Journalists keep saying that the fight over the Iran nuclear deal has bitterly divided the American Jewish community. I think that’s wrong. The fight over the Iran nuclear deal has shown that the American Jewish “community” does not exist.
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Community is not an easy term to define, but it suggests a group of people who share a common set of behaviors or beliefs. Shared ancestry doesn’t, by itself, create community. Millions of Americans hail from the British Isles but there is no Anglo-American community because Americans from the British Isles don’t share behaviors or beliefs that distinguish them from Americans as a whole. Shared religion doesn’t, by itself, create community either. There are millions of American Catholics. But knowing an American is Catholic, as opposed to Protestant, tells you almost nothing about how she lives or thinks.
In 2015, knowing that an American is Jewish doesn’t tell you much about how she lives or thinks either. There are today basically two American Jewish communities (though of course some American Jews fall in between), each of which has more in common with a group of American gentiles than with each other. The Iran deal has pitted these two communities against each other. But they’ve been separate for a long time.
Community number one is heavily Orthodox, although it includes some older and more traditional members of the Conservative movement. It’s smaller numerically: Orthodox Jews comprise only 10 percent of American Jewry. Add in the traditionalist Conservatives and you have perhaps 20 percent. (That’s based on the percentage of American Jews who keep kosher). But on Iran, and anything else having to do with Israel, community number one punches above its weight because its members are far more likely to devote themselves to Jewish organizations and causes.
Understanding community number one begins with understanding the way it lives: apart. Orthodox and the most traditional Conservative Jews may work among non-Jews. But they don’t really live among them. According to a fascinating new paper by the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Orthodox Jews say most or all of their friends are Jewish. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the figure is 26 percent. Eighty-one percent of Orthodox parents send their children to Jewish-only schools. Among the non-Orthodox, the figure is 11 percent.
There’s a reason community number one lives apart. It is deeply religious, and defines being religious as observing a set of laws that require separation. It’s hard to have close non-Jewish friends when you can’t eat at their homes. It’s hard for your kids to make non-Jewish friends when they don’t go to school or camp with them, and can’t participate in extracurricular activities on Shabbat.
In its effort to buffer itself against a cultural mainstream it considers threatening to its religious values, community number one shares little with more secular American Jews. But it shares a lot with conservative American Christians. And since the September 11 attacks, these similarities have blossomed into a political alliance based on a shared commitment to Israel, a shared belief that Islamists threaten both Israel and America, and a shared belief that American liberals will not adequately combat that threat.
In the Republican Party, which now claims the allegiance of most Orthodox Jews, community number one works with evangelical Christians extremely effectively. In 2012, Meir Soloveitchik, scion of one of American Orthodoxy’s most famous dynasties, gave the invocation at the Republican National Committee. Ted Cruz has made the Orthodox community central to his presidential fundraising. And the struggle against the Iran deal is largely a product of this conservative Jewish-Christian alliance. In the South, where Jews are scarce, the most prominent opponents of the deal have been evangelical Christians like Cruz and Mike Huckabee. In the northeast, the most prominent opponents have been Orthodox Jews like Joe Lieberman and Brooklyn state Senator Dov Hikind. It’s no coincidence that the only three Democratic senators to oppose the Iran deal (as of this writing) hail from New York, New Jersey and Maryland, states whose Jewish populations are disproportionately Orthodox. Or that later this month, Schumer will attend a fundraiser thanking him for his vote in Teaneck, New Jersey, one of the most prominent Orthodox towns in the country.
If community number one lives according to a series of boundaries between us and them, right and wrong, community number two is defined by its lack of clear boundaries. If Orthodox Jews anchor community number one, community two is anchored by the more than one-fifth of American Jews who define themselves as Jewish by culture but not religion. These cultural Jews intermarry at a rate of almost 80 percent. Only one in seven say that all or most of their friends are Jewish.
If the Jews in community number two don’t live tribally, they don’t think tribally either. According to Pew, they reject the idea that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. They don’t think the current Israeli government wants peace. And they overwhelmingly support a Palestinian state.
In other words, they don’t equate Israel with morality and its adversaries with immorality. Whereas community number one is Manichean, community number two is relativistic. It doesn’t see Israel, or Jews, as having any special claim on morality or truth.
If the religious Jews of community number one have much in common with conservative Christians, the secular Jews of community number two have much in common with secular gentiles. In fact, surveys show that in their political and moral views, non-Orthodox Jews share more with atheists than with any American denomination.
If community number one is an integral part of the conservative Republican coalition, community number two is an integral part of the liberal Democratic one. Secular Jews help define the values of blue state America: tolerance, diversity, irony, empathy. Just think of blue state America’s patron saint: Jon Stewart.
Secular Jewish identity is so interwoven into liberal American identity, in fact, that liberal American Jews often see them as one and the same. As the sociologist Chaim Waxman has observed, “Increasing numbers of young American Jews assume that liberal American values are actually Jewish values.” Especially since the Iraq War, diplomacy has been a core element of those liberal values. And since 2008, no American politician has articulated them more effectively than U.S. President Barack Obama. Which helps explain why community number two, overwhelmingly, supports Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
For all the current talk of intra-Jewish healing, the rift between America’s two Jewish communities will likely grow. One big reason is generational. Some American Jews have a foot in both camps, but they’re disproportionately older. It’s among the older generation that one more often finds Jews who are secular but intensely tribal (Ed Koch was a good example), and thus live like the members of community number two but view Israel like the members of community number one. It’s also more common to find older religious Jews who are nonetheless politically liberal (Jack Lew is a good example) because they came of age before the Orthodox community moved en masse into the GOP.
Among the young, the divide is sharper. Younger religious Jews are more cloistered than their parents and grandparents. (When Jack Lew and Joe Lieberman were growing up, many Orthodox Jews still attended public school). Younger secular Jews are more assimilated and less tribal than their parents and grandparents.
In the past, I’ve speculated about ways to bridge this divide. But doing so will be hard because Iran is not the cause of the current American Jewish disunity. It’s a symptom. Since the 1960s, American Christians have been waging a bitter culture war. And American Jews are now prominent combatants, on opposing sides.