The demographics of the Jewish community are changing. Last October the Pew Research Center released its Portrait of Jewish Americans, a landmark study profiling how American Jewry has evolved and prognosticating as to where it is going. Shrinking communal affiliation, a rising intermarriage rate and changing views on religion and Israel all characterize the Israelite of the 21st century United States.
Diminishing engagement with traditional venues of Jewish identity such as synagogues and federations, and with religious denominations such as Conservative and Reform, all characterize the millennial generation.
According to Pew, “attachment to Israel is considerably more prevalent among American Jews 50 and older than among Jews under age 50, although majorities across all age groups say they are at least somewhat emotionally attached to the Jewish state.”
According to researchers such as Hebrew Union College’s Dr. Steven Cohen and Cameron Brown, a Neubauer research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Jewish demographic known as the “core” is shrinking.
Speaking at a security conference organized by the INSS, Brown said that with the diminishing stature of this group comes a concomitant contraction of “the potential pool for pro-Israel activists.”
Or, as Steven Cohen put it in a recent paper, “the number of middle-aged non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life is poised to drop sharply in the next 20 to 40 years. And, absent significant policy changes, their numbers will continue to drop for years to come.”
It is quite possible that the rise of J Street, which espouses a more left-oriented viewpoint on Israel than many of its critics within the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which rejected its bid for membership on Wednesday, has picked up many of those with a desire to engage in Israel activism who have drifted away from more traditional establishment groups.
J Street’s success with young people and on campuses, this line of thinking goes, stems from its ability to attract those alienated from the form of Zionism that attracted their progenitors.
Many have defined the battle over J Street’s inclusion in the Conference of Presidents in just these terms, framing it as a new generation of Israel advocates challenging the established organizations such as AIPAC with a new ideology and an innovative way of doing things.
Opponents of the organization, however, point to members of the conference with similar political leanings and say that the debate is less over J Street representing a new paradigm as over their unwillingness to stay within what they have defined as the acceptable boundaries of Jewish discourse.
While J Street and its supporters flaunt their widespread support among college-age youths and say that they represent the future, many of their opponents say they cannot be included in the so-called big tent, because they have crossed a red line, no matter how much support they may have.
At the moment, J Street still has not garnered the influence or the legitimacy accorded to AIPAC and other such groups, but it is growing.
In the past, the Jewish establishment had boundaries for what is considered acceptable ideology for inclusion in its ranks. Groups like Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League were shunned for beliefs that fell too far outside the mainstream. It seems that such a debate is happening again.
As it stands, the support that J Street received from many members of the conference points to a growing acceptance of its views and methods.
Given the major transitions through which American Jewry is currently going, it is impossible to tell what will happen with J Street, and the ideas that it represents, in the future. Many members of the conference are skeptical that a major communal split is in the offing.
Is it possible that the issue of J Street will split the Jewish community? Several members of the conference have stated that they do not see such an event occurring.