There is a growing schism between American Jews and Israel. Some have claimed that the cause is Israeli policies. The truth is much different, the growing divide is a product of a change in American Jews’ attitudes towards Judaism. Comparing two recent Pew studies, one focusing on American Jews, and the second on Israel, tells us the real story.
American Jewish society is continuing its march on the path to assimilation, and is increasingly taking its values from modern Western culture rather than Judaism. Israelis see the world otherwise, Torah and tradition have a major influence on their lives. Israelis are much more observant, 22% of Israelis are Orthodox observant and fully observe Shabbat and another 29% are very traditional. In the U.S. the Orthodox are barely 10%. Only 2% of Israelis are intermarried, 56% of American Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Almost two thirds of Israelis keep Kosher, 56% light Shabbat candles, 27% attend weekly services and 35% wear a Yamulke. In the U.S. just over 20% keep kosher and light candles, and just 11% attend weekly services.
Israelis are also well educated Jewishly, and are deeply rooted in the spiritual identity of Judaism. Americans have a limited Jewish literacy. Their very concept of Jewish values is different. For American Jews the universal ideal of “working for peace and justice,” is much more important than observing Jewish tradition. For Israelis, the opposite is true.
There are other Jewish communities that still retain a strong identification with Israel. In Australia for instance, some 50% of children attend Jewish day schools, almost all synagogues are Orthodox, where even the non-observant attend. The combination of a vibrant Jewish education, and spiritual leadership more focused on Torah, has created a community much more attached to tradition and Israel.
There’s cause for optimism: more and more Jews are choosing Chabad as the point of connection to Jewish life. In a recent survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, 27% of local Jews said they are active in Chabad. Amongst Jews under 35 the number skyrockets to 47%. When it comes to Israel, Chabad is taking a stronger role and today it’s one of the top organizers of Birthright trips to Israel. Hopefully this change will bolster Jewish identity in the U.S. and be an impetus to draw American and Israeli Jews closer, as they discover they share a common destiny and ideals, rooted in over three millennia of history and Torah.
The campaign by some to attribute the changing attitudes of American Jews to Israeli policies will surely continue. Failed policies have resulted in an Israeli left that is in disarray. Israelis have learned hard lessons and made more concessions without dealing with the core issue of the conflict. The unwillingness by the Palestinians to accept the existence of Israel means that there will be no peace. Their American cousins living safely here, without ISIS on the horizon, Hamas building tunnels, and Hezbollah arming itself, will attempt to change Israeli policy from the outside through threats and fear. Just as the great majority of Israelis have rejected their ideas as unrealistic, hopefully American Jews will also.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is author of “The Secret of Chabad-Inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement.” He is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad, his email is email@example.com.