The overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves pro-Israel — and I suspect the overwhelming majority of politicians do too, in both parties.
And yet Israel is a political football; the party that doesn’t hold the presidency (today, the Republicans) typically attacks the party in power for being insufficiently pro-Israel- and these attacks hit home for many pro-Israel Americans, but not for others. How come? One obvious reason is that Republicans are always ready to believe any attack on President Obama, just as Democrats were equally enthused about attacking President Bush.
But I think there is something else going on as well. Supporters of Israel, like fans of a sports team, fall into two general categories: ordinary fans and superfans.
An ordinary fan of a sports team wants the team to win, but generally trusts the players and the manager/coach to do their best. He/she simply isn’t that involved in the details of who should be playing what position, or who should be traded for who. Similarly, the ordinary fan of Israel is generally sympathetic with Israel. But he/she tends to have a favorable opinion of any Israeli prime minister and to generally trust American politicians to support Israel; he/she pays close attention to Israeli politics only when a war is going on, but rarely otherwise.
A sports superfan, by contrast, knows the game so well that he/she is quite willing to criticize the manager or coach if the team is doing badly. And because the sports superfan is emotionally wrapped up in the game, he/she can become steamed if the team is making mistakes, even if only one game out of many is involved. Similarly, the American superfan of Israel is more likely to have strong opinions about Israeli politicians, more likely to be worried about hazards that (in a non-superfan opinion) are trivial, and more critical of American politicians’ behavior towards Israel (especially, of course, the politicians they did not vote for!) .
I don’t think one is better than the other. The superfans get on my nerves sometimes, but without them I wonder if there would be an Israel.
When I was at Limmud, someone asked me an interesting question: what type of Jews are most likely to live in cities as opposed to suburbs? For example, are Orthodox Jews more likely than other Jews to live intown because they value walkability, or in suburbs because their large families need more space? Is the aging Conservative movement more suburban than other movements because younger Americans tend to prefer city life? I don’t think I have the resources to do a full demographic survey, or even to dig up accurate information, since there are not that many cities that have recently conducted surveys of their Jewish population.
However, I can do an informal survey of mid-sized cities I know something about (that is, cities that aren’t New York, Philadelphia or Chicago, since those places seem to have a little of everything downtown). So let’s look at a few places:
Washington- In close-in Washington (within two miles of the White House) most congregations seem to be Orthodox or nearly so. Kesher Israel is the closest full-service congregation, while Rosh Pina and DC Minyan straddle the boundary between Orthodox and Conservative. In addition, there is a Chabad in Dupont Circle. On the other hand, in the “outer city” (between downtown and the city limits) Jewish life becomes more diverse: there are two Conservative shuls (Adas Israel in Cleveland Park and Tifereth Israel in Shepherd Park), three Reform in upper NW DC (Temple Micah, Washington Hebrew, Temple Sinai) and Orthodox Ohev Shalom (also in Shepherd Park). So I would say there is a strong Orthodox presence close in, but there is a strong non-Orthodox presence in places that aren’t downtown but aren’t quite the suburbs. (Having said that, the red hot center of Orthodoxy in Washington is in close-in suburbs like Rockville and Silver Spring).
Atlanta- In Atlanta, unlike Washington, there is no downtown Jewish life. In the “intown but not downtown” neighborhoods of Midtown, Virginia Highland and Morningside 2-4 miles from downtown, there is a fairly even denominational split: Chabad (Orthodox), Anshei Sfard (ditto), Shearith Israel (Conservative) and the Temple (Reform). Again, the Orthodox heartland is in the inner ring suburbs of Toco Hills and Sandy Springs.
Buffalo- There is no downtown Jewish life, but here the liberal branches of Judaism tend to be a bit closer in. Beth Zion (Reform) is two miles or so from downtown, Beth Abraham (Conservative) is a bit further out, and the Orthodox synagogues start five miles out and go from there.
Cleveland- When I lived in Cleveland there was only one synagogue within the city limits, Beth Israel (Reform) on the West Side, However, there is now a Chabad at Case Western at the eastern edge of the city. But from the webpage its not clear to me that they even have a Saturday morning minyan, so I’m not sure they count as the functional equivalent of a shul.
St. Louis- The only congregation of any sort in the city of St. Louis is Central Reform Congregation (Reform). The inner suburbs are pretty diverse though, with a strong Orthodox presence in University City and a conservative synagogue in Richmond Heights.
Seattle- Seattle has two synagogues almost right next to each other about a mile from downtown: one Orthodox, one Reform. In the “intown but not downtown” areas about 4-6 miles out, there is a real mix of congregations: Orthodox synagogues clustered in the Seward Park area of Southeast Seattle, a Reform congregation in Southwest Seattle, one or two of everything in North Seattle.
Miami- According to its website, Chabad now has a minyan at 11th and Brickell in the heart of downtown Miami (!) – though I don’t know how often they actually have the minyan. Temple Israel (Reform) and Beth David (Conservative) are a mile and a half or so from downtown.
Summary- I’m not sure there’s any real pattern. There are some cities where Orthodoxy has a stronger intown presence, other cities (especially the dying cities of the Rust Belt) where Reform has held out.
Last weekend I went to Limmud, a weekend devoted to all manner of Jewish activities (including but not limited to Torah study). Rather than taking notes and turning my memories into a post , I decided to tweet and just paste all my tweets here.