‘Equality comes before peoplehood for American Jews’

AJC says lack of religious pluralism could distance US Jews from Israel.

People wave American and Israeli flags‏ (photo credit: REUTERS)
People wave American and Israeli flags‏
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Issues of equality trump issues of peoplehood for American Jewry, a recent poll commissioned by The Jerusalem Post in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee has indicated.
The poll, carried out by the AJC on an annual basis, this year spotlighted religious pluralism, a subject which the organization feels is of key importance to US Jewry’s relationship with Israel.
Research company SSRS conducted the poll, via telephone interviews held between August 8 and 28, with a sample of 1,002 American Jews over the age of 18. The margin of error is approximately 3.57 percent.
“For American Jews, the issue of equality speaks more strongly than the issue of peoplehood,” remarked Steven Bayme, AJC director of contemporary Jewish life.
According to Bayme’s analysis of the results, an illustration of this is the response to the question, “What do you consider the most important change necessary in Israeli Judaism?” Forty-one percent answered “securing legal recognition of equality for all streams of Judaism,” whereas only 9% chose “providing access for mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall,” and 15% selected “establishing the option for civil marriage and divorce.”
In light of the fact that in response to a different question, 70% said they support the creation of a mixed-gender prayer area near the Western Wall, their answer to the latter question indicated that while a majority support changing the status quo at the Wall, they don’t view the issue as a No. 1 priority. “The Kotel is an issue of peoplehood,” says Bayme. “It’s a national symbol of the Jewish people and Jewish history. US Jews might not feel strongly about how important it is when it comes to gender services, but the question is to what extent the idea of peoplehood is still compelling to US and Israeli Jews.
Peoplehood needs to be the glue binding our two communities, and when US Jews don’t see it as important, that’s disappointing,” he said.
Likewise, 74% of respondents believe that legal recognition should also be extended to non-Orthodox weddings, divorces and conversions, yet only 15% selected this option as a priority for change.
It’s possible, however, that respondents viewed the option of “securing legal recognition of equality for all streams of Judaism,” as an all-encompassing option that would result in the other changes.
Bayme also points to the number of US Jews who have been to Israel as evidence of a weak sense of peoplehood.
Fifty-two percent of respondents have never been to Israel; 21% have been once; and 27% more than once. “An expression of peoplehood is visitation to Israel,” opines Bayme. “It’s a measure of the degree of connection to Israel as the Jewish state.” Though the 73% that agree say “caring about Israel is a very important part of me being a Jew,” for less than half of the respondents the sentiment translated into actually visiting the country. It’s notable that among Orthodox respondents the numbers are much higher, with 85% having visited Israel and 79% having visited more than once.
Of course, other factors such as socioeconomic status also come into play here, and some may not have traveled to Israel due to financial considerations. Indeed, the number of respondents who had visited Israel increased with the income bracket, with 30% of the lowest bracket (making less than $40,000 annually) having visited once or more, as opposed to 48.2% of the middle bracket ($40,000 to less than $100,000) and 57.3% of the highest bracket ($100,000 or more).
Unsurprisingly, there are other clear divides between the way Orthodox and non-Orthodox respondents view Israel. Respondents were categorized as “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reconstructionist” and “just Jewish.”
While a total of only 11% of respondents agreed with the statement that religion should play more of a role in Israel, 45% of the Orthodox respondents thought that religion should play more of a role.
Twenty-five percent of Orthodox respondents are happy with the status quo, alongside 30% of the Conservatives and 24% of Reform respondents.
In contrast, just 4% of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews support a stronger religious role in the country’s character.
Twenty-two percent of all respondents felt that religion should play less of a role, while 24% are happy with the status quo and 5% have no opinion. A total of 27% would want to see a separation of state and religion, with 23% of Orthodox and Conservatives agreeing to this, 49% of Reconstructionists, 38% of Reform and 46% of those unaffiliated with any denomination.
“Roughly speaking, 49% want to see religion being less embedded within the state as a cohesive entity,” Bayme says, aggregating those who said religion should play less of a role in the State of Israel and those who said there should be separation between religion and state. Meanwhile 48% said the fact that Orthodox Judaism is the only denomination recognized by Israel as an official form of Judaism weakens Israel’s ties with American Jews. “On the other hand, they feel strongly that it’s a state of the Jewish people, and they have a definite stake in this,” Bayme comments.
He also asserts that the significant minority of Orthodox Jews who believe in the separation of religion and state should not be overlooked.
Bayme says the overriding issue emerging from the poll is what the meaning of a Jewish state is. “That’s a subject which Israel and the Diaspora both have an enormous stake in, and this poll is a building block in asking larger questions of how the Jewish state will express and define itself.”
Bayme asserts that for US Jewry, having a Jewish state is non-negotiable, however they want to see less coercive power.
AJC has created a Jewish Religious Equality Coalition which, together with Israeli counterparts, is working to develop alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate in order to ensure freedoms to all Jews. “The chief rabbi has become more outspoken and that has created a backlash,” he says, talking to the Post just days after ‘traingate,’ which saw Israel Railways paralyzed after a newly formed committee, including the Chief Rabbinate and haredi parties, decided to cancel at the last minute construction work scheduled for Shabbat.
“The degree of concern has risen over the past year and at a time when we are concerned about the attachment between US Jews and Israel, religious pluralism could be one of those issues that may distance American Jews from Israel.”
“We want an Israel that is hospitable to all Jews and all expressions of Judaism,” he stresses. “It’s not about mandating a particular expression but creating multiple expressions of what it is to be a Jew. This creates a stronger Jewish people. As an interested party we are saying that having a pluralistic Israel is positive in deepening attachment between Israel and world Jewry.”
Despite these concerns, expressed by Bayme and many others regarding a widening gap between Israel and the Diaspora, a comparison with last year’s poll shows an increase in US Jewry’s connection to both their Jewish identity and to the State of Israel. The number of respondents who said that being Jewish was “very important” in their lives rose from 32.4% to 44%, while the number who said it was “somewhat important” increased from 30.8% to 35%. Similarly, those who “agreed strongly” with the statement “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew” jumped from 32.4% to 47%, and those who “agreed somewhat” dropped from 39% to 26%, making the overall number of those who feel that Israel is important to them slightly higher, by 1.6%.