From Our President…
In early May, the Pew Research Center released the results of a major survey of Jewish public opinion. The survey, which was conducted between November 2019 and June 2020, fielded 4,718 responses, 1,770 of which were provided by Reform Jews. The full study, which can be accessed online at https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/, provides a fascinating and comprehensive snapshot of Jewish attitudes, beliefs and practices in the United States and will doubtless fuel many discussions among community leaders and organizations about how best to reach and serve their constituents in the vibrant and diverse Jewish universe in the U.S.
Many who review the survey will focus on the growing divergence of the youngest Jews surveyed, individuals between the ages of 18 and 29. While overall, 32% of Jews report themselves to be unaffiliated with a denomination and only 9% are Orthodox (and 37% are Reform), among young Jews, 17% identify as Orthodox and 41% are unaffiliated (with 30% reporting themselves as Reform). Jewish leaders will also be wise to note that, while more than 90% of Jewish adults identify as non-Hispanic White, the Jewish population is becoming more diverse, especially among younger Jews, with 15% of those between ages 18 and 29 identifying as non-White. In addition, 17% of U.S. Jews live in households with at least one Hispanic, Black, Asian, multiracial or other non-White-identified person.
However, at the same time that organizations and leaders were pondering the report and thinking about how to use this information to guide outreach, programming and support, many Jews and Jewish organizations in the U.S. were also watching in horror as fighting escalated in Gaza and Israel. The confrontation, which began over the expulsion of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem, escalated into Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and Hamas rockets fired into Israeli cities. The violence wrought by the military and paramilitary forces caused civilian deaths among Palestinians and Israelis, including Palestinian children, and The New York Times published reports of Palestinians burning synagogues and Israelis retaliating by stoning and burning cars and a Muslim cemetery.
The Pew study suggests that generally, as Reform Jews, we stand in a complicated position as we survey these tragic and deplorable events. Nearly half of all Reform Jews reported feeling “a great deal of belonging” to the Jewish people, with an additional 40% reporting at least some sense of belonging. While only 12% of Reform Jews felt that they had a lot in common with Jews in Israel, 48% reported some sense of common ground. Interestingly, 39% of Reform Jews also reported feeling that they had at least some commonalities with American Muslims (a higher percentage than Orthodox, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews).
Looking specifically at attitudes about Israel, “am Yisroel” still prevails among Reform Jews, with 58% reporting feeling either very or somewhat attached to Israel (though for all Jews, the sense of attachment is less for younger Jews). A larger percentage of Reform Jews – 86% – report that caring about Israel is either essential or important to their sense of Jewish identity. While not as deeply engaged in following news about Israel as our Conservative and Orthodox friends, 58% of Reform Jews nonetheless report doing so either very or somewhat closely.
Reform beliefs about the U.S.’s support for Israel were somewhat conflicted in 2019-2020, although 56% saw the U.S.’s support as being about right. An additional 20% perceived the U.S. as too supportive but were balanced by the 21% who saw the U.S. as not supportive enough. Most of us are aware that we view the world differently from Orthodox Jews,
but the survey sharpens this insight. Reform Jews were critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with 59% rating his leadership as fair or poor, the two lowest rankings. Only 9% graded Netanyahu as excellent (in sharp contrast with Orthodox Jews, of whom 37% rated him as excellent). Also during the time the survey was in the field, 69% of Reform Jews reported that they saw “a lot of discrimination” against American Muslims (the comparable figures of Blacks and Jews among Reform Jews were 58% and 45%, respectively). Among the Orthodox, however, only 18% saw widespread discrimination against Muslims in the United States.
When the survey was conducted, most Reform Jews – 65% – were optimistic about the prospects for a long-term peaceful solution in the form of independent Israeli and Palestinian states. This optimism, however, was counterbalanced by deep skepticism of the leadership on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Only 28% of Reform Jews believed that the Israeli government is sincerely seeking a peaceful settlement and only 11% said the same about the Palestinian leadership.
All of these tensions likely feel familiar to those of us who’ve talked to non-Jewish friends about events in Israel and Gaza. While Reform Jews by and large remain Zionist in our orientation, our Zionism leaves room for deep concern about and criticism of governmental actions that undermine the chances for a just and lasting peace. We may love Israel, but most of us are worried that Israeli politics are headed in the wrong direction. We often believe that bad Israeli and Palestinian actors in authoritative positions have both engineered and taken advantage of crises to generate more baseless hatred between Israelis and Palestinians. Non-Jews who talk to Reform Jews about the situation may find themselves dissatisfied, as we refuse to stand firmly and uncritically on either the Palestinian or Israeli side of the line.
Our positions don’t work well as sound bites or slogans, and within the Reform movement our individual beliefs span a wide gamut as well. For many of us, even the claim that both sides bear responsibility for the conflict and hold the seeds of peace in their hands invites immediate caveats about the power differential between the Israeli state and the Palestinian Authority, as well as discussion of the role of Hamas on the Palestinian side. Our identities as Reform Jews sensitize us to heed and amplify calls for justice and peace. We feel keenly not just the lost opportunities of the last several years but the ways that these opportunities have been lost – all too often not because of hostility from the other side but rather from internal destructive radicalization and hatred. We remember painfully, for instance, that on the Israeli side, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was carried out by an anti-Palestinian extremist.
Our standpoint is distinctive in its nuance, and our commitment to optimism, even in these dark times, is worth keeping. Our perspective is important, and it’s even more important that we articulate it as a Jewish perspective keyed to Jewish values. Just as we as Americans have particular standing to criticize our government and make it clear that unjust actions are not done in our names, as Jews we can be loving critics of wrongful Israeli actions even while acknowledging the fear and anger of Israelis threatened by violence. The broader conversation seems to demand unambiguous and strong defense of one side over the other. However, the room so desperately needed for engagement to grow cannot exist without our thoughtful recognition of wrongs and imagination of what a just peace can be.