The priorities and political preferences of American Jews were again the subject of discussion this week by Israeli and American politicians, as the American Jewish community continues to find itself in the uncomfortable position of being used as a political football. In both instances – Miri Regev’s determination to not have an Independence Day torch reserved for Diaspora Jewry at the Mount Herzl ceremony, and President Trump’s opining on Jews fleeing the Democratic Party over its alleged anti-Semitic milieu – the principals fundamentally misunderstand what American Jews care about and what drives their political preferences and desires.
Regev – who demonstrated her discomfort with Diaspora Jewish priorities when she elected to step down from the committee overseeing arrangements at the Western Wall rather than be part of establishing an egalitarian prayer space – decided this week that none of the Independence Day torches at this year’s ceremony would be reserved for Diaspora Jews to light. While at first glance this might seem a mighty affront, the tradition of having a non-Israeli Jew light a torch is a very new one, with the first instance coming only two years ago, so in reality this is merely a symbolic gesture that does not trample on any longstanding practice. But there is reason to suspect that Regev is peeved over American Jewish complaints about a host of things, from the aforementioned Western Wall contretemps to the Nation-State Law to her political patron Prime Minister Netanyahu brokering the deal that will potentially allow Otzma Yehudit to enter the Knesset and be part of the next government. Naftali Bennett, presumably in his capacity as diaspora affairs minister, immediately jumped in to defend Diaspora Jews and criticized Regev for what he described as an affront. At the heart of the dispute seems to be a difference in viewpoints over whether and to what extent Israel should be catering to Jews who are not Israeli citizens, and the role that non-Israeli Jews have in Israel.
But as Regev and Bennett squabble, one throwing shade at Diaspora Jews and the other stepping in to defend them, they are both missing the point about American Zionism and how American Jews view their connection to Israel. Both Regev and Bennett view participation in the torch lighting ceremony as a tremendous honor for Diaspora Jewry writ large, and thus the simple act of lighting one torch among many demonstrates Israel’s respect for non-Israeli Jews and their role in the state. Not lighting a torch communicates to non-Israeli Jews that they are stepping beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, and that their relationship to Israel should be recalibrated. Regev and Bennett clearly disagree on what that relationship should look like, with Regev taking a dimmer view of Diaspora Jewry than Bennett, but participating in the Mount Herzl ceremony is something that they both view as a marker.
The problem is that the role that Diaspora Jews – and more specifically, North American Jews – want to play in Israel goes beyond the mere symbolism of being invited to participate in an exclusive party. North American Jews view Zionism as a national movement that is for the entire Jewish nation and is not simply tied to Israeli citizenship, and thus they want a real role that is recognized by the state. They do not conceive of Israel as being simply for its citizens, but as being for Jews everywhere. It is why they reacted so poorly to the abrogation by Netanyahu of the original Western Wall deal, not because it tangibly impacts more than a handful of American Jews who travel to Israel and actually want to have an egalitarian prayer ceremony at the Wall, but because it is an issue that overwhelmingly concerns American Jews and barely registers with Israeli Jews. The 90 percent of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox are nearly all likely to pray in egalitarian services when they engage in prayer, while only a small percentage of Israeli Jews are likely to do the same no matter their level of observance. When it came to an issue that had to do with Judaism rather than Israel, the Israeli government sent the message that American Jewish priorities were not a concern. Getting to light a torch will not alter that perception, and that Regev and Bennett view what amounts to a trifling trinket as something that will loom large in American Jewish perception speaks volumes about their understanding of what American Jews really want.
Then we come to Trump, who took it upon himself last week to call the Democratic Party anti-Jewish and this week via tweet to analyze American Jewish perceptions and voting patterns. Trump quoted his former campaign staffer and Jexodus founder Elizabeth Pipko, who in Trump’s rendering said, “Jewish people are leaving the Democratic Party. We saw a lot of anti Israel policies start under the Obama Administration, and it got worsts [sic] & worse. There is anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party. They don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.” Let’s leave aside the wonderfully fact-free Eden of Trump’s mind that we are so accustomed to seeing him stroll through and pretend for a moment that the percentage of Jews voting for Democrats did not rise from 2012 to 2016, and then again from 2016 to 2018. Aside from the evidence being somewhere between threadbare and non-existent that Jews are leaving Democrats for Republicans, Trump does not get that for many American Jews, their Jewish identity is not about tribalism or about Israel but about values.
If the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewry made anything clear, it is that American Jews primarily view Judaism not as a religion or an ethnicity, but as a value system. It is why they defined Judaism in such large numbers as leading an ethical life, working toward justice and equality, and being intellectually curious. Jexodus – the organization whose founder Trump quoted – is premised on the notion that Jews are sick and tired of being beholden to progressive values and linked to the political party that expresses those values most fully. Trump’s attempts to milk the Ilhan Omar anti-Semitism row for political gain are similarly premised on large numbers of Jews rejecting Democrats wholesale because of Omar and flocking toward the Republican Party out of tribal solidarity (never mind of course the fact that the Republicans have their own share of anti-Semitic standard bearers, both historically and now). The problem with this theory is that for most American Jews, the progressive values are not only attractive but integral to their conception of what it means to be Jewish. Voting for a party where everyone professes love for Jews but exhibits little of what most Jews view to be Jewish values would for most American Jews not only make no sense, but be a betrayal of their very Judaism.
I have no doubt that Omar’s consistent evocation of classical anti-Semitism while hiding behind the shield of criticizing Israel and the manner in which last week’s House resolution played out will move some number of American Jews away from the Democratic Party ledger. I equally have no doubt that the number will be small, and that it is because – for better or worse – many American Jews view their actual Judaism as embodied by the values they see in the Democratic Party. A Jexodus away from the Democrats will not be one toward the Republicans; it will be one that leaves American Judaism behind entirely.