Where Does Israel Fit in a Jewish Future Without Faith?
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.
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.