Israel has an American Jewish problem. This problem manifests itself in different ways, but it seems unquestionable that varied segments of American Jewry do not support Israel in the all-encompassing and largely uncritical way that they once did. This can be seen nearly anywhere one looks, whether it is on college campuses where J Street student groups dominate the scene, or in the string of articles by American Jews – including this American Jew – that take the Israeli government to task on a number of issues, or in the criticism from prominent Jewish intelligentsia that left former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren so disappointed in his memoir. This is not to say that there are not large segments of American Jews whose relationship with Israel has remained the same over time, and making broad characterizations about an entire group is always going to miss the nuance inherent in a detailed examination. But suffice it to say that Israel’s status with American Jewry writ large, while still very strong, is not quite as strong as it once was.
Yet, in ways large and small, the current Israeli government oftentimes gives the impression that it just doesn’t care. Take the Iran deal, for instance. The Jewish community in the U.S. was bitterly divided over its merits, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his government gave the impression that anyone who cared about Israel must oppose the deal, which divided the American Jewish community even further. The prime minister then insisted on coming here to campaign against it before Congress over the objections of myriad American Jewish groups – reportedly AIPAC included – who knew that the speech and overall campaign would put American Jews in an uncomfortable position. None of this, however, managed to change Netanyahu’s calculus, and so events proceeded apace. Other examples abound as well. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. is controversial, to say the least, among many American Jews, and yet Netanyahu is content with the status quo. The overwhelming preponderance of American Jews are not Orthodox and are alienated by Israel’s position on religious issues that affect them directly, from conversion to being able to pray at the Western Wall in an egalitarian tradition, but such issues are consigned to the sidelines. One of the things that was so remarkable about Netanyahu’s recent partial about-face on the NGO bill was that it came after weeks of hammering away by American Jewish groups (although there is no evidence that this was dispositive, rather than pressure from Western governments). So why doesn’t the Israeli government care what we think?
One important factor is of course the one that I wrote about last week, which is that American Jewish organizations – in contrast to ordinary American Jews – are more willing to give the government leeway on most issues. The Israeli government knows that even if support is softening among significant numbers of American Jews as individuals, the organizations are going to remain a lot less critical of the government. This is an enormous mitigating factor, and there is no question that for very practical and understandable reasons any Israeli prime minister cares more about what AIPAC’s position is on an issue than the position voiced by your representative American Jew on the street. The irony is that so long as American Jewish groups are more supportive of Israel than American Jews, the wishes of many American Jews will be subsumed to the wishes of the organizations tasked with representing them.
There is another important factor that has nothing to do with groups but with demographics. The group most supportive of Israel in the U.S. is Orthodox Jews, who have the strongest ties to Israel that are inculcated in a variety of ways, from day schools that put a premium on Zionism to students spending a gap year in Israel before college. As the Pew study demonstrates, the farther away from Jewish observance and Jewish identity one gets, the less supportive of Israel one tends to be. Israeli officials look at the rising intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and the growing proportion of Orthodox Jews in urban centers such as New York, and assume that the numbers are on their side. What looks like a growing trend of eroding support for Israel becomes little more than a squall that Israel only needs to wait out for the next couple of decades, since the intermarried and non-observant will likely cease to have much Jewish identity and a more Orthodox American Jewry is a more supportive American Jewry. This thinking is erroneous on a number of fronts – among other things, it ignores the influence disproportionately wielded in American Jewry by pockets of non-Orthodox Jews in places like Wall Street and Hollywood and also assumes that Orthodox Jews will remain uniformly supportive of rightwing Israeli policies forever – but it does explain a lot about why American Jewish voices often go unheeded.
So is this a battle cry for American Jews to abandon Israel until the Israeli government becomes more felicitous of its desires? Absolutely not. Any Israeli government has to worry first and foremost about its own constituents – who in this case are more politically conservative and more religious than their American Jewish brethren – before it worries about Diaspora Jews. More saliently, there are some small but encouraging signs that things may be changing a bit, from Netanyahu’s new position on the NGO bill to the reports of an emerging deal on egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The relationship between American Jews and Israel has often resembled a one-way street since the state’s founding, and it is naïve to believe that this will change wholesale overnight, but if the Israeli government’s sudden responsiveness on the NGO and pluralism issues were affected by American Jewish concerns, it reiterates the importance of keeping our voices up. Even if unrequited love is more often than not going to continue to be American Jewry’s lot in life, we should make sure that we are heard in order to make a difference wherever we can and continue to give the Israeli government a way of listening to the American Jewish community’s disparate parts rather than just the ones that reinforce its current policies.