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Changes in Religiosity in the American Jewish Community and the rising of Left Wing Israel Groups

Research Paper by Mady Frischer


The U.S.-Israel relationship is not quite like any other relationship in the world. Pro-Israel organizations over the past 70 years have insured connection and support, primarily through the American Jewish community. Organizations such as AIPAC and StandwithUS spend significant money on securing the U.S.-Israel connection in the future, thus sponsoring youth programs to encourage such support. Despite decades of a strong relationship, there have been recent shifts in support for Israel among several key demographics. According to a study conducted by the Brand Israel Group, support for Israel is at an all time low amongst Jewish millennials. In 2010, around 84% of Jewish College students sided with the Israeli side of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, whereas in 2016, only 57% did. Brand Israel Group co-founder Fern Oppenheimer stated, “The future of America no longer believe that Israel shares their values.”

The values that millennials do subscribe to, have taken root in a variety of different Israel-oriented organizations. Organizations such as If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and J Street have become more compelling options for millennial Jews. These organizations have started campaigns to teach their peers information that might have been left out of their original Israel education. The shift in these values can be explained by shifts in expressions of Judaism in the U.S. These left wing organizations are attempting to fill the void left by moderate and right wing pro-Israel groups. They are introducing religion and civil rights. The increased popularity in left wing pro-Israel groups such as If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street, come from changes in the American Jewish expression that has combined religion and social justice. These changes are notable, because it sheds light on the future of American Jewish leadership and their relationship to Israel.

American Jewry

First, it is important to establish the changing face of Judaism in the United States. The Pew Research Center Study on the Portrait of American Jews reveals the demographics of the American Jewish community. As of 2013, when asked “What does it mean to be Jewish?” 69% responded “leading a moral and ethical life,” 56% reported “working for justice/equality,” and 43% said “connection to Israel.” Only 19% said that “observing Jewish law” was vital to their Jewish identity. What makes up Judaism as a religion has changed. Jews in America see Judaism less as laws to follow, and more as values to subscribe to. While one in five Jews identified as not having a religion, of the 78% that reported being a part of a religion over 35% of American Jews identified with the Reform Movement. The shift towards social justice as a function of Jewish identity is made clear in the shift towards Reform Judaism. As the Executive Director of the Women for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Marla Feldman puts it, “It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live.” Reform Judaism has made itself synonymous with changing the world. By being active in social justice, the Reform Movement accomplishes both leading a moral and ethical life and working for justice/equality.

Reform Judaism is currently the largest denomination represented in the United States. Of Jews raised Reform, 55% remained reform, the largest retention rate of the three largest denominations in America. In other movements, not only is there their lower retention rate, but also a shift from the movement they grew up in, to the Reform Movement. Only 48% of those raised Orthodox remained Orthodox, and 11% became reform. Of the Conservative movement, 36% were Conservative adults and 30% had become Reform. It is clear, that the shift in movements is a result of changes in Jewish identity.

Pew also analyzed the American Jewish connection to Israel. 69% of American Jews reported some connection to Israel. When asked if G-d gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, 40% said yes and 28% said that they didn’t believe in G-d. Additionally, 44% think that Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurt Israel’s security. These statistics are important to take into account when looking at how American Jews would participate in a peace process.

J Street

Founded in 2008, J Street is a reactionary “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” organization, in response to the much larger AIPAC. J Street’s purpose is to use the U.S.-Israel relationship to advocate for peace and a two-state solution. While misleading, the “J” in J Street does not stand for Jewish. In Washington D.C., the location of their main offices, there is an H Street and a K Street, but no J Street. Just as there was no J Street in Washington D.C., they did not see an organization that was pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace. Unlike their bipartisan competitor, AIPAC, J Street associates only with the democratic party. According to a Pew study on political affiliation, 59% of millennials registered to vote are registered democrats. By associating solely with the democratic party, J Street is reaching the political values of younger Jews. One of of J Street’s principles is how Israel benefits the American Jewish community. They believe that “vigorous debate about Israel and American policy will not only engage younger American Jews across the political spectrum, but will increase participation in the broader Jewish community among all generations.” In order to engage the American Jewish community, they open their doors to liberal discourse, which might be less accepted in AIPAC or in other pro-Israel circles.

J Street is still primarily a political organization, which doesn’t emphasize religion. Their mission statement reads, “J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people.Working in American politics and the Jewish community, we advocate for policies that advance shared US and Israeli interests as well as Jewish and democratic values, leading to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Here, it becomes evident that J Street views Judaism as a nationality. When talking about the question of Jerusalem J Street sees the issue as “Jews vs. Palestinians.” In their pursuit to an end of conflict, there isn’t an acknowledgment of the religious groups involved, just of nationalities. This vision is reflected across their organization. They are founded on the principle that their “work is grounded in the Jewish and democratic values on which we were raised.” They’re motivation is to fight for democratic values, which are directly tied to their religious values. Their stance on settlements completely excludes the religious connection to the land. They see it mostly, as an issue of policy. Their position is “[We] hold Israeli policy – implemented by governments of all political backgrounds over decades –responsible for creating the current situation that threatens the security and the future of the national home of the Jewish people.” Again, their position reflects the realities of the majority of American Jews in terms of values.

J Street operates under the American Jewish expression of religion, and not under traditional expressions of Judaism. For American Jewry, taking action and fighting for democratic values are in fact acting religiously.

Jewish Voice for Peace

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was founded in 2002 in the heart of the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement at UC Berkeley. They identify as a “Israel and Palestine peace group,” that pushes for political change. JVP is still a relatively small organization, with only about 200,000 supporters. They, are however, growing. JVP is considerably more radical than J Street, and are becoming a threat on college campuses. The ADL calls JVP “the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States,” and claims that they use Judaism “to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism.” JVP will often claim that they agree with criticism of Israel, validating even the most anti-semitic of opinions. While they are a Jewish group, many of their stances side with Palestinians on major issues. JVP was the first major Jewish peace group to demand withholding American military aid to end the occupation as well as to support the growing Palestinian civil BDS movement. The BDS movement revolves around the delegitimization of the State of Israel in the name of Palestinian human rights. Even though BDS has led to anti-semitic actions against Jewish college students, JVP is growing. Their growth is a result of the connection they foster to an American expression of Judaism.

JVP, differently from other Israel groups, overtly connects to Judaism. They’ve made it a point to state that they are first a Jewish movement. They state that,“We represent a growing portion of Jewish Americans. Israel claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people, so we are compelled to make sure the world knows that many Jews are opposed to their actions. There are often attempts to silence critics of Israel by conflating legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism. Israel is a state, not a person. Everyone has the right to criticize the unjust actions of a state.” While they do not have a mission statement, this functions as their official position on being a Jewish organization. JVP is also dedicated to the diversity of the American Jewish community. Executive Director of JVP, Rebecca Vilkomerson, said in an interview with Real News, “The Jewish community is not just people who come out of Jewish institutional backgrounds, but also people who are secular Jews or who come to their Judaism in other ways or feel it in other ways, and we really embrace the full spectrum of that. People who are part of Jewish families through marriage, all those things.” As the Jewish community in the U.S. changes, JVP is going to keep them in mind. They are targeting not only traditionally educated Jews, but also those that come from secular backgrounds. As has been established, more Jews in the U.S. connect to Judaism through social justice. JVP is providing the a place to express Judaism for the majority of American Jews that social justice speaks to.

The most interesting aspect of their organization is their connection between Jewish celebration and social justice. Like most pro-Israel groups, JVP offers educational materials on their website. In addition to expected talking point sheets and maps, JVP provides Jewish ritual supplies as well. There are informational guides for rituals throughout the year. In the Rosh Hashanah prayer supplement, they seem to just provide the prayers. At the shehecheyanu, however, they include “As Jewish activists for peace and justice we also want to mark the many victories our movement has celebrated this year… And we may celebrate victories, of bodies of faith and corporations choosing to divest from the Occupation.” Following this line, they include a list of organizations that openly oppose the Occupation such as the United Church of Christ. Throughout almost every ritual piece that they include, there are secular poems or additional readings that focus around the concepts of peace and freedom. By having these resources not only are they connecting social justice meaningfully into Jewish ritual, but they are also trying to be accessible to all corners of the American Jewish world. In addition to infusing rituals with social justice they also have created new rituals. While they do have their own Tisha B’av resources, they have created a “Tisha B’av Gaza Mourning Ritual.” Specifically designed to call attention to Operation Protective Edge in 2014, this ceremony combines the Jewish day of mourning with the Palestinian loss of homeland.

Overall, JVP’s success can be tied to their acknowledgment of the needs of the American Jewish community. They see how young liberal Jews are connecting to their religion via social action, and then making Jewish ritual accessible regardless of Jewish educational background.

If Not Now

Similar to JVP, If Not Now is a movement that actively fights the Israeli military Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. If Not Now, however, is structurally different from JVP or J Street as it is considered to be an activist group. They also differ from other Israel groups as they push for change within American Jewish institutions, while the others focus more on political change.They have successfully staged protests, rallies and social media campaigns that has gained them support from across the American Jewish community. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, If Not Now was angered by the response of American Jewish Community. They came up with three demands, “Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All.”

This year, If Not Now launched a successful social media campaign for Jewish summer camps about insufficient Israel education. This summer, many even staunchly zionist overnight camps will be implementing new Israel education programs featuring Palestinian narratives. Throughout the country, If Not Now held a day long training session in Boston for to be counselors to help them navigate conversations with campers, fellow staff, or during programming. The results of the training will be seen this summer, however, participants reported a better understanding of how to present new ideas to their camps.

If Not Now also utilizes a Jewish connection to social action through their organization in many ways. First of all, the organization's name itself comes from Hillel’s three questions: “If not for myself, who will be for me,” “When I am for myself alone, who am I?, and “If not now, when?” Even their logo is based in Jewish tradition. It is meant to be a burning bush. They founded themselves, furthermore, with the purpose to unite resistance with Jewish ritual. Their very first action was a mourner’s kaddish said in several cities across the United States for Palestinians killed in Gaza. Overall, If Not Now is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Their disruptive protests often include praying and singing Jewish songs.

Analysis of Conclusion

America has always played a role in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. In the past, the American Jewish community’s connection to Israel was motivated by the fear of there not being somewhere safe to be Jewish. For decades, there was unequivocal support for Israel as Jews began to more easily assimilate into American society. Philosopher Jacob Klatzkin once pointed out Theodor Herzl needed to be assimilated in order to be boldly announce the needs of the Jews of Europe. Following the wars in 1948 and 1967, the same effect was had on the American Jewish community. They were comfortable supporting Israel openly as it was a Jewish communal necessity.

Today, however American Jews do not fear practicing Judaism. In fact, the way they express their religion has totally changed. Left wing Israel groups such as JVP, If Not Now and J Street are growing in popularity amongst millennials. The Judaism that these groups are tapping into is reflective of the expression of American Judaism. In Israel, however, Judaism is more traditional, connected to halacha, and associated with the land. Judaism in America has combined religion into the language of international law and human rights. The gap in religious expression between American Jews and Israeli Jews poses a real challenge in their ability to communicate with each other. These left wing organizations shed light on what the future of pro-Israel leaders in the United States will look like. As is becoming clear, these future leaders will express their Judaism through the values of social justice and human rights.

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