Israel and a Diaspora in Danger

Is Jewish education a solution to the loss of Jewish identity?

2733066374At the 40th annual Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations meeting held in Jerusalem February 17-20, 2014, top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yaalon, Finance Minister Lapid, Economic Minister Bennett, Speaker of the Knesset Edelstein, and Foreign Minister Lieberman addressed the pressing issues of the day. Perhaps the most poignant, if not critical, of the topics discussed was the one raised by Avigdor Lieberman. He railed against the high rate of assimilation plaguing North American Jewry, and charged that “If the current situation continues we will lose another Six Million Jews within a generation or two.” He warned the U.S. Jewish leaders, “You are facing a catastrophe.”

Lieberman asserted that the most critical problem the Jewish people face, whether in Israel or in the diaspora, is demography. Lieberman observed that in Israel today there are 6.1 million Jews, while in America the number of people identifying themselves as Jews is declining, according to the latest Pew Research survey titled A Portrait of Jewish America (October 1, 2013). Lieberman noted the rising levels of mixed marriages in the U.S. involving a non-Jewish partner, which has reached 58%. At the same time, according to the survey's figures, the number of those identifying themselves as Jews is less than 5.3 million. Moreover, the percentage of Jews in the general population of the U.S. has declined to less than 2% from 3% a generation ago.

Lieberman said that the samplings by Pew indicate that American Jewry is facing a catastrophe. He told the American Jewish leaders that, while for many years Israeli officials urged American Jews to invest their energy, time and their money in Israel, “today, however, I turn to you and say for all of us in Israel that we are thankful for your help but now it is time to concentrate on the challenges you face in your own communities, especially those which have resulted from the new trends in the Jewish community as reflected in the Pew survey.”

Lieberman opined that the solution to assimilation, inter-marriage, and withdrawal from Jewish life is education. The Foreign Minister stressed that because Jewish education in America is so costly, it is preventing many Jewish families from partaking of it. He charged that “all Jewish children should have the capacity and capability to attend a school where they will receive an education that will teach them about Jewish history, values and traditions, to treasure their Jewish identity and to have a strong attachment to Israel and Zionism.”

“On my last visit to New York,” Lieberman related to his audience, “I met a Jewish family originally from Russia now living in Brooklyn. They told me that for their children to receive a Jewish education would cost them about $100,000 a year. They simply would not be able to afford such expenses, and they are not alone.”  Challenging the American Jewish leaders, Lieberman proposed building a worldwide network of Jewish schools on a much higher level than American schools, adding that the government of Israel would support such a plan. The emphasis of such a network would, according to Lieberman, provide every Jewish child with a Jewish and Zionist education that would be recognized as the best in the world.  Lieberman further bemoaned the fact that 90% of Israeli diplomats children in the U.S. go to public schools rather than Jewish schools.

Lieberman noted that the current Israeli government budget is over $100 billion. “I believe,” he said, “that the government of Israel should contribute $1 million a day or a total of $365 million, and you, the leaders of the Jewish diaspora will match it to create an essential educational project.” Lieberman added, “In my view, this matter is more important than the negotiations with the Palestinians, or Iran’s nuclear project. He argued that if indeed the Jewish world could raise the matching funds, $2 million would be dedicated daily to the saving of the Jewish People. In conclusion, Lieberman said that he had even larger goals in mind. “My aim is to bring 3.5 million Jews to Israel from the diaspora in the next decade, so that the Jewish population in Israel will rise to over 10 million.”

The Pew Research survey Lieberman quoted is non-partisan. But it is apparent from some of the survey questions that the younger, more secular segments of the Jewish population are turning away from Israel. It is perhaps most visible on U.S. campuses. This is why organizations such as StandWithUs have dedicated a major part of their resources and efforts towards educating college students on Israel and Middle East realities. The results also indicate another area of concern that must be confronted by American Jewish leaders - that being a large segment of the secular Jewish community or those categorized by the Pew Research Survey as “Jews of no religion.” This group has embedded itself into the Democrat Party, regardless of the fact that the interests of the Party override support for Israel. In terms of belief, these same people would consider themselves more secular-humanist than Jews.

Asked by the Pew surveyors about their attachment and attitudes about Israel, only 12% of the “Jews of no religion” answered that they were very attached to Israel, while 55% answered that they are not at all attached to Israel.” “Jews by religion” did slightly better in that category, with 36% indicating that they were very attached to Israel, and 23% not at all attached. Questioned about the impact of continued building of Jewish settlements on Israel’s security, 9% of “Jews of no religion” answered that the settlement helps, while a whopping 56% said the settlements hurt Israel’s security. Jews by religion responded with 19% claiming that the settlements help Israel’s security and 40% said it hurts.

A large segment of the liberal, left-leaning, Democrat voting Jews tended more often to be critical of Israel. The younger generation in particular, often if not always, identified with the anti-Israel sentiments on their particular campus, or in their community.

When asked if they believe that G-d gave Israel to the Jewish People, 47% of “Jews by religion” responded yes. Among “Jews with no religion” only 16% said yes, 27% answered no, and 55% said that they don’t believe in G-d.

Avigdor Lieberman's idea of a network of excellent Jewish day schools presented to the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations leaders throughout the diaspora is practical and should be welcomed. Clearly, the realization of this venture would increase the sense of identity among Jews in America, and lead to greater identification and attachment with Israel. However, there is a critical problem that continues to affect American Jewish demography, that being late marriages and low birthrates among secular Jews which are far below replacement levels. The saving grace for Jews in America is the growing Orthodox community, and particularly the Modern-Orthodox segment, where a healthy demography and the strongest attachment to Israel are clearly in evidence.

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