I meant it when I wrote last week that I could easily mine the Pew study of Israeli society for a year’s worth of material, but I’ll try to make this week the last post on the subject for awhile. Perhaps the most interesting part of the study to me is the section comparing Israeli Jews and American Jews. As Dov Waxman noted in a long breakdown yesterday on Matzav, there is a yawning chasm on many issues between Jews in Israel and Jews in the U.S., to the extent that anyone looking at the numbers without any identifying information on the two groups would have a difficult time guessing that they were members of the same family, so to speak. What issues the two groups of Jews differ on is fascinating in itself, but the more fascinating aspect for me isn’t the what, but the why.
Breaking down the numbers, it’s clear that Israeli Jews lean more towards the political right than their American counterparts, but it isn’t political differences that illuminate what is going on. Rather, Israeli Jews and American Jews are separated by a fundamental difference in worldview that transcends the political sphere. It is much more of a philosophical divide that is driven by the divergent historical and present day experiences of Israeli Jews and American Jews. For shorthand, let’s call this divide universalism versus particularism.
American Jews are very well integrated into the larger American milieu. Because of this, they view their Judaism as part of a universal system where wider rules and values are more important than in-group relationships. They are unquestionably happy about their heritage – 94% are proud to be Jewish and 75% feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people – but the history of Jews in America is one of cultural assimilation. While anti-Semitism will always exist everywhere, the United States in 2016 is largely devoid of it, and Jews face very little discrimination overall (I reserve the right to revisit this point should we face the apocalypse ushered in on January 20, 2017, by President Donald J. Trump). American Jews are not treated as a minority, and are not thought of as one in many circles. American Jews themselves do not behave as religious minorities in their willingness to transcend group boundaries in unusually large numbers. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox American Jews is over 70% and 44% of married American Jews currently have a non-Jewish spouse; American Jews are likelier than any other religious minority group to have close friends of another religion and only 32% say that all or most of their close friends are Jewish; and American Jews are generally much less religious than their Israeli counterparts. The universal perspective of American Jews makes their Judaism less omnipresent and in some ways less important, so that even while being proud of their Jewish heritage it does not dominate their identity. As Michael Oren pointed out in his memoir Ally, it is no accident that alone among minority groups, American Jews place the “American” clause first.
Israeli Jews have a much more particularistic worldview that is rooted in Israel’s reality. Israelis live with a siege mentality emanating from the fact that they are in a neighborhood that does not accept them, which makes group relationships and solidarity more important. Furthermore, the fact that Israeli Jews are a majority in their own country creates a bubble filled with constant reminders that they are Jews, which reinforces the tribal sense that external hostility creates. Judaism shapes Israeli identity in a way that is almost impossible to replicate in the current American Jewish experience, and thus Israeli Jews are more attached to their Judaism. Israeli Jews are more observant and theologically religious by every measure than their American cousins, and view their Judaism as such a dominant and influential presence that more Israeli Jews describe themselves as Jewish first than as Israeli first (46% to 35%). Israeli Jews do not see themselves as ensconced in a wider system in the way that American Jews do; their Judaism is necessarily a narrower one that is not focused on what Judaism has to offer to the rest of the world. The history of Israel’s creation and fight for existence, along with its ongoing quest for legitimacy and normalcy, lead to a Jewish community that is more inward looking and bound by elements that are unique to Jews.
This is seen most acutely when comparing the responses of Israeli and American Jews on what it means to be Jewish. Both rank remembering the Holocaust as first on the list of essential parts of being Jewish, but after that the answers diverge. For American Jews, four out of the next five responses have nothing to do with Judaism as a religion or culture, but espouse universal values that can apply to anyone (leading an ethical life, working for justice and equality, being intellectually curious, having a good sense of humor), with the one outlier being caring about Israel. Israeli Jews prioritize items that are exclusively Jewish, with observing Jewish law coming in third at 35% (only 19% for American Jews), living in Israel coming in fourth at 33%, and eating traditional Jewish foods sixth at 18%. When Israelis were not limited to the eight choices provided by Pew but were allowed to mention anything they wanted, Israeli Jews’ priorities were even starker. The biggest group of 53% gave an answer in the category of providing Jewish education to or sharing Jewish traditions with their children, and the second biggest group of 45% gave an answer in the category of following religious traditions or being religious. While American Jews and Israeli Jews share a religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage, what it means to be Jewish is vastly different for them.
The direct implications of this are difficult to foresee, although it has the potential to affect everything from the U.S.-Israel relationship to the practice of Judaism itself. One element that is encouraging is that both groups rate the importance of caring about Israel highly – 33% for Israelis, 43% for Americans – and more crucially, the two groups care about each other. 68% of Israeli Jews say they have something in common with American Jews, 75% say there is a common destiny, and 59% view American Jewry’s influence on Israel as good. As Joel Braunold wrote in Ha’aretz, these results show that American Jews and Israeli Jews aren’t yet sick of each other. While the way in which the two sets of Jews view their Judaism seems like it is at odds, Israeli views on American Jews ratifies and demonstrates the need for continued engagement, not shying away from controversial issues while being careful not to impose on Israelis, and jointly working toward the best version of Israel that can be.
Dr. Michael Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, DC. To contact Michael please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.