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American Jewry Is Doomed If It Can't Embrace J Street

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the New York City–based Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to deny admission to J Street, the new Jewish kid on the organizational block. In doing so, it imported to America a little more of Israel’s fundamental crisis of identity. Most American Jews hold broadly “liberal” views when it comes to internal American values, and the younger ones tend to emphasize the cultural aspect of Jewish identity, rather than the strictly religious. Israel, in turn, is going the opposite way: rapidly growing more right-wing and nationalistic politically, and more ultra-Orthodox and nationalist-Orthodox religiously. If organized American Jewry cannot find a place for J Street's form of young, liberal, humanistic Judaism, it is dooming itself to shrinking through attrition and retreating to the self-destructive corner that Israel’s conservatives have been pushing it toward for two generations.

The phrase “startup nation” cannot capture the exhilaration of sitting at a café on Tel-Aviv's beach and looking at the world go by: a vibrant and diverse society like none other in the Middle East, and few anywhere in the world. But Tel-Aviv is an island, and the cosmopolitan bubble it embodies is nestled in a country that is experiencing two fundamental trends that are destroying Israel’s character as a modern state with a strong Jewish identity and a core commitment to democratic values. The first trend is the inevitable clash between the Israeli government's stated commitment to keep the state Jewish and democratic with its partly-stated commitment to keeping ultimate authority and power over the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The second is the dramatic demographic shift that is rapidly turning Israel from a largely secular and diverse society into an ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox-nationalist society.

The territory that occupies the space between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt is home to about 6.1 million Jews and about 6.1 million Arabs, of whom almost 1.7 million are citizens of Israel living within the 1967 borders and the territories around Jerusalem annexed by Israel after 1967, and the remaining 4.4 million are Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, or Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. If the Jewish state is to govern the whole of that area, without dividing the space with an independent Palestinian state, then it must either stop being Jewish or stop being democratic.

A never-ending “peace process” is the right wing’s best friend. It has been going on for over 20 years now, and has permitted Israel to postpone resolution of this conflict, because it allows Israel to continue to exercise ultimate power over areas whose local government, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, has responsibility for a range of local issues, but does not exercise full sovereignty. Resolution of the peace process—either conclusion of the peace agreement or total abandonment—will force Israel to choose: It can either annex the entire area or formalize a Bantustan system with faux independence for the Palestinian areas. If it does the former, it must grant all its residents equal civil and political rights, in accordance with Israel's Declaration of Independence.  Once it does that, it becomes harder to see what it means to say that Israel continues to be a Jewish state, and over the middle to long term a majority of the population will likely not be Jewish. If it does the latter—well, perhaps Secretary Kerry knew what he was saying after all. 

An American Jewish community that ostracizes those among it who are willing to say this truth is one that contributes to the inevitable loss of Israel’s Jewish democratic character. And an American Jewish community that will support Israel even if it chooses to lose its democratic character rather than its Jewish character will ultimately lose the next generations of American Jews, who will simply turn away in disgust from a state that represents a Judaism that cannot be squared with the rest of their identity.

The Israel I grew up in was a secular democratic state whose self-image was captured by Paul Newman's image in Exodus, with a strong ethnic national identity, a respected Zionist orthodox minority, a smaller and more controversial anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox community, and about 20 percent of the population Arab, both Muslim and Christian. In Israel's most recent education statistics, about half the Jewish kids enrolled in elementary school are enrolled in ultra-orthodox and nationalist-orthodox schools. Only half the Jewish student population is enrolled in the general, secular public education system. This trend is ongoing and rapid. In 1996, 14 percent of all Jewish students in Israel were enrolled in the ultra-Orthodox system; in 2014 ultra-Orthodox students make up 30 percent of Israel’s elementary school population. The nationalist-orthodox school system held steady, accounting for 20 percent in 1996, and 19 percent in 2014. By 2019, Israel's census bureau projects a decelerating but continual increase in the share of ultra-Orthodox students.

In a country like Israel, which has a vibrant, multi-party electoral system, this means that within a dozen years the voting population below age 30 will have shifted decisively in favor of the anti-Zionist Orthodox and the nationalist-Orthodox. By contrast, the 2013 Pew survey suggests that no more than 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox of any kind, and the trend is toward less orthodox identification. American Jews will have less and less in common with, and be despised as insufficiently Jewish by, a growing portion of Israel's Jewish population and electorate. Over time, American Jews who construct their Jewish identity purely around identification with Israel and unquestioning support for its government's policies will increasingly experience a dissonance that will lead many to reject that source of identity. 

These numbers are not destiny, and there may be a way out of this without embarrassing Israel or causing anguish for American Jews. Perhaps Israel will, at the last minute, embrace a two-state solution after all. Perhaps Israel's secular minority will retain its cultural and political dominance over the day-to-day of Israeli culture, and keep Israel at the forefront of the twenty-first century. But American Jews cannot afford to shut out voices of criticism and renewal like those of J Street in the hope that the fundamental conflict between the path of Israel and the path of American Jews will somehow disappear.

J Street, and the modern, independent liberal Jewish identity it represents, has to take its place in organized American Jewry. Otherwise American Jewish organizations risk becoming nothing more than a narrow interest group representing a declining portion of American Jews who support an Israel that looks less and less like the one David Ben Gurion declared in 1948 as a Jewish state dedicated to social and civil equality irrespective of race, religion, or sex.