All told, the two Jewish communities of the United States and Israel constitute some 85 percent of the world’s Jews. Although other communities around the globe remain significant for their size or other qualities, the future of world Jewry will likely be shaped by the two largest populations—and by the relationship between them. For that reason alone, the waning of attachment to Israel among American Jews, especially but not exclusively younger American Jews, has rightly become a central focus of concern for religious and communal leaders, thinkers, and planners in both countries.
True, other concerns have lately encroached: concerns in both countries, for instance, over the Trump administration’s still-developing stance toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict and, in the U.S., over a seemingly homegrown series of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and bomb threats against Jewish institutions (most of the latter exposed as the work of a disturbed Israeli Jewish youth). But the larger worry—American Jewish disaffection from Israel—remains very much in place, and its reverberating implications were underscored during the waning days of the Obama administration, when by far the greater portion of American Jews stayed faithful to the president and his party even after his decision to allow passage of an undeniably anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations.
What explains the growing distance between many American Jews and the state of Israel? Two recent books ventured answers to that question, and both authors basically agreed that the problem lay with Israel, a country that had fallen out of sync with the progressive movement of history. To Michael Barnett in The Star and the Stripes, while most American Jews embrace “a political theology of prophetic Judaism” and exhibit “cosmopolitan longings,” Israel is “increasingly acting like an ethnonational state.” To Dov Waxman in Trouble in the Tribe, the movement of the Jewish state in an “increasingly illiberal” direction has forced young American Jews to “turn away . . . in despair, or even disgust.” Making a similar point was a newspaper column by the veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, aptly titled: “Sorry Israel, U.S. Jewry Just Isn’t That into You.” The reason, wrote Pinkas, was “the reality of decades of Israeli occupation” of Palestinian Arabs, compounded by “the dismissive, inconsiderate, and [at] times arrogant Israeli attitude toward [American] Reform and Conservative Jews.”
Not everyone has laid the blame on Israel, to be sure. Arguing explicitly to the contrary, Elliott Abrams in Mosaic located the source of the divide not in Israel’s policies or political culture but rather on the other side of the equation: the changed makeup of American Jews and American Judaism. Specifically, he pointed to the loosening of once-powerful communal bonds, as evidenced by the high rates of intermarriage and the move away from Jewish religious affiliation. In a published response to the Abrams essay, I added another factor: the gradual erosion of communal memory, especially of the Holocaust era and the history of the state of Israel itself.
In what follows, I’d like to suggest still another, perhaps deeper reason for the widening rift between the two communities: namely, the emerging impression among significant numbers of American Jews that Israel and modern-day, progressive America are two fundamentally different if not antithetical political projects. This impression, as it happens, is essentially correct, though not in the parochial, self-justifying, and prejudicial way it is conventionally framed.
I. Old Tensions and New
Before delving into what I mean by fundamentally different political projects, it’s worth briefly reminding ourselves that, in many ways, the tensions between the two communities are not as new as is sometimes assumed; in fact, they are as old as Israel itself.
Throughout the early years of the state, as the historian Jerold S. Auerbach has observed, “Even the idea of a Jewish state, to say nothing of the reality of Israel, seldom inspired feelings of passionate attachment in the majority of American Jews.” In 1950, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s assertion that Israel was now the de-facto center of the Jewish world provoked an irate Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and at the time perhaps the most important lay leader of American Judaism, to counter forcefully that “there can be no single spokesman for world Jewry no matter who that spokesman might try to be.” Ten years later, when prominent American Jews expressed repugnance at Israel’s kidnapping of the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann in order to bring him to trial in Jerusalem—by what right, these Jews demanded, did a state that had not even existed when Eichmann committed his crimes claim jurisdiction as if it were the acknowledged international address of the Jewish people?—Ben-Gurion reacted with rage: “[The] Judaism of Jews of the United States,” he declared, “is losing all meaning and only a blind man can fail to see the day of its extinction.”
True enough, Israel’s lightning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War did much to soften feelings. The Jewish world, having feared the worst as Arab leaders vowed to hurl Israeli Jews into the sea, had held its breath during the nerve-wracking weeks prior to the outbreak of hostilities. When Israel not only survived but crushed its enemies and tripled its geographical area, a shared Jewish euphoria seemed finally to have won the day. Yet the ardor did not last, and the celebratory mood proved ephemeral. Very soon, liberal American Jewish spokesmen and intellectuals began to complain about the prospect of a longstanding Israeli presence in the conquered territories. What would this portend for the Jewish state’s democracy, and for its image as an enlightened, peace-seeking nation? Six years later, when the state’s sense of confidence and invulnerability crumbled in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, one could almost detect relief in some American Jewish quarters. As one communal leader reportedly said, with exquisite condescension, it would be “a pleasure to deal with a lesser Israel.”
Then came 1977, the electoral dethroning of the Labor party, the accession to power of the Likud under Menachem Begin, and the growth of the settlers’ movement. By 1982, with Israel’s failed effort to uproot the PLO from Lebanon, and the slaughter by Lebanese Christian Arabs of Palestinian Muslims in camps being guarded by Israeli soldiers, the “liberal fantasies of American Jews about Israel,” writes Auerbach, already shaken by the election of Begin (that “irascible shtetl Jew”), were “demolished.”
These are only a few antecedents of today’s rift. But their salience should not be exaggerated: despite episodes of real dissonance, the majority of American Jews remained solid in their emotional attachment to Israel, took pride in its achievements, and saw no friction between those feelings and their feelings as proud Americans.
That, today, is what has changed: increasingly, the orientation of many American Jews toward Israel is one neither of instinctive loyalty nor of pride but of indifference, embarrassment, or hostility. To this phenomenon, the findings of the 2013 Pew Center study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the survey research cited by all serious observers—bear sober witness.
Who are these new American Jews? One key variable is age. According to Pew, while nearly 40 percent of American Jews aged sixty-five or older continue to feel “very attached” to Israel, only 25 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds feel the same way. At the opposite pole, of those not “very attached” to Israel, the gap is even wider, with twice as many younger as older Jews claiming that status. A separate study by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen formulates the disparity more starkly. Whereas some 80 percent of those sixty-five or older say that “Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy,” the number drops to 50 percent for those thirty-five and under.
If age is one window into differences in attitude, politics is another. Pew reports that levels of attachment to Israel decrease, often dramatically, as one moves from right to left—that is, from conservative to liberal—on the political spectrum. Thus, half of Republican Jewish respondents describe themselves as “very attached” to Israel, but only a quarter of Jewish Democrats do so. Conversely, while only 2 percent of Jewish Republicans describe themselves as “not at all attached” to Israel, among Jewish Democrats the number is fully five times higher.
A similar pattern emerges on the religious spectrum. On the right, 77 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews describe themselves as “very attached” to Israel; on the left, the comparable figures are drastically lower: 24 percent for Reform Jews and 16 percent for those claiming no denominational affiliation. Conversely, where a tiny 1 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews describe themselves as “not very attached” to Israel, about a quarter of Reform Jews describe themselves that way, as do a third of the non-affiliated. So great is this disparity that one might reasonably infer that when it comes to Israel, Orthodoxy and Reform subscribe to utterly different worldviews.
In brief, the group growing most disconnected from Israel is composed of younger, politically more left-leaning, and religiously less traditionalist American Jews—or, to put it in other words, the Jews who have most thoroughly assimilated not only the style of life but the ideas and presuppositions of the American professional class to which they mainly belong. Quite logically, these Jews also identify themselves overwhelmingly with the Democratic party, which today continues its own, institutional movement away from its earlier warm support of Israel. Indeed, many Jews supported Congressman Keith Ellison, despite his history of outspoken anti-Israel sentiments and past association with Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, in his campaign to head the Democratic National Committee, and similarly backed Senator Bernie Sanders’ quest for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination despite Sanders’ clear partiality to pushing his party in an anti-Israel direction.
All of these facts and figures have by now been well rehearsed by commentators and close analysts of the Pew survey. We know who is drifting away from Israel. So, to rephrase the question with which we began: is the problem, as Bruce Bartlett, Dov Waxman, and Alon Pinkas suggest, Israel’s policies and the way Israel behaves or, as Elliott Abrams argues, does it reflect the changed ethnic and religious composition of American Jewry? Or, as I now mean to propose here, is it a little of both but more of the latter and also something else: a matter of moral and political essence and ideology?
This last alternative lay in plain sight in a much-discussed opinion piece that appeared last August in Haaretz under the title, “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind.” One of the two authors—their individual statements were separately signed—was Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University. Diner reports that, having been asked by a “progressive” Jewish movement to add her name to a document called the “Jerusalem Program,” she realized she could no longer support its basic commitment to the “strengthening [of] Israel as a Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state.”
As to democratic, I had no problem [she wrote], but the singular insistence on Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state made me realize that, at least in light of this document, I could not call myself a Zionist any longer. Does Jewish constitute a race or ethnicity? Does a Jewish state mean a racial state? . . .
The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America.
Diner then proceeds to tick off the items in her bill of indictment, among them Israel’s “harsher and harsher” methods for suppressing Palestinians, the “exponential growth of far-right political parties,” and the country’s “increasing ḥaredization.” These, she now sees, can no longer be dismissed as incidental or temporary excrescences. Rather, like the Law of Return, they are endemic to Israel’s national project, whose true nature “I have read too much about colonialism and racism” to ignore. And that, finally, is why she not only abhors (her word) the thought of visiting the country but also feels “repulsion” upon entering an American synagogue “in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, ‘We Stand with Israel.’” As for herself, she will not stand with any for whom Israel “loom[s] large as an icon of identity.”
And there it is, the fundamental thing: neither policies nor religious and ethnic fashions but what Israel essentially, irrevocably, is. “The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America,” Diner insists. She is correct; it did. But Israel’s founders, one of whose earliest legislative enactments was the Law of Return, never intended their state to be “religiously neutral.” Nor could they have so intended if Israel was to be a Jewish state at all.
In contrast to the United States, whose neutrality in matters of religion afforded Jews an opportunity for flourishing unlike any they had ever experienced in a Diaspora community, a “Jewish and Zionist state” could not, and cannot, be religiously neutral. In this core respect, the purposes of the two countries do diverge, and so do their respective visions of both democracy and the ideal society. Since Diner, a professor of Jewish history, seems not to have registered this elementary fact until now, we can presume it must have been lost on many other Jews as well. With that in mind, it might help to articulate four of the ways in which Israel’s political and cultural assumptions do indeed differ from those common in the United States and perhaps especially among the majority of American Jews.
II. Universalism vs. Particularism
The most obvious difference between the American and Israeli projects lies in the ethnic particularism at the core of the latter’s very reason for being. American universalism hardly denies the multiplicity of ethnicities that make up the American people; what it does deny is the notion that any of them should be politically central or defining. I stress the word “politically” to mark the distinction, once taken for granted, between America as an essentially Christian country or society and America as a nation and a polity. The early-20th-century theorist Horace Kallen may have put it best in articulating his notion of “cultural pluralism” —a notion that is still in vogue almost a century after he first introduced it and that he counterposed to the then-regnant metaphor of America as a “melting pot” in which distinctive immigrant ethnicities were destined to disappear. Prophesying the United States of his hoped-for future, Kallen wrote in 1924:
Its form would be that of a federal republic; its substance a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously. . . . The political and economic life of the commonwealth is the single unit and serves as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality of each nation that composes it and of the pooling of these in a harmony about them all. Thus “American civilization” may come to mean the perfection of the cooperative harmonies of “European civilization” . . . an orchestration of mankind.
What Kallen meant by the term “nation” we today would refer to as an ethnic group. But the element of this passage to which I want to call special attention is his final reference to the optimal form of American civilization as a whole, pictured by him as “the perfection of the cooperative harmonies of ‘European civilization.’” By May 14, 1948, the day on which David Ben-Gurion read aloud Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jews of Palestine had forgone any deep belief or trust they might once have placed in that civilization or those ideals. They were intent instead on creating a country that, democratic in form and in function, and welcoming of all religions and ethnic identities, would unapologetically serve the security needs and cultural purposes and interests of the Jewish nation, vast numbers of whom had recently been murdered and/or abandoned by European civilization.
The opening sentences of the Declaration make crystal-clear what Ben-Gurion and his fellow founders had in mind:
The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance, and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. In the year 5657 , at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodor Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
One could ask for no clearer or more candid statement of national particularism, or one at greater odds with the universalist and post- or trans-nationalist affinities of so many liberal American Jews.
III. Religion and the Public Square
As a derivative of the divide between universalism and particularism, consider now the nature of the public square. In America, for the most part, there has been implicit agreement that public spaces ought to be largely if not entirely devoid of religious content or symbolism. Despite a complex judicial history in which courts at different levels have ruled on different sides of this issue, the commonly held presumption, at least in modern America, has been that in order to make the public square accessible to all, it needs to be religion-free.
To be sure, some, like Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square (1984), have maintained—with justice—that so far-reaching a restriction ensures by definition that, by ruling out one significant form of public expression, the public square will not be accessible to all. This, however, is not the way most of mainstream American Jewish leadership thought about the matter. For them, the “nakedness” of the public square was instead a sacrosanct value, and Jewish organizations pressed to keep it that way, agitating not only against such long-established practices as school prayer and the placing of Christmas crèches outside municipal buildings but, no less fervently, against the effort by Lubavitcher Ḥasidim to erect Hanukkah menorahs in similar public spaces.
But here is a curious fact about many of those same American Jews, so rigorously absolutist on the issue of the separation of church and state and so thoroughly accustomed to observing their Judaism strictly in the privacy of their homes and synagogues: upon deplaning in Israel and getting their first taste of the undeniably Jewish character of its public square, many experience a keen sense of warmth, comfort, and reassurance. Shedding the inevitable sensitivity that life as a Jew can entail even in the benign American Diaspora, they find themselves thrilling to the plethora of heads adorned by kippot, the ubiquitous flower stands that pop up in the hours before sunset on Friday afternoons, the sound of the air-raid siren in Jerusalem that marks the onset of the day of rest, evoking the blast of the shofar once heard in antiquity from the roof of the Temple. The empty highways on Yom Kippur, the sonorous reading of the Sh’ma at the start of Israel Radio’s daily broadcast schedule: for many a Jewish American visitor, these and other manifestations of a society pulsing with Jewish life can tug at the heart.
And yet, however charmed they may be at first, questions inevitably arise. Should secular Israelis be bound by a law forbidding the public sale of unleavened bread on Passover? Does the legal ban on intercity buses on Shabbat unfairly constrict the movement of Israeli Arabs, or of secular Israelis who do not own cars? Should an Israeli Muslim supreme-court justice be expected to sing the country’s national anthem, which begins: “As long as the Jewish spirit yearns deep in the heart . . . ”? How, they wonder, can a state with all of these arrangements in place be considered a genuine democracy? In the America that they take for granted, such infringements on personal autonomy would be unthinkable.
Here a notably parochial aspect of their universalism is showing: plenty of modern democracies, including European icons of progressivism routinely idolized by American liberals, still feature official religious establishments, or confer special status on one religion. In Israel, meanwhile, even most secular thinkers and activists do not question in principle the need for the country’s public square to remain overtly Jewish. Still, it doesn’t take long for many American Jews to conclude that Israel is either a pseudo-democracy or a profoundly blemished one. How are they to feel pride in, or attachment to, a country that so openly deviates from what they confidently but narrowly assume is the democratic ideal?
IV. When Ashkenazim Meet Mizrahim
Although they do not say so, perhaps because they are unaware of it or because the mere mention of it would fail the test of political correctness, American Jews are also unnerved by a subtle but noticeable shift in the kind of Judaism that is increasingly on display in Israel’s public square. This Judaism is not only “Orthodox” (itself a term not especially applicable to Israeli Judaism) but also increasingly Mizraḥi rather than Ashkenazi in its tone.
What does this mean? Eurocentric though much of the Zionist narrative has been, at least half of Israel’s Jews hail from regions in which the European Enlightenment (haskalah) did not take root, where Western theological tropes never became the currency of religious discourse, and where Jews never openly rebelled against their tradition. One paradoxical result is that, for these Jews, religion is for the most part a more relaxed and “natural” part of life. Many Mizraḥim comfortably call themselves Orthodox, attend Shabbat services in the synagogue, and then drive to the beach—behavior that can strike observant Ashkenazi Jews as utterly inconsistent or blatantly sacrilegious.
No less discordant is a second paradox: even among Mizraḥim who are not meticulously observant, devout faith is common. Most assert without hesitation that God revealed the Torah at Sinai, and more than half believe in a divine system of reward and punishment. The classic struggles with these principles so common among religious Ashkenazi Jews, accustomed to controversies over modern Bible criticism and, ever since the Holocaust, over the problem of the suffering of the righteous, hardly affect the passionately held faith of Mizraḥim.
Beyond the issue of faith is also the instinctive Jewish nationalism of the Mizraḥi world, a product both of historical experience at the hands of Arab and Muslim overlords and of the Mizraḥi reading of the lessons taught by the Bible and the Jewish prayer book. As the scholar Meir Buzaglo has noted, Mizraḥim express their preferential loyalty to the Jewish people with none of the defensive self-consciousness that often characterizes discussions of this issue in modern Ashkenazi circles. On average, today’s Mizrahim also vote much more to the right than do other Israelis. Being mainly the grandchildren of Jews who fled or were forced out of North Africa and other places around the Arab and Muslim Middle East, they harbor unabashedly negative images of their former societies and tend to vote for candidates and parties that speak passionately about the primacy of the Jewish people and that harbor no illusions about Israel’s enemies.
All of this is bound to make liberal American Jews nervous—as one of them, Paul Cowan, foresaw in the late 1980s as Mizraḥim seemed on the verge of becoming a majority in Israel:
[W]hat is [the Mizraḥi] vision of the Israel they will soon control? Do they have different ideas about democracy, about justice, from those we usually associate with Ashkenazi Israel? . . . [On a visit in] 1979, I realized that these questions were crucial to an understanding of Israel’s future, but they are seldom discussed in the American Jewish press. It’s one of the reasons we [Americans] debate the Israel that exists in our head—not the one that exists in the world.
As American Jews slowly discover the Israel that actually does “exist in the world,” their internal calculus of emotions is likely to grow correspondingly more fraught.
V. Voluntary vs. Non-Voluntary Communities
Finally, American Jewish life and Israeli life reflect the difference between voluntary and non-voluntary communities.
That Israel exemplifies the latter category is plain. Near-universal military service (at least in theory) is the most obvious example, but no less critical is the complete dominance exercised by the country’s chief rabbinate over such personal matters as divorce, conversion to Judaism, and to a lesser extent marriage and burial. Not even the most rabidly secular or anti-religious Jew in Israel can obtain a divorce without the involvement of an Orthodox rabbi. Conversion to Judaism, commonly available in the United States under non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox auspices, essentially takes place in Israel only through the offices of the chief rabbinate.
Army service and a state-sponsored religious establishment do not exhaust the list. Israeli Jews in all walks of life inhabit a society where civic engagement is an instinctive “must.” This was brought home to me earlier this year when I accompanied a group of students from Jerusalem’s Shalem College to a meeting with the communal and religious Jewish leadership of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the course of our discussion, an Israeli student asked a representative of one of the community’s better-known institutions what a Jew must do in order to be included in a particular initiative. The response was, “Here in the Bay Area we do not use the word ‘must.’” The Israelis, who ranged all the way from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular, were uniformly stunned—and also deeply disturbed. None of them, no matter where he or she resided on the political or religious spectrum, could even begin to imagine a meaningful Jewish existence that did not place at its core the notion of obligation.
And here is another paradox: the non-voluntary nature of Israeli society, far from eroding the willingness of citizens to devote time, energy, and passion to causes beyond themselves, actually produces voluntarism at exceedingly high rates. Israeli youth commonly volunteer for a full year of public service before beginning their military training, in return for which they receive no military or academic credit. Organizations of all sorts—a typical one, Hashomer Haḥadash, combines Jewish and Zionist study with the active patrol of land areas that the Israeli police cannot adequately protect from usurpers—now attract tens of thousands of volunteers each year.
Indeed, the volunteer spirit in Israel seems inbred, less a matter of deliberate choice than simply a matter of what citizens of all ages do. John F. Kennedy’s admonition, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” (itself an evocation of Luke 12:48, “of those to whom much is given, much is required”), characterizes Israeli society much more than it does American—marking another radical difference between the ethos of American and Israeli Jewish life.
As I noted earlier, all of these markers of difference have been in plain sight for a long time, indeed for a very long time. Why the resulting chasm should have opened so wide in recent years is not entirely obvious. But one can list a few contributing factors. They include the abovementioned erosion of Holocaust memory, the stubborn perdurance of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, and younger American Jews’ utter ignorance of when and how “the occupation” began. Add to these the skyrocketing rate of intermarriage in America, which in turn renders increasingly vexed any notion of Judaism as the faith of a single and singular people. Add, as well, the American idea of the primacy of the universal over the particular and the ideological insistence on religion as strictly a private matter. The more American Jews think of Judaism only in religious terms, without the component of peoplehood, the less necessary and less justified Israel becomes, the more anomalous and abnormal. Religions, after all, do not typically have countries. Is there a Methodist country? A Baha’i state?
And then of course, making matters much worse, there are the current trends on American campuses. The pervasive anti-Zionism at many American universities, often a thin mask for anti-Semitism, triggers in many a young Jew an understandable impulse to lie low or to signal one’s dissociation from Israel lest one become tarred with the brush of ignominy. Nor, in a climate in which campus administrators exempt rabid anti-Israel speakers and demonstrators from the general ban on all sorts of lesser aggressions, is attachment to Israel likely to appeal to any but the hardiest souls. And this is not to speak of those young Jews, abetted by faculty members like Hasia Diner and many more, who themselves actively seek the further defamation and delegitimation of the Jewish state, if not its actual destruction, through such venues as Students for Justice in Palestine, BDS (boycott, sanction, and disinvestment), the Orwellian-named Jewish Voice for Peace, and others of the same ilk.
Finally, the culture of political correctness on university campuses, reinforced by the now-ubiquitous doctrine of “intersectionality,” condemns Zionism and Zionists to a perdition from which few have the courage, or the necessary command of countervailing facts and arguments, to emerge and do open battle. This drumbeat of denunciation, amplified as it is in the echo chambers of world bodies, rationalized by important sectors of elite opinion in America and especially Europe, shamefully tolerated or excused by the gatekeepers of cultural convention, is more than enough to persuade any young Jew not otherwise armed that white is black, black is white, and that the free, open, boisterous, resilient, tolerant, happy, compassionate, and resolute Jewish society of Israel is humanity’s scourge.
Is there no light to be found in this dark picture? Perhaps a little. American political culture at large is undergoing a great upheaval. At this early stage, one cannot know how things will play out, but it is at least conceivable that the shattering of liberal complacency, including about the actual situation and future prospects of American Jewry itself, might lead some younger Jews to embrace and champion the lessons in flourishing and pride held out by the Jewish and democratic state of Israel. Such young Jews need every ounce of help, encouragement, and support that a community alert to its true interests can provide.
Those with a taste for historical irony might point to another development on the horizon. Could the widening gap between American Jews and Israel slowly shrink if, as seems quite possible, most of the still-affiliated American Jewish community soon becomes composed of those who already share ethnically particularist and religiously traditionalist commitments?
The evidence here is demographic. Largely because of falling birthrates and related factors among secular and non-Orthodox American Jews, the second half of this century, notes Steven M. Cohen, is likely to see “a sharply declining non-Orthodox population . . . and a rising fraction of Jews who are Orthodox.” Putting flesh on this statement, two researchers have tracked the potential number of descendants from 100 Jews in each of five categories: secular, Reform, Conservative, centrist Orthodox, and right-wing Orthodox. After four generations, they project, and assuming current trends continue, 100 secular Jews today will yield only four progeny. From 100 Reform Jews, the number in four generations will have fallen to 13; from 100 Conservative Jews, to 52. By contrast, 100 centrist-Orthodox Jews today will yield 337 Jews at the end of the same time span, while the Jewish descendants of 100 right-wing Orthodox Jews will number 3,398. And for that combined Orthodox total of 3,735, as the Pew data on “attachment” confirm, much about Israel will seem less foreign and less problematic.
In sum, our ironists might conclude, demography could solve a problem that we have found no other way to address. But this is hardly cause for celebration. It takes a particular kind of myopia to derive satisfaction or comfort from even the specter of the disappearance of large swathes of the Jewish people. Besides, Jewish history has long illustrated the virtual impossibility of knowing which varieties of Jewish life will prove resilient. In the decades after the destruction of the Second Temple, few would have wagered that rabbinic Judaism would triumph while all other forms of authoritative Judaism would essentially vanish. Shortly after Israel’s founding, David Ben-Gurion exempted ḥaredi yeshiva students from the military draft because he was confident that soon no Ḥaredim would remain. In the late 1950’s, the American Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer concluded in American Judaism that Orthodox religious faith was destined to wither. And so forth. As Nils Bohr, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, once quipped: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
But let us not delude ourselves. Barring a radical change in their political, cultural, and moral dispositions, sizable proportions of American Jews will continue to bristle not only at what Israel does but at what, to their minds, Israel represents and is. For at least as far as the eye can see, this self-administered exercise in detachment and moral disarmament, with all of its larger implications for Jewish cohesion as well as for American foreign policy in the Middle East, is likely to spread and to deepen.
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