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American Jews believe in separation of church and state, not ‘theocracy’

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Wall separating Israeli road from Palestinian road under occupation
Wall separating Israeli road from Palestinian road under occupation

Editor: There are more and more indications that the American Jewish establishment is losing power because of a growing Jewish alienation from the establishment’s main project, support of Israel. Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism is quoted at length in the Washington Times, “What do American Jewish voters want?” Reporter Joseph Cotto emailed questions that Cotto responded to. He shared that typescript with me; and I publish the answers that touch on Israel. I’ve left out Brownfeld’s first few answers, that there is no “Jewish vote,” that Jews reflect typical urban/upper-middle-class voting patterns (liberal), and that AIPAC is wrong when it says there’s a Jewish bloc of voters politicians can capture.  

Q:  Have you known any political issue, above all others to resonate with a majority of American Jews?

A:  The only issue which seems to resonate, in particular, with most American Jews is a commitment to religious freedom and to separation of church and state.  But even here, Orthodox Jews seem to embrace collaboration between religion and government and have urged, for example, forms of government aid to religious schools.  The Orthodox, however, represent only about 10% of American Jews.

In my view, there is an element of hypocrisy in American Jewish organizations taking legal action against even non-sectarian, voluntary prayer in our public schools while supporting a theocracy in Israel.   In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion.  Jews and non-Jews cannot marry, since there is no such thing as civil marriage.  Reform rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals.  There is less freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel than anyplace in the Western world.  This leads to the inevitable question:  Do Jewish organizations promote separation of church and state in the United States as a matter of principle, or because it serves their own narrow interests?

Q:  Today, the American Jewish political establishment is fixated on Israel.  Judging from your research, does this reflect the priorities of most American Jews?

A: In many respects, the American Jewish establishment is engaged in a form of idolatry, having substituted the state of Israel for God and Judaism’s moral and ethical teachings as the object of worship and the focus of attention.  Israeli flags can be found in many American synagogues and all three major branches of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform–have adopted the Zionist philosophy which believes that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile,” and should make “aliyah,” emigrate to Israel.

The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim.  We believe that we represent a silent majority of American Jews who are not represented by those who speak in their name.

The first major study of American Jews in more than ten years shows that 48% of those polled don’t think Israel is making a sincere attempt to make peace.  The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, found that a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.  Among Jews younger than 30, only 32% said that “caring about Israel” was an essential part of their Jewish identity.  Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College and a consultant to the Pew study, says, “Younger Jews are considerably less supportive of Israel and the differences are very large.  I think we’re seeing a shift, not just a gap.”

The evidence is clear that Jewish voters vote on the basis of the same issues as other voters, not on the basis if a candidate’s view of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy.   A study of Jewish voters in 2010 found the following priorities:
                         Economy—–62%
                          Health Care—–31%
                           Deficit and government spending—-18%
                            Social Security and Medicare—-16%
                             Taxes——14%
                             Terrorism and national security—-13%
                              Education—-12%
                              Israel——7%

When it comes to the war in Iraq, strongly promoted by AIPAC and other Jewish groups, pollster Jim Gerstein found that 77% of American Jews opposed the war—-larger than the public as a whole (52%).

Clearly, the priorities of most American Jews are not being reflected by national Jewish organizations which speak in their name.

Q:  Why does the American Jewish political establishment prioritize Israel to such an extent?

A:  If you adopt a philosophy which holds that Israel is your real “homeland,” then making it a priority is understandable.  Of course, we live in a free and open society.  Those who believe that another country is their real homeland are free to move there at any time. Few American Jews who hold this view have seen fit to do so.  The overwhelming majority of American Jews reject this view and are perfectly at home in America.  It is sad that so many in the Jewish establishment believe that America is not enough.  And it is a strange and disturbing enterprise to see young people in our religious schools being taught not about their religious heritage and what living a righteous and meaningful life involves but, instead, being taught that a distant country should be the object of their attention and loyalty.

All of this may be, in part, a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, a belief that Jews cannot be safe anyplace but in a country of their own.  This, however, learns what I think is the wrong lesson.  The goal of all men and women of good will are the creation of  societies which promote religious freedom  and a common citizenship for people of all backgrounds.  American citizenship is not based on common race, religion or ethnic background but on a willingness to live in a free society and fulfill its responsibilities.  How sad that Israel has court cases to determine who is a Jew, who can be married or buried even, in the occupied territories, who can drive on which roads.  Judaism believes that God created all people in His image. Israel claims to be a “Jewish” state but to the degree that it separates people on the basis of faith and ethnicity, it is violating the ethical mandate  of prophetic Judaism.  

Q:  Since the mid-20th century, ethnic identity has replaced religious commonality in American Jewish politics.  Do you know if any reason for this.

A:  This is an intrinsic part of defining Jewish identity in Zionjst terms.  It is a rejection of the traditional American view of Judaism as a religion.  But  if Judaism is an ethnicity, how can people convert to it, as they have been doing since Biblical times?

Q:  During the years ahead, do you expect to see the American Jewish political establishment grow in power, of just the opposite?

A:  Those who pretend to wield power in the name of the Jewish community, which they have no mandate to do, have already seen their influence decline dramatically.  They did their best to prevent Chuck Hagel from becoming Secretary of Defense, but failed.  The fought any interim agreement with Iran over nuclear weapons, and have failed.  The latest polls show that an overwhelming majority of American Jews support such an agreement.  And when AIPAC, the ADL and the American Jewish Committee attempt to speak in the name of American Jews, there are other vocal Jewish groups, such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, making clear that there is no united Jewish view on these issues.  The playing field has been changed and the political dynamics in the future will be far different.

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Doesn’t the American Council for Judaism follow something close to a “non-Zionist” form of Judaism? As to the main topic, I would pose this: A very large number of the community sees the idea of a Jewish state in the Holy Land as the ideal, don’t they? And they also seriously support it, while in polls a small majority does not agree with the idea of having a state for Palestinians at all. Meanwhile, a… Read more »

The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. well this is interesting in light of an interview w/michael oren we featured the other day http://mondoweiss.net/2014/01/questioning-imagines-campaign.html (albeit we cover the iran part of the interview). anyway, i read the whole thing and by far… Read more »

The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, found that a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel. 25% is a small percent. And what do the rest say? How many then are going to say on the contrary, “Not Supportive enough”? “not on the basis if a candidate’s view of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy.” Maybe that is because the candidates’… Read more »

It’s hard to see the grandkids of today’s 20 year old US Jews following Israel blindly given the way things are going over in JDisneyland .

So we as Jews, too, are proud to be Germans in this epic era, in which the fate of nations is at stake, for we have become aware of the task that should convince all our fellow Jews throughout the world of the religious significance of Germanness, of its impact, of the legal claims that it exerts on Jews among all the nations of the world, both for their religious development and for all their… Read more »