Dialoguing While Drifting Apart: American Jews and Israel

Why the average American Jew still supports Obama.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

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The American and Israeli Social Value Gap

A 'funny thing' is happening with regard to Congressional consideration of the Iran nuclear accord. A majority of rank-and-file Americans seem to oppose the accord, while a majority of rank-and-file Jews support Pres. Obama's agreement. How did we arrive at this disturbing junction in Jewish history in which non-Jewish Americans are more 'pro-Israel' than Jewish Americans? The answer, put forth in this article, is very simple. American Jews, particularly those under 45, are increasingly enraptured by liberal social values, and, as a consequence, enraptured by Pres. Obama. And their allegiance to liberalism takes precedence over an ethnic based identification with Israel. And 'to make things worse' in the eyes of American Jewish liberals, Israeli society is increasingly embodying a set of traditional-religious, nationalistic social values that it rejects.  This makes a positive identification with Israel even more difficult. Thus, Jewish support for Obama forcefully illustrates the more general phenomenon of a   growing   social value gap, and thus distancing, between American Jewish and Israeli society. And it is disturbingly unclear when, and how, this social value gap will ever be closed.

Their allegiance to liberalism takes precedence over an ethnic based identification with Israel.
This disturbing perception of the growing social-value distancing between American and Israeli Jewry was the sad sociological conclusion from the personally rewarding six weeks that I  spent this summer in the midst of secular, liberal American Jewry, while vacationing with my three brothers and their families, and three Cornell University friends of fifty years (I was not religiously observant when I attended university.) This growing social cultural gap was most apparent at the moment of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. My brothers and friends felt joy at the culmination of a successful social revolution, while I heard a sad inner voice saying, "How much crazier can post modernity become?"  

The liberal social idealism of American Jewry  

My brothers and friends are warm, generous, socially idealistic, economically comfortable American citizens. Our dilemma is that their definition of social justice and social good is very different from that of Israel's traditional-religious community. During my visit I learned that American Jewry's social idealism and activism focuses on three topics: 1. Social justice understood primarily as increasing social equality and opportunities for America's increasing multi ethnic and racial minorities

 2. Increasing gender equality and rights including those of the LGBT community

 3. Proper ecological care and development of our planet's natural habitat and resources. American Jewry, particularly those under forty, put into practice a strong set of social values, but one with little connection to their ethnic Jewish identity, and with little religious affiliation.

My family very well exemplifies American Jewry's liberal social idealism. Two of my nephews are passionately involved and active in the ecological movement. Another nephew and niece are very involved in multi cultural ethnicity and gender issues. Another niece practices medicine in multi-ethnic poverty neighborhood.

Liberal American Jewry's difficulty in understanding traditional Israeli Jewry

However, because of these liberal social values, my brothers and friends have a hard time understanding, and accepting as an legitimate alternative, the social culture of traditional and religious Israeli Jewry. First, it is hard for them to listen because of the static of the political animosity between Bibi Netanyahu and their political hero, President Obama.  (My friend jokingly refers to Bibi as the Republican Senator from Israel.) Second, they similarly have a hard time differentiating between their 30 year political struggle with the evangelical American Christian right, and the social religious issues important to traditional and religious Jews in Israel.

But even when my friends  can get past these stumbling blocks, it is still very difficult for them to positively appreciate and respect a social culture that they see as being overly parochial and particularistic. More specifically, it is very hard for them to respect our very staunch nationalistic perspective with regard to the Palestinian people. It is also very hard for them to respect as legitimate that we judge post-modern issues of gender, family structure and Jewish identity primarily on the basis of rabbinic authority and religious law given on Mount Sinai thousands of years ago.

Deep, deep in their hearts they have a faith that the Middle East conflict can be resolved according to the principles of the American civil rights movement.


We have arrived at a sad junction in Jewish history, where most of Diaspora Jewry does not understand the more traditional, more religious, and more nationalistic values of a majority of Israeli Jews. This is why a majority of under 45, rank-and-file American Jews support Pres. Obama, and not the Israeli government, concerning the Iranian nuclear accord.

Unlike the Israeli left, I do not blame Prime Minister Netanyahu for this disheartening situation. I believe he is developing Israeli nationhood, and managing our security in the best way possible. I have limited answers how we should best deal with this growing Israeli-Diaspora social value gap.

But I have real faith that G-d is guiding Jewish history, and he will best deal with these dilemmas.