THE HEADLINES PROCLAIM, “Crisis with Israel and Diaspora Jewry.” Articles assert an imminent split between Diaspora Jewry and Israel. Some blame the crisis over the Kotel, religious standards in Israel, or the status of the non-Orthodox movements there. Some decry the lack of momentum on the peace process, others lament the political cooperation between Israel’s government and the present U.S. administration.
Is the assertion of a massive crisis accurate? Who speaks for world Jewry? Undoubtedly, leaders of the liberal movements who have led the criticism speak for a significant constituency of American Jewry. The claim that they speak for the vast majority of American Jews is questionable. According to the recent Pew Study, just 11% of American Jews are members of Conservative congregations, and 14%, of Reform. Some 10% consider themselves Orthodox, complemented by massive numbers of religious children. Large numbers of Jews are active in Chabad, according to the recent demographic survey by the Jewish Federation of Miami, with 27% of local Jews being involved. When it comes to the younger generation, the numbers skyrocket to 47%.
The days of simply dividing American Jews into three convenient boxes, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, are over. About 50% of American Jews are involved in their communities while the other half are not formally engaged. It’s clear that no one can claim to “speak for American Jewry.”
Jewish communities outside the United States are dramatically different, almost all congregations are Orthodox. In Australia, Europe, Russia, South Africa and most countries in South America, 90% of Jews who are affiliated are members of Orthodox congregations. It is doubtful if those Jews share the views of liberal Jewish leaders in the U.S. There may be a crisis between liberal Jewish leaders and Israel, but the assertion of a crisis between Israel and world Jewry is not supported by the facts.
There is also a greater question: Will focusing on these divisions bolster the commitment of Jews in the diaspora—some of whom may have tenuous relationships with Israel and fragile Jewish identities? Decades ago, American Jews carried a strong memory of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and families were rich with Jewish tradition. These factors created a strong identification with Israel. But the Holocaust occurred seventy years ago, and institutional anti-Semitism in the U.S. is a distant memory. Many Jews have little Jewish education, and few have observant family members. They may lack the emotional bond to Israel, or may not feel the need a refuge for future difficult times.
When Jewish leaders focus on divisive issues, they send a negative message to Jews on the periphery. This may help them advance a political agenda in Israel, where the membership in liberal congregations is less than ½%. They must ask themselves if it is good for the Jewish people to create dissension amongst American Jews to advance their cause in Israel, where they have tiny constituencies. Also, it is time for a bit more honesty: Yes, the liberal leaders represent an important segment of American Jewry, but it’s just a segment. They do not speak for all American Jews—and according to the Pew study, not even the majority. As for communities outside the U.S., it’s clear that they do not speak for them.