My two lessons are more outreach to the Jewish community and follow-up action from the Jewish leadership
“Hoosiers for Israel” read one sign; “Chattanooga Stands with Israel!” said another. “Who knew?” I commented on Facebook while posting the photos. Straight back came a reply: “My husband is from Chattanooga; there are three shuls there.”
Tuesday’s March for Israel on the National Mall in Washington was a beautiful moment of togetherness. I hadn’t experienced that kind of uplift and energy from a crowd in a long time. The March was a homecoming for me as an American living in Israel, being surrounded by thousands of cousins and shul members across the nation. We focused on showing support for the Jewish state now under existential threat and for our own Jewish communities now facing unexpected antisemitic attacks.
Four days later, with the March’s effects wearing off, I see two short-term lessons.
Outreach to the Broader Jewish Community
First of all, the March demonstrated the urgent need for a big-tent approach to the American Jewish community, especially inclusive of Reform Jews, who showed up en masse for the March. The approach should also include unaffiliated Jews and those with some Jewish affinity. There is a largely untapped reservoir of potential support for Israel and American Jewry right in the broader sense of our own community.
Outreach must include better efforts with our allies as well (more on that below), but it should start at home with the Jewish community.
Here is a snapshot of the American Jewish community from a Pew Research survey published in 2021. There are 5.8 million Americans who self-identify as fully Jewish (either by religion or ethnicity); an additional 2.8 million Americans who describe having a Jewish background (meaning they have one Jewish parent and some Jewish upbringing); and a further 1.4 million who say that while they don’t have a Jewish parent or Jewish education they have a Jewish affinity (some personal connection to the Jewish people). Added together, this community is 10 million strong, roughly 3 percent of the US population. Pew’s survey also finds that the core Jewish population of 5.8 million is keeping pace with the growth of the US population overall.
Within the core 5.8 million American Jews, the fastest growing group is Reform Jews, followed by Jews of no denomination, again according to Pew Research. It shows a dramatic decline in the Conservative movement, with most moving to Reform and a much smaller percentage moving to Orthodoxy. And for the purposes of generating national support, Reform Jews are important not just for their numbers but also their geographic spread. Outside of the top four metropolitan areas, a large majority of synagogues are Reform.
“Oy Reformim!” I hear my Israeli friends sigh. They are reflecting the fact that much of the top Reform Jewish leadership is progressive politically, often critical of Israel and thus harder to reach on Israel advocacy issues. But it’s nevertheless possible and let me assure you that a very high percentage of those at Tuesday’s March were Reform Jews. The lay Reform population remains reliably pro-Israel and is generally less progressive than their leadership. And the progressive Reform leadership showed up at the Mall on Tuesday; Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Rabbis for Human Rights were there. Reform Jews also span between the two demographics of fully identified Jews and those with one Jewish parent.
The third demographic – those with some Jewish affinity – is harder to reach. But again not impossible and here is one example: US Congressman Derek Christian Kilmer, Democrat of Washington State. In co-sponsoring a bill to extend federal hate crime protections to synagogues, he spoke of his Jewish grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor. Kilmer identifies as Christian by religion, but proudly speaks of his personal Jewish connection, cites Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as a mentor and can be counted on to support Israel and Jewish causes (unfortunately he just announced he isn’t running for re-election).
Follow-up Actions from the Jewish Leadership
A second lesson from the March is that American Jews should demand accountability and follow-up action from their communal leadership. This March should have been better organized with more build-up preceding the event and it should have included more allies (plus the actual numbers of attendees were far less than announced.)
Regarding the numbers, the Jewish leadership announced that 290,000 attended, but that is not consistent with the Department of Interior’s accurate grid comparison system, which estimates about 85 to 90,000 were on the National Mall during the March. It’s possible that leadership is counting those who watched the livestream online, but even so, those attending either in person or online were not as many as attended the 1987 Washington rally for Soviet Jews.
Most importantly, where were the many allied groups that the Jewish organizations have cultivated over decades? Where were leaders from the National Urban League, the NAACP and the Asian American, Latino and Indian American organizations? Evangelical Christian allies were gratefully present. But the lack of other organized communities was notable. Jewish organizations owe it to their board members, and to the larger community, to explain what outreach was done to these groups and what the next steps should be in inter-communal relations.
We should all be clear that the Jewish community is fighting an information war with the supporters of Hamas, and the national media is not unbiased. The pro-Palestinian demonstration in Washington on November 11 attracted, according to the Department of Interior’s grid analysis, about 8 to 9,000 participants, or about one tenth of the size of the Jewish March. Nevertheless, the media lumped the two together, according to the Washington Post and New York Times both attracted “thousands” of participants.
The worst media coverage, in my opinion, came from the federally-funded Public Broadcasting Service’s News Hour, which on the day of the March carried a story that “American Jews are torn” between those supporting and those not supporting a ceasefire. PBS interviewed multiple far-left Jews supporting an immediate ceasefire (e.g., Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin), ignoring the real message of that day’s rally: Jews spanning the political spectrum from progressive to conservative are united in support of Israel and against antisemitism.
To counter both the pro-Hamas movement’s antisemitism, and the mainstream American media bias against Israel, the national Jewish organizations must do better: reach out to secular and unaffiliated Jews, bring in the allies, organize future events well ahead and outline next steps in this information war.
Tuesday’s March was nevertheless a heartening success. That is owed to the indomitable spirit of American Jews, from the Hausner Day School in San Francisco to the Reform Jews of San Antonio who responded to the call by getting on planes, trains and buses to come to Washington on short notice.
It is going to be a long war, and American Jews have key roles to play, including in the information campaign that is now well underway.