American and Israeli religious infighting: Could it destroy the world's lone Jewish state?

Surveys contrasting the political and religious views of American and Israeli Jews are produced with such frequency as to make them a polling industry staple. In recent years -- meaning the past decade or so -- the surveys have generally shared the same  oy vey iz mir (Yiddish for “woe is me”) attitude toward their findings, which consistently show widening differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

Well, sure, you may be thinking.

Compare, for example, the vast differences on moral and cultural issues between the institutionally liberal American Episcopal Church and the traditionalist Nigerian Anglican church leadership. That, despite both national churches belonging (at this moment in time) to the same worldwide Anglican Communion.

Why should the Jewish world be any different? It's like the old real estate cliche, location -- meaning local history and circumstances -- is everything.

Religion is just not the broad intra-faith connector some would like it to be. Often, in fact, it serves to fuel intra-faith rivalries rooted in strongly held theological differences.

Judaism even has a term for it; sinat chinam, Hebrew for, translating loosely, a “senseless hatred” that divides Jews and can even lead to their self-destruction.



Intra-faith Jewish differences, however, take on an added layer of global importance because of the possible geopolitical consequences they hold for the always percolating Middle East.

The bottom line: Minus American Jewry’s significant political backing, Israel -- a small  nation with no lack of enemies, despite its military prowess -- could conceivably face eventual destruction.

Despite that, Israel’s staunchly traditional Jewish religious hierarchy, which has its own political party system -- believing it alone represents legitimate Judaism -- continues to hold its ground against the sort of liberal policies embraced by the vast majority of American Jews.

Journalists seeking to make sense of the political split between American Orthodox Jews’ general support for President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic policies, and American non-Orthodox Jews’ significant rejection of both men, would do well to keep this intra-faith religious struggle in mind.

(There is no religion-state separation in Israel and the Orthodox parties are often key to forming governing coalitions in Israel’s parliamentary system. This gives them inordinate political power, which they use to maintain Orthodox traditions as civil law.)

Coinciding with Israel’s recent 70th anniversary of its independence, a slew of new surveys have appeared. One of the more comprehensive polls came courtesy of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). 

It contained lots of journalistic entry points, including, of course, the political aspect. However, a Religion News Service story on the survey approached it -- as one might expect -- from the religious angle. Here’s a chunk of it that gets to the heart of the issue:

While most Israeli Jews recognize the [ethnic or cultural] Jewishness of their American counterparts, the majority do not share the Americans’ dreams to make Israel a more religiously pluralistic country.
Lack of full equality for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel “over time may weaken American Jewish support for Israel,” said Harriet Schleifer, chair of AJC’s Board of Governors.
Two parallel AJC surveys released Sunday revealed “sharp differences of opinion” between Jews in Israel and the U.S., and between religious and liberal Jews in both countries.
“Significantly, for both communities, the main factor predicting how people will respond is how they identify religiously,” said AJC CEO David Harris in a statement.
“The more religiously observant they are on the denominational spectrum, their Jewish identity and attachment to Israel is stronger; skepticism about prospects for peace with the Palestinians higher; and support for religious pluralism in Israel weaker.”

The AJC survey has not, so far, garnered much coverage outside the Israeli or diaspora Jewish press. Perhaps because, as I noted above, polls tracking Jewish opinion appear so often, and they’ve been bemoaning the growing divide for some time now.

That’s too bad, because too often American mainstream media stories on the growing divisions between Israeli and American Jews focus solely on their political divisions, while giving short shrift or ignoring the underlying importance of Jewish religious differences.

Here’s an example of what I mean. It’s from The Conversation, something of a hybrid site featuring academics writing journalistic-style opinion pieces. Note how little of the piece is devoted to religious differences.

But as I noted above, it's not as if the religious differences do not carry the possibility of critical change in the political sphere.

The United States is Israel’s prime international backer. Should liberal American Jewish support for Israel keep dropping because of these differences, that’s likely to be reflected, before too long, in Democratic Party support for Israel -- given how most liberal American Jews vote Democratic.

That, in turn, could well mean the election to Congress and even the White House of politicians -- even Jewish ones; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders being a prime example -- willing to reverse, or at least modify, America’s long-standing Middle East policy supporting Israel.

That could mean profound change for the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, change that could threaten the Jewish state’s long-term survival.

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