American Jewry’s Orthodoxification  // The Jewish times they are a-changin’

Nachman Shai

In a recent podcast aimed at an American Jewish audience, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai subtly—well, actually, not so subtly—alluded to the previous Israeli administration’s relationship with the American Christian evangelical community.

“There were ideas,” he said, “to rely on other groups in America today. You know exactly who I mean… I believe only in you and I have to make sure that hundreds of thousands of you will stay with us.”

No Israeli prime minister forged closer ties to evangelicals than former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And his former ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, famously suggested that Israel should prioritize the “passionate and unequivocal” support of evangelical Christians over that of American Jews, who he said are “disproportionately among our critics.”

Mr. Shai, however, a former Labor Party and Kadima Knesset member who once ran the Jewish Federations of North America office in Israel, is focusing on American Jews. And he is certainly on-target about the importance of increasing their support for Israel.

And he’s equally on-target about the waning of such support evident in parts of the American Jewish community. Recently, he told fellow members of the Israeli government that “if we see more of the radical left and progressive liberal Jews continuing to support BDS… [referring] to Israel as a genocide state or an apartheid state, we may lose America.”

Sad support for that contention lies in a survey of US Jewish voters taken after Israel’s May war with Hamas.

Fully 25% of respondents to the survey, which was commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” and 22% agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” 34% endorsed the contention that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.”

Worse still, the percentages among younger American Jews were even higher. While, for instance, only 9% of voters agreed with the statement “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist,” the percentage among those under 40 rose to 20%. Quite remarkable, indeed, depraved.

Mr. Shai told his listeners that Israel is relying on American Jews to influence “the internal American public discourse.”

“We need you for this,” he said, explaining that it’s up to American Jews to “maintain bipartisan support for Israel.”

Despite two loud and odious personalities, the vast majority of Democrats in Congress can be described as pro-Israel. But Mr. Shai is rightly alarmed at the attitudinal shift among some American Jewish citizens, particularly younger ones.

And he is rightly encouraging of Israel-supporting American Jews to get their act together to counterbalance those Israel-unfriendly parts of the Jewish electorate.

But the path toward increased bipartisan support for Israel may lie less in increased activism, and more in what is already happening to the “American Jewish community.” Namely, its “Orthodoxification.”

The most recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews showed that while 41% of young Jewish adults do not identify with any Jewish movement, describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, some 17% of US Jews ages 18 to 29 say they are Orthodox. An earlier study showed more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox.

Within two generations, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. And the geometric progression of the American Orthodox Jewish community proceeds, baruch Hashem, with a healthy degree of natural growth, as the just-released 2020 Census results confirm. An opposite trend is evident among non-Orthodox American Jews.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in demographics to recognize that a seismic population shift is underway.

Even at present, Orthodox Jews are recognized as players in political life. And their commitment to Israel’s security is one of their top—if not their top—priority. The import of that advocacy cannot be overestimated.

Mr. Shai and the rest of the current Israeli administration may realize that the American Jewish future—and the road to continued broader, bipartisan support of American Jews for Israel—is Orthodox.

But if, for some reason, they don’t, they should.

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