Jewish stability abroad weakens political pull in U.S.

The underlying principle is this: With no more trapped, endangered Jewish populations abroad, and with interest in Israel waning, especially among a younger generation, American Jews are turning inward.

That translates into growing involvement in a range of domestic political issues that directly affect the lives of Jews around the country. It has also contributed to a deepening interest in spirituality and a renaissance in Jewish education among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews alike.

But it also threatens Jewish political power, which has traditionally been built around a handful of core issues that transcended the community's deep religious, social and economic differences.

"Israel and Soviet Jewry gave the Jewish community a sharp focus, which is critical in politics, and they provided the appearance of an overwhelmingly united community," said a congressional staffer with long experience in Jewish politics. "Take away those issues, and Jews are just another small minority with a lot of different opinions on things."

The roots of this shift are obvious.

There are still up to 2 million Jews in the former Soviet Union, and according to some experts, their situation remains precarious as the former republics lurch toward what seems like a hybrid of free-market capitalism and the Sicilian Mafia.

But Jews are now free to leave, and many are major players in the economic changes — the good, the bad and the corrupt — that are burying the old communist verities. There has been a Jewish renaissance as community institutions are built, and as Jews seek a heritage they barely knew existed before the fall of communism.

Immigration to Israel is down; American refugee quotas for Jews from the former Soviet Union aren't being filled. There are no more refuseniks.

Likewise, Jews have pretty much left Ethiopia and Syria. Ten years ago, there were small but vocal movements working in Washington aimed at rescuing them; now, most of these Jews are in Israel or in this country.

This isn't to say that Jews have attained a golden age of security. But interest among American Jews has faded, and groups devoted to protecting the interests of Jews in other countries find it hard to maintain their funding and attract new activists.

Then there's Israel.

Even before the Netanyahu government, many analysts noted a drift from active Zionism among an American Jewish population that was relieved to see Israel moving toward peace and prosperity.

The apparent hostility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiations most American Jews support, and a growing weariness with the endless ups and downs of the negotiations and with the bitterness of the peace process debate, have added to a growing alienation from pro-Israel activism.

So, too, has the growing feeling of disenfranchisement among Reform and Conservative Jews — the American Jewish majority, and the backbone of the pro-Israel movement here — as Orthodox authorities move to codify their traditional power over everyday life in Israel.

The net result is that Jews are moving away from the outward-turned concerns that united the community in political action over the years, and turning toward closer-to-home issues on which the community is deeply divided.

Increasingly, American Jewish organizations are focusing on pocketbook issues like taxes, welfare, medical care and the vast range of government services that affect every citizen.

But consensus is elusive on these issues. There are differences even among liberals, and there is a growing number of politically conservative Jews — though not nearly as many as the conservatives claim — who challenge traditional Jewish positions even on core issues like church-state separation.

A majority of Jews, according to most estimates, continue to oppose aid to parochial schools, but a politically energized minority promotes the opposite position. As a result, when politicians seek the "Jewish" position on the issue, what they find is increasingly fuzzy.

So Jewish political power in that debate, without a focus that transcends the community's small size, is minimal.

Moreover, there are so many issues.

When the Jewish community's political activity centered on Israel and Soviet Jews, there was a concentration of effort that maximized Jewish clout, defying the community's demographic disadvantage.

But in the domestic arena, there are Jews who are passionately committed to protecting immigrant rights, Jews who want medical care reforms and Jews who see the environment as a particularly pressing Jewish concern. There are Jews waging active warfare on abortion rights, civil rights and education. The list is endless.

"The lack of consensus on domestic issues does tend to fragment Jewish political power," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "Part of the influence of the Jewish community was based in its inherent unity; that unity was strengthened and reinforced by the need to support Israel and Soviet Jews. It's much easier to unite on issues taking place thousands of miles away."