Diaspora Jews and Israel: Between Distance and Despair

The JPPI report tell us much about the well-aired opinions of the Diaspora’s elite - but fails to engage with the expanding minority of Jews who care less and less about Israel.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman
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The Israel Parade makes its way up New York's Fifth Ave., June 2, 2013.
The Israel Parade makes its way up New York's Fifth Ave., June 2, 2013.Credit: AP
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

What is there to learn from the recently released Jewish People Policy Institute report on “Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry?”

First, some good news: The researchers found that the views, as they perceived them, of Diaspora Jews and the Israeli “public” have similar characteristics. That alone is noteworthy, since a growing chorus of voices has suggested that the gap between these two is growing and that portends a future that could lead to irreconcilable differences at best, or separation at worst.

A second bit of not quite as good news is that a majority of the Diaspora Jews still hold fast to the ideal of Israel being both Jewish and democratic. What makes this not quite as good is the fact that the Jews, wherever they are, may not always agree on the meaning of what is Jewish or what democratic – so holding this opinion may not be quite as meaningful or optimistic as researchers would like it to be.

Now before I continue, I should point out that the JPPI report is not based on the result of a random or even a targeted social survey – in contrast to last year’s Pew study or other national Jewish surveys. It is rather a report of the views of a select group of people who participated in JPPI-sponsored “discussions.” This included “senior representatives of Jewish leadership in the United States, rabbis, public intellectuals, and academics” who were invited to participate in some “40 discussion groups and seminars.” In other words, elites, opinion-leaders, the usual suspects. If you believe their judgments are representative of Diaspora Jewry and that they matter more than a broader sample of world Jewry – including those who are young or not engaged in the Jewish world – you will be more impressed than I with the results reported. But if not – and given the significant number of increasingly unaffiliated and marginally affiliated character of American Jewry, as well as the exponential the growth of the so-called “Nones” who belong to none of the usual Jewish organizations and associations in the ranks of Diaspora Jewry – you might take the findings with a grain of salt. This report tells us something about elite opinion in the Diaspora – and you decide how much it matters what it is.

Among these elites there is an awareness that in the seventh decade of Israel’s existence, there may be deep tensions between democratic and Jewish ideals and that any state or society that tries to be fully both of these may be living on the horns of a dilemma. This is particularly the case if its numbers of Jews do not grow as fast as the numbers of other ethnic groups in its population; or even if those Jews whose demographic growth is most vibrant turn out to be among a group of Orthodox Jews who have powerful misgivings about democracy and an absolutist view of what is Jewish; a situation that might well describe Israel in 2014.

In the face of rising Jewish nationalism and fundamentalism, as well as a feeling of being surrounded by implacable foes (shown to have the highest rate of anti-Jewish attitudes in the recent ADL survey), there are significant numbers who might once have believed in the ideals of being both Jewish and democratic but now feel that these ideals need some revision. That is hinted in the JPPI report, in the criticism emerging among some in the Diaspora who addressed just such attitudes. I refer to findings that Diaspora Jews expect that “Israel be pluralistic,” “avoid imposing religious norms,” “put an end to the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life and give equal standing to all Jewish streams,” “strive… not to rule over Palestinians,” and other such views that may strike some of the rising number of nationalists and religious fundamentalists as naïve at best or dangerous at worst. With all due respect to the authors of this report, this is not news.

The view of the JPPI-consulted Diaspora Jews is that “Israel’s character has significant influence on how ‘Judaism’ is regarded around the world by Jews and non-Jews.” They think therefore that how their Judaism is perceived is often not in their own hands but in the hands of a state and society over which they have less and less influence.

But even if this is true for the people on the JPPI panels, it is worthwhile recalling that, as my colleague Steven M. Cohen has recently reported, people who say “I’m Jewish but I don’t identify Judaism or anything else as my religion,” now constitute 20% of all Jewish adults – and that number is growing in the American Diaspora (and maybe other Diasporas) to as much as 33% of those aged 18 to 29. Are these Jews going to care how or if Israel’s character reflects on Judaism? Are they going to focus on Israel as having some special significance for them? Do they care if they are heard in Israel? The report’s assertion that “changes to Israel’s character have the potential to impact the way Israel relates to Jews around the world,” may be the opinion of these elites, but I fear it lags behind a reality that suggests that to many Jews in the years ahead Israel may not matter quite as much.

The supporters of Taglit/Birthright (and I am one of them) are saying as much themselves. No doubt the effort to bring as many young people to Israel is, if nothing else, an effort to make what Israel is and what happens there of importance to more young Jews of the Diaspora. Were it not the case, we would not need to bring all these kids; they’d come on their own.

A truly useful JPPI report would have been one that managed to get the opinions of those Jews in Diaspora who are not among the engaged and informed – we know already what this latter group think since they’ve been publicly expressing those opinions for years. We need to know about the people who do not care, and then to figure out how we can make them care, and what they care about. In the meantime, we have Taglit.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.

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