Why The American Jewish Divide Is Growing
by Gary Rosenblatt
It’s no secret that the divisions between Orthodox Jews and the rest of American Jewry are deepening, not only in religious practice and belief but in ideological, social and political terms as well.
The majority of Jews in this country remain liberal. But visit an Orthodox community today and you’ll find that Sen. John McCain is the candidate of choice because there is a sense that he will be more supportive of Israel than either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, that he will not be as tough on Israel in negotiations with the Palestinians and not as hesitant to use military clout to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
You’ll also find that Orthodox Jews not only are more skeptical of
a peace agreement with the Palestinians but that they oppose a Palestinian state because they believe the primary goal of the Arabs is to destroy Israel.
These and other views underscoring the differences between the ways Orthodox and other American Jews view the world, with an emphasis on politics, were born out in a recent study conducted by the American Jewish Committee. Up for discussion now is what those differences tell us about American Jewry today and what it means for the future — starting with whether the community, already obsessed with its diminishing numbers, can remain united.
The survey found that the single issue most important to Orthodox Jews in deciding who to vote for president this year is “support for Israel” (25 percent), while only 6 percent of Conservative Jews, 3 percent of Reform Jews and 4 percent of respondents who characterized themselves as “Just Jewish” agreed. Sixty-four percent of Orthodox Jews said they feel “very close” to Israel, compared to 39 percent of Conservative Jews and 22 percent of Reform Jews and those who are Just Jewish.
The non-Orthodox groups chose “economy and jobs” as the most important issue, followed closely by “health care,” both of which ranked behind “terrorism and security” for the Orthodox.
Fifty-six percent of Orthodox Jews described themselves as politically “conservative,” twice as many as Conservative Jews and three times as many as Reform and Just Jewish. The differences were reflected in response to the Iraq war, with 57 percent of Orthodox Jews agreeing that the U.S. “did the right thing in taking military action” compared to 27 percent of Conservative Jews, 22 percent of Reform and 24 percent of those Just Jewish.
While some leaders of the American Jewish community express concern that these sharp political differences could lead to a permanent rift within American Jewry, some Orthodox officials say the worrying should focus not on politics but on the increasing assimilation among the majority of U.S. Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says “it is one of the great tragedies of Jewish life” that the kind of Jewish unity that existed until about 25 years ago among the denominations, despite their serious differences, has “come to an end.”
Some observers note that the Orthodox Union, which last month co-sponsored a forum with the AJC on the poll’s findings, has openly criticized the Olmert government’s willingness to discuss proposals to re-divide Jerusalem as part of negotiations with the Palestinians. Critics view this behavior as undermining the security consensus that mainstream Jewish organizations have had for whatever Israeli government is in power.
But Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, says that if there is a tragedy here, it is not the divisions shown by the poll data but “the lack of Jewish engagement on the part of a substantial population of American Jews.”
Assessing blame for the divide depends on one’s perspective. Orthodox Jews point to the Reform decision to count patrilineal Jews as fully Jewish, breaking with halacha (Jewish law).
The Reform counter that the lack of status of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel, underscored by the “who is a Jew?” controversy, alienates many Reform and Conservative Jews from feeling close to Israel. And Rabbi Yoffie asserts that a most significant and often overlooked dividing line between Orthodox and other Jews is Israeli settlements and settlers.
A majority of Orthodox Jews support and admire them while many other Jews view them as a great threat to Israeli security because of the demographic factor. Orthodox Jews believe there is a divine mandate to settle the land of Israel, while more liberal Jews see devotion to the land over concern for its inhabitants as a form of idol worship.
Sociologists might trace a rightward shift within the Orthodox community to the growing trend over the last two decades or more among yeshiva high school graduates, both girls and boys, of spending a year, and often two, in Israel to study in yeshivas and seminaries before starting college back home.
The positive result has been a deepening commitment to and appreciation for Torah study, religious observance and the State of Israel among these young people. But it has also meant that many of these teens become heavily influenced by their rebbes and teachers whose views, practices and values are far more conservative than those of mainstream American society in terms of openness, diversity, tolerance and secular education.
“The dissidence between the Israeli yeshiva and American society, particularly the college campus, is major, and it broadens the divide for young people,” notes Steven Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the AJC.
Not surprisingly, a number of young men and women return from their gap year (or years) in Israel and decide not to attend the Ivy League university that accepted them and to instead enroll at Yeshiva University or another yeshiva.
They tend to become more ritually observant and to be more strict in terms of dress and social habits while in their early 20s.
In recent years, with Richard Joel becoming president of Yeshiva University and the founding and growth of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, there has been a sense of an attempt to move the Modern Orthodox community back to the center.
“The struggle for the soul” of that community is being played out now, Bayme observes.
In the meantime, the struggle for the soul of the larger Jewish community is in play as well.
What all sides agree on is that the sharp differences between the Orthodox and religiously liberal Jews reflect their strongly held worldviews, and that neither side is budging. The Orthodox are not bending on halacha or on an Israel-centric view of politics, and the others are not giving in on patrilineal descent, gay and lesbian inclusion, or political liberalism.
Bayme points out that in coming decades, as the Orthodox have more children and the non-Orthodox continue to assimilate, an increasingly larger percentage of the engaged Jewish community will be Orthodox.
For now, the two sides may each be waiting for the other to fade, but the only hope of bringing them closer is to place an even greater emphasis on Jewish education and identity.
In that way, they may vote as liberals or conservatives, but motivated by a common sense of Jewish values.