by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 25, 2005
Tommy Lapid got an early jump on the competition for Rav of the Purimspiel this year with a March 10 piece in Maariv, in which he accused the haredim of having caused the alienation of American Jewry and thereby endangering Israel's very survival.
Triggering the alarums in Lapid's febrile imagination were the results of a recently published Jewish Agency study of American Jewry directed by Hebrew University demographer Steven Cohen. That study revealed a sharp decline in the identification of American Jews with Israel over the past two years.
The holes in Lapid's theory are obvious, and he offered not a scintilla of supporting evidence for what the dramatic subheader termed the "greatest sin" of the haredim. The last two years have been ones of almost total calm on issues of religious pluralism, just the opposite of what Lapid's theory would predict.
And given that only two-fifths of American Jews even bother to affiliate with any kind of synagogue, and that those who do seldom attend – among third generation Americans the percentage of Reform Jews who attend once a month is 2.5% and among Conservative Jews 8% -- it is doubtful that insult to their religious beliefs has much impact on their attitudes to Israel.
As Cohen notes, the decline of American Jewish identification with Israel has been ongoing for years. From 1989 to the present, the number of American Jews who describe caring about Israel as a major part of their Jewish identity declined from 73% to 57%.
Strong ethnic identity has proven to be largely a one or two generational affair in America -- hardly surprising as the typical American Jewish family becomes an admixture of Jews and gentiles. The less American Jews care about being Jewish the less they care about Israel. It's as simple as that.
Exacerbating the long-range decline in ethnic identity has been the increasing delegitimization of Israel in the recent years. Israel has become an embarrassment to those American Jews for whom the New York Times is the bible. In the Jewish Agency study, 37% say they are "often disturbed by Israel's policies and actions" and another 30% are unsure about those actions.
The reluctance of Jews to be identified with Israel is most pronounced on university campuses, where attacks on Israel are strongest. On a tour of college campuses last year, Natan Sharansky found that less than 10% of Jewish students affiliate with any Jewish organization. "The problem is not that Jewish students lack the facts," writes Shachar Yanai, director of the student arm of WIZO, "it’s that they don’t care about them in the first place."
Neither declining ethnic identity nor increasing discomfort with Israel's policies has anything to do with religious pluralism in Israel. But they do have a great deal to do with the failure of America's heterodox denominations to instill any strong sense of Jewish identity. Even before the sharp drop in American Jewish identification over the past two years, only 17% of Reform Jews described themselves as identifying strongly with the fate of Jews in Israel, and 42% said that they would not view the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.
The situation is not helped, as David Forman, a professor at Hebrew Union College (Reform) once pointed out in these pages, by Reform leaders falsely portraying Israel as a country in which Reform rabbis are dragged from their beds in the middle of the night and Reform Jews cannot practice their religion.
If Lapid wants to look for other culprits, he might try the mirror. One thing that Israeli Jews and American Jews share is a declining sense of themselves as Jews. Lapid epitomizes that flight from our Jewish past. Third cousins have few claims on one another, especially when neither are interested in their family connection.
And an Israel whose Supreme Court would denude it of every symbolic link to the Jewish past -- whether it be Shabbos observance or bans on the sale of pork – has little claim on the affection of American Jews other than a contentless and waning ethnic identity.
Orthodox Jews constitute the bulwark of American Jewish support for Israel. Every year 6,000 post-high school Orthodox students come to Israel to study, where they join an equal number of young American Orthodox couples. By way of comparison, the number of non-Orthodox teenagers who spend a year in Israel is in the hundreds. Orthodox Jews, in contrast to their non-Orthodox brethren, visit Israel frequently – many of them several times a year – and they care deeply about what is taking place here.
Contrary to what Lapid claims, Christian supporters of Israel, who are far more numerous than Jews and carry much greater weight in the Republican Party, have a great deal more to do with ongoing American support for Israel than does AIPAC. And it is Orthodox Jews who maintain the best relations with those Christian supporters of Israel.
In short, instead of criticizing the Orthodox, Lapid should be showering them with kudos. That would be some Purim Torah.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Purim
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