One of the lessons learned from the intense debate over the Iran nuclear deal is that there is a serious and growing divide within American Jewry. In large part it’s between those who are active in Jewish and Israeli life, and those who are not. This gap is increasingly evident in our widely divergent views on Israel, U.S. foreign policy, and the merits of the agreement with Tehran.
Indeed, members of each group find it hard to believe that fellow religionists can actually see things any other way than the way they do, and they often base their deeply divergent views on “Jewish values.”
The activists are strongly opposed to the deal as posing a mortal danger to Israel and a long-term threat to the U.S. How, they wonder, can large numbers — and perhaps a majority — of their fellow Jews support the deal? They also can’t imagine why the large majority of American Jews voted for and continue to support President Obama, especially when it comes to his Mideast policies and treatment of Israel, which they consider a disaster, intentional or not.
I define “activists” here as involved members of synagogues and Jewish organizations, and/or those who visit Israel on a regular basis, attend Jewish lectures and other programs in the community, follow Israel news closely in the media, choose political candidates in large part based on their position on Israel, etc.
You get the picture. I am generalizing here but these people as a rule tend to be more politically conservative and religiously observant and are more hawkish on Israel. And they are generally older. A large majority of the Orthodox community fits this description, with many of its members visiting Israel frequently and having relatives or close friends living in Israel (including West Bank communities). Within American Orthodoxy there is little debate about Jerusalem’s settlement policies or, for that matter, about the belief that President Obama is no friend of Israel. (The bigger discussion may be over whether or not he is a Muslim.)
We don’t need more polls to tell us that the activists are far more opposed to the nuclear deal than other Jews, though they are smaller in number. (How curious that most of the poll results tend to show American Jewish views in sync with those of whichever group sponsored the survey.)
And for those of us living in the metropolitan New York area, a center of national Jewish organizational life, and home to such a large Orthodox community, we sometimes forget we are living in a big Jewish bubble — the exception to, rather than the rule of, American Jewish attitudes.
According to the Pew study of American Jews, more than 90 percent are proud to be Jewish. The great majority are liberal in their politics and religious practices, they support and feel an affinity for Israel, and trace their moral and ethical values to Judaism. In choosing a political candidate, studies show that their primary interest is party affiliation. According to the Pew survey, 70 percent identify themselves as Democrats (compared to 49 percent of the overall American public; 22 percent of Jews lean Republican). Forty-nine percent of Jews say they are liberals (compared to 22 percent of the total population). These Jews say they are motivated by justice, equality and opposition to minority discrimination, which they often ascribe to Jewish values. Seventy-three percent of American Jews say remembering the Holocaust is essential to their Jewishness, while only 43 percent say that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewishness.
“Perhaps most telling is that most Jews don’t feel the United States needs to be closer to Israel,” noted an article in The Guardian in 2013, when the Pew report was issued. “Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Jewish Americans feel that U.S. support for Israel is either ‘about right’ or too much. This holds across all age groups, and it matches attitudes in the population at large.”
What the Iran debate seems to be illuminating is that on this crucial issue, the strategic interests of America and Israel are diverging, perhaps more starkly than at any time in recent memory. And the fault lines in the Jewish community reflect that split.
It’s hard to say how much has changed in the two years since the Pew study came out. But it’s worth noting that during that time the relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has become openly contentious and increasingly worrisome to those who recognize the supreme importance of strong U.S.-Israel ties.
Some blame the president, some blame the prime minister, and there is significant evidence to support critics on both sides. We are in a bad time. We have reached a low point in U.S.-Israel relations when the administration is suggesting that Jewish groups and Israeli officials, by lobbying against the Iran deal, may be to blame if the Iran deal falls apart and leads to another Mideast war. And the Israeli prime minister is so aligned with the Republicans in Congress that he feels he can’t back down now, even though bipartisan support has been the bedrock of Israeli foreign policy for decades, and the pressure to repair the relationship with the White House has never been greater.
For now the debate goes on and gets more personal, nastier, uglier. We long for it to be over, one way or another, and to begin the vital effort of healing the wounds and mending Washington-Jerusalem ties.
Let’s start closer to home, though. Even within our own community we need to recognize and address the divide that separates us, one from the other. It has become increasingly difficult to talk about collective “American Jewish attitudes” and shared “Jewish values” when there are such deep differences, not only in our outward views but also in how we define ourselves as Jews.
These issues tend to arise during moments of crisis, and then subside.
But they’re not going away. Dealing with them now may be our last chance before we reach the point where we no longer fit the definition of one Jewish people.