The adage “two Jews, three opinions” is often embraced as a warm and jocular cultural given, but it definitely does not fit the abortion debate currently taking place in America. A 2021 PEW poll found that an astounding majority, 83 percent, of all Jews in the United States believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. This core belief is almost unprecedented in its unanimity and has wide-ranging consequences for the Jewish community in the US, the enormity of which has not been internalized in Israel as it is not considered a strategic Israeli issue affecting the local population where, for the most part, abortion is legal, accessible, and safe.
For those of us concerned about Israel-Diaspora relations and the well-being of our brethren abroad, it is worthwhile to place the subject on our radar.
Simply put, Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances, and for most Jews, Republicans and Democrats, it is a core value whether they understand the religious basis for their beliefs or not.
As more states criminalize abortion under any circumstances, Jews and the organizations they support are concerned about reproductive rights – but not only reproductive rights. Basic American rights are now in question, such as religious freedom and separation of church and state, the very civil liberties that have made living in America so comfortable.
No one should underestimate the forces that Jewish groups will harness to fight back against these trends. It’s a clash that will pit American Jews against very powerful forces, some of which will be nefarious.
A recent Florida lawsuit brought by Temple L’Dor Va-Dor in Palm Beach County, which may be a template for future suits, argues the Supreme Court’s recent decision violates Jews’ First Amendment rights to practice their religion. Florida, the third most populous Jewish state in the US, lowered the abortion threshold from 24 weeks to 15 weeks and offers no exceptions for victims of incest, rape, or human trafficking. It is worth noting that Republican Florida Governor DeSantis signed the bill in an Evangelical Church.
We should plan on seeing this separation of church and state argument fought not just in states and federal courts but in the public domain too as Jewish groups and others argue that their rights are being violated by Christian conservatives who are forcing their theology on the American people as a whole.
Not only is the abortion argument squarely pitting the Jewish community against other larger better-financed political and religious groups, it is widening the crack inside which extremist antisemites operate. While many anti-abortion groups have long acted provocatively calling abortion a “genocide” and a “Holocaust,” they consistently use antisemitic tropes to further their message such as propagandizing the fact that George Soros, a favorite target for antisemites, supports Planned Parenthood, a group which they falsely claim sells body parts of aborted fetuses. And just a few days ago, a small (at least for now), media-savvy and virulently antisemitic hate group cynically named the Goyim Defense League waved swastikas in front of a Tampa convention center and distributed flyers that claim, “every single aspect of abortion is Jewish.” No doubt, the wide media coverage of this small demonstration disgusted most, but in today’s contentious climate, their message of hate likely picked up new followers.
The fight for abortion rights and against the American conservative juggernaut has quickly expanded to include birth control, gay rights, and race relations, among other issues. The mostly liberal American Jewish community is already involved through virtually all major Jewish communal organizations and by individual action, certainly via the ballot box.
If these bread and butter civil rights issues are polarized to the left and pro-Israel sentiment is polarized to the right, with evangelicals and other conservative groups stepping into the breach, there could be very rocky days ahead. And how will Israeli officialdom react to these new stresses which will affect the largest Diaspora community in the world?
It is still unclear how these changes will play out socially and politically in upcoming elections and if support for Israel will be altered, but it is likely that Israel’s relationship with American Jewry will be tested by fast-moving changes in the American landscape in the days ahead in ways unforeseen and it is worth being ready to address the public and policy consequences that will follow.