Examining Trends in the Jewish
Interview with Jonathan S. Tobin
Canadian Jewish News
November 26, 2018
First of all, how do you know
Diaspora Jews have turned away from Israel?
From every indices of support,
whether it’s polling, fundraising or levels of activism. There is clearly much
more criticism of Israel and there is a growth of groups within the Jewish
community that are not merely critical, but overtly either non-Zionist or
anti-Zionist. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have stolen the thunder from
groups like Peace Now and JStreet, which are sort of liberal critics of Israel.
They are losing, being outflanked on the left by groups that are anti-Israel.
The overtly anti-Israel groups are gaining ground on campuses and within many
communities. This is not a marginal phenomenon. Polling speaks to a decline in
support among young Jews, so this is a real problem. It’s not going away.
I think a lot of the focus is
about politics. It’s blaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the
peace process, settlements, religious pluralism, battles over the Kotel and who
is a Jew. Those are real problems that cause antagonism.
I think that the focus on
politics when we speak about declining rates of affiliation and support for
Israel is something of a misdirection. It’s true, but it doesn’t really
explain the problem.
It’s not Netanyahu, or U.S.
President Donald Trump that drives many liberal Jews in the United States or
Even if there was a left-wing
government in Israel dealing with a Democrat in the White House, I think these
issues would still be there, because they are rooted in demography.
The statistics are more extreme
in the United States than in Canada, with escalating rates of intermarriage
among non-Orthodox Jewry, high rates of assimilation, fewer people giving their
kids a Jewish education and a declining sense of Jewish peoplehood.
If you raise your kids without a
Jewish education, not to think of the world in terms of Jewish parochial ideas,
even the most liberal Jewish nationalism seems somehow racist, or off-key to
your life. There’s a disconnect there.
Demographers say the fastest
growing group of Jews within North America is a group they call “Jews of no
religion” – Jews without any real ties or affiliation. Synagogue memberships
shrink, federations raise less money. These are real issues. We think of it as a
domestic American or Canadian Jewish issue, but it impacts Israel.
That is exactly my point. So when
you say, “What do you do about it,” the approach has to be holistic, not
The answer to how do we get more
people to care about Israel is the same answer to the question of how do we get
people to care more about being Jewish, to care more about Jewish community, to
want to have a Jewish family.
The answers are the same when you
talk about the guardrails of Jewish life – education, camps, trips to Israel,
all these things.
The other point is in terms of
the political battles. Increasingly in mainstream society, and in what is
considered acceptable liberal society, being for Israel is an extremely
unfashionable cause. Part of that is the growth of BDS, which relates to the
growth of anti-Zionist groups. It’s really hard to swim against the tide.
Above all, what we need for this
generation is the courage to stand up, the courage to be unfashionable. That
sounds simple, but it’s really hard and it’s elemental to our problem as a
community, if we are not going to address these basic points.
Inasmuch as Jews think about
media bias, they think that the vast majority of Canadians or Americans will
watch all this negative stuff about Israel and they will wake up one morning and
they’re going to hate Israel, and Israel will be isolated and destroyed.
The truth is, we’ve got it
backwards. The media bias does not impact non-Jewish opinion about Israel at
In the United States, Israel is
just as popular as it ever was, if not more popular than it was 30 or 40 years
ago, when media bias started to really ramp up.
Where you see the impact of media
bias is among Jews. And you ask yourself: why is that?
It’s because Jews regard
Israel’s reputation as somehow linked to their own self-esteem.
When Israel is seen as being
wonderful, miraculous, successful, it makes us feel good about ourselves.
By contrast, when Israel is
assaulted, when Israel is blamed for everything, when news about it is
distorted, it makes Jews feel bad about themselves.
Presidential son-in-law Jared
Kushner, along with the Trump foreign policy team, has been working on a new
Middle East peace plan. Its outlines are not a big secret. It’s calling for a
Netanyahu is not going to say no
to it, because he’s counting on his ace in the hole, Mahmoud Abbas and the
Palestinian Authority, who clearly feel they cannot say yes to anything.
The Palestinians are still mired
in this century-old war against Zionism. They’re still paying for martyrs and
terrorists. They’re still educating their kids in their official media to hate
Israel and Jews. Abbas is far more afraid of Hamas than he is of the ire of the
Trump administration and I think the odds of that leading to anything in the
immediate future are very small. Why should Netanyahu say no when he knows the
Palestinians will do it for him?
To say extreme right-wing haters
have any influence in his administration is crazy. It’s false.
It’s a very conservative
administration, which is ironic because Trump is not a conservative, never was.
There is a disconnect between the
things that come out of Trump’s mouth and the way his administration governs
on a whole host of issues. That’s very disconcerting. Certainly, style is
substance and when you say things, it has an impact. Yet his policies don’t
fit in there.