Why Are American Jews Abandoning Israel?
The price of assimilation has been Jewish identity.
Waxman’s mission, it turns out, is less an exposition than a warning to a broad swath of American Jewry. The actual “trouble” isn’t that the American Jewish community is rupturing over Israel—or even that non-Orthodox Judaism as a religion is fading away—it’s that the “predominantly secular, liberal American Jewish community,” with which Waxman seemingly passionately identifies, is “endangered.” The voices of authentic “peace, tolerance, and human rights” face extinction. So much for “a nuanced and balanced account” that investigates “as objectively as possible.” Trouble in the Tribe is, therefore, no appeal for tribal reconciliation and solidarity. It feels insufficient that Waxman cautioned in the preface that his “own politics surely come through at times” and counseled in the conclusion that his “own personal opinions and biases” shape his analysis. These admissions come off as token professional gestures, winks and nods to colleagues in the Ivory Tower, as opposed to sincere gestures to a general audience.
In retrospect, Waxman’s provocative arguments appear to be straw men for garnering attention. Is Israel that significant to American Jewry? Waxman, in the first chapter, maintains “supporting Israel continues to be at the top of the American Jewish political agenda.” Yet in the very same chapter, he also insists, “Israel is not at the top of the list of American Jews’ political concerns. It is not even close.” Crucially, it’s the latter stance that’s backed by polling. A Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2012 showed that Israel was the “most important” voting issue for a mere 4 percent of American Jews. A J Street poll conducted around the same time found that only 10 percent of American Jews deemed Israel one of their top two “voting issue priorities.” And when Pew’s seminal 2013 study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” enquired, “What’s essential to being Jewish?” the response “caring about Israel” lagged behind “leading ethical/moral life,” “working for justice/equality,” and “being intellectually curious.” Poignantly, it barely beat out “having a good sense of humor.”
Is there actually a “conflict over Israel” within the American Jewish community, let alone one unmatched in “its intensity and visibility”? Waxman says there isn’t. “American Jewry, as a whole . . . is not as polarized in its views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the public debate suggests,” he grants in the fourth chapter. “Most American Jews,” he clarifies, are “ambivalent centrists” who “want peace and favor some Israeli territorial concessions,” “worry about Israeli security,” and remain “highly suspicious about Palestinians’ intentions.” So is there even a “disconnect” between American Jewry and the so-called American Jewish establishment over Israel? In the second-to-last chapter, Waxman proposes, “Only a minority of American Jews . . . is really critical of the American Jewish establishment’s politics regarding Israel. Most are either reasonably satisfied or simply unaware and apathetic.” Waxman’s demographic case near the end of the book nixes other previous claims as well, namely that the establishment “represents a small and shrinking segment of American Jewry” and, ergo, it “cannot lead American Jewry any longer, with its own leadership widely seen as out of touch and unrepresentative.”
ALL THAT being said, Waxman’s greatest transgression is his failure to thoroughly probe the causes of mainstream American Jewry’s dissolution. In the last chapter, Waxman submits that the “decline of ‘Jewish peoplehood’” is due to “many reasons”: assimilation into the American “melting pot,” “American Judaism itself is becoming ‘post-ethnic,’” “so many” Jews “are intermarried or the children of intermarried couples,” “the whole concept of ‘Jewish peoplehood,’” particularly for younger American Jews, seems “too tribal and exclusivist, even racist.” But why are Jews assimilating into the “melting pot”? Why is American Judaism itself becoming “post-ethnic”? Why are so many Jews intermarrying and themselves the children of intermarried couples? Why is Jewish peoplehood increasingly perceived as “too tribal and exclusivist, even racist”?
Many American Jews profess to care about these ominous developments but have expended little energy to figuring out how they came about. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the Winter 1987 issue of the Public Interest, made clear why the federal government had allowed the country to fall trillions of dollars into debt. “At some level,” he lamented, “official Washington has not wanted to know what happened. . . . If you are not seriously prepared to do something, it is perhaps best not to know that you ought to.”
As such, Waxman’s grand omission makes Trouble in the Tribe a perfect illustration of the long-standing myopia of the community he defends. The withering away of mainstream American Jewry is primarily due not to external pressures, but instead internal factors: the markedly secular Judaism and the left-liberalism to which the principal portion of American Jewry adheres. Non-Orthodox parents raise their kids on the notions that “love knows no bounds” and “Judaism is also a culture.” Why then should they be stunned when their kids fall for and marry “Christopher” and “Christina”? Non-Orthodox Hebrew schoolteachers drill into their pupils’ minds the concept that Judaism epitomizes universal culture. Why then should they be astonished when their pupils ditch Judaism after recognizing that it’s redundant? Non-Orthodox rabbis teach their congregants that Torah consists not of holy edicts acquired from above for gratifying God, but rather “good deeds” derived from human reason for attaining pure “justice” and “equality.” Why then should they be perplexed when their congregants start remonstrating against the “Jewish apartheid state”? Secularism, especially when paired with a robust progressive ethos, unravels certain types of community. That’s not conjecture. That’s a sociological and a historical fact.
Waxman further asserts, “Over the last few decades, the activities, resources, and energies of major American Jewish organizations have become more and more focused on Israel” and that this preoccupation has caused younger Jews to embrace “new vehicles of activism and different issues (most notably, social justice and the environment).” I too have spent a considerable amount of time in a range of temples and synagogues throughout America. I can attest that Brotherhood, Sisterhood, young adult and children’s activities are not focused on Israel. Far from it. The subject that dominates is that of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”)—a phrase extracted from the Aleinu (“it is our duty”), a prayer traditionally recited daily in the morning, afternoon and evening—which, over the past half-century, has been equated with “social justice.” Even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons beseech worshippers to purchase hybrid vehicles, petition for gender-neutral bathrooms and lobby for gun control. Israel is peripheral. While Waxman does point out that tikkun olam “has become something of a catchphrase,” he neglects to point out how it came to be a catchphrase. I’ve also attended within the past three years the annual meetings of the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the ADL. Israel plays a far more minor role than you might imagine. And though Waxman intimates that American Orthodox Jews, who “have long held the most right-wing and hawkish views within the American Jewish community,” form the backbone of these establishment organizations, I saw only a handful of yarmulkes among the thousands of attendees.
THE STORY of the advent and ascent of “liberal Judaism” is too long to detail here. Needless to say, it happened and it’s had consequences. What’s more is that there have been warnings, in the form of signs and proclamations, ever since the first modern challenge to observant Judaism arose. Moses Mendelssohn was the pioneer of Haskalah, the “Jewish enlightenment,” which inspired Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany, and four of his six children converted to Christianity despite the fact that he remained observant. On the American scene, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, dedicated much of his tenure at Commentary from 1947 to 1952 to rebuking the mainstream American rabbinate for rendering Judaism little more than “a doctrine of social (and sociable) principles.” “What are we to make,” Kristol exclaimed in a 1948 review of Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism, “of a rabbi who claims for the Mishnah and the Talmud that they guarantee the right to strike—thereby providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act!”
But why did Judaism originally become susceptible to liberalism? Dissenters to liberal Judaism have tended to concentrate on the process in which heaven was brought down to earth. With the rise of human reason—and exacerbated by the spiritual crisis wrought by the Holocaust—the Almighty was seen less and less as all-mighty and Torah less and less as divine. Emancipated from the threat of retribution from above, God gradually became a compassionate being capable only of praise and sympathy while Torah gradually became a Chicken Soup for the Soul volume from which anecdotes and lessons could be expediently cherry-picked to validate personal ambitions and beliefs.
Waxman and the community he seeks to defend are truly caught between Mount Sinai and a hard place. They’re worried about their state of affairs, one in which they themselves along with their values are disappearing. Alas, it’s their values that created the situation in which they find themselves. The lifesaver for mainstream American Jewry, if it wishes to seize it and stay afloat, is rebuilding Jewish identity through more robust primary education. In The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart censured pro-Israel advocates for expecting “Jewish students to defend the Jewish state when they have not been taught to care much about Judaism itself.” Journalist Caroline Glick was on target when in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed she instructed that Jewish education must include “all of it—Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael” (the law of Israel, the people of Israel and the land of Israel).