Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
There is a wonderful chill that one feels as thousands of people, predominately young Jewish children, march down Fifth Avenue in New York City celebrating the State of Israel’s Birthday. One has a sense of identification, enthusiasm, and pride while watching all these marchers, predominately Jews, proclaim their support for Israel. On closer examination, however, the crowd of on-lookers as well as the marchers appear to represent only a small segment of the Jewish population of America and even of New York City. That fact raises significant questions.
This is a parade of largely children who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools or Conservative or community schools in the New York catchment area. The floats representing an array of Jewish organizations—commercial, communal, or civic—are also populated with the same demographic. Given their dress and attire—kippot and largely long skits—the participants are predominately modern Orthodox children, their leaders, and/or their parents. All of this is well and good but where are the rest of the thousands of Jewish New Yorkers? Where are the Reform and secular Jews of New York and where are the thousands of charedim?
This reaction to the Israel Day parade became even more significant when it is juxtaposed to the column written this week by the editor of The Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt. As he described his recent attendance at a conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) on Long Island, where leaders of American Jewry and their Israeli counterparts struggled over a major paper concerning Israel-Diaspora relations. That study exposed the growing concern—even disconnect—between American and Israeli Jews.
One of the major issues was why Israel believes it does not need to listen to what American Jews have to say about Israel—at the grass roots; in the same way as American Jews need to hear what is coming out of the mouths of Israeli leadership. American Jews, many not Orthodox, have deep love and pride of and for the State of Israel; they recognize the existential threats Israel faces; but they are similarly deeply concerned about what is happening to what appears to be a declining sensitivity to democratic values. They are concerned about apparent growing racism, sexism, and religious discrimination. There appears to be a growing triumphalism on the political right and a growing intolerance of the non-Orthodox, all of which challenge many American Jews’ commitment to the State of Israel.
Admittedly, Jewish life in America may well be under serious stress given the declining Jewish demographic. While many of Israel’s best friends may be marching or watching the parade with great enthusiasm, they represent only a small percent of American Jews. The rest are not present and that concerns American Jewish leaders; but it ought to trouble Israelis as well.