The shocking numbers of estranged American Jews should give us no rest
For those struggling to get into the Tishah B’Av mode this year, an intensely sad poll of American Jews released last week was well timed.
According to a survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute taken after the most recent round of Gaza fighting, 25% of respondents agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 22% said that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
A more accurate re-enactment of what went on in the destruction of Jerusalem — with Romanized Jewish factions openly siding with the conquerors — is hard to imagine. But such is the advanced stage of American Jewry’s churban that among voters under 40, a full 20% agreed with the statement that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.”
The Tishah B’Av metaphor is not one that I use lightly. Precisely the wrong response is triumphalism. Yes, Orthodoxy is booming where others are fading. But there is not a shred of joy in witnessing the relentless assimilation of Galus America, the richest and most successful diaspora community since Golden Age Spain.
Rather, the comparison is a call for clear-eyed analysis of what will and won’t help. To a man holding a hammer, it’s said, everything looks like a nail. So it’s predictable that the responses so far from major Jewish groups have focused on improving performance in what these bodies already exist to do.
American Jewish Committee head David Harris was quoted by JTA as calling for better Israel education. “We need to guarantee that young people understand the realities of Israel’s situation, and to strengthen the connection between Israel and the diaspora,” he said. Others called for better hasbarah in making Israel’s case.
But although the shambles of Israel’s public communications were exposed by the latest fighting — needlessly hamstringing the country in the battle for world opinion — better PR won’t alter the view of too many American Jews.
The truth is that the shocking numbers are the fruits of advanced assimilation. As Jewishness becomes ever more deeply intertwined with the American liberal project, the idea of Jewish nationhood — a nation-state of the Jews — becomes ever less appealing. After two generations of 70% intermarriage in the US, it’s no wonder that Israel, with its conversion laws and determination to preserve a Jewish majority, is viewed by some as irredeemably racist. So better education is unlikely to penetrate the armor of those who think that Israel is an apartheid state.
All of this is a wake-up call to Israel’s current government, desperate to close the growing gap between non-Orthodox American Jews and Israel by promoting the Reform movement in Israel. But the moves simply won’t work. The problem isn’t Israel, which is standing still; it’s that too many American Jews are racing away from Jewish identity.
The tragedy here is that the true answer to the problem — meaningful Jewish education, connecting people to the idea of nationhood that came from Sinai — is not a large-scale solution.
Because the combined efforts of the whole kiruv world — as those involved are the first to say — can touch large numbers of individuals, but the vast majority of unaffiliated Jews are beyond reach.
So as Tishah B’Av gives way to Shabbos Nachamu, the shocking numbers of estranged American Jews should give us no rest. Because for this particular tragedy, so far there’s no comfort.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 870)
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