Response to Chaim Waxman

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To the Editor:

I appreciated Prof. Chaim I. Waxman’s fascinating review of his important research on American Modern Orthodoxy conducted in the mid-1970s (“Looking Backward: Modern Orthodoxy in the Year 2000,” TraditionOnline, July 12, 2019). I can’t quibble with his 2019 re-assessments, except this assertion: That Israel plays a central role in American Orthodoxy today; a more central role than it did 40 years ago.

Alas, it is my assessment that, on the contrary, there is a serious decline in identification with Israel, Aliya, and Religious Zionism in the American Modern Orthodox community today; even in left-wing Modern Orthodoxy. From my engagements with Modern Orthodox synagogues and communities, I sense decay in pro-Israel activism and in the deep, daily, all-abiding and all-consuming concern for Israel which so characterized my parents’ generation.

Modern Orthodox people today are much more likely to come out for a lecture on the latest internal controversy between conservatives and liberals at YU, or on how the OU handles gay rights legislation in Washington, than they are to hear a lecture on Israel’s strategic situation. A program on drug or sexual abuse in the Modern Orthodox community will pack a shul hall (and appropriately so). But the same hall will be two-thirds empty for a presentation on Iran’s imminent and growing threats to Israel or on responses to BDS. The Israel issues just don’t animate Modern Orthodox people in America like they used to.

Israel has become politicized, even among the Modern Orthodox. In my parent’s generation, a president or congressman who was solidly pro-Israel would undoubtedly be warmly embraced, regardless of his views on other issues – because Israel was the touchstone; the issue around which the entire universe revolved for a Modern Orthodox/Zionist American Jew. Clearly, that is not the case today for all Modern Orthodox Jews.

Yes, these days the majority of American Modern Orthodox high school graduates study at gap-year yeshiva programs in Israel, as Prof. Waxman notes; a big change from 40 year ago. And some appreciable number of these students stay on in Israel or make Aliya several years later. But they are a distinct minority.

For the majority, the time spent in Israel doesn’t seem to translate into a commitment to making activism for Israel a central passion of their lives when they’re back in Englewood, Lawrence, or Chicago three or 10 or 20 years later.

There are dramatic exceptions to this rule, of course, such as those Modern Orthodox Jews who today are very active in AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations, and the “Friends of” Shaarei Zedek, Hebron and Shiloh, Bar-Ilan University, Machon Lev and numerous Israeli yeshivot. Their numbers are much greater than they were 40 years ago. But again, my sense is that these are isolated pockets of the Modern Orthodox community.

Several friends and rabbis who are prominent in their communities have told me how they valiantly tried to organize shul missions to Israel for the country’s 70th anniversary celebrations or the jubilee of Jerusalem’s reunification – but failed due to lack of interest. Surely that’s partially because so many Modern Orthodox families anyway travel to Israel on their own these days – it’s a popular vacation destination – but still!

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l once observed: “More Jews are eating glatt kosher; less Jews are eating kosher.” In our context, perhaps we might paraphrase this: “Today more North American Modern Orthodox Jews are making Aliya; less Modern Orthodox Jews who live in America are seriously engaged with Israel in their daily lives.”

I wonder how the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America and the growing salience of pro-BDS forces in American progressive circles will impact the Modern Orthodox community in the future.

This ought to be of special concern regarding Modern Orthodox youth, who so intensively study at the top US universities where Israel is becoming a dirty word and Zionism a national movement considered criminal.

These are trends no one could have predicted in the 1970s, but keen observers of the American Jewish community cannot overlook them today.

David M. Weinberg is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. He is also a diplomatic columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom newspapers.

Chaim I. Waxman responds:

I am pleased that David M. Weinberg found my piece “fascinating” and that he has but one exception to my reassessment. I disagree with his view that there is “a serious decline in identification with Israel, Aliya, and Religious Zionism in the American Modern Orthodox community.”

There has been no decline in numbers of Modern Orthodox high school graduates going to Israel for a year or two after high school; there has been no decline in the number of American Modern Orthodox Jews making Aliya; and, Religious Zionism is an even more central part of Modern Orthodoxy than it was 25 years ago. I emphasize that this does not mean that American Modern Orthodox Jews support every action of the State of Israel or even of the contemporary position of any political party that claims to represent Religious Zionism. (Incidentally, the very same could be said for the Israeli Dati Leumi community!) American Religious Zionism has never been fully in sync with Israeli party politics.

I think that Weinberg’s memory of his parents’ generation is clouded. He claims that then, a political figure “who was solidly pro-Israel would undoubtedly be warmly embraced, regardless of his views on other issues.” That is simply not so. As the late Charles Liebman pointed out, in the 1956 primary between Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson, Jews in Florida, including the Orthodox, overwhelmingly favored Stevenson despite his“lukewarm” attitude toward Israel and Kefauver’s favorable stance. And there are many other such examples.

As for Orthodox Jews not turning out in large numbers for lectures on Israeli political issues, I suspect that, if this is the case, it is because American Orthodox Jews are, or at least think they are, very knowledgeable about these issues. All surveys indicate that they visit Israel much more frequently than do the non-Orthodox; they are more emotionally-attached to Israel than are the non-Orthodox; and they read Israeli newspapers and are familiar with a broader range of Israeli society and culture than are the non-Orthodox.

All of the empirical evidence of which I am aware indicates that Israel plays a central role in American Orthodoxy, even more today than it did in the past.

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