A demographic shift in America will likely prove fateful for the future of Israel
It’s the elephant in the room when it comes to U.S.-Israeli relations – seldom discussed but known by all.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not have felt free to diplomatically ambush the U.S. president and disavow the fundamentals of Mideast peacemaking in the run-up to the recent Israeli election, if he didn’t know he could. That’s because he’s fully protected inside a cocoon created by a powerful coalition of Jewish and conservative Christian Americans.
What he may not have fully considered, however, are the demographic trends that are fast at work breaking down this cocoon.
I’m not talking about the often-discussed demographic time bomb in the Holy Land that could see Arabs outnumbering Jews and doom Israel as a Jewish democracy. I’m talking about another demographic shift thousands of miles away that could prove just as fateful to the Jewish state.
It’s the trend of reduced religious affiliation among all Americans and accelerated assimilation among American Jews.
A new generation in America is emerging that is less religious, less white, more global in outlook, and less pro-Israel.
Young Jews, like their counterparts in the rest of the U.S. population, are increasingly eschewing religious affiliation. Thirty-two percent of Jewish and non-Jewish “Millennials”, aged 18 to 29, say they have no religion, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center. A full 72 percent of non-Orthodox Jews (comprising 90 percent of the U.S. Jewish population), who have wedded since 2000 have married non-Jews, according to Pew’s survey.
The survey said two-thirds of “Jews of no religion” and more than a third of intermarried couples are not raising their children Jewish at all.
Thus, despite the undeniable, passionate support of Israel seen among American Jews today, the connection to Judaism and Israel is becoming more tenuous with time.
Imagine, in a new reality of reduced pro-Israel advocacy in the corridors of power of the United States, the Jewish state no longer relies on assured financial, military and diplomatic aid from its most important global ally. Imagine America voting against Israel in the United Nations, and letting it fend for itself in battles of every kind.
The negative feelings about Israel on U.S. college campuses – the incubators of future mainstream opinion – are reminiscent of public opinion in much of Western Europe today. Among the young in America, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement to pressure Israel to end the occupation of Arab lands is no longer fringe, with the Israeli occupation often compared to apartheid. Black and Latino voters have joined the young in pulling back from traditional American support for Israel, and their electoral strength is growing.
Much of this is beyond Netanyahu’s control, of course.
But his behaviour and rhetoric this past month – a speech before the U.S. Congress, delivered against President Obama’s will, undercutting the American president’s Iran policy; a racist election-day rant against voting by Israeli Arabs; a renunciation of the two-state solution – are likely to hasten a number of these trends, most notably the weakening of bipartisan U.S. support for the Jewish state.
Until now, support for Israel has been a rare point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. But the open rift between Netanyahu and Obama is now making the unthinkable possible, with hostility toward Israel among Democrats gaining steam as Netanyahu aligns himself squarely with Obama’s Republican adversaries. Already, Obama administration officials have suggested they might vote in favour of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a sovereign Palestine.
Some of what’s occurred these past few weeks, of course, has little to do with Republicans or Democrats. When the leader of an American ally billing itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East” tells his right-wing supporters to rush to the polls because Arab citizens are voting in “droves,” it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most Americans, regardless of their political stance.
Religious affiliation is not the only phenomenon on the wane in America. So are are xenophobia, chauvinism and the marginalization of minorities.
The Israeli occupation of Arab-populated lands it captured in the 1967 Mideast War is a complicated matter. With ISIS sowing terror in the region, growing instability in neighbouring Syria, a nuclear buildup in Iran, the rejected peace offers of previous Israeli governments, and the fact that Gaza became a stronghold for Hamas militants after Israel withdrew from that territory, it’s not hard to understand why insecure Israelis feel they need a tough guy like Netanyahu.
But Israel’s manoeuvring room for policies like the occupation that are at odds with the international community is likely to diminish over time, as American Jews become less Jewish and America itself more secular.
Steven Gutkin, who runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt, served as bureau chief for the Associated Press in Israel and the Palestinian territories from 2004 to 2010.