vocal American Jews, aided and abetted by their Israeli counterparts. These critics not only voice misgivings about specific policies of the Israeli government. They castigate Israel itself as an essentially immoral and undemocratic enterprise. Their drumbeat began in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, and intensified sharply during the intifada; but what went before has paled in comparison with the tone of calumny and high indignation that has characterized this campaign since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.

For a taste of what is involved, one need look no further than a symposium on Israel’s 50th anniversary in a recent issue of Tikkun. Virtually every American Jewish contributor to this “compassionately critical analysis” (as it styles itself) registers shocked dismay at the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the Jewish state. According to one, young American Jews are “appalled by the lack of moral sensitivity, the racism, and the absence [in Israel] of any larger spiritual vision beyond ‘making it’ in the international capitalist market.” To another, “neither Labor nor Likud” holds out the hope of a truly “generous peace” with the Palestinian Arabs, for “to make such a peace is today beyond Israel’s moral capacity.” A third chastises Israel (and Jews generally) for having lost “their moral compass.” As for the Israeli contributors to this symposium, they tend to be at least as bilious as their American colleagues.

In constructing his taxonomy of American Jewish “indifferentism” a quarter-century ago, Norman Podhoretz pointed in particular to three groups: socialists who had no patience for the “reactionary bourgeois nationalism” of the Zionists and who fervently believed that universalism would triumph over narrow national concerns; upper-class Jews of German extraction, some of them affiliated with classical Reform Judaism, who defined their Jewish identity as a matter of religious confession and viewed talk of Jewish peoplehood as antithetical to the goal of integration and social acceptance in America, if not to the “prophetic” vocation of the Jews; and Jewish intellectuals, “very few of whom,” as Podhoretz put it, “ever found anything to interest or attract them either in the idea of Jewish statehood or in the concrete existence of the state of Israel.”

It is uncanny how faithfully some of these old themes of Jewish anti-Zionism have resurfaced. “The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world, the outlook of Zionism is a corner of Western Asia,” intoned David Phillipson, the dean of the American Reform rabbinate, in 1942. Echoes one contributor to the Tikkun symposium: “[A]lmost everything fresh and new in [Judaism] is coming from the Diaspora, not Israel. . . . Where Israel had once given birth to prophets, it now produces clerks.” Similarly, yesteryear’s high-blown rhetoric of religious and social universalism lives on in today’s grandiose visions of a future when, to quote another Tikkun writer, “chauvinistic consciousness” will pass from the earth and “issues of national sovereignty will be replaced with a global consciousness that allows us to recognize ourselves and God in each other.” If there is a difference between then and now, it is that today’s castigators are the more unctuously self-righteous, professing to care so much for Israel that they want to rescue it from itself. That aside, what has gone around has come around, with a vengeance.



Given the dimensions of the rift between American and Israeli Jews, it would be myopic to believe that we are likely to see a serious effort any time soon to bridge it. But it would also be wrong to end without noting the rays of light in the general gloom. For the fact is that whatever the disaffected are doing, and whatever the intellectuals are doing, those American Jews who do remain strongly affiliated with Jewish life are hardly turning away from the Jewish state. Philanthropic giving to Israel is still very high, and a survey by the American Jewish Committee in early 1998 found that a majority of American Jews not only support the Netanyahu government’s handling of negotiations with the Arabs but—strikingly—reject the publicly expressed views of some Jewish leaders that the U.S. government should apply pressure on Israel.

For anyone who cares to look, there is also abundant evidence of the extent to which, cultural differences notwithstanding, the institutional life of American Jews, especially in its religious aspects, has become indelibly stamped by Israeli outlooks and practices. Most synagogue-going Jews pronounce their prayers in Israeli Hebrew, listen and sing along to Israeli liturgical compositions, and wear or use religious articles imported from the Jewish state. Israel figures as a central item in the curricula of all Jewish schools; and most of those schools are heavily dependent upon Israeli-born teachers or Americans educated at Israeli institutions. Every reputable rabbinical seminary in the United States requires its students to spend a year of study in Israel, and that year has a radiating effect both on them and on their subsequent ministries. Indeed, most American Jews who study in Israel, far from becoming alienated by this nation of “clerks,” return with quite the opposite problem: in the words of one observer, “there seems simply no one [back home] with whom to share, or with whom to make sense out of, the profound awakenings they had begun to feel in Israel.”

In all these respects and more, Israel has indeed wrought what Solomon Schechter prayed for, a recreation of the Jewish national consciousness not only in Zion but for Zion. And for this reason, if not for its numberless other astounding achievements and its sometimes disconcerting vibrancy, there is everything for American Jews to give thanks for and to celebrate on the occasion of Israel’s 50th anniversary—just as there are, in addition, very real and powerful grounds for worry over the state’s security and future well-being. But as for the widespread, glum refusal to credit the reality of what Israel has done for the Jews, that needs to be characterized in different terms. Shall we call it, perhaps, a sin?



1 I am grateful for permission to cite these data from Cohen’s study, “Religious Stability and Ethnic Decline: The 1997 Heller-JCCA National Survey of American Jews,” which was sponsored by the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and will appear next fall. A recent study in Great Britain found a similar division among Anglo-Jewry, albeit with somewhat higher overall rates of positive identification.

2 For a helpful discussion of this theme, see Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen, Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences (Yale, 1990).


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