An assessment of the Jewish people - opinion

The findings of the 2022 assessment are numerous and varied; quite a few of them reveal an erosion of some aspects of the identity and resilience of the Jewish people.

 THE WRITER (left) and ambassador Dennis Ross present the JPPI Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People to then-prime minister Naftali Bennett. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE WRITER (left) and ambassador Dennis Ross present the JPPI Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People to then-prime minister Naftali Bennett.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

At the last meeting of the cabinet that took place under the leadership of prime minister Naftali Bennett, I was asked to present, together with ambassador Dennis Ross, the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People. 

The findings of the 2022 assessment are numerous and varied; quite a few of them reveal an erosion of some aspects of the identity and resilience of the Jewish people

In the dimension of identity and identification – there is a growing distancing between young Jews and their Jewish identity as well as a weakening of their emotional attachment to Israel. In the dimension of material resources – alongside the alarming global economic developments, attention should be paid to the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the structure of communities abroad and their resources. 

There is evidence of a downturn in community membership numbers, and an urgent need to unflinchingly assess the stability of their operational models. In the Jewish demography dimension – there has been a decline in birthrates among Diaspora Jews, and a continuing trend of leaving the Jewish “tent” and fully assimilating into the surrounding environment.

A bright spot can be found in the dimension of bonds between communities. The calming of the pandemic allowed for the resumption of reciprocal visits and, most significantly, the renewal of the critically important Birthright Israel and Masa programs. Additionally, in the face of the war in Ukraine we experienced an exciting cooperation between various bodies – the Jewish Agency, the government of Israel and Diaspora organizations – to provide humanitarian assistance to Jews and refugees in need. As a result of the crisis, it appears that 2022 will break two decades worth of records for aliyah to Israel.

However, beyond observing specific change points within each dimension, it is important to look at the super trends that affect the future of the Jewish people. What will a historian active in, say, the year 2100 think about these trends and how we dealt with them?

A symbol of a 'chanuckia', used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, is displayed on the Old City walls of Jerusalem, on December 12, 2015. Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple. The festival is observed by  (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)A symbol of a 'chanuckia', used during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, is displayed on the Old City walls of Jerusalem, on December 12, 2015. Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple. The festival is observed by (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

On one hand, this is “the best of times” for Jews – we have a strong and secure nation-state that provides a rich living space for the Jewish people. Jews who live outside of Israel, in most cases, enjoy considerable social and economic security. Antisemitism, though it rears its ugly head, is far from generally accepted, as it once was. These are advantages that the Jews had not enjoyed in thousands of years. 

On the other hand, the future historian will discover that the disease of social polarization – now a worldwide scourge – attacked the Jewish people in full force. The main streams of the Jewish world are weakening, while the ideological and identity extremes are growing stronger. This process threatens the cohesion of the Jewish people in the years to come. 

Two groups merit special attention: 

First, the ultra-Orthodox: According to reliable demographic forecasts, in about 15 years the ultra-Orthodox will constitute around a quarter of all the world’s Jews. If existing trends continue, it is expected that the ultra-Orthodox will double their numbers every 20 years, while it will take 300 years for the rest of world Jewry to reach such a quantitative doubling. The increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox, in itself, is of course a blessing, but it also creates a challenge: As long as the ultra-Orthodox were a tiny community, their separation and isolation from the rest of Jewish society did not pose a risk to the integrity of the entire people.

But since quantity affects quality, it seems that the self-segregation of a quarter of the Jewish people will have severe strategic implications for Jewish cohesion. If, on the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox choose to relinquish their insularity and – as hoped – will be willing to bear joint responsibility for the entire Jewish people, and not just for their own communities, we would face a different kind of challenge: The ultra-Orthodox have uniquely conservative values that stand in stark contrast to the prevailing inclinations within the major streams of world Jewry.

What should the proper balance look like – ideologically and institutionally – that would allow the ultra-Orthodox to join as partners in shaping the pan-Jewish future, without devolving into an intra-Jewish culture war?

The second group meriting special attention are the progressives. The majority of American Jews, over two-thirds, vote for the Democratic Party. The vast majority (70%) support Israel, but according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, the younger generation of American Jews, those under 30, are moving away from us. Just under half of them (48%) are emotionally attached to Israel. Alienation from Israel is striking among Jews studying on US campuses, especially the elite universities, where “Zionism” is something to conceal, and where, thanks to radicalized progressive propaganda, it is commonly conflated with racism. 

It is hard to believe, but only a quarter (27%) of young American Jews strongly oppose the anti-Israel BDS movement. Distancing from Israel is also related to distancing from Jewish identity: about a third (35%) of young American Jews do not consider it very important that their grandchildren will be Jews.

The overall picture is one of polarization within the Jewish people: the ultra-Orthodox non-liberal extreme is intensifying while the ultra-liberal progressive extreme deepens its sway among the younger generation.

Make no mistake: The main Jewish boulevard, which still comprises the majority, is addressing these challenges. A whole web of organizational bodies is investing its best efforts and resources in both thought and deed, foremost among them are the Jewish Agency, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Jewish federations, synagogues, major philanthropic foundations, social organizations and youth groups and others. Each impressively carries, in its own place and its own way, the burden of the task at hand. But it is not enough. Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.

Another testament to the far-reaching changes underway in the largest center of Diaspora Jewish life, the North American Jewish community, is found in data on religious affiliation. Among the older generation (65 and over), the Orthodox constitute a negligible minority (3%), while Jews unaffiliated with any religious stream constitute a fifth of the population (22%). But among the young (ages 18-29), the Orthodox have grown more than fivefold (17%) and the unaffiliated have nearly doubled (41%). Together, these two groups constitute a significant majority of the younger generation.

There is a gaping identity chasm between these groups. We know that only a tiny minority of the ultra-Orthodox (9%) feel the existence of an indelible common denominator with the Reform (and vice versa). It is likely that this perceived lack of common Jewish denominator also characterizes the reciprocal relationship between unaffiliated Jews and the ultra-Orthodox. As long as both groups remained relatively small, the polarization could be contained. But now that they constitute a majority of young American Jews, solidarity between the different sectors of Diaspora Jewry is deteriorating.

This brief and partial portrait is not intended to cast judgement toward any of the groups. Its purpose is to lay on the table the fact that the Jewish people is undergoing significant change processes, the main direction of which is toward polarization and diminished unity.

Is this a matter for the Jews of the Diaspora to address, one that need not concern Israel? Unfortunately, many Israelis take no serious interest in the future of the Jewish people abroad. Some even find principled justifications for this lack of concern. This is not the place to deal with those unfounded and mistaken claims. It is obvious that a numerically small Jewish people cannot afford to be indifferent to the future of half its members. 

In any case, the fact is that the State of Israel has assumed significant obligations toward Diaspora Jewry. These are enshrined in Article 6 of the 2018 Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which stipulates that “the state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” The law further states the “state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.” 

The language of the law is action-oriented – “the state shall act.” Indeed, the Israeli government has designated a specific ministry – the Diaspora Affairs Ministry – tasked with this responsibility, and has allocated a considerable budget to it. However, as the Diaspora affairs minister sadly testified at the cabinet meeting at which JPPI’s report was presented, the current government has not devoted a single discussion to this critical issue. The historian of 2100, having discovered these facts, would be engulfed in bewilderment.

A response is needed in the form of a strategic plan for shaping the future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora in an era of polarization. The plan must take advantage of the many blessings of today’s Jewish reality to confront the clear and present danger of identity loss, the flattening affinity for Israel and Zionism, and the continuing erosion of the critical mass of intra-Jewish solidarity. The State of Israel – the central asset of the Jewish people in our time – must take the leading role in preparing and implementing such a plan.

This – and not ceremonial declarations – will be the test of Israel’s commitment to fulfilling its responsibility not only as a state of all its citizens, but as the nation-state of the Jewish people. 

The writer is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.