Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israeli and American Jewry further apart? Some historical perspective

Israeli and American Jewry have been slowly moving apart for a while.  Bewailing that general (albeit not straightforward) trend has become a parlor game among Jewish magazines and synagogue discussions. However, some historical perspective is necessary, for as Ecclesiastes out it: “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

The latest PEW survey (May 2021) exhibits a clear gap between older American Jews and younger ones regarding support of Israel, with the latter having far less attachment (67% to 48%). This does not augur well as we move into the future and the older cohort passes away. Of course, there are a few countervailing forces at work as well e.g., Orthodox American Jews who have more children tend to be far more supportive of Israel than Reform or unaffiliated Jews. Nevertheless, the overall trend is of two tectonic-demographic plates, Israel and U.S. Jewry, separating over time.

Jewish history, though, is replete with such a phenomenon — and here we are in the 21st century, still alive and kicking. It started about 2500 years ago with the Babylonian exile. Only a minority of those Jews returned to the Holy Land; the remainder “merely” setting up the longest Jewish Diaspora community in history, lasting until 1948 (in Iraq)! Over time, the two communities — Israel (later Palestina) and Babylon — waxed and waned in their comparative importance, with the latter giving Judaism the Babylonian Talmud, to this day considered far superior to the Jerusalem Talmud. During that period another major Jewish center arose, it too surpassing Jerusalem at times: Alexandria. Among other achievements was the Septuagint — translation of the Bible into Greek.

This is not the place to run through the ensuing 2000 years of Jewish life around the world. The main point is that not only were there important Jewish communities outside the Land of Israel throughout that entire period, but that their contribution to Judaism as a whole highly influenced how the Jewish people — demographically and culturally — would develop. Indeed, in many cases, such religio-cultural development was undertaken without any regard for (or even knowledge) of what was going on in the Holy Land.

Thus, the question is not whether the two Jewish “peoples” are moving closer or further apart, but rather what is happening Jewishly to each in their homelands. That’s because for every Babylonian and Alexandrian Jewish community and Judaic development we also had Samaritans, Essenes & Sadducees, Karaites, and other Jewish streams that disappeared or were reduced to insignificance.

From that perspective, contemporary Diaspora Jewry have a lot more to deal with and worry about, especially the very large amounts of assimilation among the unaffiliated and the more progressive movements (approximately 75% of American Reform and Conservative Jews intermarry). As the majority in their country, Israelis don’t worry about that — theirs is a national security concern rather than one of religious culture and maintenance of Jewish identity. Moreover, with Hebrew the national language it is impossible for Israelis to escape their Jewish heritage, not to mention that most national holidays are based on the Jewish calendar.

Given all this, we ought not get sidetracked by the “gap” between Israel and American/ European Jewry. The real story and cause for concern lie in what takes place within each such community at large. To be sure, each has something to say and offer the other, but in the final analysis, each has to decide where it’s going, what it will contribute to the historical narrative, and how it will survive the vicissitudes of secular modernity.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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