Yosef Blau

American Jewry faces a quandary, but does it know it?

Young US Jews don't prioritize Israel the way their parents did, nor do young Israelis like US democracy as a model. With the gap is growing, now what?
President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog is a moderate who has been working to create a compromise for the polarized country that would both reform the judiciary and also maintain that body’s independence. When he concluded his inspiring remarks before the American Congress on July 19, 2023, he was met with thunderous applause from the US lawmakers in the chamber. American Jewry, in its many circles, was also pleased – and, for that matter, reassured, if a tad optimistic, that the crisis in Israel over the judicial reform and more would be resolved peacefully and amicably.

Herzog presented and represented a specific image of Israel that was pleasing to his American audience. Both his presidency and personality reflect continuity. Even when speaking before the US Congress, he mentioned his father, Chaim Herzog, an earlier president of Israel, and his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the state. For American Jews, or for the majority of them who have positive memories, that continuity is reassuring.

Indeed, for all that the Israel that Herzog describes is Jewish and largely religious, it is so in a manner that appeals to many American Jews. He mentioned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Montgomery, Alabama, together with Reverend Martin Luther King, in the fight for civil rights. He concluded by quoting Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, who spoke of a Judaism of hope, symbolized by Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah — The Hope.

Moreover, Herzog stressed the bonds between America and Israel, and how they share the values of freedom and democracy. He reminded his listeners that the relationship between the two countries is equally beneficial to both: America aids and supports Israel, and Israel is a key American ally with unique skills. Both fight a common enemy — the theocratic government of Iran. The systems of each country, and the dynamic between them, seemed primed and ready to go, just as nostalgia itself might dictate.

Then reality interfered.

Foremost is the fact that Israel has been torn apart. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed its first bill restricting the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, without any compromises. All 64 coalition Knesset members voted for the legislation, as expected (and none of the opposition did; its members walked out instead). More changes are expected to be legislated after the summer recess. And in response, the opposition outside of the Knesset – the anti-government protestors — increased the protests.

It is clear that the conflict is about more than the nature of the Supreme Court. It is also clear that those whose politics lie with neither extreme position have no means of protecting the unity of the people at this time. This kind of polarization in society is not conducive to reducing this kind of crisis – as the equally prevalent polarization in American politics has made exceedingly clear in recent years.

While the organized Jewish community seems, in some ways, to be ignorant of these changes in the Israeli body politic, younger American and Israeli Jews have moved further and further apart. Seventy-five percent of American Jews vote Democratic, with “Israel” as a topic low on list of the issues that influence their vote – in marked contrast, for example, to their parents’ priorities at the same age. As a matter of general expectation, younger Americans tend to be more liberal than their parents, while younger Israelis tend to be more conservative than theirs. Just as Israel no longer reigns high on the list of Americans’ Jewish priorities, in many Israeli circles, modern Western democracies, and particularly that of the United States, are no longer models to emulate.

Perhaps the short moment of nostalgia engendered by Herzog’s speech will force the Jewish community in America to face the growing divide openly – to recognize that they risk getting stuck in the nostalgia. That said, there is an immediate quandary that will be difficult to ignore: Israel gets enormous coverage in American media. If the older generation avoids reacting, it will send the message that Israel is no longer really on the radar, and increase the tendency for the younger generation to conclude that it cannot identify with the Jewish state, and certainly not with its government. Younger American Jews largely consider the Jewish establishment irrelevant – such that, even as much as criticizing the Israeli government was crossing red line, supporting the current government is fundamentally perceived as being anti-democracy (as understood in America), and, worse, insensitive to human rights.

The Israeli government must decide whether to take seriously the concerns of Jews of either generation (or both) in America and other Western countries. There is a risk to both sides if each allows the widening the gulf between them. But first, the immediate test is facing the leadership of American Jewry and how it chooses to respond to the expanding rifts in Israeli society, and the media coverage of it all.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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