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September 19, 2017 10:16 am

Where Does Israel Fit in a Jewish Future Without Faith?

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin / JNS.org

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A haredi Jew blows a shofar at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, Aug. 28. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90.

JNS.org – For Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political opponents, his government’s woes aren’t just an opportunity to score political points — they also provide easy-to-understand explanations for American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Netanyahu’s critics use the negative developments or unpopular decisions associated with Netanyahu to rationalize and sometimes even justify the growing chasm between American Jews and Israelis.

But a new study about America Jewish identity gives the lie to this argument. According to the study the main reason for changing Jewish attitudes about Israel is rooted in faith, not politics.

A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) provides some sobering data about Jewish affiliation. Four years after the Pew Research Center published its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” — which detailed the toll that assimilation and intermarriage have taken on Jewish identity in this the US — the PRRI survey reveals that these trends have only accelerated.

Among the study’s insights is a breakdown of denominational loyalties. Overall, only 54 percent of Jews claim to be affiliated with one of the religious movements. Reform is the answer for 28 percent, 14 percent are Conservative, 10 percent are Orthodox and 2 percent are Reconstructionist. More than one third, 37 percent, say that they are “just Jewish.” Three percent claim to be “something else,” and six percent refuse to answer or say they don’t know.

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But if you look only at Jews under 30, the numbers break down this way: Reform — 20 percent; Conservative — 8 percent; Orthodox — 15 percent; Reconstructionist — 3 percent; and just Jewish — 44 percent.

But the “just Jewish” tag doesn’t so much connote independence of synagogues, as it does a sense of Jewish identity devoid of religion or any true substance. A whopping 33 percent of Jews do not regard themselves as being Jewish by religion. That number expands to 47 percent for those under 30.

Pew called this demographic “Jews of no religion.” PRRI calls them “cultural Jews.” But either way, these are people whose connection to being Jewish appears to be mostly a matter of things like food, comedy or a belief that liberal political stands are the essence of their heritage. These numbers reflect not merely the collapse in synagogue attendance among the non-Orthodox, but also a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.

In the US, rising rates of assimilation are a function of the collapse of the barriers between faiths. But the idea that a growing demographic in which Jewish traditions, law and faith is absent can sustain support for Israel is risible.

While it can be argued that a secular Jewish identity can be sustained in Israel — a country that speaks Hebrew, lives by the Jewish calendar and whose history is bound up in a past rooted in faith as well as ethnic identity, it’s a different story in the United States. Cultural Jews — or those without religion here — are far less likely to feel the tug of emotion that ties Jewish communities together, no matter what political issues divide them. The fact that the Orthodox are more likely to be supportive of Israel, and to view it as a litmus test when voting, makes this all the more obvious.

The issues that are driving American Jews away from Israel are much bigger than attitudes about the peace process or pluralism. The collapse of faith and peoplehood among US Jews has far more to do with declining support for Israel among the non-Orthodox than with Netanyahu’s or Israel’s faults. If American Jews are becoming a people without faith, then Israel is bound to be the loser — no matter what its government does.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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  • Pinchas Baram

    4/5 didn’t make it out of Egypt, and so it will be in another generation in America. Orthodox Judaism is the only healthy branch on the tree. if longterm you want to stay Jewish but don’t want to be orthodox, moving to israel is your best option. and ditto for the orthodox, they should move, too.

    concurrently, israel has to take the bull by the horns and do its damnest to decisively and militarily destroy the mullahs running Iran, also Hamas and Hezzbollah.

    and to thin out its demographic dense spots and to prepare for a wave of diaspora Jews from Europe and elsewhere, it must build full steam ahead in Judea and Samaria and expel Arabs who resist or resort to terrorism. and if there’s another intifada, let there be a nakba to follow.

    that’s my prognosis and prescription. anyone got a better one?

  • Israel is the past, present, and future of the Jewish people. The center of Jewish life and learning shifted from the US to Israel. When Jews make aliyah, then Israel is bound to be the winner.

  • watsa46

    The “Jews of no religion” may still live by a code of ethics derived from Jewish traditions. Long before the recent “religious conflict” most US Jews showed little interest in IL. Not different from the issue of settlements and the Palestinians. Just excuses. IL represents ALL Jews. The US Jews represent only one country.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    The real problem is that this article is concerned with the faith of Americans, not of Israel. Israel uses the ideological term “Jewish state” to refer to some sort of ethnicity, not to a people with shared values based on a deep faith. Ancient Jewish communities had such shared values, and they had rabbinic authorities to make sure the rich and powerful weren’t taking advantage of the poor and weak. Leaders were supposed to be not only capable but also honest, hating unjust gain, and God-fearing. No one sees this kind of state in Israel today. They see jousting politicians beset by one scandal after the next, people cheating and taking advantage of one another, and all sorts of other injustices. A country based on the Jewish faith and way of life would inspire Jews everywhere, regardless of their degree of individual faith. Instead of trying to lay the blame on young American Jews for their lack of connectedness to Israel, it would be better to look at Israel. And the usual approach of throwing money at the problem just isn’t going to work.

  • Strong and to the point. In the near future we Jews will discover that the nation cannot retain any national set of values with the Talmud as its base.

    We are the people of the Covenant; the people of the Ten Commandments, not the people of the endless sea of rubbish.

    Either the Talmud and its rabbinate will go, or we will. The Jewish people are not yet aware that the Torah predicts the downfall of this poisonous combination, but they are about to open their eyes, and when they do, all hell will break loose.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    “Just Jewish” does not necessarily mean no religion or secular. It simply means a shunning of labels that carry with them certain baggage. It is quite possible to be non-denominational observant.

    What percent of Israelis of Jewish ancestry do not consider themselves to be Jewish by religion? My impression is a great many of them, maybe a higher percentage than Americans.

    What makes people Jewish is not some label they place on themselves but rather the fact that they consider Judaism to be a way of life for themselves, whatever that might mean to a given individual. Here is where Judaism is doing poorly all over. What traits does the Torah consider to be important in its leaders? Do Israeli political leaders come even close in this respect? The end of most civilizations comes about because of the moral decay from within, not because of the enemy from without. Intermarriage is just a bogeyman. It’s a result, not a cause. Jews are a people defined by their faith and way of life, not some racial purity kind of thing. Judaism is in deep trouble because even many Jews who outwardly follow an observant lifestyle do not consider Judaism to be a way of life for themselves from the all-important moral and ethical standpoints.