American Jewish Demography and the challenge of supporting Israel

The much discussed Pew Research Center study on the American Jews has revealed a community in rapid flux. The Pew results showed that the non-Orthodox sectors of American Jewish society are shrinking fast thanks to intermarriage, loss of interest and above all, low fertility. In contrast the Orthodox sectors, especially the Haridi and Chassidic ones, are growing rapidly.

While many have commented on the social, religious and communal implications, there are political issues of equal or greater importance. In 25 years, and certainly in 40 or 50 years, the American Jewish community will be smaller, more religious, less wealthy and less worldly than the present. How will they support Israel?

Since the founding of the State of Israel, three specific areas of American Jewish support have been critical; financial support, political support, and cultural leveraging based on the American Protestant mainstream and Jewish integration. Each of these is about to change.

Direct financial support given by American Jews to Israel has been vast, to the tune of billions of dollars. During 1990-1991, at the height of the Russian aliya to Israel, campaigns organized by the United Israel Appeal alone gave almost $880,000,000 to Israeli causes, especially for absorption. The number today still runs into the hundreds of millions, and more when domestic organizations that support Israel are included. The Israeli social welfare and educational systems in particular are enormously dependent on American Jewish giving.

Studies of Jewish philanthropy continue to show that Jews give disproportionately compared to other groups in the United States and that giving to non-Jewish causes far outstrips giving to Jewish ones. Israel remains an important priority and analysts have agonized over perceived shifts in attitudes. The questions of where the American Jewish community should allocate its enormous giving, at home or abroad, to Jewish or non-Jewish causes, to education, social, cultural or other causes, are too little discussed.

But in a few decades younger non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox American Jews devoted to Israel will be greatly outnumbered by Haridi and Chassidic Jews. With a rapidly aging Jewish community and an already enormous communal infrastructure of social service organizations, schools, and cultural institutions, where will the money go? Given the low levels of secular education and work participation of Haridi and Chassidic Jews in America (and Israel), their charitable potential is suspect. Indeed, based on their current socio-economic status, who will continue to support them? Where will American Jewish financial support for Israel come from when the overall pie is shrinking and has many more demands placed on it? This is unknown.

Political support for Israel is literally the stuff of legend. That a small minority, American Jews, should use political power so effectively seems so exceptional that for many it can only be explained by hidden and nefarious powers. It is rarely mentioned that the ‘Israel Lobby’ has been far less successful than domestic lobbies such as the military-industrial complex, the medical-pharmaceutical industrial complex, or the higher educational industrial complex, various ‘lobbies’ for European causes such as NATO, or the interlocked lobby of Arab states and oil companies. Of course, Jews are not the center of these.

But the political skills and sophisticated institutional frameworks of the ‘Israel Lobby’ should not be taken for granted, especially by Jews. Who will pay for and staff these organizations two or three decades from now? Who will bring the message of Israel’s historical and legal rights into the American public square, mobilize grassroots activists to lobby their political representatives at all levels, and interface with American and international bureaucracies on behalf of Israel? Will Haridi and Chassidic lobbyists for Israel exist at all? Will they be oriented to work on behalf of Israel in the same way as their Jewish predecessors, and will they have the skills to work on an equal number of levels?

If the present gives any hints, lobbyists from the ultra-Orthodox sector will be concerned in the domestic arena about preserving and expanding their narrow communal prerogatives, welfare for families and tax credits for education, freedom from government oversight, and other gerrymandered advantages. Their interest and involvement with Israel as a country, as opposed to a welfare system for their Haridi and Chassidic counterparts, is negligible.

So too is their background in issues such as Iranian nuclear policy, Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas exploration, global defense procurement, or any of the myriad areas where American Jewish expertise and leadership has been critical. Their separatism and denominational chauvinism also does not bode well for engaging US and global policymakers on international issues. The interest may not be there, the language will be different, and the personalities discordant.

Separatism in behavior and culture – reflected in the continuing Haridi rejection of Zionism and their self-imposed return to the ghetto –  have potential to undo the most extraordinary accomplishments of American Jews. Haridization could bring about a slow-motion divorce of the most fundamentally integrated people in America, next to the founding WASPs. The speed and depth of Jewish integration in the 20th century was a unique achievement, and American Jews have established themselves as an ‘indispensible people’ in the American fabric. Their contributions in every sphere, legal, political, scientific, cultural and more, are second to none.

This success has been a gift to Israel, not only in material and political terms but because it helped normalize and spread the message of Zionism and Israel to a receptive American population, from Jews who were fully part of American society. American Protestants from denominations that saw themselves as heirs of ancient Israel establishing a New Jerusalem were also favorably inclined towards Jews. As a result American antisemitism, and anti-Zionism have been minimal in comparison with Europe.

But changes in American demographics have begun to turn the milk sour, as the founding Protestants have faded and been replaced by other ethnic groups and religious denominations, many with decided animus towards Jews and Israel. Most American Evangelicals still love Israel – and are shamefully neither loved nor appreciated in return by American Jews. But others are hostile, and American Christianity as a whole is increasingly influenced by classic Christian supersessionist doctrine and modern replacement theology, strands of which posit Palestinians as the new sacred people in place of the Jews.

Changes in Jewish demographics will not help Jewish integration into a more complex and competitive American mosaic, one that is increasingly tinged, as it has long been in Europe, with classic antisemitism. At best the result will be mutual incomprehension and slowly growing alienation. This has been presaged by the radical hostility of the Obama administration towards Israel and the penetration of anti-Israel ideology into the margins of the Democratic Party. In the short term some of this hostility will be reversed once Obama leaves office. But if Jews are unable and unwilling to participate fully in the changing political and cultural life of the country, their influence will be diminished. Their causes will become marginal, including Israel.

The divides between American Jews are only growing and bode ill for the future of the community and its support for Israel. How to bring Haridi and Chassidic Jews into the American Jewish consensus regarding Israel is a critical challenge for both sides. How to being about this vital dialogue when the religious premises are so different, is a mystery.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.
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