Published on National Review Online
A few years ago, someone told me that non-Jewish passengers were starting to outnumber Jewish passengers on El Al flights from New York City to Tel Aviv. It was probably just a rumor. (I doubt that any airline, even El Al, would compile — let alone publicize — this sort of demographic information.) But still, the notion was entirely believable.
As many are aware, support for the Jewish state among non-Jewish Americans, particularly Christian Evangelicals, has grown significantly over the past several decades. As fewer are aware, interest in the Jewish state has declined steadily among Jewish Americans. Part of Pew’s landmark 2013 survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” offered a snapshot of this ominous trend. It asked: “What’s essential to being Jewish?” Lo and behold, “caring about Israel” trailed “leading ethical/moral life,” “working for justice/equality,” and “being intellectually curious.” And it just barely beat out “having a good sense of humor.”
In my opinion, one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the eroding bond to the proverbial homeland among Members of the Tribe is being overlooked — or rather, being purposefully ignored. Ignored, I presume, because the truth hurts.
I’ll cut to the chase. It’s no secret that non-Orthodox Jews, who represent around 90 percent of the Jewish-American population, are assimilated and are further assimilating through intermarriage. (Pew reported that 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who married between 2000 and 2013 intermarried.) Will there even be Americans identifiable as “Jewish” outside the Orthodox community in two generations? It’s an important question, but not exactly my focus here. Rather, I’m eager to explore an oft-disregarded cause of the rapid assimilation of mainstream Jews and, further, to illustrate how it’s directly linked to declining concern for Israel.
Today, the prevailing assumption — the one held by left-leaning Jews (and the overwhelming majority of Jews are left-leaning) — is that assimilation, far from being a tragedy, is evidence of the gleaming triumph of “tolerance.” “Love wins!” correct? Even if they don’t enunciate it, lots of Jews will think it: It’s “intolerant” of me to prefer to marry another Jew. I’m not being hyperbolic. I know that this is the attitude underlying the modern liberal ethos. I have studied it in an academic setting — my doctoral dissertation documented the lives of neoconservatives, “liberals mugged by reality” — and I have personally witnessed it.
A while back, I was having dinner with a close friend from graduate school, a close friend who happens to be European and who happens to pride himself on his cosmopolitanism. Our conversation turned to the future. When I noted that I wished to “settle down” with a Jew, my friend inquired, “Isn’t that racist?” Well, no for a couple of reasons, not least because I would be happy to marry a black Jew, an Asian Jew, or a Jew of any racial background. Yet the point is that this is just how far liberalism has fallen into the abyss of absurdity.
So I’m a “racist” because, rather than “broaden my horizons” — whatever that means — through the serious act of matrimony, I prefer to build a life with another person with whom I share some cultural and religious experiences. Similarly, two months ago, I was branded a “religious extremist” by a prominent anti-Zionist website run by . . . Jews. Why? Because during a panel discussion in Michigan, I had stated that general familiarity with Torah ought to be one of several elements of Jewish identity. Another panelist, for good measure, added that my myopic vision has led to tribalism and the domination of other peoples.
This reaction might be extreme, but regrettably, it reveals exactly where American Judaism and liberalism — which are pretty much indistinguishable at this point — are swiftly heading. (I’ve been informed that certain chapters of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute, a nationwide training program for young professionals, are now perceptibly pro-Palestinian.) Every day, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that modern liberalism insists that human beings must self-abnegate, that we must totally erase the unique parts of ourselves if we are to be accepted into the golden realm of urbanity.
The hypocrisy? A liberal certainly won’t brand as “racist” a black African American who wants to marry another black African American. And isn’t it intriguing that so many of America’s eminent Jewish advocacy organizations are keen to champion multiculturalism, yet unwilling to take steps to protect their own culture?
Intriguing, but not surprising. For how can a Jew who genuinely adheres to the idea of “inclusivity” act as if Jewish interests are even a tad more personally pertinent than the interests of, say, Hispanic Americans? They can’t, because doing so would push them into the Pit of Prejudice. As a result, liberal Jews celebrate “identity” in all other communities and then sanction assimilation in their own community as a welcome sign of civilizational advancement.
Make no mistake about it, then: The very ideology that is leading mainstream American Jewry to vanish is the same one leading mainstream American Jewry to become more indifferent toward Israel. The shallow, feel-good, tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) liberalism of the local synagogue has finally come home to roost. Indeed, because Jews have long worshipped the fanciful precept of universalism, it was only a matter of time before they — and their indoctrinated children — grew uncomfortable endorsing something so provincial, so parochial as a Jewish country, a democratic Jewish country where tradition reigns and the lines between Temple and State are blurred.
It’s critical to observe, though, that the growing disconnect with Israel is mostly occurring not within generations but instead between generations. True, a slice of Baby Boomer Jewry that was once Zionist has turned dovish after decades of dousing itself with the heady notion of “social justice.” But Jewish Americans my parents’ age, born in the years after World War II, largely remain categorically Zionist. The problem occurs among Jewish Americans of my cohort: Millennials. And the roots of that problem run to the core of the matter.
First, young Jews feel perfectly and thoroughly at home in America. For them, the thought of packing up and moving to Israel someday is about as alien as the idea of founding a colony on Pluto. They’re wrapped up in tennis practice and yoga class and busy with outings to IMAX 3D and Shake Shack. No amount of Auschwitz documentaries, warnings about how “it” (i.e., the Holocaust) could happen “here” (i.e., America), and tirades about Islamic terrorism will convince them to become much more worried about events thousands of miles away.
Second, and more critically, young Jews — thanks to the self-flagellating liberalism taught to them by their families and rabbis — lack a sense of Jewish identity. Or at least they lack a sense of Jewish identity robust enough to compel them to stand up for Israel. A Jewish culture grounded in chicken soup, Seinfeld, and an Ivy League degree has no chance of survival. It should also go without saying that secular Jews (and most young Jewish Americans are secular), because they don’t trust in the divinity of Torah, don’t believe that the Land of Israel is their God-given right.
And let’s be honest, it’s often risky for a career-oriented student — Jewish or non-Jewish — to get involved with pro-Israel activities. In the age of social media, everything is documented. How will the talent scouts and hiring managers at prestigious law firms, esteemed consultancies, and Silicon Valley companies, which all boast of their commitment to inclusivity, interpret activities involving such controversial issues? They’re definitely red flags on a job application.
The average Jewish college student, more than ever, appreciates that staying neutral is the smartest professional option. If the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is in fact surging on campus, as Zionists repeatedly moan, it’s neither because of the sheer number of supporters nor because of arguments. It’s because BDS has no competition. A remedy might have been more forthcoming if only (liberal) pro-Israel Jews had sincerely asked this one question earlier: Why is that so many young anti-Zionists are Jewish? (Jewish Voices for Peace is a prime example.)
I say “sincerely asked” because many Jews have posed this question, but they have not subjected their own ideas to scrutiny. In turn, they have incorrectly concluded that Jewish sentiment toward Israel on campus, which ranges from ignorance to hostility, is due merely to “lack of information.” That explains why Zionists think they must regurgitate tone-deaf diatribes about the virulence of Hamas’s charter, the messianism of the Iranian regime, etc.
To some extent, the Zionists are right: On the whole, college-age Jewish Americans lack a solid understanding of Israeli history and Israeli affairs. But in one important respect, the Zionists are utterly wrong. Most of the anti-Zionist Jews that I met in the Ivory Tower studied political science, international relations, or Middle Eastern history. Yes, they might have been misinformed, but it’s wrong for Zionists to declare that these students, who spent years poring over materials, simply didn’t know enough. If they didn’t know enough, then what chance does the average Jewish-American student have of becoming enlightened?
To put it plainly, the Zionists who fund and direct pro-Israel groups on campus have failed to connect the dots between the submissiveness of young American Jewry and the warped liberalism omnipresent in the Jewish-American community writ large. They have failed because they’re too detached. Their own mothers and fathers immigrated to this country, and they themselves witnessed the existential crises of 1967 and 1973. They will never fully grasp what it’s like to be a Jewish American of my generation — far removed from Nazism and Communism and told from birth that Israel is a “superpower.” Their bragging about Israel’s medical and technological innovations and their bewailing of Palestinian intransigence will, at best, shift opinion at the margins.
So what’s the path forward for Zionists? What must they do to ensure continued Jewish support for Israel in America? To begin with, they shouldn’t rely on Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews, though enjoying a demographic boom in births, are still relatively few in number. Additionally, the Haredim, the more observant members of the Orthodox community, are not politically engaged and, thus, unlikely to lobby en masse for Israel.
Chloé Simone Valdary, currently a Bartley Fellow with the Wall Street Journal, is on to something with everyday Jewish teenagers and young adults. Through her op-eds, concerts, and poetry slams, she’s chicly co-opting the Left’s language of morality to validate what she calls the indigenous status — using a favored term of the Left — of the Jewish people. (This is akin to what Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is doing to defend free-market economics: using the Left’s own language to show the morality of capitalism.) Valdary’s approach is smart, but Zionists need a long-term strategy as well.
One tactic would be to establish more opportunities for Jewish Americans to travel to Israel during the formative years of adolescence. After all, visiting the Jewish state is undoubtedly the most effective way to emotionally connect with it. Taglit-Birthright Israel, a not-for-profit organization, sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26. But it might be too late by that age, because those are typically the years when people attend college and graduate school, and campus has proven the point of no return, ideologically speaking. Ideally, Jewish Americans should first visit Israel while they’re in high school, or possibly even in middle school soon after their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
Yet to best guarantee the continuance of Jewish-American Zionism, pro-Israel proponents must launch an energetic campaign to (re)construct an authentic Jewish identity. Rabbis and Hebrew-school teachers should help relay this authentic Jewish identity, one rooted not only in tradition and history, but also in Torah. Such an effort will place a great intellectual burden on the shoulders of clergy and educators. Such an effort will also require Jews to abandon their ingrained cognitive dissonance. They will have to confess that their present worldview, which is fixated on human rights, social justice, and tolerance, has yielded the sad state of affairs they lament.
Is this goal unrealistic given the condition and mindset of mainstream American Jewry? Perhaps. Maybe the devastating consequences of modern liberalism will need to become even more apparent before a widespread awakening occurs. Let’s pray that things once revered can hold out that long.