Critical Currents: A tale of two polls

As more Jews outside Israel internalize the democratic ethos, those in Israel appear to be disengaging.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The Jewish experience in the 21st century is marked by its democratic character. For the first time, Jews throughout the world, with virtually no exceptions, live freely in open societies. Yet recent polls conducted in the two major concentrations of Jewish existence today - Israel and the United States - reveal a growing divergence of views, interests and mind-sets. These focus squarely on differing approaches to the role of Israel in contemporary Jewish life. Without a thorough, honest and critical reassessment of the humanistic and moral underpinnings of Israel and what it represents, its centrality in the Jewish world will continue to wane. Attitudes toward Barack Obama among American and Israeli Jews are symptomatic of a much deeper parting of ways. Last week, a Smith Research poll conducted on behalf of The Jerusalem Post showed that only 4 percent of Israeli Jews see the US president's policies as pro-Israel (down from a paltry 6% in June and a dramatic drop from the 31% who viewed them as such in May). A majority of respondents (51%) consider the new administration's position more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel, and 35% think they do not evince a bias for one side or the other. The most progressive leader of the US in recent memory is not liked in Israel. IN CONTRAST, a poll of Jewish Democrats (78% of American Jews voted for Obama), commissioned by the conservative Traditional Values Coalition and released a couple of week ago, shows that 92% approve of the president's job performance. In addition, 58% of those queried said he was doing a good job in promoting peace in the Middle East (only 16% disagreed with this statement). The majority of Jews in the US stand solidly behind Barack Obama. The glaring gap in the attitudes of Israeli and American Jews toward the relationship between their respective governments is undeniable. Assuming that these latest surveys are methodologically sound (they are, indeed, entirely consistent with other polls carried out during the past few months), then the immediate lessons are clear. From the point of view of the present administration in Washington, recent steps have obviously not resonated with the Israeli public, whose built-in defensiveness has been magnified as a result of efforts to propel a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict. From the vantage point of the Netanyahu government, the bulk of American Jewry is at odds with its basic precepts. Their identification with Israel no longer extends to unequivocal support for its actions. The growing rift between these two major Jewish communities is not indicative merely of a disagreement over policy directions. It mirrors far more profound processes taking place in both settings. In the US, Jews have, time and again, evinced steadfast support for the liberal principles of equality and social justice, which they equate with their Jewish heritage as well as with universal values. These binding norms have helped to fuse their collective identity and continually guide their outlooks and their behavior. Concern for the downtrodden, the disempowered and the other has become central to the Jewish ethic in the US. As Darren Pinsker so skillfully demonstrated in these pages just last weekend ("Obama and the Jewish vote"), most Jews in the US consistently adhere to social-democratic precepts domestically and to dovish positions internationally. These views are an inextricable part of their makeup as Jewish citizens of the US. Trends in Israel point in quite different directions. As more Jews outside Israel - in Europe and Latin America as well as in North America - have internalized the democratic ethos, those in Israel appear to be disengaging from its roots. Six decades of independent achievement are increasingly being clouded by the acceleration of socioeconomic inequalities, the prevalence of discrimination among Jews of different backgrounds (shamelessly brought to the fore by the effort to exclude pupils of Ethiopian origin from some religious schools in Petah Tikva), the systemically unequal treatment of Arab citizens as well as continuing rule over another people, with all that this entails. THE ISRAEL Democracy Institute's annual Democracy Index released barely a month ago uncovers an alarming rise in intolerance, bigotry and outright racism which flies in the face of basic democratic principles. A dangerous combination of religious formalism and unfettered patriotism, coupled with an almost inexplicable attachment to neoconservative doctrines, has narrowed Jewish horizons in Israel and threatens to erode its egalitarian foundations. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Jews in Israel and abroad are drifting apart: The symbiotic relationship which bound them together in the past cannot survive in the free environment of the 21st century unless it is cemented by a renewed commitment to human dignity and the values of justice and equality that give it meaning. Initially, the mutually sustaining link between nascent Israel and world Jewry was predicated on a commonality of tradition and destiny. Jews throughout the globe provided Israel with material support and political backing; in return, Israel's existence offered the promise of a safe haven and a much-needed rallying point for affiliation and mobilization. Implicit in this somewhat uneven exchange was the belief that Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, would exemplify the Jewish contribution to a just global order by constituting a "light unto the nations." This normative bond has gradually unraveled as Israel has become a fully industrialized country and Jews from the former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence have been liberated from the shackles of totalitarianism. It is also this ethical tie which is in desperate need of repair. There is a steep decline in American Jewish sentiment toward Israel. If, in the annual American Jewish Committee survey of 2006, 37% of US Jews claimed that they felt very close to Israel, by 2008 -scarcely two years later - this figure dropped to 29%. Undoubtedly the Second Lebanon War, corruption in high places, the Gaza offensive and shifting global currents have left a mark on American Jews. They have found outlets other than Israel to articulate their Jewish identity and their ongoing dedication to its moral dictates. Israel's actions and the discourse of its leaders no longer dovetail with those of its founders and of many Jews who in the past drew inspiration from their deeds. Any hope for the revival of a constructive partnership between Jews in Israel and elsewhere must build on the humanistic worldview that has informed the Judaic tradition in the past and has become the essence of Jewish existence today. This requires a serious, frank, egalitarian and value-driven global effort to review and update the Jewish agenda and to make it relevant to the challenges of the present century. Such an undertaking is a reciprocal obligation - that is the only way to make Israel and the world it inhabits a better place for all. Until such a dynamic is put in motion, the two polls bear evidence to the dual poles which represent the Jewish trajectory today.