Yedidia Z. Stern
Yedidia Z. Stern
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American Jews, how ‘Jewish’ are you?

Jewish pride has replaced the humiliated Jew of history, but where Israelis are entrenched in the trappings of Jewish identity, American Jews must choose
(Star of David necklace - iStock)
(Star of David necklace - iStock)

In Israel, the preservation of Jewish identity is the default: the language spoken, the calendar according to which the state is governed, the state symbols, the school curricula, much of the content conveyed by the media and by cultural forums high and low — all resonate Jewishness. The Jewish character of the Israeli public space is clearly expressed in street and locality names, institutions and monuments, paths and landscapes. Gloomy prognostications notwithstanding, Israel is a Jewish state not just because it constitutionally defines itself as such, but because three-quarters of its citizens are Jews, and they opt to characterize it as a Jewish nation-state. Judaism and Jewish affiliation require no particular effort or deliberate choice in Israel. It’s Judaism from start to finish.

Outside of Israel, the world’s largest concentration of Jews is in the United States. Israelis are largely incurious about their brethren overseas and tend to regard them in a generalizing and superficial way — sometimes patronizing, sometimes dismissive. Yet it is not incidental that a Jew in the United States must decide whether to be Jewish or not. The choice can take on different forms — active or passive — but one may assume that Judaism will disappear as a meaningful factor in the lives of those who do not actively pursue some kind of relationship with it. Obviously, the content of Jewish identity — religion, nationality, culture — can be debated, but in the US, identity preservation itself is the main issue.

The recent Pew Research Center report provides a contemporary portrait of American Jewry and a valuable opportunity for deeper examination. That is, the report paints a picture of today’s American Jewry in a variety of ways. One major question concerns “who is a Jew.” Demographers in both countries disagree on how the group should be defined. Some rely on objective definitions (such as the halachic criterion used in Israel), while others look to subjective definitions (whether the person sees himself or herself as Jewish). Rather than entering into the professional debate, which is not free of political implications, we will turn to a few questions pertaining to the challenge of preserving Judaism in the US for future generations:

The report distinguishes between two groups of Jews — those who define their Judaism in terms of religion (even if they aren’t religious), and those who view themselves as Jews in a solely cultural or national context. The first, most significant group is shrinking due to the secularization process that is pervasive in American society generally, and which has trickled down to the Jews. This has ramifications for preserving Judaism, since only a tiny minority (4%) of those belonging to the second group care whether or not their grandchildren are Jews. In the last decade, most weddings (61%) in which one partner was Jewish have also included one who was not. These mixed couples are much less likely than in-married couples to raise their children as Jews (less than half; with 10% raising “partially Jewish” children). Bill Clinton’s daughter, one of Donald Trump’s daughters, and Joe Biden’s three children married Jews. The Jewish presence among US elites is nothing short of astonishing. But from the point of view of preserving Jewish identity, the main question is: How many of their grandchildren will identify as Jews in the future? And how many in the generation to follow?

What attributes make one Jewish in the eyes of American Jews? Along with the memory of the Holocaust (76%) and caring about the State of Israel (45%), Judaism in the US is identified with leading a moral life (72%) and being committed to social justice and equality (59%). This is the Judaism that resonates with the morality of the prophets — at its center is a commitment to human rights, and there is a lesson in this for Israelis. Still, one cannot help but be amazed that humor is considered by our American brethren to be much more of a Jewish identifier (34%) than the observance of Jewish law (15%).

The great news is that today’s Jews, both in Israel and the United States, are proud of their Jewishness. The humiliated Jew pacing the margins of history has disappeared from the world map. Today’s Jews also have a generally positive attitude toward Israel: more than 80% of Israelis are proud of their Israeliness, and 58% of US Jews feel connected to Israel (despite the fact that only 45% of them have ever visited the country).

The State of Israel has committed itself, via the Basic Law: Israel — the Nation-State of the Jewish People, “to act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish People among Jews in the Diaspora.” If we are sincere in our intentions, the Pew report — and another in-depth report to be published by the Jewish Agency — should serve as a roadmap for fulfilling that mission.

Practical action is required by the incoming government: alongside the mobilization required to fight antisemitism, which is intensifying not only in Europe but also in North America, resources from the State of Israel should be allocated to enhancing Jewish education in the Diaspora and strengthening ties between North American Jewry (and other Diaspora communities) and Israel. Israelis must understand that the classic relationship — between the rich uncle from America and the poor Israeli nephew — has changed. Israel has matured and become stronger and this places upon us, the Israelis, a responsibility toward our brethren overseas. We must do everything we can to help them choose to preserve their Jewish identity.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, who was previously a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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