Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
If the Israeli-Palestinian standoff were miraculously solved tomorrow, the crisis between Israeli Jews and American Jews would still cause great turmoil. At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a question of freedom and sovereignty. At least the concepts are understandable by both sides. What divides Israeli Jews and American Jews is the question of Judaism itself. What does it mean to be Jewish? And, by extension, what does it mean to be The Jewish State? Americans and Israeli Jews don’t agree.
According to a 2017 Pew Study, only 5% of Israeli Jews identify with the liberal religious movements (2% Conservative and 3% Reform) while the majority of American Jews identify that way (18% Conservative and 35% Reform). While it may not seem like a big deal to Israelis when a Conservative rabbi is arrested in Haifa for performing a wedding, it’s downright shocking to the American Jewish public. But an even greater and potentially more divisive difference between the Jews of Israel and American Jews is political. 8% of Israelis identify as politically Left and 37% identify as ideologically Right. Conversely, almost half of American Jews identify with the ideological Left (49%) and only 19% with the Right. Parenthetically, a full 55% of Israelis consider themselves Centrists, while only 29% of American Jews do.
America’s Red-Blue divide can be seen on almost every issue, be it supreme court nominations, immigration, taxation, abortion, and even the humble TV sit-com (Rosanne!). Don’t believe me, try switching back and forth between MSNBC and FoxNews for an hour.
America’s politically and religiously liberal Jewish population differs from the emerging generation of Israelis. In Israel, what is essential to Jewish identity is shifting away from the shared beliefs that American Jews had with older Israeli Jews. Consider these results from a recent poll of Israelis:
- 64% Aged 18-24 believe in God, but only 22% of Israelis aged 65 or older do.
- Only 44% of Israelis believe in evolution, and of those who don’t 50% are aged 18-24 but only 12% are senior citizens.
- On the issue the state’s influence on religious practice, 51% of young people support open stores on Shabbat, while 84% of those 65 and older do.
Of course, Israeli Jewish identity is not monolithic and neither is that of American Jewry. However, it does seem that Israeli Jews are growing more religious and that their politics follow that ideology rightward. The religious and political leanings of this younger generation of Israelis more closely resembles American Evangelicals than that of American Jews.
If Israelis and Americans are growing apart, then how American Jews navigate the currently entrenched positions of the American political left and right will likely portend how it navigates Israel’s role in their Jewish identity.