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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Why are American Jews abandoning Israel?

Daniel Gordis asks some hard questions about American Jewish support for Israel.
The loss of American Jewish love for Israel, I fear, is actually much more deeply rooted. The issue isn't Israel, or utopia. It's America, and the "I" at the core of American sensibilities.

Another profound observer of American Jewish life, Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, recently wrote with sadness that for contemporary American Jews, life-cycle rituals have become infinitely more significant than the holiday cycle.

Both Sarna and Allen are actually pointing to a shared challenge.Most American Jews are first and foremost Americans. And today's America is about the celebration of individuality and a future unfettered by ethnic loyalties.


Similarly, the recreation of the State of Israel is truly powerful only against a backdrop of centuries of Jewish experience, and is spine-tingling only if my sense of self is inseparable from my belonging to a nation with a past and a people with a purpose.

In today's individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant - it's actually a source of shame.

We're not terribly alarmed, but we should be. These young American Jews, after all, will soon control the coffers of the federations, and will sit on the boards of synagogues. Their generation will either strengthen or abandon AIPAC, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They will be the ones allocating funding to schools, setting curricula and communal priorities.

I discussed the Sarna article that Gordis cites here.

If anyone has any ideas, please let us know. The only thing I can think of is more free trips to Israel to try to get kids connected, but we're still not reaching most of them and that's an awfully expensive way of doing things.

If you don't recognize the picture go here.


At 2:51 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I talk to a lot of -especially younger- American Jews about Israel and I really do not share your pessimism. I think that Israel is very important to American Jews who identify themselves as Jewish. Even the Jewish critics of Israel (The "As a Jew" crowd, of which alas, there are many in America) still make Israel a central theme in there lives, even if just to discredit Israel.

However, despite their "noise" amplified by the anti-Israel main stream media, these people represent a significant minority. I really think that American Jews remain zionist to as large a degree as ever. You are forgetting the many anti-zionist groups (bund etc) that existed amongst Jews in previous generations whereas today's starting point in any discussion about American Jews and Israel is the assumption that 100% of American Jews should hold Israel in a central position with any deviation from 100% seen as reason to panic.

The worry for American Jewish life is not how American Jews consider Israel but instead assimilation and loss of Jewish identity. I am not even pessimistic about this issue however. We must remember the paradoxical census figure (that there are 5.5 million US Jews but 10 million Jewish households) in other words the "who is a Jew" question has seen us ignore the large increase in Jewish life in America.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Who says that the fully assimilated Jews will continue to have any involvement with federations and synagogues? At some point, wouldn't living that lifestyle cause one to question the need for federations and synagogues altogether? If not for their non-Jewish recruits, the most liberal Jewish denominations would be losing members even faster than they now are.


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