This post first appeared at Mosaic Magazine on April 14, as a response to an essay by Elliott Abrams.
Elliott Abrams put his finger on the main cause of American Jewish “distancing” from Israel, and the answer is discouraging. He picks up on this passage from one of the two books he surveys, Dov Waxman’s Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel:
Perhaps the biggest reason why young American Jews tend to be more dovish and more critical of Israel is because they are much more likely than older Jews to be the offspring of intermarried couples…. Young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews, but also significantly less attached to Israel.
Abrams rightly calls this the “crux of the matter,” and the evidence he musters from surveys is unequivocal. With a 50-to-60 percent rate of intermarriage, Jewish communal solidarity in America is steadily eroding, with regard both to religious practice and to engagement with Israel. The children of intermarriage are less in touch with everything Jewish; their “sheer indifference” to Israel, in Abrams’ phrase, has nothing to do with the “occupation.”
But let me introduce two additional demographic explanations for the “distancing,” even among American Jews who do remain affiliated and committed. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, there were six million American Jews and 700,000 Israelis: a proportion of nine to one. Israelis were those feisty little cousins, and while American Jews admired their grit, they didn’t let Israelis forget who had the numbers (and the money). When American Jewish leaders talked, Israeli leaders listened—and when the two parties disagreed, the burden of proof fell on the Israelis.
What a difference 70 years have made! Over that time, the number of American Jews has hardly budged, due to low fertility and intermarriage. In Israel, by contrast, the number of Jews has increased almost tenfold through immigration and high fertility. The result is that today, the ratio of American to Israeli Jews is one-to-one—about six million in each country. In another twenty years, there will be well over eight million Jews in Israel, and probably fewer than six million in America. And these Israelis are economically prosperous and militarily powerful in ways no one could have foretold in 1948.
American Jews are rightly proud of the important role they played in Israel’s transformation, and Israelis are grateful for it. But as Abrams admits, American Jewry “is in significant ways growing weaker.” Demographic stagnation and geographic dispersion aren’t just taking their toll within the community; they are eroding Jewish political clout more broadly.
So it is hardly surprising that, from the prime minister down, Israelis entrusted with the exercise of sovereign power are less attentive to what American Jews think Israel should do. Israeli Jews have worked out a successful survival strategy, and while it’s not perfect, the numbers don’t lie. The American Jewish survival strategy is struggling. As Abrams concludes, the day won’t be long in coming when the Jewish state will have to assume the direct burden of sustaining Jewish communal identity in America, “for Israel’s sake and for ours.”
Old patterns in relationships die hard. It’s not easy for many American Jews to recognize the stupendous shift in the balance, and when they don’t, this is often expressed in disappointment, disillusionment, and even dissociation from Israel. These are the discontents of gradual decline. Israelis should empathize with the deeper dilemma of American Jewry, but it should surprise no one that they discount some of its symptoms, and certainly don’t intend to change their own national priorities in a futile attempt to alleviate them.
There is another demographic reason for “distancing.” In 1948, American and Israeli Jews were landslayt. They or their parents had come out of the same cities, towns, and shtetls of Europe. American Jews looked at Israeli Jews like family, and often they were: almost everyone in Israel had some (allegedly rich) uncle or cousin in America. True, other Jews began to arrive in the 1950s, as refugees from Arab and Muslim lands. But they were mostly out of sight in immigrant refugee camps and development towns. As for the political leaders, most were born in Russia or Poland—from David Ben-Gurion through Golda Meir, Menachem Begin through Yitzḥak Shamir. Levi Eshkol could hardly refrain from slipping into Yiddish in cabinet meetings. They all hailed from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.”
All that has changed. Today, over half of all Israeli Jews identify themselves as being of Sephardi or Mizrahi descent; less than half, of European or American descent. (Were it not for the immigration from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Ashkenazi share would be closer to a third.) Israelis today just don’t look as much like family to American Jews, 90 percent of whom are of Ashkenazi descent.
Because Israeli Jews are drawn from a wider spectrum of cultures, everything else about them is more diverse. Jewish religious practice, despite the formal monopoly of Orthodox, is more varied in Israel than in the United States. Nor are the historical legacies that inform politics limited to the Holocaust, so central to American Jewish identity. The forced Jewish flight from Arab and Muslim lands is just as relevant, and explains much of the present skew of Israeli politics with regard to the Palestinian Arabs.
On top of this, about 70 percent of Israeli Jews are Israeli-born. Israel is no longer primarily a nation of immigrants. The hybrid Hebrew-language culture nourished by native-born Jewish Israelis isn’t easy to pin down in a sentence, but it’s a lot edgier than the dominant culture of the blue-state suburbs where most of American Jewry resides.
One reason is that those suburbs are more peaceful and stable than any environment in the history of humankind since Adam. Israel, in contrast, sits on the crust of the world’s most active geopolitical fault line. It isn’t that American Jews are from Venus and Israeli Jews are from Mars. It’s that they reside on opposite ends of planet Earth, one nearing perpetual peace, the other leaning toward perpetual war.
So an American Jew, disembarked at Ben-Gurion airport for the first time, might have to stretch his or her imagination quite a bit to see Israelis as “my people” and Israel as “my homeland.” For some significant number of American Jews, indeed, this is precisely what makes contemporary Israel so exhilarating. If there is any meaning to ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, it is solidarity not with Jews who look and think like you, but precisely with those who don’t.
But other American Jews, seeing shifts in Israel that suggest to them the neighborhood may be changing, begin, as it were, to move out. Israel has become too this or too that, things seem more black than white, the people there sound too uncouth. The next thing you know, “progressive” American Jews are moving their Jewish identity elsewhere—to some place where they never have to rub elbows with people whose “Jewish values” differ from their own.
It’s not tragic: Israel will make good the loss elsewhere, through its own spectacular growth and the forging of new friendships. But it’s sad that there are Jews in America, however few or many, who do not stand in pure wonder that they live in a time when there exists a Jewish sovereign state. They would like a different one.
They must have millennia to spare.