One people or two?

A recent poll about American Jews'' political inclinations raises once again the issue of how the two largest Jewish communities are developing, each in its own way.
Figures are not entirely reliable, especially outside of Israel, but one reasonable compilation shows that the American and Israeli communities comprise about two thirds of the people who consider themselves Jews. The rank order of lesser communities, which together amount to another 15 percent of the Jews, is France, Canada, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Germany, Ukraine, and Brazil.
A prominent finding is that Israel is not the principal concern of American Jews as they face the presidential election. Domestic economic issues and traditional Jewish liberalism was seen as highly important by 51 percent of the respondents, while support for Israel is highly important for only 20 percent.
Jews'' inclinations toward one or another presidential candidate gained some of the headlines in reporting the poll. Democratic loyalties remaining strong, but Barack Obama''s 62 percent support would--if it continued through November--mark him as one of the Jews'' least liked Democratic candidates since polling began. Preferences expressed for Republican contenders suggest that liberalism has appeal even among Jewish Republicans. Obama''s support among Jews might increase if Santorum, Gingrich, or Paul received the nomination.
A poll of Israeli Jews from about five months ago showed Barack Obama viewed favorably by 54 percent, and unfavorably by 39 percent. That is a dramatic improvement from the time earlier in his administration, when a poll showed only 6 percent of Israeli Jews thought that Obama had a favorable view of Israel.
Israeli suspicions of Obama''s role in the Middle East remain considerable, with 39 percent having a dim view of his role in their region and only 22 percent expressing a positive view.
There is no obvious and sweeping conclusion to be seen in these polls. Conditions change. Political contests depend on who is competing against who. The Middle East has changed over the course of the last year with a marked increase in the instability of Arab countries. Over a somewhat longer period, it is possible to see a change in comments coming from the top of the American administration-- from severe pressure against Israel due to its lack of movement toward peace, to a tendency toward quiet, with some emphasis on the problems manifest among Palestinians.
One should not be surprised by whatever indications of social and political differences are apparent between American and Israeli Jews. The communities'' roots and recent experiences are substantially different.
We can trace considerable portions of those differences to the 1880s, with the beginning of mass movement from the Jewish heartland in the Russian and Austrian empires toward Western Europe and North America, with only a tiny trickle to Palestine.
Most American Jews had no direct experience with the Holocaust, and few of them have the Middle Eastern origins that mark more than half of Israeli Jews.
American Jews have moved into their country''s mainstream. During the last half-century Jewish quotas have disappeared in colleges and universities along with restrictive covenants on real estate. There has been considerable advancement of Jews into the top levels of major corporations and government. Rates of intermarriage that may be above 50 percent make it increasing difficult to decide who is a Jew.
Writing this note on the eve of the Passover Seder, it is tempting to emphasize that observant American Jews must pray, eat and drink at length twice, while Jews in the Land of Israel fulfill the mitzvah with only one Seder. (Thank God for small favors.)
The holidays of the two communities differ in more profound ways. While American synagogues and temples may mark Israel''s Memorial Day and Independence Day with special prayers and a festival in the case of Independence Day, here those days are among the most important in the calendar. Little serious work is possible in Israel during the month from Rosh Hashana through Succoth. For the week of Succoth and again on Passover, virtually the whole country is on vacation and travelling. Schools, universities, national and local governments, plus major corporations close all but their most important operations.
A concern for national security is the most apparent difference between the two populations. Threats to Israel are persistent and come from nearby. Security issues dominate the media, polling, and politics, while they are a distant concern for American Jews. The incidence of direct participation is stark in its contrast. Military service in Israel is the rite of passage for most non-religious Jewish women and almost all Jewish men who are not ultra-Orthodox. In constrast, a small incidence of American Jews volunteer for military service. The exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox men is a perennial topic of controversy in Israel. There is at least a bit of concern in the United States that Jews are not carrying their share of the military burden.
Almost all of the Jews here (i.e., those who have not flocked overseas in order to avoid the holiday) and quite a few in the United States will end the Seder with "next year in Jerusalem." Some 15 percent of the Israeli Jewish population is already here, and the city is only a short drive from those eating, drinking, and singing elsewhere. Other data show that two-thirds of American Jews have never visited.