The Growing Gap Between U.S. Jews and Israel

Mainstream U.S. Jews might have to choose between their party and their people.

There was a time, more than a generation ago, when the State of Israel depended heavily on the generosity of U.S. Jews. It was particularly acute in the early decades of the Jewish state’s existence. In more recent decades however, things have changed economically, demographically, and ideologically. Whereas in 1948, only 6% of world Jewry lived in the Jewish state, while over 50% resided in the U.S. In 2019 (according to Jewish Virtual Library), Israel is home to 6,806,000 Jews, which comprises 45.3% of world Jewry. The U.S. is listed as having 5,700,000 Jews or 38.8% of world Jewry, which is over a million less than Israel, at least officially. Unofficially, counting individuals born to Jewish parents who don’t list themselves as Jews or any other religion, might bring the total U.S. Jews affiliated with Jewish institutions or not, to over 7 million. A similar phenomenon exists in Europe. After World War II, and the Holocaust, Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, refrained from listing themselves or their children as Jews. Only on their deathbed did they reveal to their children the truth about their identity. Their reason for doing so was to protect their offspring from antisemitic bigotry, and the anti-Jewish violence they had experienced. The total Jewish population worldwide may very well be over 17 million, and not the 14,707,400 given by the Jewish Virtual Library.

Following WWII, the center of Jewish life moved from Eastern Europe (Poland in particular) to the U.S., and it has recently moved from the U.S. to Israel. It is not only the sheer numbers that make the point here. The demographic patterns of American Jewry indicate a decline in birthrates and a high percentage of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity among the young in particular. Conversely, Israel’s birthrate is a healthy one. According to data released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), on the last day of 2019, the Jewish fertility rate hit 3.05 children per woman in 2018, compared to 3.04 for Arab women. Only Israeli citizens were included in the survey. Israel’s overall fertility rate in 2018 was 3.08 children per woman, down from 3.11 in 2017. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average in 2017 was 1.65. The CBS also reported that Israel began 2020 with 9,136,000 citizens, of which Jews accounted for 6,772,000 people (74.1 percent) and Arabs, 1,916,000 (21 percent).

Given the low birthrates, inter-marriage, and assimilation among U.S. Jews, in a generation or two, the majority of American Jewry will be Orthodox Jews. The influx of Israeli, Iranian, Latin American, and Russian Jews into America slowed the demographic decline but did not reverse it. Pew Survey on Jewish Intermarriage (October 1, 2013) stated that, “There are a lot more Jews in America than you may have thought — an estimated 6.8 million, according to a new study. But a growing proportion of them are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions. The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all. Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.”

The growing gap between the two largest Jewish communities - Israel and the U.S., is not merely demographic, it is political and ideological.

The Jewish state is no longer dependent on the charities of U.S. Jews. Individual Israeli institutions such as hospitals and universities are actively soliciting funds in America and elsewhere. Increasingly however, Israeli high-tech millionaires are replacing American donors. In the first two decades of the Jewish state’s independence, U.S. Jewry was a major factor in sustaining Israel. The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and Israel Bonds played an important role in funding essential Israeli projects. In those early days, American Jewry also helped mobilize U.S. government support, particularly through such an organization as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), albeit, real grant support did not effectively begin until the 1970’s. Much of it had to do with Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Israel became a U.S. reliable and strategic ally. As American governments increasingly recognized Israel’s value in a volatile Middle East region, U.S. military support increased, and in recent decades Israel forfeited economic support, as it transformed from a socialist to a capitalist economy. It simultaneously reduced Israel’s dependency on American Jewry for financial support. That support is now in continued retreat both financially and politically.

The mainstream of American Jewry is liberal, secular, and left leaning politically. These Jews have found a permanent home in the Democrat party (Franklin Delano Roosevelt was their Moses). These secular-humanist Jews adored the socialist (Mapai) governments of the early decades (U.S. socialist Senator Bernie Sanders lived and worked in an Israeli Kibbutz in 1963). The country was, however, poor by western standards at that time, and dependent on American Jews and U.S. government loans.  The process of privatization by Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved the Israeli economy to a free market economy, encouraging entrepreneurship, and invention that resulted in high-tech companies such as Intel, Microsoft, and Google investing in Israel. Israel’s newly found gas deposits has given the country an extra source of wealth.

Israel, unlike the U.S., is surrounded by violent and unstable neighbors. While it tried various solutions to the impasse with the Palestinian neighbors, including the August, 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, it was repaid with unrelenting Hamas terror. Under the Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn in 1993, Israel pulled its military and civil administration from Palestinian cities, but once again, it did not prevent the Second violent intifada that killed over 1,000 Israelis. As a result, the public in Israel moved decisively to the political right.

The mainstream U.S. Jewry, albeit a minority, has achieved stunning material and social successes in today’s America. There is this commonly used adage that “Jews have incomes on par with Episcopalians (highest incomes), and vote like Puerto-Ricans.” Unlike Israelis who feel constantly threatened by terror, the well-to-do U.S. liberal Jews can afford to adopt peaceful, optimistic, and concessionary attitudes in America and elsewhere, including of course vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians. The mainstream in Israel, on the other hand, has learned to depend only on the country’s military strength for survival. To paraphrase the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, “If the Arabs laid down their arms there would be peace, but if we laid down our arms we will cease to exist.” Israel’s self-preservation does not always photograph well in the media, but for Israeli military actions, checkpoints, and a separation wall, it is a matter of life and death.

The ideological “Cold-War” in the U.S. between Progressives (Democrats) and Conservatives (Republican) has pushed the Democrats to adopt positions akin to the European (EU) elites. It means growing criticism of Israel’s actions, and finding various ways to punish it. Moreover, Jewish influence in the Democratic party is in decline as the anti-Israel “progressives” have taken over the party’s policy directions. This is placing the mainstream American Jewry in a precarious situation in which they will have to choose between their political party or their co-religionist and kinsmen.

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Photo credit: Pxhere

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