Most Israelis think future dependent on American Jewry

Poll finds citizens understand the importance of the connection to the Diaspora ‘better than the leaders,’ survey sponsor says

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)
Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

A large majority of Israelis, nearly four in five, believes Israel’s future is dependent on the country’s ties to American Jewry, a new poll of Israeli public opinion has found.

“Israelis really understand how important the American Jewish community is to them,” Ruderman Family Foundation president Jay Ruderman said. “In some ways, your average Israeli understands that better than the leaders.”

The foundation, which commissioned the survey, works to inform and connect Israeli leaders and policymakers to the American Jewish community.

The survey of 500 Israelis was conducted by the Teleseker polling company in early November. Asked to what extent Israel’s future was tied to or dependent on Diaspora Jewry generally and US Jewry in particular, 17 percent of the respondents said it was dependent “to a very great extent,” and a further 62% said it was to “a great” or “some” extent.

Just 19% of respondents said Israel’s future was “not very” or “not at all” dependent on US Jewry.

Israelis’ sense of American Jewry’s importance to Israel’s future may explain their negative reactions to news that American Jewry is facing demographic decline.

Asked about a recent Pew study that found US Jewry was seeing fewer Jews identifying with and actively pursuing a Jewish life, a large majority of the respondents expressed concern.

Given the choice between expressing “concern,” “frustration,” “sadness” or “indifference,” most opted for concern (38%) and sadness (23%). Some 8% expressed frustration at the figures.

Only about one-quarter (26%) said they were indifferent to the trend.

For Ruderman, the impetus to conduct the study came from a sense that the Diaspora is not high on the agenda of Israeli decision-makers, and this policy lacuna is harmful to the relationship between the Israeli and American Jewish communities.

“No one gets elected to the Knesset because they understand the American Jewish community. Knesset members have different agendas, and this isn’t one of them,” Ruderman said. “But the threat” of the communities growing apart “is sneaking up on them,” he warned.

“Maybe Knesset members and ministers are too busy to put much thought into this issue, but I think that’s a mistake that could have drastic repercussions for Israel.”

The Ruderman Family Foundation will be joining the Knesset Caucus for Israel-US Relations on Tuesday for a dialogue in the Knesset between American Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Tzohar head and former chief rabbi candidate Rabbi David Stav, which is a notable event in itself since Israeli Orthodox rabbis rarely dialogue with Reform rabbis.

The willingness to dialogue may reflect a widely held view that the relationship is truly at risk.

The survey found that twice as many Israelis think American Jews’ support for Israel will weaken in the near future than the number who believe it will grow stronger.

“Do you think in the near future support for the State of Israel by American Jews will strengthen, weaken, or remain at the level it is today?” the poll asked.

One-third of respondents (32%) said the connection would weaken, compared to 15% who said it would strengthen. A bit less than half (45%) said it would stay the same.

“The American Jewish community is going through a huge transition,” Ruderman said, pointing to the recent Pew study. “In some ways that makes sense. We’re now fourth, fifth, sixth generation Americans, very assimilated into the general American community, very removed historically from the founding of the state, the Holocaust, the Six Day War.”

Israeli and American Jews, he added, “are changing, going in different directions, but that doesn’t mean all is lost. A more sophisticated understanding among Israelis that there’s this community out there, that it’s different from us but very significant for our future,” can help repair the breach.

The foundation doesn’t seek to change Israeli leaders’ “political or religious opinions” to be more in line with those of American Jews. Rather, “we want to get Israeli leaders to be a little bit more sophisticated, more nuanced” when they engage American Jews.

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