U.S. Jews Diverge on Israel: Strong Ties Despite Disagreements

Members and supporters of Women of the Wall pray with prayer shawls at the Western Wall. RNS photo by Michele Chabin.

Where once it seemed that uncritical devotion to Israel was the norm for U.S Jews, that Zionism and Judaism were hand-in-glove, new research finds that’s not the case today — if it ever was.

The Pew Research Center’s newly released, comprehensive Portrait of Jewish Americans not only delved into myriad ways people identify as Jews, it also probed their emotional connection and their theological and political ideas about the Jewish state.

What this portrait reveals is a spectrum of far-ranging opinions among America’s 5.3 million Jews:

  • Three in four “Jews by religion” said they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel; just 45 percent of Jews-by-culture/ancestry said the same.
  • While 35 percent of Jews ages 18 to 49 told Pew that caring about Israel is “essential” to their sense of Jewishness, among Jews age 50 and up the figure was 53 percent.
  • Pew found that 84 percent of Orthodox Jews said they think “Israel was given to the Jewish people by God,” but only 16 percent of those of no religion see it as a God-given homeland.

Similar divides show up throughout questions on U.S. support for Israel, Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and efforts to reach a peace settlement, and the impact on Israel’s security of continued building of Jewish settlements. The wide variations may also have come to light because this was an anonymous survey, one that allowed respondents to be more frank — perhaps more critical — than they might be face to face with others.

Indeed, a newly released, unscientific survey of 552 U.S. rabbis, conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, found that one in three rabbis felt they could not openly express their views on Israel in public. Many (18 percent) said their private views on Israel’s politics were more dovish than their public expressions, and 12 percent were “closet hawks.”

But, like the Jewish general public in the Pew survey, the rabbis overwhelmingly felt deeply connected to Israel. “To be Jewish, you don’t have to be a Zionist,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of JCPA. “But for me and many other Jews, young and old, it’s part of my essence, of how I see the world.”

Alex Zaslow, 29, a web manager for a nonprofit agency in Washington, D.C., agreed. “I hold Israel in high importance,” he said. “I feel an emotional connection … although theologically, I’m agnostic.”

Zaslow —  a former contributing editor for HEEBa hipster arts and culture web ‘zine with a Jewish-inflected viewpoint — claims his Jewish identity by culture and by family ties. He also pointed out that the founder of the Zionist political movement, Theodore Herzl, “was himself a Jew of no religion.”

But Zaslow’s sense of attachment to Israel is threaded with pragmatism. History shows the need for a secure Jewish homeland, he said.

“Think of all the times when we [Jews] have been oppressed. We weren’t asked what degree of Jewish we were. Things happened in the past that no one ever thought were possible. So, things could happen in the future that no one now thinks would be possible. A degree of safety and permanence is necessary for the Jewish homeland.”

On one point, however, Zaslow breaks with his peers. He does not think a “two-state solution” – one for Israelis, one for the Palestinians – is viable.

Most (72 percent) Jews of no religion and 64 percent of Jews under age 50 told Pew that a way could be found for the two states to coexist peacefully. Zaslow, however, doubts that militant Hamas will ever sincerely negotiate for peace.

Another young Jewish-American has a more optimistic view of Israel’s future.

Miami-born lawyer Ilana Bonan, 27, whose father is Israeli, holds dual U.S.-Israel citizenship. Between college and law school, she volunteered to do a year of service in Israel through a program established for religiously observant women.

A Modern Orthodox woman, Bonan observes the Sabbath and keeps a kosher home, but rather than living within a distinct ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic community, she said she is “grounded in everyday modern society and culture.”

And Bonan is confident that Jews of any level of religiosity are tied by “commitment and love for Israel.”

As she moved from law school to work and to involvement in Jewish community life in South Florida, she found that “it doesn’t scare me when people have different opinions on Israel. It’s innate in Jewish culture to have different opinions. We’ve been taught since we were little to question — whether it’s questioning the Torah or questioning Israel’s policies or anything else.”

The Pew survey can’t provide any light on whether Zaslow, Bonan and their peers may shift in their views over time. It is not a predictive survey or a point on a trend, but rather a snapshot of now, said sociologist Steven Cohen of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, who consulted on the survey.

“Attachment to Israel may rise over time, but,” said Cohen, “political views tend to be set in young adulthood on many matters.”

Even so, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., is holding off on predictions on the Jewish or the Israeli future. He sees great strengths, even amid great disagreements.

“To struggle with Israel’s realities is an act of love; it is not an act of disengagement,” said Salkin, author of “A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them.”

“To be critical of Israeli policies is not to be critical of Israel itself. If that were true than an overwhelming proportion of Israelis themselves would be anti-Israel. We are talking about many American Jews with legitimate concerns. We can disagree on the nature of those concerns but we would be foolhardy to write them off and say they are not in the game. They are very much in the game.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.

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