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Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 519     26 Sivan 5764 / 15 June 2004


THE IMPACT OF RECENT WATERSHED EVENTS
ON AMERICAN JEWRY

Manfred Gerstenfeld



  • Watershed events such as the Palestinian uprising in 2000 created major new challenges to the American Jewish leadership. Other mega-events such as September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq also heavily influenced their environment.

  • A key element of American Jewry's changing mind-set relates to Israel. The great majority of those who identify most with the Jewish community have become more supportive due to the events of recent years. This may also lead to possible shifts in voting patterns.

  • Other important elements of change include attitudes toward Evangelical Christians as well as Muslims. Yet other developments concern increased anti-Zionism on campuses as well as greater anxiety about anti-Semitism.

  • The new, mainly political, challenges emerging from the recent mega-events are superimposed on the structural problems of American Jewry, that include a high rate of intermarriage, low fertility, assimilation, reduced voluntarism, the high cost of Jewish living, and a declining percentage of Jewish philanthropy for Jewish causes.



New Challenges

The Palestinian uprising in 2000 created major new challenges to American Jewish leadership. Other watershed events such as September 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq also heavily influenced their environment. Some aspects of change concern American society at large, others are specific to the Jewish community. This author interviewed a number of prominent Jewish Americans over the last year in order to try to identify the main components of these developments.

Overall, the attitude of the general American population toward Israel has become more favorable in recent years due to the mega-events. In a nationwide survey in February 2004, Americans were asked: "Did the September 11th attacks make you more sympathetic or less sympathetic with Israel's struggle against suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism?" 57.7 percent were more sympathetic, while 13 percent were less sympathetic. Among Jews, 78 percent were more sympathetic and 3 percent less sympathetic.1


Israel Reunites the Jewish Community

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Presidents Conference), concludes that Israel at war reunited the Jewish community to a large extent, saying: "After the Oslo agreement, and Camp David, many divisive issues emerged. The Palestinian uprising has, however, made it clear to almost all American Jewish leaders that the Palestinians are not interested in peace."

Hoenlein adds: "One indicator of a major change is that AIPAC and many other organizations draw record crowds. People are eager to get involved because they are beginning to understand some of the major dangers to the Jewish people in ways they haven't for a long time. One sees younger Jews, who were apathetic, now getting involved in the fight for Israel. Anti-Semitism in the world has woken them up and they are beginning to understand its importance to them personally."2

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, notes that his organization is experiencing a return of younger Jews. "They have had various wake-up calls deriving from issues such as Daniel Pearl's murder, the mass killing of Jews at a Passover Seder in Netanya, and the threats to pro-Israel students at San Francisco State University."3

However, some Jewish leaders have remained extremely critical of Israel's policies to the extent of publicly breaking ranks. Edgar Bronfman's letter to President Bush recommending that he pressure Israel into following the Road Map peace plan caused a conflict in the World Jewish Congress, which will probably result in a substantial reorganization of the WJC.4

Another American Jewish leader - often publicly critical of the Israeli government - is Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.5 However, after Sharon's plan for disengagement from the Palestinians was announced, Yoffie's position toward Israeli government policies has become more favorable.6


Marching in Jerusalem

The great majority of those who identify most with the Jewish community have become more supportive due to the events of recent years. An emergency appeal for Israel raised over three hundred million dollars. Carole Solomon, chair of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, points out that many of those who made contributions in this campaign had previously never given to Israel.7

Even more visible were the 4,000 American Jewish leaders attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November 2003 who marched through the center of Jerusalem to demonstrate their solidarity with the Jewish state. This was only the second time this gathering had convened in Israel, the first being in 1998 on the occasion of Israel's 50th anniversary.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is setting up a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem - probably the largest investment ever by a non-profit organization in Israel. Its dean, Marvin Hier, states: "American Jewish organizations should be supportive when Israel is in need. We should not only be in emergency mode but also plan activities which demonstrate a vision for the long-term future. Israel requires supporters who say the best message to the Arab world is building long-term projects which show how vibrant and viable Israel continues to be."8


An Increase in American Students

American Jewish solidarity with Israel also expresses itself through the many Jewish youngsters who come to study in Israel. Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, remarked that after the Palestinian violence started there was a dip in the number of students attending the university's programs in Israel because of the security situation. This year, however, 675 students are attending YU's one- or two-year programs in Israel, the highest ever. He points out that students often come despite their parents' wishes.9

This more intense connection to Israel is not limited to orthodoxy. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which ordains Reform rabbis, says that the Palestinian uprising created doubts in the minds of some of his colleagues whether to insist that students spend a year in Israel. For him, however, this was an issue of the highest priority. Ellenson says that all students went to Israel and HUC now has the largest class since the program began twenty years ago.10

American Jewish initiatives of solidarity with Israel come in many ways. The largest American Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Week, has initiated a program for 11th and 12th grade high school students called "Write on for Israel," that looks for juniors with a strong interest in Israel and an aptitude for journalism. The paper provides them with a two-year training program as well as a trip to Israel. Explains editor Gary Rosenblatt: "The idea is when they get to the campus, they will be the leaders in terms of looking at Israel's actions. They will work for the campus newspaper so they will be heard."11

These expressions of solidarity, however, are largely limited to those who belong to the core group of American Jewry. Many others on the periphery are mainly affected by the negative things they see about Israel on television.


The Christian Right

The watershed events also induced many in the Jewish community to change their attitudes toward other groups in American society. In a post-modern society, every community needs allies for specific causes, even if they disagree with them on many other issues. Their strong support for Israel led to a more positive Jewish attitude toward Evangelical Christians, who in the past were largely seen as adversaries. However, many Jews remain very reluctant to collaborate with them.

The Anti-Defamation League confronted this when it reprinted a column by Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition, entitled "Why people of faith support Israel." ADL director Abraham Foxman says that when he thanked Reed he was attacked by other Jews who said that he was giving credibility to an enemy of the Jewish people, which he felt was a false accusation. "As long as Evangelical Christians such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed do not make their support of Israel conditional on the Jews' changing their views on separation of church and state, why should I reject them?" Foxman said.12

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz cautions: "I am happy to work with the Protestant right. They will eventually, however, be very disappointed as their Messiah will not come, and Jews will not convert to Christianity. In the meantime, the Jews will continue to vote in great majority for the Democratic Party; they will oppose the Christian right on abortion, gay rights, and church and state. I predict there will be no angrier group with respect to the Jews than the extremely disappointed religious right."13

Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch shares these worries, saying the alliance between the Jewish community and the Christian Evangelicals in the last decade expresses the triumph of the neo-conservative agenda: "I'm very wary of this alliance even though I am also well aware of President Bush's extraordinary support toward Israel. Much of its motivation comes from the Christian right."14

Retired Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz takes a more detached view, saying: "Many Jews are blinded by an atavistic anxiety which takes the form of the belief that these Christians want to convert their children and turn America into a place where Jews would be less than fully at home." He quotes Irving Kristol who has quipped that "the main danger to Jews from Christians nowadays is not that they wish to persecute or convert the Jews, but that they want to marry their daughters."15


American Muslims

In recent years, the relationship of Jews with American Muslims has worsened. Middle East expert Daniel Pipes contends that the mega-events of the last few years may mean that the Jews' Golden Age in America, which began in the 1950s when social restrictions were eased, may now be ending with the growth of the American Muslim population and, in particular, its militant elements. Pipes believes militant Islam has to be destroyed and marginalized like fascism and communism were, and sees this as a process that may take several decades. Part of this effort, he says, is assisting those who want to construct a moderate, anti-Islamist version of Islam.16

Podhoretz believes American media give a highly selective picture of Islam which is represented as a religion of peace, with hardly a word about the doctrine of holy war. The media also misrepresent the extent to which leading Muslim clerics throughout the world celebrate suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs. He claims that "many American Jewish liberals bend over backward in endorsing the view that Islam is a religion of peace and that Muslims are against terrorism."17

Others are more relaxed. Former U.S. deputy secretary of the treasury Stuart Eizenstat says: "The percentage of American Muslims who have a radical agenda and are promoting hate comprises only a small minority of their community. Muslims overall are not a significant political force. Their capacity to influence politics is severely compromised as the U.S. is confronting so many difficulties in the Arab world. At present there is not much resonance in the general public with Muslim demands."18

David Harris wonders what will prove stronger in the long run: the traditional culture Muslims bring to U.S. society or the American melting pot? He says: "In the meantime, we have Muslim groups that have largely been hijacked by extremists, with dubious sources of funding in some cases. This problem is not only a Jewish one but also a national one. On this score, the Clinton administration and the pre-9/11 Bush administration both erred. In their contacts with extremist groups, they inadvertently conferred legitimacy, which only made it harder for moderates to emerge." Harris thinks American Jews must continuously expose radical Islam.19

Gary Rosenblatt - without specifically mentioning Muslims - urges American society to reevaluate who it permits to immigrate: "For their self-preservation, however, both Jews and other Americans should contemplate the immigration issue, though Jews do not have to be in the forefront of the struggle....It is politically incorrect, particularly in the Jewish community, to question the direction of U.S. immigration policy, but it deserves a healthy debate as to what is best for the Jewish future in this country."20


Voting Patterns

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, published at the end of 2003, confirmed once again that the overwhelming majority of Jews identify themselves as Democrats. Foxman sees this as negative: "Unless we can establish in the minds of both parties that Jews are not an automatic voting machine, our influence will wither away. The Republicans understand that Jewish votes can be important in places where they have problems with the minorities voting Democrat. The Republicans saw it as a sign of hope that the Jews were instrumental in the re-election of Florida's governor, Jeb Bush. I, however, do not think Jews will vote for a Republican congressman to say thank you to the president. There are longstanding relationships on the congressional level, and local issues also play an important role."21

Yet there is no consensus on this. Three years ago, journalist Jeffrey Helmreich claimed American Jewish voters were potentially the decisive factor in national election results. This does not emanate from any financial or public relations clout, which is overestimated. Rather, American Jews wield power through their high concentration in key states, and their tendency to behave as a swing vote in ways that set them apart from virtually all other groups in American politics.22

President Bush's strong and ongoing support for Israel may lead to a shift in voting patterns in the presidential elections. Eizenstat, a Democrat, considers that "the Jewish vote will be somewhat influenced by factors such as 9/11, President Bush's support for Israel, and the Christian right's reversal from being neutral - if not negative toward Israel - to strongly supportive, encouraging it to control the territories. Yet one should not put too much emphasis on 9/11. All it may have done is move another 10 or 15 percent of the Jewish voters into the Republican camp; but this is not insignificant."23

Podhoretz says that an "important characteristic of American Jewry is that it remains stubbornly liberal in a rather vague sense despite changes, traumas, realignments, and evidence that neither the friends nor the enemies of yesterday have the same attitudes today....As my generation dies out, a more serious Jewish move away from liberalism may very well occur. It has started already, though it is not yet statistically very significant. Depending on what happens, it might accelerate. The resurgence of overt anti-Semitism all over the world - again, more on the left than on the right - will probably have a big impact on American Jewish attitudes."24


The Lieberman Candidacy

In such a volatile environment one looks for indicators to understand what changes recent events have wrought in both the American and Jewish mind. Perhaps the best one concerns the primaries in the Democratic Party for the presidential elections. Candidates such as Senator John Kerry and Gen. Wesley Clark publicized their Jewish ancestors. Howard Dean mentioned that both he and his Jewish wife went to Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and raise their children as Jews.25

A more important indicator is how prominent Jews perceived the mega-events to have influenced the candidacy of Senator Joseph Lieberman. Eizenstat believes that Jews worried much more than non-Jews about his candidacy and how a Jewish president of the United States would have related to the Muslim world.26

David Harris confirmed this, saying that there was no consensus view on Lieberman's candidacy among American Jews and that Jews were probably more anxious about his candidacy than non-Jews.27 Foxman remarked while Lieberman was still in the running: "I was shocked to find out that many American Jews are not yet ready for a Jewish candidate. In this wonderful country, the Jews still have a serious level of insecurity....This fear exists, despite the fact that it is the general American conviction that if one has power and influence, it should be exercised."28

Schorsch said that a possible Lieberman candidacy would pose a challenge for Jews. For him it is difficult to imagine a Jew in the White House during a war in the Arab world.29 Schorsch was also among the few Jewish leaders who condemned the war in Iraq early on. On its first day, 19 March 2003, he addressed the JTS: "But in supporting our troops on the field of battle, I feel compelled to state that I do not back the policy of the American government that put them there. I lament the absence of a debate in Congress authorizing this war. I dispute the evidence linking Iraq to 9/11 and remain unconvinced of any imminent threat that Saddam Hussein poses to American security. Whatever danger he might have represented to the world order was in the process of being checked by inspections, sanctions, and ostracism."30


Problems on the Campus

The watershed events of the past few years have impacted on the American Jewish leadership and the environment in which it operates in many other ways. One of these concerns the verbally abusive and sometimes violent attacks on pro-Israel students on campus by Arabs and left-wingers. Richard Joel, who left the directorship of the Hillel organization to become president of Yeshiva University in 2003, cautions: "The few outrageous acts on a few campuses obscure the fact that on most of them Israel isn't central to the agenda. Most Jewish students are not living under siege. There are, however, a number of universities where outrageous things happen like Berkeley or San Francisco State."31

Foxman largely concurs: "Our definition of an anti-Semite may, however, no longer be adequate for the current situation. Much radicalism and Third-Worldism expresses itself against Israel in anti-Semitic ways. One should not be misled by perceptions. The anti-Israel issue may exist on perhaps 50 or 100 campuses. On some of them, such as Berkeley and Columbia, radicalism has always been accompanied by attacks against Israel. The campus has always been less supportive of Israel than any other group whenever the ADL measured it."32

The above examples indicate a number of important areas where the perception and environment of American Jewry have changed as a result of the mega-events since 2000. Recent developments have, among other things, intensified the search for ways to strengthen Jewish identification and identification with Israel.


The Birthright Program

Says Shoshana Cardin, former chair of the President's Conference: "Reintroducing a sense of community in American Jewry should be done through Zionism. I want Jews to feel part of the State of Israel. They do not necessarily have to agree with all its policies but should identify with it, as whatever happens to Israel will affect the lives of individual Jews worldwide."33

Many new programs will have to be designed for both those belonging to the Jewish mainstream and the uninvolved. One major scheme of the last few years is the Birthright program which had brought 49,000 mainly uninvolved Jewish young people to Israel to visit by the end of 2003.

In a much-quoted speech to the UJC General Assembly, mega-donor Michael Steinhardt said: "Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life. Instead of tapping people's souls through guilt and fear, Birthright Israel or Taglit creates a bond with Israel and captures our young people through the beauty and glory of their heritage."34


Conclusions

The challenges emerging from the recent mega-events are superimposed on the structural problems of American Jewry, which have come to the fore increasingly since the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990. Its demographic findings shocked American Jewish leaders who realized that they needed to become more inward-looking. This need became increasingly urgent as many thought Israel was headed toward peace.

American Jewry is subject to two countervailing trends: a more intense identification of the core group with Judaism and the increasing assimilation of many on the periphery. The multitude of issues on American Jewry's agenda forms a disparate list. Some major ones are: a high rate of intermarriage, low fertility, assimilation, reduced voluntarism, the high cost of Jewish living, and a declining percentage of Jewish philanthropy for Jewish causes.

This must lead to the question as to whether the American Jewish leadership is up to the challenge. The fact that no single individual can speak for the community at large is not necessarily negative. The American Jewish leadership is not complacent. In situations of rapid change, awareness of problems is the first step to confronting them. Coming to grips mentally and concretely with the changes in the community and its environment is a difficult process, even more so as American Jewry is likely to have to confront additional mega-shocks in the future.

*     *     *

Notes

1. McLaughlin and Associates, "National Survey," for the project "Jews in the American Public Square" initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 24 February 2004.
2. Interview with Malcolm Hoenlein to be published in Manfred Gerstenfeld's forthcoming book, provisionally titled, American Jewry's Challenge: Addressing the 21st Century.
3. Interview with David Harris in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
4. Joe Berkofsky, "Bronfman letter on fence revives debate on Jewish criticism of Israel," JTA, 13 August 2003.
5. Joe Berkofsky, "Yoffie calls for greater links among Reform Jews," JTA, 11 November 2003.
6. Joe Berkofsky, "Ever the maverick, Reform's Yoffie may be the bellwether of Sharon support," JTA, 21 April 2004.
7. Interview with Carole Solomon in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
8. Interview with Marvin Hier in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
9. Interview with Norman Lamm in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
10. Interview with David Ellenson in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
11. Interview with Gary Rosenblatt in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
12. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Abraham Foxman, "The Resuscitation of Anti-Semitism: An American Perspective," Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 13, 1 October 2003.
13. Interview with Alan Dershowitz in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
14. Interview with Ismar Schorsch in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
15. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Norman Podhoretz, "Countervailing Trends in American Jewry," Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 505, 15 October, 2003.
16. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Daniel Pipes, "The End of American Jewry's Golden Era," Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, No. 20, 2 May 2004.
17. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Norman Podhoretz, op. cit.
18. Interview with Stuart Eizenstat in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
19. Interview with David Harris in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
20. Interview with Gary Rosenblatt in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
21. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Abraham Foxman, op. cit.
22. Jeffrey Helmreich, "The Israel Swing Factor: How the American Jewish Vote Influences U.S. Elections," Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 445, 15 January 2001.
23. Interview with Stuart Eizenstat, op. cit.
24. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Norman Podhoretz, op. cit.
25. Marilyn Silverstein, "Howard Dean, courting Governor McGreevey, focuses on jobs," New Jersey Jewish News, 25 September 2003.
26. Interview with Stuart Eizenstat, op. cit.
27. Interview with David Harris, op. cit.
28. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Abraham Foxman, op. cit.
29. Interview with Ismar Schorsch, op. cit.
30. Ismar Schorsch, "Remarks on the Outbreak of War in Iraq," 21 April 2003.
31. Interview with Richard Joel in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
32. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Abraham Foxman, op. cit.
33. Interview with Shoshana Cardin in Gerstenfeld, op. cit.
34. Address by Michael Steinhardt at 2003 UJC General Assembly.

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Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the Chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the author of Europe's Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today's Anti-Semitism (JCPA, Yad Vashem, World Jewish Congress, 2003), among others. This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on research for his new book provisionally titled American Jewry's Challenge: Addressing the 21st Century, part of the project "Jews in the American Public Square" initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.


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